Friday, 31 December 2010

Gently Does It

Happy New Year
To all of my Friends
As a year begins
And the old one ends
It's not my favourite celebration
– Compared to my birthday
A poor relation –
But everyone's happy
On New Year's Eve
I'll wear my heart
Upon my sleeve
And send you all joy
(The best of emotions)
That never may cloy
(Wash it down with potions)
So happiness! Gladness!
A Brilliant Night!
Whatever you do
Don't get into a fight.


Thursday, 30 December 2010

'The Persian Cry' and the Burden of Rebellion

by ARTS CORRESPONDENT in Paris, Tehran Bureau

Artistic expression versus the need to inveigh against oppression.
[ dance ] On October 23, the young Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian celebrated the first anniversary of his freedom with his inaugural French production at the Centre National de la Danse in Pantin. He departed Iran exactly a year ago, leaving behind a personal and political nightmare -- as with all other artists in his medium, he did not have the official right to dance in his own country.

Ghaffarian, a noted figure in Tehran's underground contemporary dance scene, along with Atefeh Tehrani. While Tehrani continues to work in Iran, trying to negotiate the government's restrictions, Ghaffarian decided to settle in France. The story of his journey from Tehran to Paris is quite remarkable, and it could not have been accomplished without the help of Sharrokh Moshkin Ghalam, another Iranian dancer who now resides in Paris.

Much has been written about Ghaffarian's departure from Iran, so I will offer only a brief sketch of the most important facts: After the Iranian presidential election last year, he was invited to perform in Germany as part of an Iranian theater troupe. This was his first trip abroad and he didn't want to miss the opportunity it afforded. As the performance ended, he staged a protest against the Iranian regime while waving a green tissue. The scandal that erupted effectively prevented his return to Iran, where he risks arrest and torture. Moshkin Ghalam, with whom Afshin was regularly in touch from Tehran, came to Germany and brought him to France. He contacted leading journalists and told them about Ghaffarian's dilemma. The story of his life attracted widespread attention from the French media and the government accepted his request for political asylum a few months after his arrival.

It is interesting to observe how the French media covered his life. An Iranian dancer enmeshed in politics brought back memories of Nureyev and Baryshnikov who, a few decades ago, left the Soviet Union in similar circumstances. The brilliant and charismatic Ghaffarian, who has a surprising command of French, introduces himself as an artist who uses dance as a weapon for democracy and freedom, and constantly reminds us that his art is political.

But shouldn't artists leave political slogans behind and reach for soulful artistic expression, following personal intuitions and inner aspirations? I often feel that Ghaffarian's political views overshadow his artistic abilities. Meanwhile, he knows that he must move beyond his rebellion. He is aware that metaphors are more powerful than overt political references that can sound like propaganda, and I wondered if his first French dance production would herald a new artistic orientation.

In my last essay about dance in Iran, "Dancing with Othello," I explored the connections between dance and its political context, and I offered the fleeting vision of an emancipated body that could dance freely, without fear of constraint or censorship. This new dance project offered me a chance to pursue my investigations: How does an Iranian dancer dance once he has the right to dance? Will his approach to performance stop being politicized in the way it has been? In other words, after years of fighting a totalitarian regime and crafting a physical language that expresses protest, how can a dancer express freedom once he has the opportunity?

Tehrani and Ghaffarian have both followed the path of Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, who conceived a new physical language liberated from Judeo-Christian conceptions of the body: The actor surrenders his ego and offers instead the absolute nudity of his soul. In Grotowski's theater, the insistence on freedom through an intimate physicality was also considered a rebellion against communist censorship.

Inspired by Grotowski, Tehrani and Ghaffarian imagined an Iranian performance mode that would combine theatrical attitudes and dance movements. But their body languages are very different: Tehrani's style is heavy, with feet stamping the ground and hands slapping the body, while Ghaffarian's appears both extremely light and painful. It is no easy matter to categorize his idiosyncratic style because his movement vocabulary does not derive from the formal syntax and its effect is unlike that of either classical or modern Western dance. Elements such as spinning evoke Sufi and some Persian traditional dances, while at other moments his work seems related to American performance art. In sum, there is probably no more accurate term than simply "contemporary" to describe his personal blend.

Full of grace, on stage Ghaffarian's supple and fragile body repeatedly collapses, as if it were the victim of unbearable tortures or traumatic visions. He collapses as he walks, he collapses as he spins, he collapses as he runs -- his persistent falls express uncertainty and fear. His expressionist patterns of movement are fragmented, with sequences of screams and spasms. His seemingly battered body conveys cramps and pain. The broken movements of his limbs make us reflect on human suffering. Strangely, his unstable body appears as light as a feather. Even though he falls with all his weight, he maintains an astonishing degree of control. Lost in the whirl of his chaotic movements, he appears like a wandering faun eternally falling and rising, as if nothing can ultimately thwart his desire to be free.

Ghaffarian also uses color, especially green, color of Iran's democratic movement, and red, color of blood and martyrdom. He splashes colors on his breast and beats it loudly. These artistic gestures have their roots in American avant-garde performances of the 1960s and underscore the political aspects of his dance.

For his new project, The Persian Cry, a dramaturge conceived a plot based on Ghaffarian's idea of a symbolic confrontation with the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. A narration dealt with autobiographical elements and universal mythology alike: The confrontation with elements symbolized both the birth of mankind and the birth of the dancer as a free individual. The dancer's political allusions were thus metaphorically transformed, and sophisticated set and lighting design brought new dimensions to a poetic vision of a symbolic struggle. But Ghaffarian did not renounce the red pigment on his breast, nor did he forego green lights, nor did he abandon his shouts of rebellion against the rulers of the Islamic Republic.

Despite all his efforts, I realized how difficult it was for him to escape his past. For all his suffering movements set to hypnotic underground electronic music, his graceful falls across the gorgeous set, and his body with its delicate lines beautifully sculpted by light, he failed to transcend certain political attitudes that have become virtual clichés in his work. It was opening night for his new project and his tension might have awakened a survival instinct that brought back old habits. He seemed unable to avoid well-known references, his emotions looked exaggerated, and sadly, he gave short shrift to the poetic aspect of his choreography. One could conclude that, for now, his anger is stronger than anything, and allow that he is only 24 years old and can hardly be expected to restrain or sublimate his need to speak out.

All of this is understandable and I am not dismissing his work, for I believe in his tremendous talent. I am sure that the manner of performance I saw is not set in stone, that he will slowly learn to dance more freely without being haunted by old fears. But there is something else: This seemed to be another piece of evidence that political art is the only artistic expression many Iranians recognize.

So much of what young artists are creating is born from a rejection of Islamist values and government censorship. Afshin Ghaffarian is a child of the Islamic Revolution. He has grown up in a profoundly politicized environment and it will take him time to conceive a dance production that finds an equitable balance between his aesthetic aspirations and his political views. For the moment, this brilliant and ambitious dancer privileges loud protests, as if he hadn't found yet an inner space for free creativity -- one ruled neither by oppression nor the resistance to it, but by intimate reflection, individual authenticity, poetic truth.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

'Xanadu in New York'

by J.C.Y. Watt, reply by Eliot Weinberger

In response to:
Xanadu in New York from the December 23, 2010 issue

Yan Hui (active circa 1270–1324): New Year’s Eve Excursion of Zhong Kui (detail); from the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition ‘The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty’
To the Editors:

Reading Eliot Weinberger’s piece [“Xanadu in New York,” NYR, December 23, 2010] on the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” brings to mind an Englishman a long time ago who, when taken to a fine Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, could not wait to show off his sophisticated knowledge of Chinese cuisine and ordered egg Fuyung and sweet-and-sour pork.

Normally, writing like Mr. Weinberger’s should best be ignored, except that it has appeared in The New York Review, which normally publishes articles that can be taken seriously. I shall comment on only one of the authoritative-sounding and misleading statements that pepper Mr. Weinberger’s piece. He says that (presumably commenting on the Mongol period) “artistic influence mainly moved west, where Chinese forms and techniques were transformative in Persian art.” One of the main themes underlying the exhibition is the pervasive influence of the arts of the Iranian world on Chinese art in the Mongol-Yuan period (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries). Evidence of this stares you in the face everywhere in the exhibition, and should be obvious to someone who makes grand statements on East–West artistic exchange.

One of the first exhibits is a portrait of Empress Chabi, wife of Khubilai, wearing a robe bordered by strips of cloth of gold on which are images of heads of a bird. Next to this portrait is a piece of cloth of gold displaying a pattern incorporating griffins, the heads of which appear on Chabi’s dress. The cloths of gold used for imperial robes in the time of Khubilai and Chabi were woven in China by craftsmen originally from Central Asia. This is a clear case of the transfer of both the patterning and the technique of a particular weave from the Eastern Iranian world. Perhaps Mr. Weinberger would care to provide proof that the griffin is a Chinese animal and that the lampas weave (for the cloth of gold) originated in China. And perhaps Mr. Weinberger can also tell us what Chinese technique was transmitted west that transformed “Persian art.”

May I suggest that The New York Review stay within the sphere of American and European literature and politics, if you would so casually assign someone, anyone, to report on an exhibition organized by a group of curators and scholars who do know something about the subject? You know there are plenty of American scholars who also know the subject in depth and could have done a more responsible job of appraising and reviewing the exhibition.

J.C.Y. Watt
Chairman, Department of Asian Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City
Eliot Weinberger replies:
If the “influence of the arts of the Iranian world” is “pervasive,” “obvious,” and “everywhere in the exhibition,” it is not apparent in the paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, prints, architectural details, ceramics, metal, lacquer, and jade pieces that fill the galleries. Nor do any of the contributors to the catalog—including Mr. Watt in a thirty-page essay on the decorative arts—mention any Iranian presence in these arts. Indeed, as Mr. Watt himself writes in the introduction, “the new influences coming into China during the Yuan period are relatively slight.” I take him at his (previous) word.

The one exception—and the only example he cites here—is textiles, particularly the cloth of gold, which Mr. Watt, in the catalog, calls “the most innovative art form introduced in China in the Yuan period.” There were so many marvelous things in the exhibition, I did not discuss textiles in my review. But I fail to see how this exception disproves my utterly unoriginal passing remark that artistic influence mainly moved from east to west. In that regard, Mr. Watt’s challenge for me to demonstrate the Chinese influence on Iranian art is puzzling. This was a major theme in an earlier exhibition at the Met, “The Legacy of Genghis Khan,” and the long essay in that catalog by the cocurator, Linda Komaroff, provides scores of examples.

Mr. Watt’s letter raises the question of whether an unrefined nobody, an “anyone”—the type who orders the wrong thing in a restaurant—should be permitted to review an exhibition organized by an expert such as himself. The few paragraphs in my review that evidently uncorked Mr. Watt’s disdain required no specialized knowledge. I noted that “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” was a collection of wonderful objects that had little or nothing to do with Khubilai Khan—as Mr. Watt himself admits in the introduction—and that many of them were not even from the Yuan Dynasty.

As an ordinary reader, I found the catalog unhelpful. In his introduction, as in his letter, Mr. Watt made hyperbolic and sometimes contradictory claims that struck me as untrustworthy because they were neither repeated nor elaborated upon by the other contributors. Some of the other essays were equally confusing; some had a tendency to wander at length into other historical periods where the writer seemed more comfortable. All glossed over the fact that the Mongols were among the worst—perhaps, relative to the population, the worst—mass murderers in history, and that they had only a tangential relation to much of the Chinese art produced under their reign.

The book sorely needed the kind of general historical background that, for example, the great Mongol scholar (and curiously absent) Morris Rossabi provided for the catalog to the earlier Genghis Khan show. To write my review, I fled to sources that seemed more reliable, but perhaps they too were sweet-and-sour pork eaters.

Via The New York Review of Books 

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

UNICEF Photo of the Year

1. Prize 2010 Ed Kashi, USA, Agency VII

Vietnam: The legacy of war

The Vietnam War ended in 1975. The USA withdrew their troops and North and South Vietnam were reunited. After 35 years, the world no longer pays attention to the drama. But for the Vietnamese people the legacy of American warfare continues. It was a cruel and brutal war that was also extremely damaging to the environment. US forces used the herbicide Agent Orange to destroy foliage that the North Vietnamese were using as cover. Agent Orange contains dioxins that are known to cause cancer and damage genes. The effects of the toxic substance can be seen among Vietnamese people to this day: cancer, immune disorders and severe deformities. According to official estimates, there are 1.2 million disabled children in Vietnam. In rural areas, the percentage of disabled children is significantly higher than in urban areas. The face of 9-year-old Nguyen Thi Ly is a sad example of this toxic legacy.

Nguyen Thi Ly and all the other affected children photographed by Ed Kashi live in Da Nang.. He particularly cares for the little ‘war veterans’. Da Nang was an American base of operations where tons of Agent Orange were stored for defoliation missions. 56,000 of the city’s 800,000 inhabitants suffer from disabilities caused by this chemical warfare. Today, scientific research on the ecological, social and health effects of Agent Orange is being carried out in Da Nang, funded by the US government and aid organizations.

UNICEF supports Vietnam’s disabled children, mostly through donations from US aid programs, to live as normal a life as possible and to be protected from discrimination. With his photos, he wants to show that war affects the following generations as well – and that there is no end in sight. UNICEF supports aid programs for Vietnam’s disabled children, mostly through donations from the US, so that these children can live as normal a life as possible and are protected from discrimination.

In his photo series, American photographer Ed Kashi shows the everyday life of two families who receive help from the organization “Children of Vietnam”. “I deeply believe in the power of still images to change people’s minds”, Kashi describes his work. Kashi especially cares for the little ‘war veterans’. With his photos, he wants to show that war causes endless suffering – not just for one generation.

2nd Prize 2010 Majid Saeedi, Iran, Getty Images

Afghanistan: The devastating consequences of civil wars

Afghanistan’s past: Soviet invasion in 1978, outbreak of the civil war. Consequence: refugees. Withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, mujahideen take Kabul. Outbreak of yet another civil war. Consequence: refugees. Overthrow of the Taliban regime after 9/11 by an alliance lead by the US. Bloody internal struggles. Consequence: refugees. Afghanistan’s future: despite uncertain circumstances, approx. 4 million refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran and now are trying to settle down again in their home country.

Among these refugees was the family of 8-year-old Akram. They looked for shelter in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Even as a small boy, Akram tried to make some money by collecting scrap on a garbage dump in Peshawar. While rummaging through the garbage, he once accidentally touched a non-insulated cable. Both his hands and arms had to be amputated because of severe burns. In the meantime, Akram’s family has returned to Kabul where he received arm prostheses thanks to the help of the International Red Cross. Looking at the pictures taken by Iranian photographer Majid Saeedi, we are astonished by the natural way the children treat each other and their compassion for each other. Majid Saeedi has also captured the playful ease shown by healthy children when handling these ‘spare body parts’. The horrible realization of being severely disabled for one’s whole life, however, only sets in when people get older. And this realization is cruel because it’s final.

3rd Prize 2010 GMB Akash, Bangladesh, Panos Pictures

Bangladesh: The oldest profession in the world destroys the lives of young girls

There is no exact data on the number of child prostitutes worldwide. According to cautious estimates by UNICEF, approx. 1.8 million children and adolescents worldwide are abused through prostitution.

Bangladesh-based photographer, G.M.B. Akash, shows the plight of these child prostitutes, some of whom are extremely young. He grew ever more horrified at the hopeless situation of these young girls in the brothels of the Faridpur region when he heard what they had to do to their bodies to appear older and more attractive. Every day over many years they take a steroid to ‘plump up’. It is the same drug that is also used in countries like Bangladesh to fatten cattle. It was originally intended for use by seriously ill patients suffering from arthritis, asthma or allergies.

The drug called Oradexon is cheap and easily available. It causes water to be deposited in the body tissue and makes the young girls’ bodies appear bigger and plumper. They have no choice but to accept that the drug seriously damages their health. Akash hopes that his photos will help to better protect children from all kinds of sexual abuse for commercial reasons.

UNICEF’s Guidelines for Child Protection stipulate that victims of sexual abuse – including victims of underage prostitution – must be unidentifiable. For this reason, the faces of underage persons in this report have been made unrecognizable.

20-year-old Yasmin also has a puffy face because of the steroid. She has lived in this brothel since she was a child – just like her mother, who worked here as a prostitute for 30 years.


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Rabbit in Wonderland: an Iranian artist's view

Farideh Lashai’s Down the Rabbit Hole and Keep Your Interior Empty of Food use animation projected on illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to make topical points.
Photos courtesy Isabelle van den Eynde

by Timur Moon

Farideh Lashai's new work revisits Lewis Carroll's phantasmagoric Wonderland through the lens of recent Iranian history, magnifying the Iranian experience through the distorting prism of Alice's adventures.

Her elegiac sequence relives the tragedy and romance of the past 60 years in mournful tones, while foregrounding the more absurd moments, superimposing a magical realist genre of video animation on the grey monochromes of her paintings to summon an ethereal aura, but one loaded with bizarre, uncanny elements.
These are dreamscapes, with spectral, shimmering woodlands of silver birch set hovering under hazy projections, so that they shudder with sinister overtures. They evoke an enchanted, melancholy realm that is at times contemporary Iran, and at others a bygone land, captured in the fleeting, transitory quality of memory or fantasy.

It's a place captured through the looking glass, where the deposed prime minister and nationalist hero Mohammad Mossadegh's silhouette casts a long shadow, the shah himself is soon to die, and all the rest of modern Iranian history is about to happen.

Her narrative is loaded with a kind of tragic pathos, with the melodrama resonating hyperbolically in phrases such as "drowned in our own blood", which get projected on to the surfaces of her paintings. Carroll's vaguely disturbing children's classic came to inspire a whole subculture of psychedelia, but Lashai attempts to use its mystical, surreal qualities to give weird perspectives on the romance and tragic sentiment that, she says, have become a defining aspect of the Iranian identity.

"I was working with Iranian fables, and exploring their philosophical background. Themes of the bizarre and surreal recur," she says. "Like a rabbit hole, you need to burrow and dig into Iran to understand the country. Everything's upside down, so these are a kind of game of logic. I try to play with meaning and abstraction.

Down the Rabbit Hole effects a tricksy, tongue-in-cheek visual trope, superimposing one of the original illustrations of the grinning Cheshire cat on a map of Iran. Projected on to this, the video populates the painting with intricately detailed animations of computer-generated leaping rabbits. And what lovely creatures they are, lovingly stencilled in their hundreds by Lashai's team of technical assistants.

"You have to be devoured by the country to get inside it," the artist explains, as the invading rabbits breach the territory's borders.

It's a topsy turvy world she portrays, and these devices offer an oblique insight into the workings of the country, from a safely distanced stance. This is an artist, after all, who still lives in Tehran.

Lashai is deeply versed in European culture, and deploys her learning in motifs that fuse the classical and modernist traditions of Europe with imagery drawn from the Iranian tradition. "I've really learned from the application of different media, and different traditions, all through my life," she says, "ever since studying theatre in school, where I translated Bertold Brecht into Farsi."

The sequence is set to a musical score, with Chopin's Nocturne No 2 segueing into the traditional Iranian music of the zoorkhaneh, or gym, as a drumroll plays out.

Keep Your Interiors Empty of Food dramatises a darker, more ancient tale of ravens picking at a feast, with details of Iranian porcelain ceramics that refer to the miniatures of the 19th-century Iranian painter Sanii ol-Molk in work that also seems to tip a wink to the Mad Hattter's tea party of Carroll's tale.

The figure of Mossadegh makes his emotionally charged appearance in the final work, cloaked in black and clutching a stick, his back to the viewer but instantly recognisable to Iranians as the revered leader who nationalised Iran's oil, but was deposed and imprisoned in a CIA-backed coup, and died under house arrest.
"Just his silhouette alone is instantly recognisable to Iranians," said Lashai. "Just to test, I asked a taxi driver, who is that? And he said, 'Of course, it's Mossadegh.'"

The video is screened at double the width of the portrait, subverting the framing of its borders so the portrait length of the painting widens, with much of the video projected off-frame on to the wall behind. It's an experimental, game-playing device, with the projection casting its net wider than the painting's edge.

Perhaps there's an overloading of ideology and politics at times, foisted on an English children's story of 150 years ago, with no direct bearing. It can, maybe, seem far-fetched, or forced, but these are evocations of a kind of landscape of the mind, and play on bizarre tricks of memory and the imagination in a spirit of magic realist enhancement.

The pervasive mood is one of nostalgia. The works pine for a world gone by, glimpsed in the recesses of a national psyche. That sense of yearning is all the more poignant since, in many ways, it was never experienced or lived, says Lashai, but remains the subject of a powerful folklore lodged in the collective consciousness of Iranians today.

The exhibition continues until December 11. For details see

Via The Nationa

Iran’s cinematic revolution: Tehran Talkies

As London embarked on its first Iranian film festival, the trial of outspoken director Jafar Panahi (Offside, the Circle) began in Tehran amidst widespread international criticism from filmmakers and recognisable celebrities. “His fault is to be an artist, to be independent,” claimed actor Juliet Binoche, who recently starred in Certified Copy, Iranian director Abbas Kiorastami’s first non-Persian feature. And the world, preconditioned to receive news about Iran in a certain light, pretty much agreed.

The White Meadows has allegorical references to Iran’s state control and leaves little room for hope.

The alternative motive is slightly more brazen. Panahi, whose insightful, provocative films have won the Golden Lion at Cannes and The Silver Bear at Berlin, probably irked the Ahmadinejad government more through his support for opposition politician Mir Hossein Mousavi in the last election than for the seditious film he was purportedly in the process of filming. Tellingly, one of the main attractions at the London Iranian Film Festival was Panahi’s little gem of a film, The Accordion, an eight-minute short he made while out on bail this summer.

The Accordion sums up the paradoxes of both Iran and its internationally acclaimed cinema in its short duration. Two young buskers who ply their trade through Tehran have their instrument confiscated outside a mosque by self-proclaimed Islamist vigilantes. How they navigate its return forms the crux of the story. Censored and censured by the Iranian government, Panahi could not have spotlighted the control of artistic expression in Iran in a more succinct manner. Focusing on the next generation is standard fare for Panahi himself and for Iranian cinema, which routinely uses children to represent both the weakened citizen as well as childlike hope.

Paradoxically, for all its recent bullying of Jafar Panahi, state support of art-house cinema in Iran has been unexpectedly generous since the revolution. Abbas Kiorastami famously called it “one of Iran’s major exports” archly stating that “in addition to pistachio nuts, carpets, and oil, now there’s the cinema.” As minister of culture and Islamic guidance from 1989 to 1992, Mohammed Khatami encouraged the expansion of film production in Iran, and even though subsequent support was a bit see-saw, Iranian cinema continued to fructify.

Azadeh Farahmand, who teaches Film Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, has highlighted the manner in which the Iranian state used the festival circuit – and ironically Kiorastami’s films – to renegotiate international opinion on Iran and present an artistic image of the country after the war with Iraq. Yet, even these films tended to have cryptic political messages which were clear to the initiated. As the world watched a certain kind of Iranian high art cinema that was promoted by the government, viewers in Iran itself were drawn to noisier comedies and more visceral films. Tehran also developed a huge bootleg DVD market in Hollywood movies.

Pejman Danaei, the director of the UK Iranian Film Festival, however, is quick to emphasise that the 35 films shown at the festival are not chosen for their politics. Speaking at the press conference, he clarified that the festival was devoid of “political aims, particular genre or agenda,” rather the motivation was to screen “valuable material coming out of Iran which does not have a platform.” While it is impossible to imagine apolitical Iranian cinema, the festival certainly lived up to its promise to showcase valuable, moving, often stunning films. Not only were the screenings packed but a networking event provided opportunities for Iranian films looking to secure distribution outside of Iran. If only Pakistani cinema was this organised!

The Festival began with the enigmatic and beautifully shot The White Meadows, where Rahmat (Hasan Pourshirazi) navigates the silent waters of a bleached, sandy world dotted by dark-robed, mournful characters. He collects tears from the wretched across several islands, capturing them in a vial to apparently turn them into pearls. It is a journey across a nightmarish yet eerily beautiful landscape, where individuality is sacrificed at the altar of the selfish, general good. Allegorical references to the Iranian state’s gripping control of citizens surface throughout what is a grim, depressing film that leaves little room for hope.

The documentary offerings in the Festival were particularly strong with The Glass House telling the stories of troubled teenage girls in Tehran and Rough Cut investigating the bizarre mastectomies performed on female mannequins in Iran to suit the dress code enforced by the vice squad. This is a torturous ritual to watch; breasts and limbs and faces are sawed off to make way for robed, “modest” clothes hangers for Tehran’s shop windows.  The overly long and tenuously strung together Pearls on the Ocean Floor also concentrates on representation, managing a unique assembly of feisty, articulate Iranian women artists working both within Iran and the diaspora. There are detailed, inspired interviews with a variety of artists: Shirin Neshat’s reductive images may have been the original muse for Robert Adanto’s film, but it is more complex artists like Shadi Ghadarian, who redoes traditional Qajar portraits of women with modern items who hold ones attention.

Unexpectedly witty, My City Pizza is a fascinating glimpse into contemporary urban Iran and changing societal concepts of food. Director Ala Mohseni makes his way through Tehran’s pizzerias, talking to people about their growing appetite for Western fast food. He also interviews traditionalists who seem to think pizza is a western weapon of mass religious destruction and find Persian stews morally correct. My City Pizza is unusually funny for any film that attempts to explore how Iranians navigate outside cultural influences. Its interviewees are open and forthcoming and have colourful, enthusiastic opinions on east and west alike. This is a very different Iran from what CNN projects into our living rooms.

Even more revealing is Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, a taut, absorbing psychological thriller where the female characters are by far the most dynamic I have seen in Iranian cinema. The narrative centres on married Iranian couples heading to a resort near the Caspian Sea; in the group are also recently single Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) and the beautiful Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), who seem to have been matched by the independent-minded Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). The first half of About Elly is a rare window on bourgeois Iran. Apart from the loose hijabs the women wear, the interaction between men and women is natural, even occasionally flirtatious. This is a clearly savvy group where women carry Louis Vuitton bags and the men favour Nike.

The second half of the film posits how easily this veneer of modernity can disintegrate. Elly vanishes without a trace and the small holiday party becomes increasingly hysterical: did she drown in the waves, did she decide to go back to Tehran on her own or was she perhaps offended by the potential pairing with Ahmad? As doubts emerge about Elly’s character, a spider’s web of lies is woven from which none of the characters are able to escape.

About Elly is new Iranian cinema at its best and most exploratory, peeling off layers as it moves through doubt, tradition and fears of upsetting norms. The ensemble cast is simply superb; with Goshifteh Farhani (better known to international audiences as Leonardo Di Caprio’s love interest in Body of Lies) putting up a standout performance as Sepideh. It is no surprise that About Elly won a Silver Bear at Berlin and Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. If there is any film that traces the outline of where Iranian cinema should go, this is it.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2010.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Artists from all faiths, including Muslims, challenge religious assumptions

David Wojnarowicz's video called "A Fire in My Belly," removed Tuesday from an exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, includes 11 seconds of footage of a small crucifix crawling with ants. Some Christians have objected to the passage as sacrilegious. (Others, however, have had no objections to it, or have advanced positive interpretations.) Many objectors have also made the claim that the art world is always eager to challenge Christian sensibilities, but would never risk it with Islamic imagery.

While it's true that Christianity has been front and center in some contemporary art, that's in part because it's the religion most Western artists know best. Cultural figures from the Muslim world, however, have not shied away from touching on their own traditions. Images of Muhammad, however, still seem off-limits to the artists, if not necessarily to Western audiences. (Artists from other faiths also use contentious religious imagery, but they are less in the news.)

The writer Salman Rushdie is the iconic example of a figure whose works have been reviled as blasphemy by some imams, while the works are supported, even celebrated, by Western culturati. The world of visual art is starting to see similar examples.

Artists in Iran are eager to probe religious icons and symbols, says Shoja Azari, a prominent Iranian artist and filmmaker who lives in New York. "It's definitely going on strongly in Iran - and in Turkey, it's also being done."

And also in the United States, thanks to Azari and others. He was speaking from a Miami art fair called "Zoom," dedicated to exposing contemporary art from the Middle East to Western eyes. The art he's showing there includes staged photos of a conservative Iranian mullah who's getting dressed after having sex with a woman who is shown in bed nude. Azari says he wanted to explore religious figures "whose private life has always been kept secret."

In a much-publicized exhibition in May at LTMH gallery in New York, Azari edged still further toward the edge of blasphemy. In a series of video pieces he called "Icons," he took images of martyred Shiite saints, such as might be seen in any kitchen in Iran (the regime approves of them) and replaced their male faces with the faces of crying women, meant to evoke the female "martyrs" of the failed "Green Revolution" that took place in Iran last year.

"It could be interpreted as sacrilegious," Azari says, even though he insists his aim was not to "insult religious belief" but rather to explore the connection between religion, gender and politics in present-day Iran. When the show was in the planning stages, he says, "there was a lot of discomfort among people in the gallery." But in the end the decision was made to go ahead.

"We got a few threats," says his dealer Leila Heller, speaking by phone from the fair, "but we ignored them." The work could never be shown in Iran, but in the West, there's little hesitation, and Azari's star is rising - he says his "Icons" show had a "fantastic" reception in Germany, and the New York Times did a large piece on him, illustrated with one of his "sacrilegious" images.

Azari's romantic partner is Iranian-born video artist Shirin Neshat, a full-blown superstar in the art world. Although her art is less explicitly religious than his, it probes the role of women in Islam in ways that don't win her friends among imams. "For sure, the Islamic regime is very troubled by her work," Azari says. Yet once again, the Western art world has embraced her, and her courage, with solo shows in major museums in the United States and elsewhere.

The reception for Algerian artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah, one of whose installations includes Western high-heels lying on Islamic prayer rugs - a scene that would outrage many traditional Muslims - has been almost as warm. She has shown at the great Centre Pompidou in Paris and was awarded the prestigious Meurice Prize in France, as well as the Abraaj Prize - of the United Arab Emirates.

If anything, in the West there is an expectation that art from the Islamic world will push Islamic buttons, says Sam Bardaouil, a Lebanese-New Yorker who is the curatorial director of Art Reoriented. It's an organization that stages shows of Middle Eastern artists, and it is about to launch the largest show of their work ever to hit a museum. The exhibition, of new and entirely uncensored commissions, will be shown at the brand new Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar.
When he launched a show of Iranian art at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York, he says the problem wasn't that the local audience was hesitant about offending Muslim sensibilities. It was that, in the Western art world, "people expect [Middle Eastern] art to be always subversive." They're disappointed, he says, if it isn't. 

Friday, 3 December 2010

Talinn Grigor researches history written in stone

Brandeis University Magazine explores Iranian art and architecture 

The following article, by Deborah Halber ’80, appears in the spring 2010 issue of Brandeis University Magazine.

Depiction of ancient Persepolis          Persepolis today

Iran—known throughout much of history as Persia—is a nation of paradox, shaped by secularism and religion, the East and the West, the ancient and the modern. To architectural historian Talinn Grigor, Iran’s buildings embody the country’s conflicting influences.

Grigor, who joined the Brandeis faculty in 2008 as assistant professor of modern and contemporary architecture in the Department of Fine Arts, explores the relationship of political power struggles and Iranian art and architecture.

“All my work so far centers around the relationship between architecture and the state by giving voice to a history that has not been fully written,” she says.

Grigor elucidates aspects of that history in two forthcoming books: "Of Kitsch, Censorship, and Exile: Contemporary Iranian Visual Arts," which deals with the politics of contemporary Iranian art inside and outside Iran; and "Persian Architecture and Kingship: Displays of Power and Politics in Iran from the Achaemenids to the Pahlavis" (coedited with Sussan Babaie).

  Talinn Grigor

"There’s a lot of interest in contemporary Iranian art right now—Sotheby’s and Christie’s are selling it—but there is little critical history of it," she says.
The idea that architecture can reflect political agendas might be unfamiliar to Americans, whose iconic buildings don’t tend to be rebuilt or reconceived when a new administration is sworn in. But Iran’s tumultuous past has turned, for instance, a modernistic prayer house into a storage shed and an athletic complex into a religious destination. Mausoleums erected to honor an epic poet and an ancient philosopher-scientist are now imprinted with postrevolutionary language and symbols. These structures were not torn down but reinvented, Grigor notes.

“They were made by the patrons, used by the people, and then reedited by the Islamic Republic,” she says. Invested with a layer of meaning never envisioned by their creators, the buildings became living monuments to the histories of their times, cultural symbols of the dilemmas the Islamic Republic of Iran faces in reconciling Iranian nationalism with Shi’a theology.

The Pahlavi dynasty ruled from 1925 to 1979. In 1971, the last shah held a three-day event next to the ruins of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty. In honor of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the empire by Cyrus the Great, the shah invited monarchs and heads of state to what has been described as the most lavish party of the twentieth century. Grigor says the event was yet another instance of an architectural structure being co-opted for political ends. She and other historians have noted that it marked the beginning of an anti-shah and anti-West movement that culminated eight years later in the Iranian Revolution.

When the monarchy was overthrown and clerics assumed political control under Ayatollah Khomeini, rumors flew that anything pre-Islamic, including Persepolis, was at risk. Statues of the shah were toppled and the tomb of the first Pahlavi king was destroyed, but few other embodiments of cultural heritage were damaged, Grigor says.
Grigor is a realist about the political turmoil that continues to envelop Iran. Many of Iran’s print and broadcast media outlets are state-run. Satellite dishes are banned, although many find ways to watch foreign TV and surf the Web. Last June, the ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected as Iran’s president in a bitterly contested race, leading to the most serious internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Since the revolution, Grigor says, “So many scholars cannot go to Iran.” Her particular passion—the architecture of the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century in Iran and India—is removed in time, therefore less politically charged than some studies. For half a century, royal residences were built under the Qajar monarchy in an eclectic style that included Western and Islamic architectural traditions, pre-Islamic Iranian traditions, and contemporary images.

The Pahlavis tend to be credited with reviving pre-Islamic Iranian architecture, but Grigor argues that this revival can be traced to India, where Zoroastrian Parsis settled more than a thousand years ago after fleeing an Islamic invasion of Iran in the seventh century. They lived privileged lives under British rule, growing rich through shipbuilding, international trade, and opium. In cities like Bombay, they financed the construction of ornate temples in pre-Islamic styles they saw as the reflection of their true Persian identity.
Meanwhile, they borrowed architectural elements—some serious, some frivolous, some accidental—from around the world. These elite Parsis, the larger of the two Indian Zoroastrian communities, saw themselves as “entirely Indian and entirely British and entirely Persian.” They were multicultural before the term was fashionable, Grigor says.

The professor knows what it’s like to embody multiple identities. She cloaks her own past in a bit of mystery, skirting questions about where she’s from by saying only that she grew up on three continents and speaks four languages, none without an accent. Grigor’s office doesn’t give away much. Its only decorations are a Soviet propaganda poster of a youth wielding a red flag and a wooden architectural model of her final project at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture.

“I spent ages zero to ten in the Middle East, ten to fifteen in Europe, fifteen to twenty-two on the West Coast,” she says. She graduated from USC, taught and conducted research in the former Soviet Union for two years, and moved to the East Coast, completing master’s and PhD degrees in architecture at MIT. She was on the faculty of Florida State University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Getty Research Institute in California before joining Brandeis.
“I am at home in multiple cultures, but also an outsider. For the longest time, I thought this was something horrible,” she says. Now she feels having multiple perspectives might be better than one certain perspective. Knowing many languages, knowing many cultures, is a privilege.

“I also feel very American. I’m an American scholar through and through,” she says. Grigor would like her children, now ages one and three, to experience the world as their backyard. When they’re older and learning about capitals, for instance, she imagines whisking them off to Paris. She tries to instill in her children and in her students a sense of belonging to an enormously diverse world. “We all belong to six billion other people,” she says. “We are very privileged to be part of something bigger.”

In Iran, you only have to look at the architecture to know that’s true.

Visit the magazine's website to see what else is inside.

 Detail from mausoleum of Omar Khayyam in neshapur

Azadi tower in Tehran includes elements of Sassanian and Islamic architecture

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Iranian Artists Vie for Solo Saatchi Show

The Iranian artists whose work has been featured here are among the 25 shortlisted for the 2011 Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize. Next, the artists will present in March a selection of their work at a three-day event in Dubai. The judges will select five to ten finalists who will exhibit at the Royal College of Art in London October 11-15, 2011 -- Christie's will conduct an auction of all of the finalists' work on the last evening. Proceeds will be divided between the artists and the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize. The winner -- who gets a solo show at the Saatchi Gallery in London in Autumn 2012 -- will be announced by Ali Khadra after the auction.

*Some of the images have been cropped. 

 MOD ANGEL, Hojat Amani

 PICHAPOOCH, Morteza Ahmadvand

 ERROR NO. 1, Reza Azimian


 ME -01, Shahrzad Changalvaee

 UNTITLED, Alireza Dayani

 UNTITLED, Hossein Azadi

 UNTITLED GREEN, Navid Azimi Sajadi

 THE MARTYR'S SON, Behroo Bagheri



MATURITY SERIES, Shima Esfandiyari


 ASHOURAIAN, Babak Kazem

 UNTITLED, Ghazaleh Hedayat

 WE LIVE IN PARADOXICAL SOCIETY, Ramyar Manouchehrzadeh and Ali Nadjian

CATALYSTArtist :Asad Faulwell

 UNTITLED, Rodin Hamidi

 13 DAY OUT, Mehdi Farhadian

IRANDOKHT, Najaf Shokri



UNTITLED, Dariush Nehdaran

Via FRONTLINE: Tehran Bureau