Sunday, 30 January 2011

Black Swan: Uncovering Iranian Women Artists

by Bob Duggan

For Americans, the name Iran conjures certain key images—the Shah, the Revolution of 1979, the hostages, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and black chador-clad women. Worn as part of the Islamic code of hijab, the chador became a kind of visual symbol of the religious fundamentalism that took hold of Iran after the revolution. Filmmaker Robert Adanto’s new documentary Pearls on the Ocean Floor confronts and then strips away the clichés surrounding the chador through interviews with Iranian women artists. As in the fairy tale of the ugly duckling, a beautiful swan emerges from the darkness of this history in the body of work done by these courageous women artists.

For each of these woman artists, the revolution of 1979 marks the turning point in their life and art. Some lived in Iran at the time and felt the chill hand of repression claim their careers and lives until their escape. Others lived overseas when the revolution struck and found their roots literally cut from under them. Some younger artists profiled didn’t know or barely knew pre-revolutionary Iran and struggle to lay claim to a conflicted heritage. This variety of connections helps Adanto weave an intricate narrative of loss and remembrance.

Even the chador itself becomes a more complex entity than imagined. As Baroness Haleh Afshar explains, some see the chador as a way of obscuring female sexuality to allow the woman’s voice finally to be heard—a positive feminist stance that seems strange to Western eyes accustomed to feminist dress in the form of miniskirts. Artist-journalist Haleh Anvari grew up in “a chadori family” in which the women wore the chador “to enter the world, not to shy from it” and found individuality in colorful chadors that defy the dark cliché. Her photographs of women in colorful chadors vividly illustrate how Iranian women assert their personhood within the hijab code. By contrast, Parastou Forouhar’s 2004 Swanrider series (one of which is shown above) examines the dark chador directly by juxtaposing it against a white swan boat floating down a river. These photographs not only strike the eye, but also allude to multiple layers of allusion—from Hans Christian Anderson’s ugly duckling to the legend of Leda and the swan to even Lohengrin, an opera by Richard Wagner, one of the key composers of Germany, Forouhar’s adopted country after the politically motivated assassination of her parents, who paid dearly for imagining a more progressive post-revolutionary Iran.

Adanto, who previously promoted contemporary Chinese photographers and video artists in The Rising Tide, allows the women artists to be the stars of the show, making Pearls on the Ocean Floor a wonderful rescue mission in raising these “pearls” to public view. Unfamiliar names suddenly become artists you want to know more and more about. Mona Hakimi-Schueler’s series of self-portraits seems almost Frida Kahlo-esque in search of Iranian everywomanhood. Living under the American and Iranian flags, Sara Rahbar makes art out of the flag, confronting what those national identities truly mean. “I don’t want to be afraid to touch the flag,” Rahbar says in the film. “It’s mine.” Throughout the film, the women artists take hold of their world and make it theirs. Shadi Ghadirian’s Qajar portraits amusingly inject modern elements into old-fashioned staged photographic portraits of Iranian women to capture perfectly the clash of old and new the modern Iranian woman faces. Ghadirian touches on a nostalgia that Malekeh Nayiny places at the heart of her work. Nayiny’s “updates” of old family photos bring a colorful life to faded images that mimics the power of memory to resurrect emotional colors of the past.

Those are just a few of the memorable artists that Pearls on the Ocean Floor introduces to a wider audience. Here are women caught in a maelstrom of forces pulling on them—religious, sexual, political, and artistic. Their ability to keep themselves together and even to thrive under such conditions testifies to their power as individuals. Pearls on the Ocean Floor lifts the veil unjustly covering such powerful women and inspires the viewer to reexamine what they thought they knew about Iran and the black swans hidden beneath the infamous chador.

Parastou Forouhar. From the Swanrider series (2004). Courtesy of RH Gallery.

Via Big Think

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Elizabeth Taylor in Iran

It seems like ages ago that Elizabeth Taylor was a bona fide movie star and not the butt of cruel jokes. At the height of her fame, the paparazzi would hound the actress as she traveled the world for film shoots, charity work and quite often for pleasure with her long series of husbands. Starting in late February, one of Taylor's many foreign excursions will be the subject of a photography exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, scheduled to run Feb. 26 to June 12. 

"Elizabeth Taylor in Iran" will feature 32 photographs -- in color and black-and- white -- that will be on display on the fourth floor of the Ahmanson Building. Some of Zahedi's photographs show Taylor in traditional Persian dress that she purchased in Isfahan.

In 1976 Elizabeth Taylor visited Iran for the first and only time. Accompanying her was Firooz Zahedi, today a successful Hollywood photographer but then a recent art school graduate just learning his craft. Iran provided an exotic and engaging locale for Taylor, a tireless global wanderer still at the height of her fame. For Zahedi, who had left Iran as a child, this was a reintroduction to his own country, which he experienced not only through the camera lens but through Taylor’s eyes. It was a remarkable journey for both as documented by Zahedi’s vivid photographs, shown together here for the first time. The pair traveled to the main tourist sites: ancient Persepolis, where the Tent City erected in 1971 for the 2,500 year celebration of the Persian Empire was still standing, Shiraz home of poetry and wine, and Isfahan renowned for its beautiful tile-clad buildings. Grouped in narrative fashion, the images depict people and places with the actress as tourist but one so iconic that she is never anonymous even wrapped in a chador. In the Isfahan bazaar, Taylor was attracted to and purchased a traditional tribal outfit. Dressed in this colorful costume and in full make-up, the film star posed as an Oriental odalisque, an especially suitable persona for one who was herself a male fantasy. Though Zahedi was to photograph Taylor many times in the years following their Iran trip, none are as personal, candid, or creative as these unique images.

Zahedi was born in Iran in 1949 but grew up in England. He studied at Georgetown University and later at the Corcoran School of Art. He became a protege of Andy Warhol and met Taylor in the mid-'70s while photographing for Warhol's Interview magazine. Taylor would later hire Zahedi as her personal photographer.
Zahedi's images have run in many publications including Time, Vanity Fair, Glamour and more. Here are two more photographs that will be in LACMA's Taylor exhibition.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Silk Road, Silk Underwear: Westernized Oppositions of 'Postmodern' Iranian Art

Saatchi exhibition suggests pandering to international preconceptions, clichés all too common.

by Arts Correspondent, Tehran Bureau

Right after the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, as the 53d Venice Biennale and the 66th Venice Film Festival took place, Iran seemed to be on the minds of everyone in the Italian city, whether artists, spectators from around the world, or local residents.

Four Iranian artists were part of these major events: three represented Iran at the Biennale -- Hamid Reza Avishi, Iraj Eskandari, and Sedaghat Jabbari -- and exiled video artist Shirin Neshat's Women Without Men was shown at the film festival, winning her the Silver Lion for Best Direction.

The curator of the Iranian Pavilion at the Biennale was Mahmood Shalooei, conservative director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Shaloeei selected artists whose work is strongly connected with the heritage of Islamic culture. The sculptures of Avishi, who works with the Department of Islamic Science of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, had never previously been presented abroad. Some of his works are on permanent display at Tehran University's Faculty of Fine Arts, as well as other institutions. Almost 100 of Eskandari's paintings have been purchased by the Organization of Islamic Propagation and various Iranian museums. Jabbari's paintings and calligraphy are well-known around the Muslim world.

Avishi's heavy, formal, symbolic bronze sculptures, the confrontation between good and evil in Eskandari's Achaemenid series, the mystical and austere calligraphy of Jabbari -- all refer to a single cultural vision. Far from individualistic, these artworks glorify a patriarchal and severe vision of Islamic culture.

Ironically, the famous Palazzo Malipiero, which was transformed into the Iranian Pavilion for the Biennale, was Giacomo Casanova's Venetian residence. Along with the Marquis de Sade, the seductive Casanova was one of the most libertine authors of the 18th century. The contradiction between the Biennale's central theme -- utopia and the hope for a better world -- and the austere Iranian exhibition only deepened the irony. While the Iranian opposition, both domestic and in the diaspora, was contesting the presidential election, this conservative display was offering a very different vision of the future.

By contrast, the Westernized Shirin Neshat, who lives and works in New York, envisioned Iranian women fighting for their emancipation. Oppressed by sexual, religious, and social pressures, the five lead characters in her film desperately look for freedom. The transformations they undergo -- through flight, rebellion, death -- ultimately bring them to a magic orchard, a mysterious place that is nothing but the inner garden of their transcendent souls.

As I write these lines, I am brought short by my oversimplified analysis. Neshat versus regime-approved male artists? Feminism versus patriarchy? West versus East? Democracy versus oppression?

How easy the world would be to navigate if things could always be divided between two poles. Even though Neshat is a great advocate for Iranian democracy, her artistic vision is linked to the Orientalist ideology of the West. Her quest for beauty and her sensual but empty images create a charismatic caricature of Iranian society that highlights Western clichés based on the principle of opposition: women in black veils versus men in white, a black feminine social space opposed to a white male one. Neshat offers us an archaic vision of the Islamic world in which everything places women and men in opposition.

This binary perception of the world that Neshat exemplifies is troubling. The postmodern perspective, founded on such Manichean oppositions, has become our new judgmental paradigm. Following Neshat's path, younger Iranian "feminist" artists are addressing the situation of women in their country. Unfortunately, their work does little more than confirm Western prejudices about the Iranian reality.

The Silk Road, the recent exhibition held at the the Tri Postal, a huge (post-)industrial space in the northern French city of Lille, offered a striking example of this. Baghdad-born art collector Charles Saatchi, whose unconventional taste has reshaped the art market over the past two decades, offered 60 major pieces from his personal collection housed at London's Saatchi Gallery to create the exhibition.

Its title alludes to the 3,000-year-old, 5,000-mile-long network of trade roads that crossed the Asian continent and extended to the Mediterranean. Comprising 29 artists of nine nationalities (Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Algerian), the exhibition included paintings, sculpture, photography, and installation art. Its division into three sections -- China, India, and the Middle East -- contributed to a sense that the latter is now effectively seen as a country of its own.

Most of the artists, whether Chinese, Indian, Arab, or Iranian, had created works whose social and political aspects corresponded exactly with Western expectations. Instead of revealing the profound complexity of their diverse situations, instead of fighting against Western prejudices and clichés, many of the artists opportunistically glorified Orientalism, a Western ideological notion that has virtually nothing to do with reality.

In Saatchi's vision of the world, Iran and the Arab nations make up a single country in which Islamic fundamentalism, war, and terror prevail. The immense paintings of Ahmed Al Soudani evoke the conflict in Iraq; the huge sculpture installations of Algeria's Kader Attia represent hundreds of feminine forms in prayer on the floor; the Palestinian Wafa Hourani criticizes the Israeli occupation; and three Iranian artists, Shadi Ghadirian, Shirin Fakhim, and Ahmad Morshedloo, evoke women's conditions in their country.

Ghadirian and Fakhim criticize women's status in an Islamic state via the principle of opposition: West versus East, modernity versus tradition, freedom versus restriction, and so forth. In Ghadirian's Like Everyday series of photographic portraits of women, the face of each is hidden behind a veil and replaced by a domestic object such as an iron, cheese grater, plastic glove, or colander. By conceiving veiled women as simultaneously traditional and, in contemporary terms, "desperate housewives," she condemns both the male gaze and the reactionary system within which these women are constrained. Ghadirian has an interesting sense of humor and I appreciate her vision. However, she fails to insightfully represent the Iranian context.

To deny that some Iranian men conceive of women in purely traditional terms would be absurd. But not all veiled women are desperate housewives. Most women in Iran are educated and religious: tradition and individualism tend to cohabitate and are not inevitably contradictory. If women find it necessary to wear the veil, they also feel the need to pursue social accomplishment. After 30 years of Islamic restrictions in Iran, Muslim women have learned how to distinguish their faith from the regime's obligations. They believe in God and also learn how to become independent by educating themselves in Western values. But Ghadirian denies this reality and creates an Orientalist vision that reflects only the gaze of Westerners and their distantly formed preconceptions and fancies concerning veiled women.

Fakhim's primitive Prostitutes are sculptures of the feminine form involving a variety of materials. Her provocative works oppose items of Western fashion -- high-heeled, colored boots and sexy underwear -- with the Islamic veil. They denounce the sex trade as well as the hypocrisy of Iranian society. It seems Fakhim knows well how terrible women's situation is in Iran: domestic abuse, poverty, and social repression are leading more and more women to prostitute themselves. No one would deny the contradiction between the government's oppressive moralism and the growing sex industry in the country. But again, the fruitful examination and expression of this grim irony demands far more than the simple opposition of a public veil and intimate underwear.

Fakhim uses Western sexual paraphernalia to evoke prostitution in the Iranian context. But these objects do not symbolize prostitution even in the West. If some provocative storefront sex workers and streetwalkers wear such items (as with the touristic icons one encounters in Amsterdam's red light district or on Paris's Rue Saint-Denis), many prostitutes are educated women, poor students or full-time workers, who do their work discreetly, secretly.

If Fakhim's grotesque Prostitutes concern the poor, veiled "ladies of the night," what about those extremely elegant "ladies of the day" visible all over northern Tehran? What about those blond, trendy women, all sporting gold Rolex watches (whether real or fake), Louis Vuitton bags, and Gucci sunglasses, who are nothing but courtesans, high-class prostitutes to rich, old, married man? I see them in Shemiran's supermarkets, coffee shops, and malls, and their luxe appearance prompts respect even though people know perfectly well what they really are. Money in Iran, whether it comes from corruption or prostitution, inspires respect, and no contradiction is to be found in this blind belief. These Westernized ladies who deliberately choose prostitution as a means to financial "independence" are simply ignored in Fakhim's work. Here again, one runs up against Western clichés about Middle Eastern women. If the veil routinely symbolizes tradition in the Orientalist worldview, other preconceived narratives would have us believe that veiled women are nothing but hot, sexual creatures hiding behind pieces of tissue.

Alongside these tired and tiresome clichés, one could see the strange, meditative paintings of Ahmad Morshedloo, in which depictions of old, fatigued veiled women inspired a beautiful sense of humanity. Though their dark veils seemed to be thick, dirty, and heavy, they were not imprisoned by them. No argument was to be found in their eyes, no plea. These profound and humble figures resembled silent Madonnas, full of dignity. And here I found what I missed poignantly in the rest of the exhibition: the universal dignity of the human being. Beyond Ghadirian's traditional women, beyond Fakhim's desperate, sexual women, beyond those cheap and ignorant visions of the feminine, there exists another feminine reality, both tragic and eternal, which has nothing to do with manmade boundaries, opposition, or contradiction, and can be found only in genuine artistic reflection.

Via Tehran Bureau

Monday, 24 January 2011

Interview with Shirin Neshat

by Studio Banana TV

Shirin Neshat (born 1957) is an Iranian visual artist who lives in New York. She is known primarily for her work in film, video and photography.

Her work refers to the social, cultural and religious codes of Muslim societies and the complexity of certain oppositions, such as man and woman. Neshat often emphasizes this theme with the technique of showing two or more coordinated films concurrently, creating stark visual contrasts through such motifs as light and dark, black and white, male and female. Neshat has also made more traditional narrative short films, such as her recent work, Zarin.

The work of Shirin Neshat addresses the social, political and psychological dimensions of women’s experience in contemporary Islamic societies. Although Neshat actively resists stereotypical representations of Islam, her artistic objectives are not explicitly polemical. Rather, her work recognizes the complex intellectual and religious forces shaping the identity of Muslim women throughout the world. Using Persian poetry and calligraphy she examined concepts such as martyrdom, the space of exile, the issues of identity and femininity. Neshat often collaborates in her pieces with Iranian artist Shoja Azari.

As a photographer and video-artist, Shirin Neshat was recognized for her brilliant portraits of women entirely overlaid by Persian calligraphy (notably through the Women of Allah series). She also directed several videos, among them Anchorage (1996) and, projected on two opposing walls: Shadow under the Web (1997), Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999) and Soliloquy (1999). Neshat’s recognition became more international in 1999, when she won the International Award of the XLVIII Biennial of Venice with Turbulent and Rapture, which met with critical and public success after its worldwide avant-première at the Art Institute of Chicago in May 1999. With Rapture, Neshat tried for the first time to make pure photography with the intent of creating an aesthetic, poetic, and emotional shock.

Shirin Neshat has become one of the most well known Persian artist within the Western artistic world. While she lives in New York City, she addresses a global audience. Her earlier work was symbolic of her personal grief, anxiety and the pain of separation from her home country. It took a neutral position on Islam. As time progressed and the Islamic regime of Iran became more intrusive and oppressive, Neshat’s artwork became more boldly political and subversively critical against it. She seeks to, according an article in Time, “untangle the ideology of Islam through her art.” Her current cinematic work continues to express the poetic, philosophical, and metaphorical as well as complex levels of intellectual abstraction.

In 2009 Neshat won the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival for her directional debut “Women without Men”, based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel of the same name. She said about the movie: ”This has been a labour of love for six years.(…) This film speaks to the world and to my country.” The film examines the 1953 British- and American-backed coup, which supplanted Iran’s democratically elected government with a monarchy.

Credits as indicated in the video. Translation by Noelia Correa. 

Via  Studio Banana TV

Related videos:

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Sound of Silence

An exhibition of the photographs of the talented, young photographer, Newsha Tavakolian, was recently held in Tehran. She became interested in photography at the age of sixteen, and took up photojournalism shortly after completing a course in this field. She first started working with the women’s magazine, Zan, and gradually moved on to publish her works in many other Iranian magazines and newspapers. When she started 14 years ago, she was one of only five woman photojournalists in Iran, and the sight of a young woman taking photographs in the streets was not only unusual, but involved many risks for her. The students’ turbulent protests of 1999 were one of the events covered by her and the resulting photos taken at close proximity were widely published.

Newsha has been active on the international scene as well. A chance meeting with the head of the Polaris Images in a photography festival in France in 2001 introduced her to this agency which represents photographers and distributes their work to the media worldwide. She has been covering Iran and several neighboring countries for them ever since. Her pictures have been published in Time Magazine, Newsweek, New York Times, Stern and Le Figaro amongst others, and she won the National Geographic Society award as one of the ‘nine women of the year’ in 2006.

One of the main focal points in Newsha’s work concerns women’s issues in the East in general, and Iran in particular. Another is her great interest in singing, and two years ago she came up with the idea of a project to combine these two themes. The result was a striking collection of photographs which were shown at her first exhibition recently. As a child, she had grown up in the company of musically gifted aunts and once had dreams of becoming a singer herself. Women, however, are banned from singing solo in public.

In the exhibition, given the ironic title of Listen!, there is no sound to listen to at all. Instead, we see portraits of women with their eyes closed, their mouths half open, singing in silence. The tension is apparent between the women’s desire to express themselves through song and the danger of actually doing so. Almost as a mockery of the present situation, the same pictures appear on the casings of a pack of CDs. But they are just empty shells, with no CDs inside. In another group of photographs, a solitary woman is placed against deserted urban landscapes. She is standing motionless in an empty road, in front of abandoned high-rise buildings, against a brick wall, or knee-deep in a turbulent sea.

In this multimedia report we visit this thought-provoking exhibition of photographs, and hear the views of its gifted creator, Newsha Tavakolian.

Newsha Tavakolian was born in 1981 in Tehran, where she now works and lives. A self-taught photographer, she began working at 16 in the photo archive of the women’s daily newspaper, Zan and later with nine reformist dailies (all since banned). She currently works freelance mainly for international media. Since 2002, Newsha has worked for many foreign press agencies, including Reuters and is widely travelled. She is currently represented by the Polaris photo agency and her photographs have been published in Time, Newsweek, Stern, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, Colors magazine, Le Figaro, Le Monde, and NRC Handelsblad. Newsha is also a member of Evephotographers, an all women international photo group.

Tavakolian has taken part in many successful group exhibitons here in Tehran whilst her international group shows include "30 years of Solitude", New Hall, Cambridge University (2007), and 'Made in Tehran' exhibition in the Cicero gallery in Berlin, Germany. She has recieved many awards for her work including runner-up for the Picture of the Year award 2003. In 2006 she was selected for the World Press Photo Masterclass in Amsterdam. In the same year her long-term project, "Iran: Women in the Axis of Evil", was awarded a prize by the All Roads National Geographic Society and exhibited in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. In 2007 she was a finalist for the Inge Morath award, from the Magnum agency.

Mother of Martyr
Newsha Tavakolian

The day I became a woman
Newsha Tavakolian
 Via Jadid Online and Silkroad Photo

Friday, 14 January 2011

Magnifying disparities

Nicky Nodjoumi's deliberately misaligned images underline the disharmony in society

‘Push and Pull’, oil on canvas

 By Jyoti Kalsi

Nicky Nodjoumi's work treads the fine line between art and politics. The Iranian artist has been living in exile in New York since the 1979 revolution in his country. But he continues to keenly observe and comment on the political situation in Iran. However, his first solo exhibition in Dubai, titled Educating the Horse, indicates that his work goes beyond historical and geographical contexts to make universal statements about the power games being played at various levels in society, the injustices suffered by ordinary people at the hands of the few who have power and influence, and the imbalances and inequalities that exist in our world.

Inspiration from newspapers
The artist draws inspiration from newspapers. He begins every painting with a collage made from pictures cut from newspapers and magazines.

"I am particularly interested in photo-graphs of politicians because I like to study their body language. I play with the pictures by cutting out an outstretched hand, putting one person's head on another's body, misaligning different parts of the bodies or changing the size of the figures. I then make a drawing based on the collage and finally use that to make my oil and watercolour paintings," Nodjoumi says.

Through this process, he creates familiar yet surreal images and situations that invite viewers to read between the lines and look at the dark reality behind the stories and pictures published in the newspapers. Nodjoumi uses various artistic devices to create his layered narratives.

The most obvious element in his paintings is the difference in the size of the figures. Oversized figures — often wielding a stick — dominate the canvases, representing the politicians, multinational companies, businessmen and religious leaders whose greed for power ruthlessly crushes the hopes and desires of ordinary people, depicted as compressed, cowering figures. And the exaggerated difference in the size of the figures also highlights the disparities in society, ranging from the differences between the East and the West and the rich and the poor to the difference between the words and actions of politicians.

By deliberately misaligning the torso and the legs of his characters, the artist expresses a sense of cultural dislocation and comments on the changing dynamics of global politics.

He breaks up a painting into different planes with lines or blocks of different colours to mirror opposing value systems and emphasise the sense of fragmentation.

And sometimes he twists reality by showing a difference between the top half of the painting and its supposed shadow at the bottom. For instance, in a composition titled It is All Over, an innocent newborn baby's shadow reveals two wheeling and dealing politicians.

But the characters in Nodjoumi's paintings are also connected in various ways to represent the complex relationships between people and countries that dictate political and corporate policies which ultimately affect society.

In a large oil painting titled Push and Pull, two men are entangled in a game of cat's cradle, each trying to pull the other's leg with the strings in his hands. In Just Having Fun, two men, one of whom is pictured upside down, are tied together, highlighting the role of relationships in maintaining harmony in society.

Nodjoumi balances his dark themes with a bright palette of colours and touches of humour. Picasso's famous Harlequin appears often as a part of the tyrants in the paintings, suggesting that these pompous men are clowns who do not know what they are doing.

And his enigmatic captions sometimes provide insights into the concept behind the painting — but often they are deliberately misleading.

Despite the grim reality he depicts, elements such as the unstable, crumbling bodies of the aggressive bullies in his paintings and their cut-off hands and changed heads express the artist's hope that someday things will change. "After all, can a horse be confined in a net? Does it need to be educated and can you really educate a horse by using a stick?" asks the artist, subtly alluding to the restrictions and ideologies imposed on people in Iran today.

Transcending borders
Although there are a few direct references to Iran in his paintings, Nodjoumi has deliberately kept the background neutral and free from individual or regional context. Commenting on his work, the artist says: "My work is not only about my country. It is about the dark side of human existence and the theatre of cruelty being played out around the world.

"I recently saw pictures from China of policemen wielding sticks, looking just like the characters in my paintings. The division of my canvas into separate planes represents different and opposing cultures and underlines the sense of otherness. It creates a multilayered effect with the implicit significance shrouded under seemingly explicit meaning.

"Through these differing sections, I want to express confrontation and explore the relationship between content and form while provoking a critical, cultural and sociological discourse. My paintings are about the contemporary times, sometimes brutal and savage, and sometimes poetic. They are about the here and now," Nodjoumi says.

 From Left: ‘Educating the Horse’, oil on canvas, ‘From Diary Series’, ink and gouache

Via Gulf News: Weekend Review

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Frenchising Mona Lisa

Amir Baradaran announces his infiltration of the Louvre Museum on January 27th, 2011, with the permanent installation of his 52-second video performance streaming live over the image of Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Lisa Gherardini. Using an Augmented Reality (AR) Smartphone application, Frenchising Mona Lisa seeks to provoke notions of national identity, iconography, and curatorial practices within museums.

In Baradaran's work, Mona Lisa comes to life, raising her hands to don a tricolor head covering. Frenchising Mona Lisa sheds light on the very processes of naturalization and resignification by utilizing the history of Mona Lisa as it has become an icon of the Louvre and the state of France, even though the portrait itself is that of an Italian woman, painted by an Italian artist.

Similarly, the cultures and practices of head coverings are as complex and particular as the periods and places in which they are worn. Bound up with the flux of time and space, their meanings are historical and continuously shifting. Currently in France, the hijab has become a lightning rod about "Frenchness," a visual threat to the ideals of the secular state. Pursuant to the demands of demographic changes, politicians from the right and the left have been engaging in argument, castigating an interpretation of Islamic practice while religious underpinnings of Western secularism go unacknowledged and undisputed.

Augmented Reality presupposes significant conceptual shifts, as it expands our definitions of ownership and trespassing while triggering dialog about a new medium for interactive installations. Frenchising Mona Lisa raises questions about curatorial control of what is seen in a museum as the alternative (augmented) experience of the Mona Lisa interferes with da Vinci's original work and injects itself into the Louvre's presentation of the painting in situ in the Salle des États.

Beginning on January 27, 2011, Baradaran's channel is viewable by downloading the application Junaio available for free on any Smartphone Appstore. In order to watch the Mona Lisa come to life, users must choose the channel Frenchising Mona Lisa, and point their smartphone camera at an image of the Mona Lisa, whether inside the Louvre or in front of any of its reproductions anywhere in the world.

At the same moment in New York, Baradaran will release the manifesto for FutARism, a movement that seeks to explore the experiential, conceptual and legal shifts suggested by the advent of AR within the modalities of contemporary art. For the remote opening of Frenchising Mona Lisa and live performance of FutARism, join us on January 27 from 5pm to 9pm at Benrimon Contemporary located at 514 West 24th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10011.

The Louvre did not participate in the development of Frenchising Mona Lisa, nor has it sanctioned or denounced the work, of which it was unaware at this writing.

Amir Baradaran is a New York-based visual and performance artist. Born in Tehran and raised in Montreal, his first sketches took root in his grandfather's philosophy and the harmony of his mother's poetry. Baradaran's artistic practice is marked by a recurring exploration of national identity vis-a-vis the cross-section of race and gender. Recent work includes Transient (2010), a series of video installations in New York City taxis, and The Other Artist Is Present (2010), a guerrilla performance in four acts at The Museum of Modern Art. Baradaran's piece Takeoff (2010) is part of the Augmented Reality exhibition WeARinMoMA (2010), permanently installed in The Museum of Modern Art.

Check it out on Youtube

For further information or images, please contact Jackie Mabey at or Molly Sampson at 212.924.2400 or Event produced in collaboration with Gary Krimershmoys and Quintessentially Art.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Behind the Iranian Curtain

Contradictory Stages, a Theatrical Journey to Tehran

 by Torange Yeghiazarian
American Theatre; Dec 2010; pp. 46-51

A year after last June’s contested presidential elections, I arrive in Tehran half expecting closed cultural institutions and a general state of despondency. The streets have been quiet since many demonstrators critical of Ahmadinejad’s government were killed or imprisoned but the stages are burning up with sold out shows and defiant dialogue.  Almost every play comments on the recent events, directly or discreetly, through comedy or drama; the one common thread in every performance is politics. Surprising for a country where government authorities must approve every script. Surprising also for a country ruled by Islamic law that imposes mandatory veiling for women and prohibits close physical contact of members of the opposite sex. But Iran is a land of contradictions, not yielding to quick judgment, demanding attention and deeper analysis.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn about the prolific professional theatre in Iran. As an Iranian-American theatre artist, I too harbor certain negative perceptions about theatre in Iran, particularly when it comes to freedom of expression. Certainly, there are many restrictions on creating theatre in Iran but none have succeeded in stopping it. I’m told even during last June’s massive demonstrations, theatre artists continued to perform their regularly scheduled shows, at times to empty houses, because they did not want the authorities to take over the venues. The artists’ tenacity and sense of mission engulf me as I begin my theatrical journey in Tehran.

Tehran is a dynamic metropolis spread over a 760 km2 area on the southern slopes of the Alburz Mountains. Home to 8.5 million people, although the unofficial estimates are as high as 12 million, this vibrant metropolis has about thirty major performance venues including smaller neighborhood Farhang-Sara (community art houses) and university-based studio’s. Most of the plays on my list are presented at the Teatre Shahr (City Theatre), the Iranshahr art complex and Molavi Hall in the University of Tehran. Built in 1973 Teatre Shahr is a distinguished round building nestled within a large park on the corner of Vali Asr and Jomhuri avenues, two of the longest and busiest streets in Tehran. The Iranshahr complex of theaters, galleries, and café’s, also known as Home of Artists, used to be a military complex. Although you would never guess it from the serene park setting where seemingly carefree pedestrians enjoy an evening stroll lost in conversation. Molavi Hall, a large black box studio, is the favorite of many professional artists because of its flexible seating arrangement and excellent technical resources.

Monday, March 8th. I walk into the 579-seat main hall of Teatre Shahr to see my first play: Life of Galileo by Berthold Brecht. I can’t imagine another play more directly critical of the church and its oppression of independent thinking. It is a big surprise to see such a production permitted in this environment. Directed by Dariush Farhang, who has not worked in thirty years, and a highly respected leading cast, the production promises to be a knock out. It isn’t. As the unimaginative staging passes before my eyes, my thoughts plod back thirty years to Ali Raffi’s breathtaking production of Amir Kabir, Iran’s revered 19th-century prime minister, on this very stage. Ali Raffi was but a promising young director at the time but his work was mesmerizing and mature. He continued to work after the revolution; his production of Romeo and Juliet -in full leather clad- was quite a hit ten years ago. These days Raffi splits his time between cinema and theatre. His first film, The Fish Fall in Love (2005) received positive responses and he is now working on his second film. While casting movie stars in plays has become a trend in Tehran, inspired by Broadway possibly, Raffi is casting his second film with many theatre actors. The audience’s feverish applause jolts me back to Galileo. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.” the accusation flies, “No, unhappy is the land that needs a hero!” Galileo responds and the audience goes wild. The exchange may well have been lifted directly from a debate on the Green Movement. Who is its leader? Does it even need one? Other lines like “Declare there is no Heaven –without fear! Declare the Earth revolves around the Sun –without fear!” equally excite the audience. Everything about this production surprises me: the theme, the unabashed questioning of authority, the audience’s response, the low production values, and the clumsy staging. The play closes two weeks earlier than previously advertised due to low box office sales. As it turns out, Tehran audiences are quite discerning.

At this moment, there are about sixteen productions on stage in Tehran. For every theatre artists that is working, there are at least three who are not permitted to work. I don’t mean that they are under house arrest or imprisoned, simply that their proposed productions have not received the approval of the authorities. There are several steps in making theatre in Iran. First, the written text must be reviewed and approved by the Supervisory Council (Nezarat) of the Center for Dramatic Arts, a part of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Irshad). This step alone can take months; Nezarat may approve, reject or suggest changes to the text. If approved, the Center for Dramatic Arts will designate a venue and allocate a budget to the production. Once rehearsals begin, officials will visit to ensure that everyone involved is abiding by the various laws on dress and decorum, and that the production in no way questions or disturbs the values of the Revolution. Even with this level of control, sometimes a production may be ordered to close right after opening due to some unforeseen objection. The process is further complicated by the frequent change in leadership. Each cadre enters the scene with their own values and criteria. It is full of ambiguity, this evaluation, approval and budgeting process but it seems to work for some of the people some of the time. And after all, while often frustrating, ambiguity does have its advantages.

Winter in Tehran has been unseasonably warm and I struggle to keep on my scarf and coat inside the small Sayeh studio of Teatre Shahr. The play is 12 based on Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. The cast is huddled on the stage as the audience walks in over loud electronic music; upstage a large digital counter indicates 12. The 113-seat house is packed, there are people sitting on the steps. When the bright white lights come on, we see a racked stage with white walls housing twelve swivel chairs kept in row formation by straight raised edges along the depth of the stage. The twelve members of the jury contemplate the fate of the accused in this sterile atmosphere; they begin from near consensus, only one person doubts the guilt of the accused. But of course over the course of the next 90-minutes, new questions are raised and one by one, the members of the jury slide their chair to the Innocent side of the stage. The digital counter upstage keeps score. Although many in the audience know the outcome of the play, we anxiously anticipate it, our eyes glued to the digital counter until it displays the number 12. Directed by Manijeh Mohamedi, veteran Iranian director, translator and teacher, whose legendary staging of One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest right after the revolution is still alive in the minds of Tehran’s theatre lovers, this production feels complete: all the design elements work beautifully together with the actors to deliver an intense human drama. The parallels to the current situation in Iran, do not escape the audience: the pending judgment against the innocent, the sudden swing of the pendulum of Justice in the “wrong” direction. I ask Manijeh why she chose this play, an American classic. “Because of its social relevance,” she responds matter-of-factly, “If the criticism is directed at the US, it is easier to get past the censors.” The audience identifies with the story none the less. This is one reason the productions of the classics, the Greeks, Shakespeare, even Brecht and Becket, are quite common on Iranian stages. Also why, some young playwrights set their plays outside of Iran. The Dark Distance between the Stars, written by Azadeh Shahmiri is a good example. Presented at the Molavi Hall, the play is set in Algiers during the War of Independence. Frantz Fanon’s clinic was neutral ground where Algerian guerrillas as well as French officers were treated. Shahmiri’s play imagines an encounter between the two sides at the clinic. While Dark Distance is clearly a historical play, the feeling of being occupied by a foreign power in one’s own country resonates with many in the audience. This is how some Iranian activists have describe their relationship with the government today. Clearly, the censors do not share this view. The Iranian government’s official anti-imperialist position would make it difficult to reject a play that praises Algeria’s fight against colonialism. “We have become experts at self-censorship,” Manijeh Mohamedi comments during one of our conversations. I get the impression that a lot of creative energy is spent on figuring out how to get by the censors, an art many in Iran seem to excel at.

March 9th. I go to Iranshahr theatre to see For a Fistful of Rubles, an adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor based on short stories by Antoine Chekhov, produced by Leev Theater Group. The action takes place on a tilted circular platform raised about four-feet off the stage. An actor is seated on stage and observes the audience as they enter. This is the Writer, the common thread that connects the five episodes. Minimal and dynamic, the ensemble acting is fluid and seamless. I speak to Mohamad Aghebati, a member of Leev Theater and this production’s manager. Aghebati characterizes the group as artists in their 30’s, born right around the 1979 revolution, who have been working together for nearly ten years with the goal of creating more opportunities for its members. After the events that followed the elections, the members of the group needed something to keep their spirits up. Everyone could use a good laugh. For the most part, Leev Theatre’s take on The Good Doctor stays true to Chekhov and Neil Simon’s comedic sensibility delivering the laughs and the punch lines. One episode, however, stands in stark contrast to the lightness of the rest of the play. It deals with the sadistic pleasures of power and authority depicted in an outwardly consoling conversation between the master of the house and the young teacher working for him. Performed by the director, Mohamad Hasan Ma’juni, the dehumanizing master crushes the teacher like an ant under his thumb as he calmly asks a series of misleadingly simple questions that turn the teacher’s honest and naive responses into self-criminalizing statements and force her to endorse the master’s illogical and unpredictable sensibility. This chilling interrogation scene seems to be presented more realistically than the rest of the play, or perhaps it just feels more real. One of the episodes in the original play that is not included in this production is the coming of age story of a teenage boy whose father takes him to visit a prostitute. The reason for the omission is presumably because love, sex and any kind of physical intimacy is a huge no-no on the stages of Iran. Women’s head must always be covered on stage (and film) even if the scene takes place in a private space where women would normally not cover. I have to admit that for the most part, mandatory veiling on stage is practiced with such wily creativity that it becomes almost invisible. Yet negotiating the intricacies of publicly representing private space is an on-going effort in Iranian theatre and cinema; as is the desire to create an independent Arts sector, one that is not funded by the Center for Dramatic Arts. According to Aghebati, For a Fistful of Rubles received only 20% of its original budget from the Center, the rest is raised through box office sales. Lucky for the group, the number of viewers during the three-month run surpassed 12,000, as reported by Shargh Daily. 

Having seen 12 and For a Fistful of Rubles, I feel better about the state of theatre in Iran. But these excellent productions do not prepare me for having my socks knocked off by what comes next: a breathtakingly innovative retelling of Macbeth, directed by Reza Servati, a 26-year old student of Tehran University’s School of Dramatic Arts. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year’s University Theatre Festival as well as first place in direction and set, costume and lighting design, Servati’s hour-long Macbeth is the result of a year and a half of workshop development. Poetically stark, the costume and set design’s timeless elegance and minimalism are evocative of Julie Taymor’s best work.  The physically potent acting style and the directorial choices remind me of the Japanese master director, Tadashi Suzuki’s reinterpretations of the classics. The play begins in stunning silence; the darkness abruptly broken by a sharp white spot light on the narrator delivering an eerie welcome speech. Looking more like the gatekeeper of hell sporting a handsome axe, the narrator introduces us to a tomb upstage, a versatile box/bed/door/gate -the focal element of the set design- on top of which two body bags rest. But there is no rest here. Before we know it, one corpse is decapitated and the headless body clad in a red velvet gown roams about the stage while the “separated” head remains speaking on the tomb. Within moments, the audience is unmistakably jolted into a surreal space understanding subconsciously that in this world, any thing is possible; there in lies the great achievement in creating and pleasure in experiencing this performance. The next moment we come face to face with Lady Macbeth performed by a bald male actor who looks curiously alike the bald male actor who plays Macbeth. Resembling twins in a cruel womb, the two characters struggle to relive their tragedy over and over knowing the outcome only too well. A fetus dangling inside a glass box appears downstage. Lady Macbeth’s lascivious interaction with the box is shockingly uncomfortable and a fantastic representation of her deep ambition. The intermingling of love, war and power continues in the moments preceding the actual murder where Macbeth and Lady M seem to be salivating in anticipation of their monstrous feat. Like a detective, Servati takes his audience on an investigation of the play, zooming in at times and pulling back at others never losing sight of their shared investment in rendering this interpretation meaningful. The play comments on itself through juxtaposed dialogue and like a good little postmodern rendition, pushes the text off its sacred pedestal. Having reduced the text to its most essential elements, the five-member cast inhabits the play with every pore of their being. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s stylized walk down stage resembles being dragged by an invisible rope as if their participation is against their will. The witches, performed by three men of small, medium and large physical features dressed in military uniform, march and sing their predictions in an east-west hybrid martial melody. The music is an original composition by Bamdad Afshar and is played live by a mix of traditional Iranian and western instruments. In the same way that nothing on stage resembles its real self, the musical instruments too are used unconventionally; playing the Santoor with a bow, for example. I ask Servati about his sources of creative inspiration. “Did you learn these techniques at the university?” I ask innocently. Servati chuckles, “I have to spend most of my time unlearning the lessons of the classroom and finding real information.” A sentiment perhaps shared by many brilliant young students world over. He names Gertowski and Kantor as his major influences. Indeed, the central participation of the design elements including music as well as the grotesque surrealistic world of the characters pay homage to Polish theatre. I ask about the actors’ walking technique, a kind of sliding forward by rolling their toes resembling crawling spiders; somewhat reminiscent of Kabuki conventions. According to Servati, this technique was discovered in rehearsal after trying several varieties; it took the actors two months to become comfortable with the walk. Cinema is another huge source of inspiration. Servati wanted to create a space where the audience watched the performance through a camera lens that zooms in and out; he wanted to “edit” the action and use slow motion effects to highlight the precarious nature of particular moments. I ask him why he chose to cast Lady Macbeth with a male actor. Surprisingly, it is not because of regulations against male/female close physical interaction on stage. “First we had two women play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the witches were puppets.” Over time the casting evolved; they replaced the puppets with one then three live actors and the female actors with men. Like many directors before him, Servati says the play should really be titled Lady Macbeth, she drives the action. To him, the important thing was for the actors playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to look androgynous and work together in unity. As I sit listening to this young director discuss his goals and inspirations, I can’t help wonder where he will be in ten years. What opportunities are available to him inside Iran? Will he be able to show his work outside of Iran? Macbeth has been invited to the Tbilisi Festival but Servati needed special permission to travel with his troupe because he has yet to fulfill his mandatory military service. While Servati remains hopeful about his artistic future in Iran, in my head, I review the long list of artists who either have left Iran or no longer work in the Theatre. Will they ever be able to return to the stage? Many believe that Iranian theatre of the 1970’s was at its peak, full of experimental creativity and diversity. Very few from that generation are active today. How will that generation’s experience be handed down to the next? History is such a major part of the Iranian national identity yet historical continuity is a rare commodity in contemporary Iran; the effects of which I am only beginning to understand.

I don’t have time to dwell too much on the past -or the future- as there are numerous productions to see. Next, 11:11 by Hasan Barzegar. I am excited about this new work by Barzegar whose writing was last seen on stage over five years ago. Co-directed with Roxana Bahram, 11:11 depicts a young man’s struggle to piece together the events of a particular night. The information comes to him in bits and pieces of dream and reality forcing him to repeatedly return to one particular moment when the time was 11:11. This feels like a young play about young people. There was a party; his girl friend was there, was she flirting with another? Is the young man paranoid or did something really happen? He is arrested by a very comical traffic officer carrying his own warning lights. The young man’s growing fear and restlessness layered within the hip music and clever repartee turns the performance into an expressionistic psychodrama. The comical traffic officer evolves into an inquisitor who is no longer funny. Standing on opposite sides of the stage during the interrogation scene, the young man watches as the officer flogs a bench deliberately. As the loud sound whips through the air, the audience is frozen, too afraid to exhale. 11:11 closes with a tender image, a glass box upstage lights up revealing a live bird inside, too familiar a symbol, and not completely necessary in the large dramatic scheme of the play, but a welcomed glimmer of hope. While the central character of the play may be dead, the small bird remains alive.

References to interrogation, imprisonment and torture abound on the stages of Tehran. Some plays contain outright criticism of the government, some ridicule recent proclamations. How they get past the censors, I wonder. Where is the line that artists may not step over? Manijeh Mohamedi offers a perspective: “Obviously political statements are allowed. As long as you don’t call for abolishing the Islamic Republic, politics is not a problem. Sex is.” In fact, not even one play so far has represented any kind of physical or even emotional intimacy. Based on representations on stage and screen, an outsider would judge Iranians to be cold and distant. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.  People typically greet one another with a big hug and three (yes, three) kisses on the cheeks. One frequently sees friends walk in the streets hand in hand. You would never know this from watching Iranian films and plays. This reminds me of a line from Victor/Victoria, “You can kill them but you mustn’t kiss them!” Can love be more threatening than politics?

Family love is at the heart of Blackout Dreams, co-written by Sanaz Bayan and Amir Kyanpoor, and co-directed by Sanaz Bayan and Kazem Sayahi, presented at the Molavi Hall. Acted on a bare stage with only a door frame, hand-operated lights and some sand, the play recalls the period of blackouts and bombings during the Iran-Iraq war. Now years later, the father and daughter, the only surviving members of the family, placed on opposite sides of a closed door frame confront each other and the memory of the past. The opening scene of the play is pure visual poetry: one actor walks across the stage in darkness pouring a line of sand behind her lit with only a flashlight. The play utilizes only elements readily found in a war zone: sirens, flashlight, and rubble. Each element is turned into an extraordinary participant, their minimal presence a painful reminder of the ephemeral nature of life. The door frame is repeatedly moved by the actors shifting the viewers’ perspective; it also creates an insurmountable obstacle between the father and daughter, one they cannot trespass despite the negligible distance. Blackout Dreams succeeds in recreating the ambivalent atmosphere of a home during wartime. The fear of annihilation exists simultaneously with the desire to survive. We watch the family eat, sleep and entertain themselves during the blackouts, responding briefly to sirens, listening for the location of the bombs, relieved it’s not their home, at least not this time. Throughout the play, everyone complains about stomach ache. The mother makes the sound of flying airplanes as she feeds her young daughter spoonfuls of food, “here, eat the bombs,” she says. After this, stomach ache is no longer just a passing malady, but a lifetime of carrying the wounds of war. We see the father coughing blood, perhaps due to cancer or exposure to chemical gas, or both. He and his daughter may have survived the bombing but they are far from healthy. My own stomach responds similarly to this play, churning with the painful realization of what so many of these young artists must have experienced during the eight years of war. I wasn’t there but Blackout Dreams etches a visceral understanding of war deep within my being.

Both Blackout Dreams and 11:11 are constructed episodically around revisiting one defining moment; the final bombing, in case of the former, and the arrest at 11:11, in case of the latter. The writer seems to struggle with an overwhelming sense of disbelief. The memories are disconnected even contradictory at times. “We live in a country where everything can change overnight. We went to bed thinking A had won the elections and woke up learning that B was president.” One actor had said to me early on. The recent election is only one example in Iran’s long history of unexpected (unbelievable?) turning points over the past fifty years. It is difficult to fully investigate the reasons for and the impacts of these events in an atmosphere of censorship and fear. To me, these plays are deeply reflective of this struggle.

A few days before I am to leave Tehran, the University Theatre Festival begins. Over the course of ten days more than eighty plays will be presented at various venues around Tehran. The schedule of events is unfortunately (but typically) made public only two days prior to the opening, still I manage to catch one day of the program. Street Theatre is its own festival category and I’m curious to see a few examples. Tuesday afternoon, I sit on one of the stone benches outside Teatre Shahr to watch five short plays. What these comedic mini-spectacles lack in depth and dramatic impact, they more than make up for with sheer energy and earnest commitment to the common theme of social justice. In fact, the references to the brutal treatment of youth, specifically university students, are so frequent and direct that I fear for the safety of the artists. But my companion who is an experienced theatre professor explains that university-based plays can get away with more than professional productions. From Teatre Shahr we catch a cab to Molavi Hall. The final performance of the night is due to begin at 8:30 pm; we have about an hour-and-half to kill. Dark clouds have covered the sky and rain begins to trickle down. Everyone in the courtyard of Molavi Hall is discussing the various plays of the day. I learn that the play we’re about to see tonight is headed for a European theatre festival. There seems to be a lot of excitement around this production and the artists involved. The performance is a combination of What Where by Becket and Mountain Language by Pinter, directed by Ali Akbar Alizad. The weather outside deteriorates into a full-fledged rainstorm and people huddle inside the lobby. It is packed. There must be over 200 people here, I wonder if they would all fit into the theatre. They don’t. In fact minutes after we are all inside and the doors have been shut, I hear the sound of arguments from the lobby, people demanding to be let in; they even knock on the door a few times.

Finally the performance begins. The stage is bare except for a few chairs on a platform. The lighting is minimal and full of shadows. Becket’s theme of totalitarianism and abuse of power is presented in a slow, calculated pace. An invisible voice instructs the next leader to repeat the same series of vile acts as the previous leader. The endless routine of evolving into murderous dictators is conducted calmly. The seamless transition into the next play makes them feel joined. Pinter’s play was inspired by his visit to Turkey where he learned about the plight of its Kurdish population. The play opens with a group of women dressed in black walking on stage at a hypnotic pace. Some carry an umbrella, one carries a suitcase, she is dressed in pink. The tableau they create together evokes an image of Theo Angelopoulos’ film, Ulysses’ Gaze. The women are waiting outside the prison walls to see their son/brother/father/husband. The guard is sadistic in her consideration of the women’s request. One mother is permitted to see her son. She only speaks in her native language. The guard won’t allow it. The son is ordered to remind his mother that her language is forbidden. She falls silent. The mother and son remain sitting across from each other in silence throughout the next scene. The wife dressed in pink requests to see her husband, she speaks properly, she is not ‘one of them.’ The guard, joined by the sergeant, has some fun questioning the wife. She grabs the wife from behind, presses the wife’s body into her own and squeezes her breast making lude remarks. Both actors are female but the sexually charged moment is unmistakable. While such gestures may be deemed a bit racy in the US, they are actually illegal in Iran, be it homosexual or heterosexual in nature. But like I said before, ambiguity has its advantages. The lights come up on the mother and son who have been staring at each other in silence the whole time. After a moment, the mother utters one word in her own language. In one swift move the guard drags the son away and silences the mother when she stands up in protest. One sharp wave of the arm is enough to silence her, for good. The guard proceeds to question and threaten the son. When she does not receive the desired response, the guard beats the son senseless, leaves his bloody body on stage and exits. Very slowly, the women in black walk to the son’s lifeless presence, they encircle him, one woman gently raises his head. They watch him in silence then one by one the women face the audience. In my mind, I hear the women asking, “How long will you let this go on?” A chilling final tableau that brings the audience to its feet in enthusiastic applause.

In an environment where realistic portrayal of private space and direct representation of social issues are curtailed by cultural and political restrictions, the theatre artist’s predilection naturally moves toward abstraction. In fact, none of the plays I saw over these two months are what one would consider realistic. Part subversion, part artistic choice, this departure from realism requires a commitment to establishing an unspoken agreement with the audience where the subliminal exchange is established one carefully-crafted moment at a time. This was frequently achieved with creativity and courage on theatre stages of Tehran. The audiences seem fully invested and extremely supportive. They clearly value the opportunity to participate in theatre that is giving voice to their social and political concerns.

There is a lot of speculation about the next chapter in Iran’s tumultuous political book. Who will write it? What will it contain? I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know is that there is an unshakable spirit in Iran, its presence acutely palpable on the stages of Tehran. After two months of vigorous theatre-watching in Tehran, I can say with certainty that despite ideological, political and financial obstacles, not only is theatre alive in Iran but that it matters- intensely, profoundly and with the power to transform.

Torange Yeghiazarian, Founding Artistic Director
Golden Thread Productions
San Francisco, CA.