Robert Adanto's Pearls on the Ocean Floor Screening at the Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles
Another artist, Malekeh Nayini, drags Iran home to Paris by colorizing old family photos -- and less cheerfully, by superimposing icons of the past onto the image of a demolition site in Paris, e.g., the cover of the Tehran Mosavar weekly featuring a popular singer, and of Towfiq, a satirical journal.
In all, there is a running commentary of the pain of being cut off from one's roots. The experience is intensely personal, but what the artists tell us is that the expression is ultimately political. Afsoon, who lives in London, cherishes her freedom, feels guilty that it is denied others, and stresses that her work is non-political and autobiographical. "But I am a woman and I am Iranian," which by default renders her work political. That is because by exercising her freedom of expression, she's challenging the religious ideology that governs, targets and limits women's lives in Iran today. In that light, her innocent rendering of a smiling, tiara-clad Googoosh, whose fêted singing career started at age three but who is now prohibited from performing in public because of her gender, becomes a political statement.
Personally, I never thought of the absence of freedom as something violent. That changed as I watched and listened to Parastou Forouhar, the daughter of the intellectual couple Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar who were savagely stabbed to death by elements of the regime in 1998 during the Chain Murders.
Another nightmarish iteration, Forouhar's Swanrider series, was on exhibit in New York earlier this year.
In fact, we owe Frorouhar's appearance in Pearls to Rebecca Heidenberg who originally introduced Adanto to her and hosted her debut solo exhibition at the RH Gallery in NY, Nov. 2010-Jan. 2011. "Her commitment to justice and her incredible strength of character are perhaps the foundation for the power emanating from her work," Heidenberg wrote of Forouhar in the exhibit's press release. Agreed.
Shirin Neshat, whose parents shipped her off to LA at 17 to protect her from political activism, was perhaps the first to shock the world with her take on the imprint of Islam on the feminine body, psyche, and environment. A photo and video artist, she says of her experience going back to Iran in 1996 that "it felt like visiting a communist country; everything was controlled... as if the color was lifted out of this country." She wore green at the Venice Film Festival in September 2009. Haleh Anvari who grew up in a chadori family in Isfahan allows for the veil but qualifies it by outfitting her subjects in vivid colors to convey the lie in the black. "Iranian women are by law required to... render themselves invisible... I wanted to show how colorful Iranian women are, well groomed, and sexy!"
And as if to underscore the point, Shadi Ghadirian's "CTRL+ALT+DEL" totally blacks out a woman except for her hands, feet, and face -- parts of her body that are officially allowed to be exposed. "A woman in Iran is a rebel, doing something which is not officially allowed," says Leila Pazooki, a young artist living in Germany, who speaks of "fashion" in Iran as a limitation, a form of censorship. Looking daring and determined, her Persian model illustrates a woman's response to that limitation.
Which brings us to the question of how women negotiate the many and varied tensions that they face daily. Gohar Dashti lives in Ahvaz, in southern Iran. She experienced the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988, firsthand. It left a mark. Her photographs capture couples who, even on joyous occasions such as their honeymoons, are marked by grief. Life goes on, she says, we cope, but there is always the grief. There is no sense of defeat in what she says, or self-pity, only a hopeful search for staying in the game, perchance to reform the rules. An artist's mission, she says, is to raise public awareness and to make history. "We don't have clear red lines [in Iran]. You can play on both sides of the line. It's very important to know how to play this game... and Iranian artists are good at it."
But she has bigger aspirations. "I really want to do something great... like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., not K-Mart or Walmart. We're here for a short period of time." And yes, she wants to be known for her work as an artist who happens to be Iranian, not as an "Iranian" artist.