Monday, 12 March 2012

Dreams and Nostalgia

By Jyoti Kalsi, Special to Weekend Review

No Subject was the unusual title of an exhibition of contemporary Iranian art featuring the work of ten young artists based in Tehran. Curator Vida Haideri chose this title because rather than restricting the show to a single theme, she wanted to focus on the ideas of each artist. The show features a diversity of media, subjects and styles. As expected, many of the artworks reflect the uneasy atmosphere prevailing in Iran and the region.

Mahta Saghafi, Untitled 7, 2011, Acrylic & colored pencil on Paper, 100 x 70 cm

Mohsin Sadeghian's latest set of boxes, titled Love and Rage, explores an eternal conflict in which hostility and war, represented by an army tank, are a constant element, while love and humanity symbolised by organic bodies painted on the glass, and a poet's quill, try to find their place in a turbulent environment. Similarly, Amirali Ghasemi's digital photographs, titled Deconstructing White, juxtapose images of people with strategically placed drawings of deconstructed objects such as a gun and a knife. The white drawings superimposed on the colourful images of people in relaxed poses suggest the overt and covert presence of violence in society and highlight the need to calm down and find peaceful solutions.

Sara Abbasian and Katayun Karami's depiction of the political scenario is more graphic. In Abbasian's dark marker drawings, the eagle — a symbol of strength and courage — has been reduced to bones and crucified. On the other hand, Karami expresses her own fears and her desire for change and breaking free through a self-portrait framed in shattered glass, titled Have a Break.

Amirali Ghasemi, Knife, Deconstructing White Series, 2012, Digital photograph & graphics, C-type print, 44 x 66 cm

Kimia Rahgozar's black-and-white photographic works feature multiple exposure images of silhouettes of men and women who appear to be lost in their dreams. "The idea behind this work was to peek into the imaginations of these people. While shooting on one negative, I have to imagine the final result, hence the process of creating these artworks is similar to the concept itself," the artist says.

Friday, 9 March 2012

When Cultural Identity Is Denied

By Souren Melikian, The New York Times

When the Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia were inaugurated at the Metropolitan Museum in November, few visitors were ungracious enough to ask why the book published on the occasion is titled “Masterpieces From the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

The department, of course, has not changed its name. The longer denomination echoes the preference that art historians like the head of the Islamic department Sheila Canby have for historically accurate characterizations. Ms. Canby, who has devoted a lifetime of research to Iranian studies, said, “This has crystallized a real issue in the field that we have been calling ‘Islamic art.”’ 

A glazed tile from the 13th- and 14th-century Koranic frieze in Natanz that was  taken off the walls and sold as single pieces to Western museums.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

The denial of cultural identity in such a meaningless phrase is deeply resented in those Islamic lands, which have ancient cultures that are considerably longer than any West European nation. Most Western scholars appear to be unaware of it. 

Yet, the phrase spread in the later 19th century, largely because of the French. The notion of an “Art Musulman” received significant museum credentials at an exhibition held in 1878 at the Paris Trocadéro and was set in concrete following the first important art show of works of art from the “Arab lands, Turkey, Iran,” etc..., at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1903. 

This was the age of European colonial occupation, which continued to expand after World War I as France and Britain shared the spoils of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The “Islamic art” myth conveniently matched the Western perception of all these non-European people with funny names written in the same Arabic alphabet. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Feminism Manifested in Art

By Roxana Marcoci

To speak about the feminist epistemes of the year 2000, one needs to look back at the decade of the 1990s, a period when feminist practices related to visual and performing arts, theory, criticism, and activism became more dissenting and schismatic than ever before. While the pioneering Women's Liberation Movement of the early 1970s had a clear mandate -the construction of a distinct female subjectivity and the inclusion of women within the orb of cultural production-, modified ensuing generations to calibrate a clearly articulated oppositionality between "grass roots" and poststructuralist theories of gender, more recent feminist investigations have ceased to operate by any such clear-cut demarcations. In other words, since the end of the 20th-century two aspects have been problematized: the received categories of feminist art, and the idea that "woman" can be literalized in terms of a normative collective identity, a gestalt of some sorts. This being said, one should not hastily conclude that feminism, now fractioned and divergent, is bankrupt or in reflux. On the contrary, I would argue, that if contemporary feminists have less of a sense of themselves as a movement, it is because their power subsists no longer in a unified Pan-feminist voice, but in the disjunctions among their voices, in the differences among women themselves1. 

It is through this prismatic lens that I would like to focus, even if briefly, on three different practices which have contributed to understanding our period and concurrently have extended the social contexts in which these practices still unfold. 

Shirin Neshat - Turbulent

To begin with, nineties feminism not only jettisoned gynophobic stereotyping, but also probed sexual, ethnic and racial differences. This explains why, on one hand, feminism today is more likely to address all the clichés about what it means to be a woman -since as a construct (whether historical or fictional), woman is always open to investigation. On the other hand, it offers a much broader range of positions, not to mention realignments, as in the challenge posed by women of color to the authority of white women to speak for all women in general2. The sustained productions of the last twenty years of Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson are just few of the known paradigms. The same can be said about non-Western feminist rebuttals of Western hegemonic discourses.

Searching for Shahrzad

Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran
The Life and Legacy of a Popular Female Artist

By Kamran Talattof
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2011

Excerpt from the introduction:

On March 8, 1979 (International Women’s Day), less than a month after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, my friend Azar and I were standing near the front gate of the University of Tehran, which was filled with outraged women. They were preparing to protest the mandatory public veiling of all women. Two days earlier, this demand had been voiced by Ayatollah Khomeini in a speech he delivered in the city of Qom.

We were joined by another woman who told us the crowd at and around the University of Tehran was about to move to the prime minister’s office, where another rally was in progress. We all walked down the street and the newcomer, who like the two of us was young and secular, but somewhat more leftist, pointed out famous people who were marching. One woman was a former political prisoner, another was an author, and she laughed when she identified an actress whom I did not recognize at that time.

This rally and others that took place over the next few days were covered at length by the press. One newspaper reported the events in a supportive tone. Others attributed the demonstrations to supporters of the old regime and so called antirevolutionary forces. One published a photo of the demonstration that featured several women wearing makeup and mocked them as “the kind of women” who have been rallying against the revolutionary government. In the center of the photo was a woman with large glasses, a rare color photo in that newspaper in those days. I realized this was the actress whom we had seen on the day of the demonstration: Shahrzad, the dancer. I also learned from these reports that she was one of a few women who were arrested.

More than a decade later, in 1991, in a section of the Graduate Library at the University of Michigan known as “the Cage,” where they stored publications that lacked sufficient cataloging information, I was combing through Persian materials when I came across a book that aroused my curiosity. It was a short book of poetry entitled Salam, Aqa (Hello, sir), written by Shahrzad, whose picture appeared on the cover.

Friday, 2 March 2012

'Islamic Art' as Catchall Term

By Souren Melikian, The New York Times

The West has a problem when dealing with the cultures of the lands that adhered to Islam over time. It begins with apprehending their differences, far greater than those that separate European nations.

On the museum scene, the meaningless label “Islamic art” is stuck to works visually and conceptually unrelated. 

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which ranks among the world’s four or five greatest institutions of its kind, the recently opened “Islamic department” unwittingly illustrates the confusion. 

A glass bowl with  eagle emblem about seven inches  high is labeled at the Met as being from mid-13th-century Syria. Metropolitan Museum of Art 

When visitors stroll into the galleries devoted to European paintings, they will not see panels from 15th-century Germany hanging together with pictures from the Florentine Quattrocento on the excuse that they are Christian. And Chinese scrolls will not be thrown together with ones from Japan or Korea on the basis of shared Buddhist themes. The arts of China, Japan and Korea, whether Buddhist, Confucianist or other, are considered from the historical perspective of their cultures, sparing viewers any aesthetic inconsistency. 

When it comes to Islamic lands, inconsistency is apparently not a worry. Never mind that their histories explain the highly distinctive character of the art of each broad cultural area. 

Historic Iran, broken up into the modern states of Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan, plus bits here and there, shares with China the privilege of being one of the two oldest civilizations in the world with an uninterrupted continuity on its own territory.