Visual culture has, for centuries, been an important facet of protest, resistance, revolution and social change - from the early caricatures of the 18th century in both Europe and America to the digital media and intentional spectacle burgeoning from the Occupy movement. As cultural historians have noted, pictorial representations of political movements can provoke action, even as they document rapid transformation.
San Francisco-based Iranian artist Taraneh Hemami explores the role of the artist as witness and archivist - particularly in recounting a political movement whose documentation has been all but wiped out. Her new show, "Resistance," draws on the history of resistance in Iran, focusing on decades of activism and revolutionary actions following the 1953 coup d'etat.
Hemami's collection of found and collected material reflects the sensibility of the student activists of that era, "who were very much influenced by the freedom movements across the globe," she says. Hemami, who has been involved with collective and community projects for more than 20 years, says she is motivated "by a personal need to make sense of my own history and that of my community - the layered historical circumstances that have led to our migration to the U.S."
After moving to the Bay Area in 1982, Hemami became involved with some of the Iranian Student Association of Northern California's cultural programming; at the time, she says, it was the only active Iranian group that organized community programs and cultural celebrations.
"They provided a sense of community for the many Iranians who had moved to the U.S. for school and had remained in the country unable to return to Iran after the revolution," she says. "An image that has stayed with me all these years is the walls of the entire center gradually filled up with portraits of young activists arrested or executed."
Twenty years later, Hemami attempted to create an archive of the community of Iranians in the Bay Area by collecting images and personal narratives. Aside from the collected print material Hemami compiled, her works employ a variety of media that draw upon the ways that objects both mundane and culturally specific can provoke an emotional response.
They include "Daneshjoo," in glass frits on wood panel, a haunting depiction of revolution and both communal turmoil and mobilization; "Anonymous," a pigment print on aluminum that features an assortment of activist faces pulled away from any identifiable features; and an eerily bucolic beaded curtain titled "Field of Tulips."
"The materials pulled me back into the history that they (were) representing," Hemami says. "It was a history that has shaped my life, but at the same time I know very little about, considering the continuous censorship in Iran, both before and after the revolution."
Thus, the underground publications Hemami collected were a reflection of the many lives that were devoted to creating an Iran free of dictatorships and puppet governments. "They also reflect the propaganda tools used for spreading a revolutionary cause, from slogans to graphic imagery," she says.
The goal of Hemami's project isn't only to display a historical record, she says, "but to create connections to the present movements of dissent, looking at past strategies, successes and failures of the past to learn and move forward."
"Social media has played a significant role in bringing voices of dissent from the otherwise inaccessible layers of society in Iran. ... It makes visible the vast network of connections that became vital tools for communication."
Exhibition: January 18th – Febuary 16th, 2013. Reception: Friday, January 18th, 2013, 6-8 p.m. Luggage Store Gallery.
Nirmala Nataraj is a freelance writer.