Monday, 30 December 2013

Islamic World Through Women’s Eyes

Mideast Photography at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“Untitled #2,” by Gohar Dashti, from Iran. Courtesy the artist, via Forbes.
‘She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World’: The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presents an ambitious and revealing exhibition.

by Vicki Goldberg, The New York Times

Middle Eastern women, supposedly powerless and oppressed behind walls and veils, are in fact a force in both society and the arts. They played a major role in the Arab Spring and continue to do so in the flourishing regional art scene — specifically in photography — which is alive and very well indeed. Some Middle Eastern photographers have taken their cameras to the barricades, physical ones and those less obvious, like the barriers erected by stereotypes, which they remain determined to defy. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, takes note in “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World,” an ambitious and revealing exhibition of work by 12 women, some internationally known.
The curator, Kristen Gresh, says in the catalog that this show, which runs through Jan. 12, was intended to explore “the dualities of the visible and invisible, the permissible and forbidden, the spoken and the silent, and the prosaic and the horrific.” These approximately 100 photographs and two videos generally respond to that intention and open a wide window on what preoccupies women in regions that are read about here more often in news articles about riots and refugees. At times, the ideas in this show count more than the images, which range in quality from remarkable and convincing to the merely derivative in some cases.
In the Middle East, it hasn’t always been easy or considered respectable for women to photograph. Boushra Almutawakel, born in Yemen, recalled that a man once asked her what she did; when she replied that she was a photographer, he said sweetly, “It’s nice to have a hobby.” She was nervous about her first show, partly because it included pictures of herself, but only later did her mother voice disapproval: “Who shows pictures of herself?” She answered, “Mama, they’re art, they’re in a museum,” to which her mother replied, “Who sells pictures of herself?”
Iran poses particular difficulties to photojournalists, both male and female. Shadi Ghadirian, from Iran, said in a video that in her country a female photographer is a potential traitor. Many colleagues have been detained and imprisoned, and some have never returned. Newsha Tavakolian, an Iranian who has photographed for The New York Times, said in an interview, “We have a red line.” Where is it? “I don’t know. No one knows where it is.” Then, with a shrug, she added, “Everyone knows.”

Friday, 27 December 2013

Custodian of Vacancy: The Iranian Embassy in the USA

Iranian Embassy, shuttered for decades, was known for hedonistic, star-studded gatherings

Recent U.S.-Iran negotiations have sparked hopes of renewed relations and memories of swanky embassy parties.
Eric Parnes, Hospitality, 2013, archival print on cotton paper, 56 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

By , The Washington Post

Eric Parnes stood in the rain beside the austere white building on Embassy Row, its parking lot empty, its rooms silent and shuttered for more than three decades, and he pointed at where bacchanals once raged late into the night.

Here was the grand entryway where limousines dropped off diplomats, socialites and movie stars. There was the courtyard with its delicate blue-flowered tile work, and, just beyond it, the Persian Room, an imposing space whose high-domed ceiling glittered with hundreds of tiny mirrors.

The Iranian Embassy at 3005 Massachusetts Ave. was once “the number one embassy when it came to extravagance,” wrote frequent guest Barbara Walters in a memoir. As tuxedo-clad musicians serenaded, the flamboyant ambassador welcomed Washington’s A list with endless bowls of fresh Caspian Sea caviar and glasses of Dom Perignon.

All that came to a shuddering halt in 1979, when Islamic revolutionaries replaced the shah with a theocracy and the partying stopped.

The 34-year freeze between Iran and the United States has in some ways been colder than the Cold War, when the United States and Iron Curtain countries at least had diplomatic relations and embassies. Since the 444-day hostage crisis, representatives of the United States and Iran have had scant direct communication. Nuclear negotiations over the past few weeks have represented the most extensive overt diplomatic contact in decades and have set off speculation about the possibility of renewed relations between the former allies.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

An Iranian in Paris

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past raises questions about what makes a film Iranian and how we should treat that category in the first place.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics and Guernica.
by Tina Hassannia, Guernica

Earlier this fall, Iran selected Asghar Farhadi’s The Past as its official submission for the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The decision marked a strong reversal in Iran’s attitude about the American awards ceremony, which it boycotted last year in protest against the U.S.-made anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims. The change comes primarily due to the new moderate president Hassan Rouhani, who, since his inauguration, has made efforts to soften Iran’s cultural policy. It may not be difficult to see why the government picked The Past, considering Farhadi’s name recognition after his film A Separation won the foreign film award two years ago (a first for Iran). Yet some, including hardliner conservatives in the country, have commented on the lack of “Iranianness” in The Past. While a few scenes in the film feature Persian dialogue and several of the cast and crew members are Iranian, it’s more accurately a French production, given the source of its funding, shooting locale, and setting.

The aesthetic and cultural discussion about the film’s identity is broader and more multifarious than the technicalities of its production or exhibition context, however. In spite of its European elements, can a film by a diasporic Iranian filmmaker still be considered to some extent, Iranian?

In the past few years many acclaimed Iranian filmmakers have started working more regularly abroad. Last year saw the release of Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone In Love (filmed and set in Japan), Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season (filmed in Turkey), and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener (a documentary filmed in Israel). The Past is, then, part of a growing trend likely brought on by the increasing tensions and limitations posed by Iranian authorities on filmmakers, even those who have long established careers at home. (The hope now is that Rouhani’s election may lead these filmmakers to again make movies in Iran).

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Floral is The Political

by , The New Inquiry

I’ve been following Shirin Neshat’s work for a long time. Initially, it wasn’t by choice: her Women of Allah series was unavoidable. Black and white, clearly confrontational, the images were everywhere, and helped turn the art market towards Iran and its women, and her progression into video art, films always came with admirers and detractors. Neshat was in London for some events, including a workshop and the London Film School as well as a double interview with Isaac Julien at the Barbican. We met over a glass of wine (for her) and an espresso martini (for me), to discuss her latest film with Natalie Portman, the politics of art, and homework.
Shirin Neshat, Speechless, 1996.
Courtesy Gladstone Gallery and The New Inquiry.
 Tara Aghdashloo: How has your understanding of your background and relationship to your subject matter – which is often Iran – evolved over the years?
Shirin Neshat: The development of the ideas of my work started from the personal to more social, and back to personal. It always relies on where I’m at in my life. To me art is about framing questions. Questions that are really important to the artist. What you question has to do with you and what you struggle with as a human being. These could be existential, political, or things that are from the unknown.
The evolution of my subject and my work reflects the way I navigate in life. If my father dies I think about death, and I make a work about death, like Passage (2001) that I made with Philip Glass. If I’m trying to return to Iran, around 1993-1997, and reconnect with it, then I make Women of Allah, which is a kind of nostalgic point of view of an artist living abroad. When I want to have a sharp knife and be critical about the government, then I make The Last Word, which is a trial. It’s a little bit like music. The artist goes up and down according to the melody and the emotions that drive them to do what they do.
TA: Do you think art is always political, even if you don’t want it to be?

SN: You could say for an Iranian art is always political. And you could say that about Andy Warhol maybe, but I don’t know. If you look at contemporary art and the likes of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, it’s not political art. It’s actually very narcissistic and it is the artists’ interest in their own ego. Which a commentary about their own culture whether it’s American culture or Western culture as a whole. If you look at Iranian culture then yes, I could say that every Iranian artist, however they work, somehow it becomes political. Even if they paint flowers it’s political because they are making an effort to move away from the political, and that is a political act.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The widening Gulf

On the explosion of Middle Eastern investment in Western art and an exhibition of Iranian art at the Asia Society
The Museum of Islamic Art. Courtesy James Panero and The New Criterion.
by James Panero, The New Criterion
A few years ago, I came as close as I’ll ever get to the center of the art world. Over Dover sole at Sant Ambroeus, a restaurant on the Upper East Side, I sat across from someone who might have been mistaken for an out-of-place young grad student. While she was at Duke, my lunch companion, class of 2005, had double-majored in literature and political science. Now at Columbia, she was pursuing a masters in public administration. Casually dressed, she looked as though she were on a study break from Butler Library. Her demeanor was reserved, a little shy, and serious. “It’s work all the time. Sometimes it’s just very difficult, but I think it’s doable,” she explained. The “art world’s most powerful woman,” as The Economist has called her, had much on her mind.

Between taking classes at the time and raising her family, Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, known as Sheikha Mayassa (a name that has a James Bond ring to it), runs the museum operations of Qatar, where she is the fourteenth child of the former Emir and the sister of the current one. “I’m still figuring out the best ways to do all this. I set up video conferences. I have my staff come to New York every month. Then I take classes,” she told me. Funded by the oil and gas riches of her principality, a thumb-shaped pile of sand that sticks into the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Peninsula, Mayassa has been leading an acquisition program that, by a wide margin, has recently spent more money on art than any other entity. “The small but energy-rich Gulf state of Qatar is the world’s biggest buyer in the art market—by value, at any rate—and is behind most of the major modern and contemporary art deals over the past six years,” The Art Newspaper wrote in 2011. On ArtReview’s 2013 “Power 100” list, which ranks “the contemporary artworld’s most powerful figures,” Mayassa is ranked number one.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Fake – Idyllic Life

Shoja Azari, Banquette of Houries, (The King of Black), 2013, lenticular 3D depth on acrylic sheet, 76.2 × 105.41 cm. Courtesy Leila Heller Gallery, New York and ArtAsiaPacific.

by Bansie Vasvani, ArtAsiaPacific

In the press release for Iranian artist Shoja Azari’s exhibition “Fake – Idyllic Life” at the Leila Heller Gallery, New York, the artist states, “Faced with an increasingly hostile world governed by identity politics I approached this new series as a way to examine assigned and reassigned identities.”

Referencing famous 19th-century Orientalist paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix, and Jean-Auguste Dominique-Ingres, that depict slaves waiting on reclining odalisques, Azari attempts to re-envision the objectified female body by making its objectification explicit. This is also an effort to challenge Western perceptions of the Middle East by generating more empowering narratives.

In Oriental Bath or Bunnies R Us (2013) and Oriental Interior or Bunnies R Us (2013), Azari attempts to upend the intentions of the original paintings by replacing the women’s languishing bodies with upright, voluptuous Playboy bunnies. The diptych created by the two works is surrounded by a wallpaper of violent images associated with Islam gleaned from YouTube. The composite is sensationalizing, and thus renders the central compositions impotent. Yet this swapping of female bodies, inspite of the replacements more sexualized and potentially more empowered nature, is not entirely effective. The women remain surrounded by 19th-century depitions of dark-skinned slaves and their Playboy status continues to reduce and caricature. In addition, pale bodies pandering specifically to a Western male gaze resist the reassignment of power.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Iranian Woman

Songs of yearning, desire, and despair from the female Iranian vocal tradition

still from Malek Khorshid (The Sun King) (1975) - Ali Akbar Sadeghi
Ali Akbar Sadeghi, still from Malek Khorshid (The Sun King),1975.

by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT

It stands in supplication, rending its breast, crying out to the heavens above, a look of anguish on its stony, weathered face. With curiosity and awe, I regard the statue of a singing woman, unearthed from a grave in Marlik, an ancient site in the foggy, leafy, Northern Iranian province of Gilan by the Caspian Sea. Images from Ebrahim Golestan’s haunting documentary, The Hills of Marlik flash before my eyes, and for a moment, I try to imagine the story behind this, as well as the other myriad statues of men, women, and animals sculpted some 3,000-odd years ago by the roughened hands of my ancestors. And the fruits of the earth once again returned to the earth; and the earth is a woman deep in slumber, with secrets and dreams. Who was this woman, I ask myself; what was her song, and to whom was it addressed? Gazing at these earthenware sculptures, almost childlike in their simplicity and earnestness, I find myself in disbelief, tempted to look upon them as the stuff of myth and fable; but again, the images flicker before me, and I’m reminded of the reality: But they were – they ate, slept, laughed, and dreamt.

From the songs of Marlik to those of today’s generation of musicians, Iranian women have been continuing a tradition that, while suppressed at various points in Iranian history, still remains ever strong and forceful. With the fall of the Sassanian Empire and the ushering in of new traditions, the female vocal tradition was relegated more or less to haram (lit. ‘forbidden’) territory, although it nonetheless managed to survive the ravages of time, and even enjoy a popular resurgence from the early 20th century onwards. Today, efforts are yet again being made to stifle the sound of Iranian women. While a ban on solo female singing in Iran is in place, that hasn’t diminished its popularity in any respect, nor has it deterred female Iranian singers from performing, recording, and touring, albeit outside the country. If you want these bonds broken, wrote Forough Farrokhzad in a poem addressing the Iranian woman, grasp the skirt of obstinacy!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Wise men from the east

Zoroastrian traditions in Persia and beyond

 24 October 2013 – 27 April 2014 at British Museum, London

Farvahar, Aida Foroutan, 2003. The winged figure is seen by the Iranian artist as a symbol of national identity. © Aida Foroutan 

by Wall Street International

This small exhibition will explain Zoroastrianism, an ancient but living religion named after the Prophet Zarathustra, through objects and coins from Persia (Iran) and beyond.

The display will feature a variety of ancient and modern objects and coins, and will highlight the importance of Zoroastrian traditions in other religions. It will touch on the concept and imagery of the Three Kings of the Christian tradition, who are described in the New Testament (Matthew 2.2) as Magi from the east – Zoroastrian priests in the Persian tradition.

Magnificent Islamic coins from Mughal India which follow the Iranian Zoroastrian calendar adopted by the emperor Akbar (1556–1605) will also be on display.

Modern objects will show the ongoing legacy of this ancient Iranian religion and its significance as a symbol of national identity for Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian Iranians in modern Persia and beyond.