Thursday, 30 January 2014

Dance and Diaspora

ODC series spotlights Persian dance

by Andrea Pflaumer, San Francisco Examiner

Shahrzad Khorsandi and Farima Berenji, both Bay Area performers of Iranian descent, are on a special mission to preserve the spiritual heritage of Persian dance.

“I always danced informally. It’s so much woven into the culture. In my family we’d just grab a pot or pan and bang on it and start singing our folk songs. And everybody would dance,” says Iranian-born dancer Khorsandi, whose unique contemporary Persian dance includes quintessential Persian movements that are informed by training in other dance cultures.

Berenji, who has degrees in art history, anthropology, archeology and performance, showcases dances of ancient Persia with rich meaning and transcendence.

This weekend, both appear at ODC Theater in the latest installment of its “Dance and Diaspora” series. They are accompanied by musicians Saman Mahmoudi on santoor and Samandar Dehghani on percussion.

Berenji approaches Persian dance with the passion of a historian.

“Due to the lure of technology and city life, the ancient nomadic dances are rapidly disappearing,” she says. “But if we have saved them for 5,000 years, the younger generation can do so for the next 100 years.”

While preserving the culture, she discovered mystical meanings in dances associated with Persian poetry and art.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Farsi Funk, Bosphorus Beats

Examining the recent surge of interest in the sound of 60s &70s Iran and Turkey
Googoosh. Courtesy REORIENT.

by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT

A few months ago on a lazy Sunday afternoon, as I was strolling down the quirky fashion drag that is Toronto’s Queen Street, I spotted something in the corner of my eye that seemed just ever so slightly out of context. Stopping for a moment, I looked into the display window of a trendy vinyl store, and eyed there amongst the colourful sleeves of obscure folk and rock albums the word Zendooni (Persian for ‘Prisoner’) in garish yellow lettering above a conspicuously Iranian-looking woman in a field of sunflowers; Funk, psychedelia and pop from the Iranian pre-revolution generation read the description. Lacking a record player, I immediately looked up the album on the Internet upon arriving at home (after enjoying a dose of coffee and pre-Revolution Iranian pop art at nearby R², of course), and discovered that it was yet another pressing by the American record label Light in the Attic, which had previously released albums in a similar vein such as Khana Khana!, as well as a formidable compilation of hits by the Iranian rocker Kourosh Yaghmaei and a previously unreleased selection of songs by the hitherto unknown Tehran-based garage band The Jokers.

Although I had successfully sourced with eagerness the tracks on Zendooni, it wasn’t the first time I’d gone digging in pursuit of Iranian ‘nuggets’ (as record collectors like to call them) from the 60s and 70s; that is, from that brief era of bliss before the shit hit the fan for the Iranian music industry. My love affair with these quirky disco, funk, and psychedelic tracks began some years ago during the autumn of 2009, whilst a humble University student in dankest, darkest London. Somehow or other, I managed to stumble upon a compilation of songs, mostly rarities, from pre-Revolution Iran, simply entitled Pomegranates. Featuring a wistful looking, headscarf-clad Ramesh on the sleeve, the album more or less constituted the soundtrack of my university days, and sparked within me an interest for not only the rock and popular music of 60s and 70s Iran, but also of nearby Turkey, India, and the Arab world.

While Pomegranates represented one of the first major compilation of ‘nuggets’ from the Middle East, it certainly wasn’t the last of its kind. Shortly afterwards, scores of compilations of obscure tracks from Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world began to abound in record stores, while fans of these genres uploaded individual tracks and homemade playlists on YouTube and other music-based social media sites. As I fell prey to the allure of these all-but-forgotten (in many cases, at least) gems from a bygone era and began creating an archive of what I believed to be the more noteworthy numbers, I began to ponder the phenomenon of the growing interest in this sort of music, particularly in the West. As well, as my collection expanded, I also started noticing considerable differences in the styles, variations, and forms of the 60s and 70s contemporary music of the countries across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as their place within the broader sphere of the respective music scenes and the zeitgeists of the region.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Persepolis: Word & Image

Iranian Artists Featured in UConn Reads Exhibition

Inspired by both the format and content of Persepolis, the graphic novel and coming-of-age memoir by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: Word & Image draws from the Benton's permanent collection to present some of the ways that text and art have functioned historically. Also featured are works on loan from several contemporary Iranian artists, including Pouran Jinchi, Shirin Neshat, Afarin Rahmanifar, and Hadieh Shafie, for whom text is intrinsic to their practice.

Pouran Jinchi. Untitled 18 (Entropy Series), 2012. Acrylic and ink on canvas. Courtesy of the artist, Leila Heller Gallery and UConn Today.
by Kenneth Best, UConn Today

In organizing the first two exhibitions celebrating the UConn Reads program, the permanent collection of the William Benton Museum of Art offered many works of art that connected thematically with that year’s book selection.

The Benton’s permanent collection contains a number of works that provided historical perspective on the gender-based oppression issues raised in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It also includes a wide range of art created during the 1920s that reflected F. Scott Fitzgerald’s themes of wealth, widespread urbanization, and modernity in The Great Gatsby.

This year’s selection for UConn Reads, the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, posed a challenge for Carla Galfano ’05 (SFA), ’11 MA, assistant curator at the Benton, who organized the current exhibit, “Persepolis: Word & Image.”

Galfano says that while the museum’s holdings did not quite match the content of the book – which deals with, among other things, the experience of a young woman growing up at the time of the Islamic Revolution – the art itself offers a strong visual link to Persepolis, as a graphic novel.

“Instead of focusing on the content of the book, we focused on the format,” Galfano says. “We looked at works that feature text [as well as images], because this combination of text and image is interesting and also is pervasive in art. Many contemporary Iranian artists use text because calligraphy is such an important part of the culture.”

Monday, 20 January 2014

Reflections of Persia

An Italian photographer’s lifelong love affair with the land and culture of Iran

Reflections of Persia celebrates the journey of a scholar, photographer, literary translator, and above all, an Iranologist, who has gone above and beyond the political borders of Iran
Riccardo’s Iran, discovered and rediscovered in verdant valleys, dense forests, and desert plains becomes a mirror in which the world and its distant lands appear before one’s eyes.  From the Iranian Encounters series (1972 – 2006). Courtesy REORIENT.

by Aria Fani, REORIENT

Imagine a teenager having recently immigrated to the United States spending the summer in his native Shiraz. The August of Shiraz, hot and dry, draws him inside the bookstores of Molla Sadra avenue. Intimately familiar with the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri, he has a ravenous appetite for commentaries on Sepehri’s oeuvre, which encompasses too many titles to note, even in a bibliography; and, with his new camera, one may even say this teenager has an eye for photography. He grabs a few books, goes to the cashier, and spots underneath the display case at the counter a copy of Ta Shaghayegh Hast (While Poppies Bloom) – an exquisite find!

With colours popping out of its cover, While Poppies Bloom is a coffee table book of 80 photographs of Persian landscapes published together with the poetry of Sohrab Sepehri in both Persian and English. It represents a collaborative effort between the translator, Karim Emami, and the photographer and Iranologist Riccardo Zipoli. In the book’s introduction, written with sincerity and style, Riccardo speaks of his love affair with Iran, its culture, and its people.

Upon his return to the United States, the teenager in question reached out to Riccardo; he admired how well his images of rural Iran captured the voice and sentiment of Sepehri’s poems. Their correspondence marked the beginning of a friendship, initially formed through phone conversations and emails, until the two eventually met several years later over coffee in Campo San Polo in Venice, Riccardo’s ‘second’ home.

Although their correspondences had primarily been of an intellectual nature, their first meeting held a casual, social pleasure as well. The young man – yours truly – immediately stepped into a different world through Riccardo’s eloquence in Persian, his knowledge of Iranian geography, and his ability to tune in to the nuances of Iranian society. With a style of speaking and humour unique to him, tactfully and humbly, Riccardo began to describe his first encounter with Iran in 1972. Having reached Iran via a road trip through former Yugoslavia and Turkey with his mentor, Gianroberto Scarcia, Riccardo’s one-month stay in the country commenced a lifelong love affair that brought together his passion for exploring the Iranian landscape and his area of expertise, Persian poetry.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Recalling The Future

Post-revolutionary Iranian art at the SOAS
Masoumeh Mozaffari’s ‘Table’. Courtesy Financial Times.

by Gareth Harris, Financial Times

After a long political freeze between Iran and the UK, a cultural entente is quietly under way in London with the launch of Recalling the Future: Post-revolutionary Iranian Art, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Four curators including Hamed Yousefi, an Iranian culture critic, and David Hodge, a London-based art historian, have presented trends, ideas and techniques shaping the Iranian art scene today through the works of 29 established, emerging and late artists.

The 1979 revolution, which overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the country’s last royal ruler, provides the provocative impetus for the show. Participating artist Mahmoud Bakhshi says that his generation are often referred to as “children of the revolution”, adding that the tumult of 1979 presents “a rupture point not just for the art history of Iran but for the society at large”.

Most of the artists are based in Iran. “The [Iranian] diaspora is part of an international world scene,” says Hodge, pushing the point that artists located outside Iran are trained differently, living and working in different circumstances. Pivotal and populist art market darlings such as Farhad Moshiri (his crystal-encrusted “Eshgh (Love)” assemblage from 2007 fetched $1m at Bonhams Dubai in 2008) are noticeably absent. Hodge emphasises that the exhibition “is not an all-encompassing survey of Iranian artists”.

“The artists all reject the idea that ‘Iranian-ness’ is a single, fixed identity that remains the same throughout history,” he adds. The press blurb goes even further, boldly claiming that “the work [on show] calls for a complete rethinking of modern Iranian art history”.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Edward Said and Graphic Novels

Part 1: Introduction 

Graphic novels represent a new frontier for cultural critics. Today, the graphic novel has taken its place alongside the action blockbuster and the evening (and morning, and afternoon, and nightly) news, America’s favorite source of education about the Middle East. That is no cause for either simple celebration or lament. Peering through the lens of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, this paper will try to see what Americans might be learning from this relatively young medium and what kinds of ideology they might be imbibing. Following a discussion of Frank Miller’s propagandistic oeuvre, the humanistic fairy tale of Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad, and Iranian-Western counterpoints Persepolis and Zahra’s Paradise, the paper will briefly point to the potential of a renewed cultural criticism grounded in Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism,”thus grounding his analysis of Western false consciousness in a material analysis of global political economy.

First, however, the reader will benefit from a short exposition of the key concepts and terminology Said uses in Culture and Imperialism, especially the terms “culture” and “imperialism.” Despite Said’s fondness for complicated syntax and burying the lede, he readily supplies such definitions. For “culture” he provides two definitions: first, he means “practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation” which are relatively autonomous from social and political forms. In the second sense, culture is “a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the beset that has been known and thought.”¹ Culture is in this way situated as a source of identity, a structuring of attitudes at both a mass level (first definition) and an elite one (second), a discourse that is supposed to transcend everyday existence and provides narratives for the nations that produce and protect it. In turn, Said believes culture becomes a “protective enclosure” that can stifle criticism as much as promote it.²

Imperialism is defined as “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory,” which is not simply an “act of accumulation and acquisition” since it is “supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations.”³ Imperialism  is possessive and constitutive of culture in both the dominating metropolitan center and the occupied territory, with culture driving the immense expansion of European and American domination over land. Land is the crux of the analysis, because in his method geography defines the position of the author involved. His method of reading, known as contrapuntal reading, “must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.”⁴

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Sundance 2014: At ground zero for U.S. film, a Persian wave

Sheila Vand plays a chador-clad vampire in "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night." Courtesy Los Angeles Times and Sundance Film Festival.
by Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

The teenage girl Sepideh only wants to look at the stars.

A student of astronomy and worshipful devotee of Albert Einstein, she dreams of joining the young men who trek out nightly in the desert south of Tehran to gaze at constellations. But such ambitions worry Sepideh’s traditionalist Iranian family members, who issue her ominous warnings -- which, of course, only further fuels her desire.

Reaching for the Stars," Sepideh says in a new Farsi-language documentary, also named “Sepideh,” that premieres Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, “to vent the frustration that society has given us.”

Sundance, which kicks off its 30th edition Thursday in the mountains of Utah, is largely known for unearthing new domestic voices. Modern indie (and quintessentially American) hits such as "Beasts of the Southern Wild” and "Winter’s Bone" were discovered there in the last few years, and over its history the confab has been the launchpad of filmmakers including Steven Soderbergh, Michael Moore and David O. Russell.

But at this year's edition all of that comes with a twist: Some of the most notable entries are from and about Iran.

"Sepideh," from the Danish-by-birth, Iranian-by-marriage documentarian Berit Madsen, explores a young girl's clash with parental expectation that, though intimately told, is emblematic of a larger generational struggle in the country.

Also premiering is "Appropriate Behavior," a kind of lesbian Iranian American "Girls" written, starring and directed by the tart young Brooklyn-based filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, who had previously become something of a viral sensation for her semi-autobiographical Web series "The Slope."

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

In a Gagosian Gallerist’s Personal Work, Cultures Collide

Andisheh Avini, Untitled,  2014, Silkscreen ink and marquetry on wood, 24 x 24 inches  (61 x 61 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, N.Y.

by Erica Bellman, T Magazine

Every so often, boxes bedecked with Iranian postage and customs stamps arrive at Andisheh Avini’s doorstep. He can instantly recognize the packages as containing handcrafted marquetry panels from a traditional woodworker in Iran, but, though he ordered them himself, couldn’t tell you what they look like. That’s because when he commissions the works a month before they arrive, his only instructions are their dimensions. The rest — the size and pattern of the decorative inlay on the lacquered wood boards, which are typically used for interior decor — is left to the maker, whom Avini has never met in person. This inscrutability is an essential part of the artist’s process.

The geometric panels serve as the foundations for some of Avini’s work, which explores the notion of memory through the filter of the Iranian-American artist’s cultural histories. Beginning Thursday, the pieces will make up a large part of his eponymous exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery. With silkscreen ink in shades of muted indigo, acid yellow, black and white, Avini overlays the wood panels with swirls and splatters (and, in one painting, a luxurious fringe of peacock feathers) that seem to emanate from their surfaces.

Persian carpets provide another kind of canvas for Avini, who layers the fibers with his abstract strokes. “As a child, I sat upon these rugs, which are filled with imagery and color,” Avini, who daylights as a Gagosian gallerist, recalls. “I have a three-year-old son, so lately I’m down on the ground with him a lot. It triggered my memory.” Avini’s carpets, however, are only vaguely reminiscent of their ornate predecessors — faint peacock feathers are overlaid with saturated, amoebic forms akin to Rorschach inkblots.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Do You Remember?

Reflections on the Collective Memories of Iran’s Post-Revolution Generation

Still from Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Where is the Friend’s Home?’ (Khaneh-ye Doost Kojast?). Courtesy REORIENT.

by Pendar Nabipour, REORIENT

Every individual carries with themselves memories, which give shape and foundation to their identity, behaviour, and perspective; but what happens when memories and experiences are recognised not only by one person, but also by many? When instead of an individual, a group of people with a collective consciousness recall and recount the same memories they all have in common? And, during the process of recollection, what other phenomena occur, and – perhaps most importantly – why and how does such widespread collective recollection come about?

Not long after the 1979 Revolution and the demise of the Pahlavi regime and the Iranian monarchy, Iran was at the peak of post-Revolution chaos, immersed in an eight year-long war with Iraq (1980 – 1988). The new government set a very different tone for, and adopted a new strategy with respect to its internal and external policies, during a time when a new generation was growing up in a society that was learning to adopt itself to its surroundings. As a result of a bloody war, and the establishment of a new Islamic Republic, the lifestyle many Iranians were used to was radically altered.

In the meantime, the expansion of the population became a part of the national agenda, with rewards being given to families based on the assumption that more children would eventually translate to more soldiers in the future. As a result, a baby boom occurred, which occurred in tandem with sanctions imposed by the West, which wreaked havoc on the lives of ordinary Iranians and the economy. Everyday life was loaded with surprises, to say the least.

L-R: A woman producing clothes for soldiers; children carrying donations for the war effort; a popular poster of a young soldier; soldiers during the war. Courtesy REORIENT.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Navigators

The 2014 winner of The Spectator’s Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for unconventional travel writing, illustrated by Carolyn Gowdy
Courtesy The Spectator

Tehran does not welcome pedestrians. It is eight o’clock on a July evening and the sun has plunged out of the air with alarming speed; the sky is the colour of wine, and the air is thick with the scent of heat and petrol. I have long forgotten where we are going. Dust-coloured buildings spill out to the horizon, many of them protected by barbed-wire gates. In this part of town it is so unusual for people to walk on the streets at night — I am told that only fools and prostitutes do so — that the pavements are unlit, and we rely on the rippling glow of the traffic to guide us. An ancient, sour smell drifts through the door of a butcher’s shop; at the entrance stands a pyramid of sheep skulls, the blank faces neatly assembled as though awaiting instructions.

I was met at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport two weeks ago by Maryam, an impatient and slightly scrappy young actress who has travelled in England and Europe with her theatre group. I stay with her at her parents’ home in Tehran’s affluent northern suburbs: here sycamores line the streets, scattering the sunlight over the ground in pale crescents. The family treat me like an old friend, and I am given my own room that is filled to the ceiling with dolls and cuddly toys. All the windows are kept closed, and the apartment is entered first through an automated gate, then a coded lift, and finally two front doors. There are layered rugs, and two fat Persian cats lie on mounds of bronze cushions in the hallway; it is as if the place has been discreetly decked out as a padded cell.

Maryam’s mother is sweet and ghostly, frail from an illness which makes her look twice her age. She does not leave the house, but hobbles daily into the kitchen to prepare huge meals for the family — fried rice, stewed lamb, beans and dried limes in thick sauces flavoured with rose attar. Her daughter, bone-thin, twists restlessly around the table and often skips off to her bedroom before the rest have finished eating.

In Tehran the elevator is king. People would rather wait several minutes for an empty one than climb a single flight of stairs. On top of this we travel everywhere packed into a boiling car with the soot-flooded air streaming through the windows. The most popular cafés are inside shopping malls. Life in this city takes place underground and inside, crouched in muggy stillness behind stacked walls and entry systems.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Iran’s Reinvention Through Modern Art

Rana Javadi, “Breaking into the Police Station. 32 Brahman 1357 (February 12, 1979)”, (1979), gelatin silver print, 20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 61 cm). Private Collection, courtesy of Rana JavadiNicky, Asia Society and Hyperallergic.

In the history of civilization, Iran plays one of the starring roles, not only because of its geography at the crossroads of many empires, its ancient and largely uninterrupted history to the modern day, but also because it is a dynamic multicultural civilization that has produced some of the world’s most outstanding art. Yet, within the last few decades the reputation of Iran has been tarnished and distorted by a fundamentalist revolution in 1979, and a former leader who used the insane denial of the Jewish Holocaust as a dangerous political football. What we’re faced with today when looking at Iran is a country in transition, slowly morphing from a nation lead by a very conservative leadership to a slightly more liberal one, but a nation, nonetheless, that is still hampered by extensive trade sanctions from Western governments that have largely failed to topple a regime they don’t like.

Asia Society’s Iran Modern is a fascinating exhibition that begins in 1948 and ends with the 1979 Revolution (with a noticeable focus on the latter decades), and the show is a must-see exploration of a period little known in the West but infinitely interesting for numerous reasons, including its non-Western responses to modernity, the prevalence of prominent female artists at a time when the same wasn’t true most elsewhere, and its pushing of boundaries in an era where its experiments in culture could be seen as cutting edge.