Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Music and Power in Iran: An instrument of propaganda and control

In her essay, Maria Koomen examines the important role played by music in the history of Iran, in particular since the Islamic revolution of 1979
Mohammad Reza Shajarian, middle, performs with Mojgan Shajarian, 2nd left, and Majid Derakhshani composer, 2nd right, during a concert with Shahnaz Ensemble band in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. The concert ends with about 2500 audience chanting anti Iran's government slogans. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili). Courtesy Qantara.
by Maria Koomen, Qantara

The permissibility of music has been contested in Iran since the onset of Islam in the seventh century AD when Muhammad passed and his companions sought to keep men's minds away from malahi (forbidden pleasures): wine, women and song. While the Koran doesn't condemn music per se, it claims that music can lead to a loss of reason resulting in "uncontrollable behaviour" and an "inflammation of passions".

After the Prophet's death, Islamic purists began to collect his sayings, or hadith. One ancient hadith says: "Listening to music leads to discord, just as water leads to the growth of vegetation." Hadith were then used by legists to effectively forbid music, save that tolerated by Muhammad. Music in Iran was to uphold these Islamic standards and abide by the Islamic moral code established by the Koran and the hadith.

However (in)compatible it may be with Islam, music is deeply rooted in the country's rich and diverse history. In addition to the practice of halal (compatible) music, Iranians have historically maintained the practices of makruh (blameworthy yet tolerated) and haram (incompatible) music.

Before the advent of music reproduction and other information communication technologies (ICT), music – underground or not, halal or haram – was confined to physical locations in real-time, historically controllable by authorities with centralised power in a physically and temporally confined country.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Diverse themes characterize UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema

'The Snow on the Pines,' about a piano teacher who discovers her husband's affair, opened the UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.
Bending the Rules (Iran, 2013) is part of the UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema. Courtesy UCLA Film & Television Archive.
by Saba Hamedy, Los Angeles Times

Tumultuous marriages, father-son relationships and film censorship are just three of the themes explored in the 12 Iranian films featured at this year's UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.

Beginning Thursday (April 24), the series will show the films at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood Village through May 14. Four of the screenings will be accompanied by Q&As with the movies' directors.

Iranian cinema is "one of the most exciting on Earth," said Paul Malcolm, programmer at UCLA's Film & Television Archive, which presents more than 200 professionally curated public screenings each year.

The Iranian series opened with "The Snow on the Pines," a 2013 film directed by Payman Maadi, the star of the Academy Award-winning foreign film "A Separation" who spoke following the screening.

Shot in black and white, the 92-minute film follows an Iranian piano teacher who finds out that her husband has been hiding an affair. The well-received film took home audience favorite at the Los Angeles-based Noor Iranian Film Festival in October.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Political landscapes, personal details

A photograph from Gohar Dashti’s “Volcano” series, 2012. Courtesy Robert Klein Gallery and Boston Globe.
by Cate McQuaid, Boston Globe

Iranian photographer Gohar Dashti was born in 1980, in the midst of conflict. The Iranian Revolution had occurred the year before. The Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, and lasted eight years.

Dashti’s carefully constructed color photographs reflect the societal tensions she grew up with. Her show at Ars Libri, presented by Robert Klein Gallery and collector Azita Bina-Seibel, is filled with telling dissonances.

The title for Dashti’s “Volcano” series comes from the percolating threat of active and semi-active volcanoes in the region, which can be taken, too, as a metaphor for war. People laugh and enjoy life, but there’s something awry: The rough tail of a giant reptilian beast curls out from a hidden place, suggesting a sleeping giant.

One of the series takes place at an art gallery. A man and woman lean together in the center, giggling over a folded paper bird he holds. Others look to them, or gaze at the art, except for one man, wearing a red motorcycle helmet and facing away from everyone else. There, behind his feet, is the tail, lolling out a doorway. The beast is just in the next room.

For “Me, She, and the Others,” Dashti photographed individual women dressed for work, for home, and for a night out. Each image features all three shots, with the woman looking straight at us, without expression. The clothes do all the talking.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Poetry of protest gives view into distant worlds

by Maya Weeks, Index on Censorship

A few weeks ago, 13,000 writers swarmed Seattle for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. In the seaport city known for its ideal reading (and writing) weather — and home to poet Maged Zaher – writers filled hotel rooms and bars. On official panels they debated the state of contemporary literature, and at offsite readings and parties, they celebrated the written word.

The song of the nightingale / Is not up for sale
Ziba Karbassi, Gravequake

On the other side of the hemisphere, Ziba Karbassi doesn’t need to attend a conference to know what contemporary literature looks like. Born in 1974 in Tabriz, Iran, this rising star of Persian poetry, who also writes in her first language of Azeri Turkish, has been living in exile in London since leaving her country in 1989. Karbassi has published eight books of poetry in Persian, and with Stephen Watts, she has translated much of her work into English.

Taken from an incident close to the author’s family in the 1980s, her poem “Death by Stoning” depicts a young pregnant woman taken to prison, tortured, and stoned to death:

I am not a scaffold to be toppled
not a felled tree to be sunk in the flood

I am only a bag of bones and skin
smashed about

The heavy consonants in the nouns and adjectives and the scattered form of the poem demonstrate the mother-to-be’s “anguished, loving, and crazed” state of mind. “Death by Stoning” shows how poetry can give us a view into worlds distant from — but not entirely unlike — our own. Poetry can also play a part in shaping our world.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Picture This: The secret meaning of Iranian photographs

Sadegh Tirafkan, "Untitled" from the Endless series, 2009 digital photo collage. Courtesy The Estate of Sadegh Tirafkan and The Huffington Post. The images communicate something sexual and at the same time violent," says curator Abbas Daneshvari, "but it's rather difficult for a system to see it as purely sexual and the violent aspect, of course, isn't something that they would object to."
by , KPCC

When you're an artist in Iran, you live a harsh reality.

Make a politically subversive sculpture and you're censored. Create a painting that challenges religious norms and you're censored.

But a new art exhibition showcases how Iranian photographers are able to create images into social and political commentary that fly under the radar.

"The government of Iran is a religious theocratic government. And therefore it controls every facet of creativity in Iran," says Abbas Daneshvari, curator of a collection of Iranian photography at the Fine Arts Gallery at Cal State Los Angeles.

"[But artists] have arrived at the point that they can express themselves in symbolic and metaphoric terms wherein it's rather difficult to decipher their messages."

For example, "Untitled" is a photo collage of two men who look like they're locked in a bloody fight. However, one could also say they're drawn together in a passionate embrace. The image is by Sadegh Tirafkan, who is gay.

"The images communicate something sexual and at the same time violent," says Daneshvari, "but it's rather difficult for a system to see it as purely sexual and the violent aspect, of course, isn't something that they would object to."

Monday, 14 April 2014

Not so secret salsa nights in Tehran

In the posh neighborhoods of the Iranian capital, things are happening behind closed doors. Among a tightly-knit group of youth, dancing is the new thing.
Salsa is happening in Tehran © Your Middle East
by Lana Olinik, Your Middle East

This warm February evening we were walking down the streets in one of the areas in Shahrak-e Garb, a district in northwest Tehran, known for it’s “modernity” and readiness to embrace gharbzadegi – so called “poisonous influence of the West” – as well as some sort of self-imposed isolation from less fortunate areas of Tehran.

You can only guess what’s going on inside those compounds. Outside one home, a girl in colorful rusari, barely covering her long brown hair, and in loose manto, turned around as we rang the doorbell. “Eh, you came to dance too, right? I’m here for the first time,” she said.

Familiar vibes of passionate Latin dance reached us as soon as we went out of the elevator. The doors were open. Armchairs and sofas has been removed or placed near the walls to create an open space for dancers. Unlike similar events outside Iran, the room was full of light and that atmosphere of intimacy and relaxation, common for salsa evenings elsewhere, was gone. Those most daring danced while others just watched.

A limited choice of drinks (vodka, whiskey or aragh – drinks which are the easiest to order from dealers of this forbidden pleasure in Iran) was put on a table in the corner of the room. From time to time, dancers or those who watched them would come to the table and pour themselves some vodka or aragh, mixed with juice or tonic.

Unlike a few years ago, parties like this one are less vulnerable to possible police intrusion – on the condition that young people keep the volume and noise on a reasonable level, and refrain from wild patio discos on the top floors. Before, however, police would raid any house, even in securely guarded residential complexes around Shahrak-e Gharb. But nowadays everything seems relatively calm. I noticed some people across the street having a loud party in the courtyard of the heavily protected mansion while “green” (crime) police, who were stationed just in the top of Iranzamin street seemed to pay very little attention to such “deviant” behavior.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Shining a light on inner conflicts

"Darband" and "Sar be Mohr" are two new Iranian films that offer profound insights into the lives of young urban Iranians, highlighting their inner conflicts and the turmoil that is tearing many of them apart. Massoud Schirazi went to see both films in Teheran
Darband. Courtesy Qantara.

Iranian films have long been popular in Europe among fans of innovative international world cinema. These films, such as Asghar Farhadi's successful drama "Nader and Simin", are regularly lauded for their authentic portrayal of life's realities. Many Iranian films have become successful abroad because of their critique of society, although this critique can sometimes seem quite stereotypical – for example when it comes to addressing the situation of women in the Islamic Republic.

Yet to this day, there are plenty of worthwhile Iranian films that don't win awards at international film festivals. Two of them, which were shown in Teheran cinemas last winter, deal with subjects that have not received much attention to date: the clash of Western and Iranian cultures and the inner turmoil of many young Iranians.

In Teheran, the word "Darband" stands for fun, a party atmosphere and a taste of freedom. It is the name of the canyon on the northern edge of the city that is a favourite socialising spot for couples, hip Teheran cliques and young families. It is also the name of a film made by Parviz Shabazi, a previously relatively unknown director who won the "Crystal Simorgh" at Iran's Fajr film festival last year for this film.

Contrasting lifeworlds

"Darband" is a carefully staged drama that centres around a young female student who moves to Teheran after completing school. Naznin was born and raised in the country, only 80 kilometres away from the city, and yet hers is a very different world. When she finds out that the university students' residence has no spaces left, she rents a room in the apartment of a Teheran perfume saleswoman.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Cinema of Childhood

Willow and Wind: a prose-poem of a film. Directed by Mohammad-Ali Talebi, 1999. Courtesy  The Guardian

The most famous fictional character in the world in the last generation was a child, Harry Potter. When the films of JK Rowling's books came to be made, they helped define a new type of CGI fantasy cinema. In the era of the camera phone, children are being filmed more than ever before, by their relatives and friends. A vast digital visual archive of childhood is being created. And yet, in our same era, we are more wary of filming other people's children than ever before. Images of childhood are escapist, multiple, personal and contested.

But beyond the fantasy child, the everywhere child, and the policed image of children, we are living in a golden age of films about children, and haven't quite noticed. Movie directors in Iran, Japan, the UK, Holland and elsewhere are releasing masterpieces about childhood. Why is this golden age happening, and why does it matter?

In the era of the Hollywood studio, child actors like Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, both of whom died recently, gave plucky, stylised, showbiz performances. Shooting in a studio, they were surrounded by scores of technicians, large cameras and forests of light stands. Under such circumstances it was hard for a kid to behave naturally. They had to be highly directed, puppeteered almost.

In recent decades, by contrast, the radical miniaturisation of shooting equipment has meant that child performers can be far less intimidated by the movie making process. Of course the Harry Potter movies are still big studio production numbers, but in smaller budget movies, children can be filmed anywhere, with few people behind the camera and no light blasting them. As a result of this, child performances in films like Clio Barnard's recent The Selfish Giant have become more honest; young characters have more agency than at almost any other time in the history of the movies. Children are ad-libbing in front of the camera more, and, in a string of masterpieces made in Iran, improvising. In this golden age of children's cinema, the movies feel as if they are being co-directed by the child and the filmmakers.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Atrocities revisited: conflict and cruelty in Iran

Azadeh Akhlaghi: the photographer who stages murders in Iran:
Akhlaghi recreates Iran's most notorious death scenes from the time before cameraphones, becoming an eyewitness to her nation's past. From the controversial poet who swerved her car to avoid a school bus and died in the process, to the mysterious end of Iran's beloved gold-medal wrestler, here's a selection of images from her astonishing series By An Eyewitness
Sean O'Hagan meets the Iranian photographer who is restaging infamous murders from her country's history
A restaging of the shooting of student activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie by secret police (SAVAK). Tehran – 26 April 1974. Photograph: Azadeh Akhlaghi. Courtesy The Guardian.
by , The Guardian

In June 2009, a young philosophy student called Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead by security forces in Tehran during protests against the Iranian elections. The death of Neda, an innocent bystander, was captured by several eyewitnesses on their mobile phones and swiftly posted online – becoming, according to Time magazine, "probably the most widely witnessed death in human history".

In death, Neda was transformed into a global symbol of the Iranian protest movement and an icon for the country's young. She also became the invisible – but powerful – presence in an ambitious conceptual art project by the Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlaghi. "After the death of Neda," she says, "I started thinking about others who had died in tragic ways, but whose deaths had not been recorded because there was no camera present."

So began four years of research to create By An Eye Witness, a series that meticulously reconstructs 17 deaths from Iranian history using ordinary people and actors. It is one of the highlights of an exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography about to open at London's Somerset House. Entitled Burnt Generation (the name given to Iranians born between 1963 and 1980, who have lived through the social and political fallout of the overthrow of the Shah and the Iran-Iraq war), the show gathers the work of eight young photographers selected by Iranian-born curator Fariba Farshad.

"The work looks at the deep social effects of the long war with Iraq," she says, "as well as the sense of isolation and desolation felt by many young people in Iran. It reflects the contradictions of a society where there are deep tensions between traditional and contemporary culture, between urban and rural tradition, and between the older generation and a young, middle class who are increasingly expressing themselves through art and photography. One of the underlying questions is: how is this nation still united and functioning despite everything?"

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Minoo Emami: An Iranian Artist on War and Its Victims

Minoo Emami, 120x80, 1998. Courtesy of the artist.
by Emma K.A. Rogge, The Harvard Crimson

“I would like to share the story of two best friends studying architecture at Tehran University in the 1980s. They enjoyed their life, they were active as Social Democrats in the [Iranian] revolution…. In the first month of the revolution, the Iran-Iraq War started, and both were sent to the front to fight for their country. Within six months, both of the friends were injured in battle; and each of the men lost a limb. When I was 18, I married one of them.” Minoo Emami, an Iranian visiting artist, narrated this story at the beginning of a discussion of her work Thursday at Arts @ 29 Garden, explaining how her personal experience of the Iran-Iraq War has inspired her art. War was a universal experience for Iranians who lived through it, Emami said: “Friends, neighbors, relatives; everyone I knew had somehow been impacted. I never expected that my husband [would be] a casualty of war. Many people in my country experienced this violence and it continues to be part of our lives.”

Emami’s paintings, part of a series called “The Monuments,” are arresting, each depicting a prosthetic limb in stark relief against a pitch-black background. Explaining her choice to focus on the artificial leg, Emami said, “For the last 15 years, I have been working on a series of paintings focusing on the physical, emotional, and mental damage [war] causes. The damage is symbolized by an artificial leg.” Each painting is differentiated by some element of what the amputee has lost to the war beyond the amputated leg. A haunting woman’s face within the leg represents a woman who has lost her beauty and will now never be married. A swirling hemorrhage from the prosthesis in another painting is indicative of a woman’s miscarriage due to a landmine. Another leg, with a slender, disembodied wrist wrapped around it, conveys that the soldier whose limb was lost will now never experience his lover’s touch. Landmines saw extensive use in the Iran-Iraq War, to the extent that Iran’s government had to build a central prosthesis factory in Tehran. In her talk, Emami emphasized how strongly artificial limbs remind her of the war’s impact on her country: “It isn’t just about my husband. It can be anyone.”

Exchanging culture: Iranian rhythm meets British sound

Sound artist Soosan Lolavar uses music to encourage a cultural collaboration between British and Iranian artists and audiences
Image courtesy of IAM.

I launched Stay Close because I wanted to foster an artistic exchange between Iran and the UK. The yearlong project will result in a new piece of music that considers ethnic identity through the lens of the British-Iranian community.

Stay Close began with my trip to Iran in July last year. I met with composers at Hermes Records, a Tehran-based label that releases cutting edge music by homegrown artists. During my time there, I learnt a great deal about the practicalities of Iranian music – for instance the use of fluctuating microtones, the role of melody types called ‘dastgah’, how rhythmic cycles are built and the important role of the soloist in the ensemble.

More broadly, I discovered a genre of sorts in which musicians regularly draw from both Iranian and Western classical music in their work, and in doing so, they consider and explore their identity as Iranians.

On my return to London, I led a series of workshops at IYDA (Iranian Youth Development Association), a community group for Iranian diaspora and migrant Farsi-speakers in South-East London.

Participants, ranging from four to 70 years old, were encouraged to consider their British-Iranian identity through sound, language and performance, using the Iranian children’s story The Little Black Fish as a starting point. Through these sessions it became clear that IYDA members were highly creative and had a strong affinity with music, as is common in Iran. However, in general they rarely attended mainstream arts events and were particularly disengaged with classical music in the UK.

These research periods were the starting point for a new work that would bring together Iranian and Western musical styles. I formed an ensemble, including Iranian and Western classical musicians from London Philharmonic Orchestra and Nava Arts, and encouraged them to stretch the boundaries of their own musical practice.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Festival of Iranian short films connects a fragmented people

Annual LA event tries to promote Iranian heritage 
Kajart at work in their studio Photograph: /Kajart. Courtesy Guardian.
by for the Tehran Bureau, Guardian

“I really hate to talk about politics,” said Kajeh Mehrizi, one of the four principals of the Toronto-based Kajart arts collective. Sporting a dapper mustache, he was every inch the artist doing his polite best to overcome an introverted nature and answer the questions of an inquisitive Afghan.

We were at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Kajart were declared winners of the Sixth Farhang Foundation Short Film Festival held earlier this month. Mehrizi and one of his colleagues – Taravat Khalili, a beautiful, reticent and soulful young woman – had told me that they had spent half of their lives in Iran and the other half in Canada. When I asked Mehrizi if he had returned to Iran since moving abroad, he said yes. But when I inquired what the experience was like, he clearly didn’t want to go into detail.

Kahlili was more forthcoming. She fought back tears as she recalled her trip to Iran two years earlier. “You know what it’s like,” she said. “People are angry about the sanctions and perpetually in a bad mood.” It was clear that the return had been bittersweet.

Kajart’s prize-winning animated short, Aghaye Past (Mr. Mean), addresses the misogynist patriarch, that cultural archetype that has haunted many an Iranian family through the generations. In this deeply spooky film, we see the patriarch’s son leave home at night, kerb crawling in Tehran’s red light district and picking up prostitutes in his car. We see that the effect of misogynistic abuse is neither confined within the family nor the mark of a particular generation. It’s an infectious disease that makes the whole society sick.