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.”

Yet, when she first conceived of the series, it was intensely personal for Emami. “I thought I might never show these paintings to anyone in my life. They were so private to me,” Emami recalled. “It took almost three months for me to get ready to even look at [a prosthetic leg]. Because I have it in my home, in my bedroom, I have it everywhere, but I never looked at it, never. I didn’t have courage to look at it…. as a painter, when I draw something, I paint something, then I can say I have seen [that].” Indeed, in each piece hanging at 29 Garden, there is something more to be seen than simply an artificial limb—there is a narrative.

Emami also presented a series of photographed artworks that could not travel with her from Iran by projecting them onto a wall. “These are from corners in my home,” Emami explained as an image of the prosthesis resting on an armchair flickered on. With the next one, she grew quieter. “This is my wedding dress,” said Emami of the next image, which depicted a white gown entwined sensuously with the prosthetic limb. As she went through the final few pictures, Emami recalled the initially negative public reaction to her pieces and her ultimate response. “People were always asking me, ‘Why do you paint these things? This time [of war] is over!’ Yet after time passed and I made connections with people who urged me to show my paintings, I began to show them to others,” Emami said. “The prostheses that I paint are meant as symbols of the absolute horror of war. I never painted a full body. I realized it actually recently; when I look back on my work, it was so strange; I never painted a full person.”

She instead dedicated herself to the work of artistically immortalizing the cost of war, and has two new projects on the horizon. The first is to create art objects out of donated, second-hand prostheses of all types—from children, women, and soldiers. Additionally, Emami intends to travel to regions of Iran and Iraq, teaching art at regional universities and offering her artistry to children and women with artificial limbs in rural places. She invited the audience members to write a note to victims of war inside a tracing of their hands to bring to these people as part of her project “A Letter in My Hand.” Regarding her dream to bring dignity and compassion to amputees in rural areas, Emami said, “For women, I will decorate their artificial legs with their very favorite jewelries and flowers. I want to honor each woman and give her a feeling of pride. If I can paint something beautiful, shiny, colorful, it will be as though I am a dear friend bringing the women jewelry. Truly, I want them to feel good about themselves, not damaged.” Minoo Emami, who has dedicated herself to bearing artistic witness to the suffering of people in wartime, brought to Harvard her courageous desire to bring healing in whatever way she can.

Via  The Harvard Crimson

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