Friday, 26 May 2017

A Guide to Iran’s Electronic Underground

9T Antiope. Courtesy Bandcamp.
by Tristan Bath, Bandcamp

“By the time I was a teenager living in Tehran, underground music was all rock, metal, and hip-hop,” says Siavash Amini from his home in the Iranian capital. “In the past [all] musicians wanted to be mainstream, but were forced to stay small and underground.” Speaking to Amini —freshly returned from his first European tour—the changes in both the climate and the mindset in present-day Iran become clear. “Right now,” Amini says, “being underground is not as much a limitation as it is a decision to disconnect from the mainstream.”

The existence of any kind of underground or electronic music scene in Iran is a relatively recent development, arguably part of a quiet and generally slow shift in the country’s post-revolution identity. Those changes came to a head with the election of reformist and relative centrist Hassan Rouhani as President in 2013, which opened up a doorway for Iranian relations with foreign countries, all but shut off after decades of international sanctions.

The Islamic Republic that emerged from the 1979 revolution quickly quashed the country’s burgeoning pop and rock music scene, in favor of state-approved folk and classical styles. Iranian pop and rock musicians stayed all but silent throughout the 1980s, but years later, after the arrival of globalized digital media and swappable MP3s, government repression isn’t enough to stop a new generation of musicians creating digital noise, heavy techno, and textured ambience.

With rock and pop music increasingly entering Iran’s opening mainstream, it’s hardly surprising that instrumental electronic music has become the touchstone for Iran’s underground musicians. For one thing, wordless music is often too subtle or oblique to be perceived as an ideological threat and censored. For another, as in the West, the means of production have been entirely handed back to the artists, who are able to record and distribute at home, even able to send files to foreign labels and journalists while they’re at it. Local experimental musicians can now perform live regularly in Tehran (in fact probably far more regularly than like-minded local musicians can muster in far costlier cities like London or New York),  and they now also host their very own festival, called SET.

The election of an isolationist far right American President, along with the waning of liberal thinking in general, signifies no small threat to the development and progress of the young scene. Notably, Donald Trump’s infamous proposed—and briefly enacted— travel ban includes citizens from Iran, regardless of the fact not a single deadly attack has taken place on American soil at the hands of an Iranian citizen since 9/11.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Charming, Disgusting Paintings of Tala Madani

A still from Tala Madani's “Sex Ed by God” (2017), currently showing at the Whitney Biennial. Courtesy the Artist / Pilar Corrias Gallery / David Kordansky Gallery and The New Yorker.
by Negar Azimi, The New Yorker

Recently, the Iranian-American artist Tala Madani was sitting in her studio in Los Angeles, tweaking a video in progress. It featured a young girl wearing a bow in her hair and a yellow-gold cardigan, her legs akimbo in a pose that conjured Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.” The animated film imagines a sex-education class taught by God. Madani had recently been watching nineteen-seventies sex-education films from Scandinavia and Britain on YouTube, and was struck by the way they were typically narrated “from both perspectives, male and female.” In her own film, a pair of men—one thin and boyish, the other tall and pear-shaped—gaze at a projection of the young woman, while the narrator, represented by a pair of disembodied pink lips, wheezily delivers the wisdom of the ages: “Be present. Find the clit and never let it go.” As the scene unfolds, the girl reaches out of the projector screen, takes hold of the male figures, draws them in, and makes them disappear between her legs. “I guess I was really interested in exploring female pleasure,” Madani told me. “I wanted to play with the idea of passivity. She’s not passive anymore.”

Like her paintings, Madani is alternately droll and punishingly serious. The first time I saw her work, seven years ago, in London, I was struck by a painting of a gaggle of men kneeling on all fours. It was impossible to say whether they were engaged in prayer or in sexual submission. Large parachutes hung limply around their bodies. The men’s noses were spewing blood. And yet, somehow, this grotesque group portrait had a sweetness to it as well.

In February, following President Trump’s executive order denying the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries entry into the United States, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited eight works by artists from those countries in its fifth-floor galleries. Among the works on display was a Madani video, from 2007, entitled “Chit Chat.” In the video, which can be seen on YouTube, two men engage in banter that is by turns friendly, argumentative, and literally bilious. It is, like the best of her work, at once charming, thoughtful, and kind of disgusting.

Critics are wont to consider Madani’s work through the prism of her Iranian background. Madani is not fond of this maneuver. Her work has more in common with the giddy grotesqueries of the Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy or with Philip Guston’s lumpy, comical forms than it does with Islamic calligraphy or Persian miniature painting. And yet, she admitted, “I probably wouldn’t have become a painter if I hadn’t been the product of emigration.” Her canvases can be viewed as theatres of cultural encounter, where references from the history of art meld with figures drawn from the Japanese anime that she loves to watch or from the Ladybird children’s books that served as her introduction to the English language.

Wherever the spirit guides

Henry Corbin, theologian and professor in Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne, is widely regarded as the West′s authority on Persian philosophy. Despite having died in 1978, he is not only revered in modern-day Iran, he has also been appropriated. 
French philosopher Henry Corbin (source: Association des Amis de Henry et Stella Corbin). Courtesy Qantara.
by Marian

An unremarkable street in the southern part of Tehran′s city centre, not far from the Armenian Embassy, bears the name of a French academic - ″Henry Corbin Street″. If you walk a few blocks further down Enghelab Street and visit one of the numerous bookshops opposite the University of Tehran, the same name will leap out at you from the philosophy shelves, printed on the spines of books placed prominently beside the works of Iranian academics.

No other European Iran specialist and scholar of Shia is as respected in modern-day Iran as the French philosopher and mystic Henry Corbin (1904-1978). There is no study of ancient Iran in which his name does not appear; no research on Iranian philosophy that does not build on his work. Corbin had a traditional Catholic education, before studying philosophy at the Sorbonne. At the age of 22, his intellectual journey eastwards began with the study of Arabic and Sanskrit.

Making the acquaintance of the “Imam of the Platonists”

In 1929, when Corbin was 25, the young Orientalist met the Islamic studies scholar Louis Massignon in Paris – an encounter which was to change his life. Massignon, a Catholic priest particularly famed for his research on the Islamic mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, introduced Corbin to the Iranian Sufi philosopher Shahab al-Din al-Suhrawardi. Massignon had just returned from Iran and handed over to Corbin a manuscript of Suhrawardi′s major work, the Hikmat-ul Ishraq, that he had brought back with him.

It was an act of providence that Corbin would later describe as ″inspiration from heaven″. He devoted most of the rest of his life to studying the works of Suhrawardi, whom he called the ″Imam of the Persian Platonists″. Suhrawardi, born in 12th-century Persia, is also known as Shaykh al-Ishraq, or Master of Illumination. Suhrawardi developed a complex philosophical system, in which the whole of creation is an emanation of the highest divine light.

Corbin saw his work on Suhrawardi as more than just an academic undertaking. ″Through my meeting with Suhrawardi my spiritual destiny for the passage through this world was sealed,″ the French scholar later revealed. Alongside the study of Platonism, Zoroastrianism and Islamic mysticism, Corbin delved into the German theological tradition, in particular the legacy of Martin Luther. In the 1930s, Henry Corbin published several translations of Suhrawardi′s works. At the same time, he was completing the first translation of Joseph Heidegger′s major work ″Being and Time″ into French. The two philosophers had met in Freiburg in 1931.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

How the CIA Secretly Funded Arab Art to Fight Communism

A man walks past "Baghdadiat" by Jewad Selim at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha December 14, 2010. Selim was one of a number of Arab artists promoted in the U.S. by the AFME. Courtesy Reuters/Mohammed Dabbous and Newsweek.

by Sultan Sooud Al QassemiNewsweek

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, details began to emerge about the CIA’s covert role in using art as a tool for political ends during the Cold War. The policy—known as "long leash"—was initiated to showcase the creativity of American artists such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko in the face of "rigid" Soviet artistic constraints.

The United States government wanted to use the soft power of modern American art to combat Communism. Among the most effective of these initiatives was the Congress for Cultural Freedom which funded a number of cultural projects including a major exhibition titled "The New American Painting" that toured Europe in the late 1950s.

Suspicions about the almost sudden spread and funding of American art movements such as Abstract Expressionism led critic Max Kozloff to describe it in a 1973 essay as "a form of benevolent propaganda." But while much is known about CIA funding for American art during the Cold War, their support for Arab art during the same period has rarely been discussed.

In his 2013 book America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, Hugh Wilford documents the extent of the relationship between the spy agency and a "pro-Arabist" organization known as the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME).

One of the 24 Americans that founded the AFME in 1951 was Kermit Roosevelt Jr., a career intelligence officer who played a leading role in the CIA-backed coup to remove the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.

Friday, 3 March 2017

‘Roud’ (“River”)

The ‘Gardoun Art Group’ is pleased to announce the launch of a new and exciting project, called ‘Roud’ (“River”). The group will be travelling to work in Dezful and Shuhtar in Khuzestan province, from 5th to 15th March 2017, in order to highlight the importance of water and the impact of three main rivers, namely DezKarun and Karkheh, in the region. The word ‘Roud’ is the Persian word for river, and in some Persian dialects, it also means ‘offspring’ and ‘beloved’. Khuzestan, located in the southwest of Iran, is the most ancient Iranian province, in which the agricultural developments first appeared around 3000 BC in the northern region. Throughout history, the abundance of water and its management has transformed this region into a well-endowed land, although recent droughts have significantly affected this region and its unique eco-system.
The ‘Roud’ project aims to inspire and educate underprivileged children as well as high school and university students, through various artistic events, such as 1) running creative workshops, 2) wall painting in a high school (with a particular focus on themes of the Shahnameh, “the Book of Kings”), 3) painting next to rivers and waterfalls, 4) organising seminars, 5) concert, and 6) art exhibition.
Gardoun hopes to support the local youths and inspire the next generation through art and education.
Organiser: Taraneh Sadeghian
Participants: Aida Foroutan, Ashkan Jalali, Samira Darya, Samira Eskandarfar, Hamed Sahihi, Keyvan Mousavi-Aghdam, Naghmeh Hokamzadeh, Nezhla Motamedi, Mahtab Nematollahi, Maryam Bordbari, Mahya Ghobadi, Sadolah Nasiri, Solmaz Shamshiri, Parmida Jalilvand, Amir Shalmani, Taraneh Sadeghian.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

″Self-censorship is the worst″

Interview with the Iranian writer Abbas Maroufi
The novel describes events during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 while tracing the narrative of one family: against their father′s will, all four sons of the Amani family end up supporting opposing sides. Abbas Maroufi provides an intricate portrait of this highly dramatic period in Iranian history, mirroring the revolution. Courtesy Qantara.

Abbas Maroufi, born in Tehran in 1957, was one of Iran's most respected writers when he was sentenced to prison and a flogging for 'offending the fundamental principles of Islam'. It was only thanks to the intervention of the German PEN Center and the intercession of Gunter Grass that he was able to leave Iran in 1996. He has lived in Germany ever since. 

Volker Kaminski: In your novel Fereydun had three sons, your hero Majid is almost compulsive in his habit of looking at old family photos that bring back memories of his past in Iran. Are you ever like this? You have been living in Germany for 20 years now. Do you often dwell on what you left behind?

Abbas Maroufi: Memories very often come back to me and sometimes I write them down. That can happen very spontaneously. For example, someone passing my window can suddenly trigger a memory of someone I used to know. And this one memory can remind me of details that then set me thinking about a whole host of other details. Sometimes I am like the first person narrator in Proust's Recherche.

For him, a madeleine dipped in tea opened the door to his past. For me, it is colours, sounds, or a specific smell. Memories are never linear. The same is true of modern writing, which – unlike the works of Balzac and Flaubert with their single narrative threads – works with fragments. This is like my rather associative narrative style in my novel Fereydun had three sons.

Kaminski: To what extent does your novel reflect the situation you yourself were in when you left Iran? Your hero's life is in ruins. He is an asylum seeker and lives in a psychiatric hospital. To put it bluntly, he is a nervous wreck. At the same time, he is gripped by a yearning to return home. Is this what it was like for you? Did you want to go back home?

Maroufi: A writer's homeland is very important to him. It is a constant source of inspiration for his writing, his daily work. But I couldn't go back; I had been given a prison sentence. It was only thanks to support from outside the country, with the help of the PEN Center, of which I am a member and the personal intercession of Gunter Grass that I was able to leave Iran.

Regarding Majid's state of mind in my novel, it is indeed rather typical: he has not only lost his homeland, he has also lost his job, his social environment. And so he is tortured by 'bad thoughts'. He falls into a depression, feels humiliated and useless. On occasion, he acts aggressively towards the others in the hospital. It is only when he is busy with his daily work that he feels alright.