Why We Need To Stop Comparing Middle Eastern Artists To Their Perceived Western Counterparts

In an article recently published by The Guardian, the late Iranian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad (1935 – 1967) was introduced as ‘Iran’s Sylvia Plath’. While this comparison may have been made with the best of intentions, it is a comparison nonetheless; and, in the case of artists from Iran like Farrokhzad, one might argue, an unnecessary – and problematic – one. Plath’s status as a literary giant is indubitable, but she was who she was in her own right: Plath was Plath – as Farrokhzad was Farrokhzad.

The article in question is far from being an isolated case; rather, it is symptomatic of a much broader conundrum that has long plagued artists from not only Iran, but also the Middle East and – for lack of a better term – the ‘non-Western’ world. In order to make artists like Farrokhzad more digestible and accessible to Western audiences, they are more often than not compared to what are believed to be their Western counterparts.

Like Farrokhzad, Sadegh Hedayat, whose surrealist classic The Blind Owl (1936) has been translated into numerous languages, has time and time again been presented to English readers as the ‘Iranian Kafka’ (in addition to ‘Edgar Alan Poe’, on various occasions). When it comes to modern art, the late Bahman Mohassess is frequently cited as the ‘Picasso of Iran’, while it is now – thanks to a New York Times article – taken for granted that contemporary musician Mohsen Namjoo is the ‘Bob Dylan of Iran’. And what would the great Ferdowsi, who penned Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), have thought of being called ‘Iran’s Homer’?

Those who find such comparisons flattering may be unaware of their detrimental effects. Through them, artists such as Farrokhzad, Hedayat, and Mohassess appear as having made little unique contributions of their own, and having instead looked towards the West for inspiration. Their works are lauded not so much on the basis of their intrinsic merit, but rather because they are similar to those of Western masters. They are stripped of agency and voices of their own, and are instead left with others to represent and speak for them. If Farrokhzad may seem too outré to non-Iranian readers, there’s always Plath to make her feel a little closer to home; and, if anyone needs to be convinced of the magnitude of the Shahnameh, it is only necessary to mention that Ferdowsi was ‘like Homer’ – and in turn, make the nationalist Iranian hero somersault in his grave.

This predicament, which has become so widespread and almost normalised, has certainly not gone unnoticed by Iranian and other Middle Eastern artists. In her 2010 installation, Moment of Glory, notable Iranian artist Leila Pazooki tackled the subject in a way that was as jarring as it was aesthetically pleasing. With capitalised neon signage, Pazooki displayed epithets such as ‘Iranian Jeff Koons’ (in a likely reference to Farhad Moshiri), ‘Chinese Gerhard Richter’, ‘Indian Damien Hirst’, and ‘Middle Eastern Louise Bourgeois’, emphasising the casualness with which they are often applied. Indeed, the ‘moment of glory’ for such artists – according to those behind the comparisons in question – is often when they are paired with a Western counterpart (or better, named after one).

Following a talk in Toronto in late 2015, an Iranian audience member made a comment about Michelangelo Antonioni before asking the late Abbas Kiarostami about the Italian auteur’s influence on his films. Though the question and comment could have most certainly been innocent and ‘unloaded’, one couldn’t help but wonder why Antonioni in particular was cited. Was the individual, either consciously or subconsciously, comparing the two directors? Was he, amidst a crowd containing many non-Iranian film enthusiasts, trying to further elevate Kiarostami’s status as a director in their eyes by making such a reference? Why, one could have asked, didn’t the fellow simply ask Mr. Kiarostami about his influences?

As previously mentioned, Iranians are by no means the only ones who have had to bear the brunt of this ‘situation’. Recently, a friend, in trying to express her fondness for the work of contemporary Iraqi artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, remarked that it was ‘very [William] Kentridge’. By the same token, Hassan Hajjaj is often spoken about as ‘Morocco’s Andy Warhol’, and Zeki Müren as Turkey’s ‘answer’ to Liberace.

Although it is tempting to make such comparisons – in the hope of turning others on to unfamiliar and artists and subjects that are assumed to be difficult to relate to and/or comprehend – critiques like Pazooki’s suggest that one should, perhaps, look elsewhere to ‘connect the dots’. Yes, artists like Forough Farrokhzad were brilliant, and yes, their legacies continue to shine, but make no mistake: they were brilliant precisely (and solely) because they were Forough Farrokhzad, Sadegh Hedayat, Bahman Mohassess, or whomever else – not the Iranian Sylvia Plath, Kafka, or Picasso. Their works spoke (and speak) for themselves, and comparisons to perceived Western counterparts, however gratifying some may find them, are not only beside the fact, but also disrespectful and disempowering.

Accept no substitutes – or comparisons.

First published in Jadaliyya


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