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"Echo of Myself" by Aaram Bayat

Iranian women's increasingly sought after art

By Carly Butler
February 1, 2001
The Iranian

Review of an exhibition of Iranian women artists at Toronto's A Space Gallery (January 13 ­ February 17, 2001). The artists are Aaram Bayat, Aylene Fallah, Chohreh Feyzdjou, Shadafarin Ghadirian, Gita Hashemi, Taraneh Hemami, Kendal Kennedy, Haleh Niazmand, and Termeh Dimi Yeghiazarian.

While viewing the work of Iranian photographer Shadafarin Ghadirian, a man (non-Iranian) stood beside me. Appearing overwhelmed by her work, he turned to me: "Wow, what irony. It's not fair. Just not fair. They're not even allowed to go to school over there are they?"

Moments later, I watched as another man (Iranian) stood, with self-conscious nonchalance, on top of Aylene Fallah's work "Merge Into Nothingness" - a large woven braid of hair - while everyone else carefully stepped over and around it. The irony of this scene seemed to go unnoticed.

The incongruency of these two experiences, while at first seemingly insignificant, seemed to represent the broader concerns of "Trans/Planting". As an exhibition of work by nine Iranian women, the show examines issues of displacement and identity, and raises questions surrounding reception and audience.

Looking at the specificity of the Iranian exile, and also our Western tendency to both generalize and romanticize the immigrant experience, "Trans/Plantin" reveals the problems of trying to simultaneously address the multitude complexities of both subject and audience.

These complexities are inherent in an exhibition of work that is almost impossible to disentangle from the baggage of politics, nationality and religion, not to mention current postcolonial theory, that is destined to accompany it.

With Iranian women's work becoming an increasingly exotic new art commodity (see the success of recent art star Shirin Neshat for example), there has been a danger of the "who" superseding the "what" ­ the novelty of "Iranian women making art" becoming more important than critical discourse on "what" they are producing.

As with many Iranians, the artists in "Trans/Planting" have a complex and ambivalent relationship towards both nationality and religion. Beyond simple good/bad dichotomies (the "unfairness") that the media and our own preconceptions lead us to assume, these women challenge our stereotypes of tokenism and the tangle of discourse by creating a body of work that attempts to function on a multitude of levels. Most interesting, however, is how these pluralities translate, how they work to challenge the preconceptions of both the Iranian and non-Iranian audience.

The theme of veiling, for example, is perhaps one of the most prevalent in the exhibition, but also one of the strongest symbols through which we in the West believe we can identify oppression and fundamentalism. These meanings seem so obvious, their implications for women so apparent, that it seems we have two choices when responding to work relating to these issues. Either dismiss it as being just too obvious, or embrace it as a powerful celebration of a feminist stand against an oppressive culture.

In reality, however, the complexities surrounding the compulsory chador (veil) imposed by the Islamic Republic make either response superficial. Beyond our stereotypes ­ think Sally Field running around veiled and traumatized in Not Without My Daughter ­ the veil has a long, complex history in Iran. For those women who wore it voluntarily as a symbol of ideological unity against Western imperialism, there are those who rebel against it as demeaning and controlling; those who enjoy the freedom of anonymity it represents, and those who are not even Muslim.

Even the ever resilient, and never particularly fundamentalist women in Tehran, many of whom have turned the veil into a fashion accessory (the Hermès scarf, jauntily tied with help from fashion magazines), challenge our understandings. How does one reconcile this with a political interpretation of oppression? These multitude identities complicate how we interpret work by Iranian women by reminding us that there are no straightforward answers.

Thoughtfully installed, "Trans/Planting" raises such questions through the subtleties of the work ­ allowing themes of loss, introspection and hybridity a poetic and often conceptual resonance. Here, creative processes merge sophisticated contemporary practice with political and metaphorical investigations.

Going back to Aylene Fallah's work "Merge Into Nothingness", we can read this work through the literal and metaphoric loss central to the exile experience, but also through the specific experience of Iranian women and the uncovering/covering emblematic of Islam. Disturbing on a variety of levels: sexually; as a reminder of the political implications of veiling; and as a "mat" on the floor some may trample on - Fallah's work serves as an appropriately unsettling introduction to the complexities of identity that characterize all nine women's work.

These complexities are visually represented in Taraneh Hemami's piece "Wall of Tears/Gate to Paradise". Hemami has sewn together twenty years of journal writings in an elaborate, near architectural construction of the processes of collecting, cataloguing and remembering connected with spiritual/religious displacement. As literally a screen of memory, we again see the same themes of women and veiling, the title itself a reference to Islam and taken directly from the Koran.

Resonating with a similar charting of personal history, Chohreh Feyzdjou's work consists of old paintings, removed from their stretchers, sewn together, and displayed like a bolt of fabric. A rare surviving piece from legal entanglings in France (Feyzdjou passed away tragically in 1996), the work is labeled "Product of C.F." -- a reference to translation and the difficulty of her name.

Part of a large body of work she installed in entire rooms, Feyzdjou was constantly recycling her old work to create new installations. Classifying and labeling, in one case even burying her paintings, Feyzdjou embarked on a process of personal reclamation that was an ongoing renegotiation of experience, a reflective accumulation of the pluralities and shifting perceptions of identity. Covering her work with black pigment, rolling it so partially hidden, Feyzdjou layered meaning within contexts of the personal and political.

As more literal investigations into the destructive nature of displacement, Haleh Niazmand, Aaram Bayat and Termeh Yeghiazarian all refer to the body and the violent potential of such dislocation on the self. While Haleh Niazmand's paintings re-create disturbingly life-like scars on thickened wax panels of "skin", Termeh Yeghiazarian places these wounds in pin hole boxes ­ distant and unreachable images of closed rooms and exposed pained bodies, trapped by pins and wire, mouths sewn closed.

Aaram Bayat's photographs, while beautiful and erotic, also speak of trauma, loss, and uncertainty, with sensual bodies denied faces and thus a sense of self. The only woman in "Trans/Planting" still living in Iran, Shadee Ghadirian's photographs interestingly seem the most literal work in the show. Reconstructions of the Qajar era of the 19th century, juxtaposed with the modern (a mountain bike for example), these works serve as a reminder of the oppression of the past and its close proximity to the present. The veiled women here are not sexualized but frightening.

With personal history the history of Iran so intertwined in all nine women's practice, Kendal Kennedy's installation conceptualizes this shifting and personalizing of culture. Broken mirrors lie on the floor with intact mirrors on top as fragile and unstable 'stepping stones' while light plays their reflections on the walls. As fragments, fragile and broken, Kennedy's "Betrayal" works with simple, yet powerful metaphors. The introspection inherent in the 'transplanted' experience of the exile leads to these dichotomies: coherent versus fragmented identity; the idealized and illusory aspects of memory versus present, often uncomfortable reality.

Finally, drawing all these threads together is Gita Hashemi's multimedia CD-ROM project "Of Shifting Shadows". An interactive, hypermedia piece, Hashemi's rich layering contextualizes the themes of "Trans/Planting" by reminding us of the specificity of the Iranian immigrant experience.

Acknowledging the fundamentalism of the Islamic Republic, yet reclaiming Iranian culture through an exploration of its multiplicities, Hashemi re-reads nostalgia through plurality. Her communication with what she terms 'difficult knowledges' looks at the stories of three women through interwoven layers of images, text and video mediated by narrative storytelling. With propaganda slogans from the Republic scrolling across the screen, phrases like "Death to America" "Death to the Unveiled" remind us of the true weight of history ­ past and present ­ that these women bear.

While it is never enough to simply present such issues as given, these women promise nothing insofar as simplified understandings and explanations of their experiences. They expect more from us as an audience, and consequently the subtleties of their work will be lost on those looking for easy answers and metaphors to explain Islamic and Iranian identity ­ what happens to women "over there".

Recognizing that identity is an on-going, and often unfinished negotiation and re-negotiation with very little absolutes or certainties is to recognize the importance of the translation of such experience ­ through politics, religion and language. Though the non-Iranian audience may not be able to translate all the layers of this experience, the subtleties of all the work, to even understand these limitations is important in removing boundaries that marginalize.

By re-claiming a ransomed past, these Iranian women turn displacement into freedom ­ the opportunity to challenge existing perceptions and create dialogue on their own terms. In this sense, the experience of difference and exile, and thus of "Trans/Planting" itself, is not the end, but a beginning.

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