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Outside the tent

By Mona Shomali
March 26, 2003
The Iranian

About the Artist
This series of paintings reflect my experience growing up as a woman within the Iranian diaspora in America. I was conceived months before the revolution in Iran and was born in Los Angeles, California in 1979.

I spent the revolution in my mother's stomach. In those 9 months, my parents left Tehran to live in America like many other Iranians. I was raised in the San Francisco Bay area and now live in the city of San Francisco. I have a Bachelors Degree in Environmental Studies with emphasis in International Relations. I speak Farsi fluently, although I am now learning to read and write the Farsi language, just approaching fifth grade reading level, according to my grandmother. I am an avid lover of Iranian poetry, especially when read aloud.

My experience of being an Iranian woman has been an experience of embracing contradictions. I feel that my own hybrid identity has taken shape through constantly living through and embracing the opposite frameworks of two worlds I live within. This is the nature of my paintings.

The subjects of my artwork are Iranian women, some of them younger, some of them old, some deceased, some of them live in America, some of them live in Iran. It does not matter to me because they all tell the same story. It is the narrative of the Iranian woman as I experience her, symbolically, metaphorically and in her own surrealism.

About this Series of Paintings
My Grandmother who comes to stay with us from Iran asks me why the women in my paintings are naked. Nudity to me is sheer vulnerability and liberation one can feel when naked. In their proud nudity, these women are doing very ordinary things as if the nudity is something they themselves do not notice.

This is a contrast to the only images of Iranian women I ever saw in the American media: black shrouded women who were formless, shapeless and sexless. As if the Iranian woman is not a sexual being, with no desire or volition. The Farsi word for the traditional covering for a woman is "chador" which is literally translated to "tent". My artwork explores the contrast and complexity of the modern Iranian woman who lives under that cultural and media image of a tent.

Through this series, my intent is to illustrate the complex dialogue of cultural and societal "Iranian-ness" as I have experienced it through an immigrant identity. These are the contrasts and contradictions in the ideas of what it is to be a Eastern and Western woman, a traditional and modern woman. The contradiction of having no shape and form, and of brazen sensuality. The contradiction of the public and private life of an Iranian woman. The contradiction of political choice and Political mandate, of the forbidden and the accepted expression of a woman.

I have often expressed this contradiction with nudity which has come to symbolize "modernity" or "liberation", juxtaposed with "traditional" and "classical" images that indulge a love and pride in folk and oral knowledge, history, music and behavior throughout the paintings. These traditions, artifacts, images and stories are based on my own Iranian upbringing as well as the past; symbolized and stylized in the forms of metaphor, lyrics, poetry by Rumi, Forough Farrokhzad, old woven carpets and designs, native Iranian Cypress trees and distinct Iranian landscapes, drinking tea from a Samovar as well as other images.

These contrasting images of the modern and traditional Iranian woman are juxtaposed together in the same woman, liberated from this intercultural and intersocietal dichotomy. The Iranian woman is not compromising her Iranian identity by challenging and defining her own image in the eyes of society. The women in these paintings are Iranian in how they see themselves, not how others see her. She is making choices within Iranian society on how to express herself, whether surreal, fictional or symbolic.

I am also aware that Iranian women living in a Western country are able to make choices that an Iranian woman living in Iran cannot, and vice versa. Many of the scenes or actions in these paintings would not be permissible in the current political state of Iran. I want to be sensitive to this discussion, so I say here that I am aware that it is a privilege for me to publicly exhibit these iconoclastic images here in America, a contrast to an attempt to publicly exhibit this work in Iran. Separate from this story and cultural background, I hope that the paintings can be enjoyed as their own visual and aesthetic statements.

About the Individual Paintings

Women Making a Choice Between Two Pears >>>
In this painting, I have continued with the tradition of metaphor stylized in lyrics of poetry in Iranian literature and music. The choice of pears is symbolic for a larger choice. This piece is about the contradiction of choice, the woman appears cautious as if there are grave consequences for making the wrong choice. The quote in this painting is by an unnamed Iranian reformist.

Outside of Our Bedroom >>>
This painting is based on my reading of the poem by Rumi, "Andak, Andak". In my reading of this poem, I felt reminded that we live in the world of the present, where the dead have already died, and the unborn are not born ye t- so those of us who are alive - let us be drunk on the sheer fact that we exist! This painting for me is an exploration of women who feel so drunk on life, so that they abandon the bedroom nude and run out into the street to celebrate. My intent in this painting is to challenge the ideas of public and private life as an Iranian woman, with awareness that the private bedroom is traditionally the only place where an Iranian woman would be nude and vulnerable.

Ode to Forough Farrokhzad >>>
This painting is an ode to an Iranian poet I have immense respect for. My mother always said to me that Forough was one of the first female Iranian poets to express herself sensually as a woman, to question and express sexual female desire in a society where such desire was not expressed openly and publicly, but suppressed. The poem behind her is her own poem. The first line reads "Nobody is thinking about the flowers". This poem is read as a deep cultural critique written in the 1970's, symbolized by a family that does not notice, or does not react to a garden within their home that is dying.

Waiting for Pomegranites to Ripen >>>
In this painting, a woman is indoors, there are traditional Iranian Cypress trees depicted outside of the window and pomegranates sit on a bowl. Pomegranites are traditionally found in Iranian markets and in the homes. As well as being beautiful fruits, I feel that they bear resemblance to the womb of the woman. The title suggests the woman is waiting for the fertile pomegranate fruits to ripen and burst open, or perhaps she is waiting for her own fertile body to ripen so that she can come into her own as a grown mature Iranian woman.

Contemplating with Tea and a Poem >>>
This woman is sitting in a chair, reading a moving and philosophical love poem by Rumi, and drinking tea from a traditional Iranian samovar. Often I see images of cultural/historical Iranian poetry being read in oral tradition, such as on shab-e-sher, a night of poetry. Whether amongst themselves or in public, it appears as if the tradition of reading poetry is something that men do exclusively. The pensive quality of this woman in her private contemplation of the poetry she is reading is something that I rarely see depicted in the culture of the Iranian woman. It is something I value very much.

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Mona Shomali


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