Sunday, July 26, 2009

Iran Inside Out Exhibition at the Chelsea Art Museum

Reviewed by Julie Ashcraft A.K.A. Jigsawnovich

The blue patterns and beckoningly tactile look of glossy paint in Negar Ahkami’s May The Evil Eye Be Blind echo Shiraz enamel work. But the content of this painting would have been censored had it been made in Iran. A large female figure in high heels, legs exposed, stands straddling a reclining mullah. She stabs him in the eye with a jeweled dagger. Her crotch is covered by the concentric blue circles which symbolize protection from the evil eye. In the background, video crews film women in black chadors. One of the women extends a bare leg from her chador as a male kneels before her with his camera. Further in the distance, is a glitteringly debauched beach scene, and a roller coaster with loops in the shape of the word “Allah.” Such heretical and politically potent themes could be cumbersome in the hands of a less talented artist. But May The Evil Eye Be Blind is dynamic, charged, and strangely beautiful while it is harsh.

Visiting the Islamic Republic of Iran this Spring, I wore hejab for the first time. The idea of covering up in order to draw attention to my mind was familiar. But, a fellow Chelsea Art Museum goer, viewing Negar Ahkami’s painting confirmed, “That form of showing respect, when it is accompanied by enforcement of laws in Iran dictating that women cover their hair and dress a certain way, can become restrictive to the point of showing women disrespect.” There are also practical, physical considerations. Persepolis was already well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Spring. An ambulance arrived after a female tourist lost consciousness in the lesser heat of Esfahan. Some Iranian women allegedly wear also nothing under their chadors in order to deal with the heat.

Yet, installed in the Chelsea Art Museum near the phrase, “Section 2: From Iran to Queeran and Everything in Between On Gender and Sexuality,” is Abbas Kowsari’s stunning photo collection: Women Police Series, 2007, which shows chador-wearing female police officers, guns drawn, shooting from police cars, and rappelling from buildings like Batman. A chador might not be the most practical crime-fighting gear, but it has undeniably intimidating aesthetic appeal. It’s hard not to root for these scary female officers on some level, given that women find fewer jobs than men in Iran, even though there are more female college graduates than male. I found IRI government ladies attractive sometimes because of their seriousness and intensity, and when they are beautiful, it is without make-up. After confessing to a friend that I was secretly hoping one particular female Iranian airport security agent would search me, my friend pointed out that, “legal restrictions against unrelated men and women speaking to each other in public in Iran have probably resulted in an increase in same-sex experimentation and relationships.”

Sex outside of marriage is a crime punishable by death in Iran. Yet, “There are more than 100,000 prostitutes in Tehran,” according to Iran Inside Out co-curator, Sam Bardaouil. Given the high unemployment rate there, it is unknown how much sex work is performed due to economic desperation or as a rebellious expression of sexual power. Bardaouil mentioned that Shirin Fakhim’s mixed media sculptures, Tehran Prostitutes, 2008, are installed in the exhibition in such a way that they “scrutinize the nudity of the man. This is a reversal.” With tremendous self-abnegating charm, the painter of the aforementioned and ”scrutinized” nude self-portraits, Darius Yektai, mentioned that the darkness of his work has sometimes led to it being referred to as, “Rembrandt with the lights out.” And he thanked Bardaouil for, “hanging me from the ceiling,” – meaning, presumably, his oil paintings: The Reveal: Day 1, Day2, Day 3, 2009.

Installed on the reverse wall behind Yektai’s paintings, vivid full-color ads for prostitutes now have inky black hejab and chadors drawn on them by Shahram Entekhabi. Only their eyes and hands are exposed, while the ad copy blares that they are “Beautiful Busty Blonde”, “Naughty But Nice…Spanking, Caning”, etc. This work could be a reversal of censorship for privacy in the West, where a black bar may cover a person’s eyes while the rest of their body remains exposed. But it also triggered sad memories of finding a video posted online by someone in Dubai, showing a young woman wearing only heels, bra, panties, and hejab covering her hair, mouth, and neck. She sat stiffly on a chair, her eyes expressing fear as the camera operator sized her up from different angles. Dubai is known for slavery. But there are reportedly many forced prostitutes throughout the world, even here in New York, who are not paid for their work. One can only speculate how many women shown in Entekhabi’s piece actually chose their lifestyle.

With added pathos via juxtaposition, Ahmad Morshedloo’s oil painting of a reclining male figure, Untitled, 2008, is installed below Entekhabi’s piece. Morshedloo’s male figure looks wan and spent, and there is an elegant sadness to this work, reminiscent of Picasso’s blue period. This work’s sharp sense of longing lingers in my memory, even though I gravitated to more sensationalist works while in the museum.

Female consumerist desire is portrayed as grotesque in Saghar Daeeri’s series of acrylic paintings, Shopping Malls of Tehran, 2008. Smirking women with glittering claws grasp their purses or take clothes off hangers like meat from bones. A dripping pink ice-cream cone projects lewdly in the foreground. My friend responds, “The grasping shoppers look like the rich Northern Tehrani girls who have homes that are like fortresses, and they can do anything within their walls. They can bribe government officials. They can travel to other countries when they want to. They are fine with how things are. So they are a problem. They are not going to risk their lives protesting in the street. But look at the girl in corner of the painting, wearing a backpack over her manteau as she ascends an escalator. Look at the expression on her face. She is different from the other women in the mall. Women like her could be the future and the hope for Iran.”

This is a small sampling of works on display by 35 artists working inside Iran and 21 artists working outside Iran, curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath.

*Upcoming public programs at the Chelsea Art Museum relating to this exhibition include Iranian films, dance, and musical performances. This exhibition closes September 5, 2009.

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