In the last few years, the international art world has taken up a fascination for Iranian art, making exhibitions of this art outside Iran more and more common. Iranian contemporary artists seem to have especially been gaining popularity among a western audience, often because of a politically critical stance and rejection of the strict Islamic laws in the country, which appeal to a western sense of relatability. The exhibited art is often seen as a brave counter culture against a regime that does not have the best image in western countries. But in the middle of all this attention, I feel there is a lack of contextualizing, international research on this art, especially when it is involved with politics. If we want to understand how a work of art can be subversive, provocative, or a threat to those who are in power, we have to examine how it acts against the logic of the dominant power structure. In other words, provocation depends entirely on context and the norms of the society it is based in. This knowledge seems to be little, if not absent, in the hype around many Middle Eastern artists in the West. Which is tragic if we realize that art inside Iran, even though thriving, is subjected to the watchful eyes and control of the authorities. If we want to grant some liberation to an art production that is -in my eyes- wildly interesting, to release it from being caught between international misunderstanding and national censorship, it is necessary to do research on a small, direct scale. We have to look at how art works operate and how they can be analyzed within their political context.
The human body is one of the most visual and noticeable domains in which power is expressed in Iran’s public life. It is a place of expressing individuality and identity, but also a place on which power, both subtle and explicit, is exercised. Interfering with the normal body-power relation in a society, is one thing. But in Iran, art itself is tied to certain rules of modesty: bodies on canvas or in copper have to obey the same rules as the bodies of flesh and blood. Since exhibitions belong to the public sphere, all art shows are checked, which makes it a difficult place to express critique. One of the strategies that young Iranian artists use, in order to make works of art about the human body without being censored, is separating form and content. A distinction between what we can see, and what realms of thought, association and imagination it opens behind our eyes. This is the first of three episodes, based on my 2016 master thesis, in which I wrote about case studies from different Iranian artists, all living and working within the borders of Iran, who use this strategy. This episode is about the work from two young artists, Ghazaleh Hedayat and Mona Aghababaee, who both investigate what it is to have a female body in Iran, in their very own, abstract ways. Doing so, they illustrate the thin line on which acceptable provocation takes place, the place of critical innovation and resilience.
Having been in Iran for this research, I, myself a woman, remember the immediate effect of the laws on my self-consciousness. As I had entered this state, the state had entered my personal space and dictated the parameters within which I could dress myself. The ideology of the Islamic Republic relates modesty to the veil, which is made to symbolize ‘inner purity’. It is appropriated as a symbol both for the traditional Iranian identity, contrasted with the decadent Westernization that supposedly threatens Iranian minds, and the Islamic ideological identity cherished by the Revolutionary regime. ¹ Form is therefore not just form, but embodies a system of value, religion, and identity.² The forms in which my female body was shaped, were not in tune with what I was allowed to show in the public sphere of Iran, and so they had to be hidden.³ Made abstract, in a way. The chadors on the street, though plenty of them were combined with jeans and lipstick, were quite effective in hiding the body of a woman, making its forms disappear in a formless black cloak. It made me think of abstraction as a part of the daily experience of having a female body in Iran, if you see it as the practice of changing and hiding certain forms, making a silhouette resemble something else than the body inside. You could even see it as a form of self-censorship, or body-censorship. Because of this daily struggle with forms and their absence in the public realm, it is interesting to see that abstraction is used in art concerning the female body, while often critically reflecting on the restrictions that rule over it. But how should we interpret this abstraction, given the context of each artist and the social reality in which they made their art? And how can it be political?
Ghazaleh Hedayat – The Sound of my Hair
“The Sound of my Hair” is a relatively small sculpture made by Ghazaleh Hedayat (b. 1979) around 2010, a time in which she explored the theme of silence in different media. The work consists of four strands of her own hairs nailed unto the wall, and is complemented by a title that raises a few questions: The Sound of my Hair. (Does hair make sound? What would it sound like? And what would a veil do to that sound?) At the same time it is clear that the hairs are, in her words, ‘silenced by the nails in the wall’, so it remains an imaginary sound.
Hedayat has said she was fascinated by questions such as: “How can I hear the sound of my body? How can I expose it to be touched?” and that she wanted to “make it tactile and uttered.”⁴ To expose her own body, to utter it by using her own hair and make it visible, goes against the moral fundament of sexual segregation in the law of the Islamic Republic.⁵ In short, this is an order of opposites and their allocated place, such as private and public, male and female, and visible and invisible, that shape life in Iran. In this order, the visibility of a woman’s hair belongs to the private sphere, of family and other women, and not to the public sphere, like an art exhibition. But I think there is more to this work than just that simple provocation.
To be fair, the title adds a lot of complexities to the work. Although it speaks of a sound, there is none, and although it says ‘my hair’, it has been stripped of its personal character and any sexuality by being nailed onto the wall. Even though the material is the artist’s own hair, it has been removed from its original context and has been changed of form, allowing it to become something else than ‘just’ female hair. It has become a work of art, by a simple change of place and context, and in this new role it raises questions that four strands of veiled hair would never raise. The role that the body plays in her work, is one of intimate, personal wondering, in which parts of her body become externalized, and are made into objects of their own. What the spectator sees is not an image of something he or she is not allowed to see, inciting sin and decadence. But in a society where female hair is sexualized and forced to be hidden either under a veil or behind the closed doors of the private sphere, every single artist’s hair is loaded with meaning. To some extent, Hedayat manages to de-sexualize these hairs by making them something with an existence outside of her body, disconnected from her body.
The self-censorship discussed before can be seen as an expression of the disciplining⁶ power of the Iranian state over its citizens, and the internalized self-subjectivation that is a direct effect of it. French thinker Michel Foucault described this self-subjectivation as the process in which the individual makes him/herself a subject in the structure of power, consciously or unconsciously. And in Hedayat’s work, the artist’s own body is the subject and is subjectified – but the way in which it is, undermines the place this body was supposed to have in the public sphere. By making her hairs into objects of their own, and making them the carrier of a personal, but innocent question, Hedayat manages to undermine the dividing structures that are put on female hair in Iran. She desexualizes them, and thereby depoliticizes them. By making these objects of division and discipline something outside of her, yet referring to them as hers in the title of the work, the concept of the body and who owns it, becomes ungraspable.
The problem, artistically, is that the easy and mostly made interpretation of these works is political, because of the strictness of the regime and the usage of female hair. As I have stressed in the introduction, the simplicity of this interpretation leads to a loss of complexity in the reading of contemporary Iranian art. It is harder to raise innocent questions, in a world where everything bodily is loaded with meaning and cultural associations. One might even argue that a restrictive state creates its own dissent in what most people consider normal. If we look at the direct context of her other work made around the same time, politics don’t seem to be the major topic.⁷ Her work of this period revolves around sound and silence, but naturally, by using her hair, she has added a socio-critical layer, and she has probably done this very consciously.
Mona Aghababaee – Swallow Your Femininity
The next case study I want to discuss is a series of sculptures by Mona Aghababaee (b. 1982). Educated in handicraft, she made a series of abstract forms of woven iron strings and called the whole Swallow your Femininity.⁸ It is even less referential to the human body than Hedayat’s work in its material, but also more clearly about femininity in its title, influencing our interpretations. The technique of weaving, thought of as feminine, is combined with the strong and hard, maybe more masculine material of steel. Through the title, the works could be seen as allusions to the feminine body, and it becomes possible to see in them body parts, peep-holes, and obscuring yet transparent layers. At the same time, swallowing one’s own femininity implies a certain hiding, a non-uttering of it, a bit like the state’s requirements of the behavior of women in the public sphere.
But this is not just abstraction simply as metaphor for forms that cannot be shown. In an interview I had with the artist, Aghababaee stated that she had worked from a certain fascination with form, material and the female experience in Iran, rather than a clear idea about bodies and forms.
As I talked with her about this series, it became clear to me that they were made primarily as a reflection of this process of self-abstraction in the daily life of an Iranian woman. This process expresses itself in the veiling, the renewed relation to one’s body every time you switch between public and private, and the ways in which you cannot show your body, yet trying to find new ways of having an identity in the public realm, distinguishing you from others. When I, as a woman, walk out the door and onto the street, the nature of my freedom changes in the doorstep. From there on, I need to hide certain forms, and I thereby engage in a process of self-abstraction. Aghababaee could have made an image of a lifelike body, but this didn’t interest her. An experience that is limited in form, such as the experience of a woman’s body in the streets of Iran, has to find an expression that does right to the nature of the experience. Her experience is non-figurative, invisible, layered, and so are the works she has made for Swallow your Femininity. “Maybe it’s because of all the layers we have in our life, and all the things we have to hide, in our characters, it doesn’t even matter if you are a man or a woman, you have to hide, you have to cover”, she stated.⁹ This becomes visible in the character of her sculptures, with which you have to interact, and around which you have to move yourself, in order to be able to see through the first layer, simultaneously losing sight of another element, but seeing the forms that might hint at the private parts of a female body. Walking around these works, inside becomes outside, visible becomes invisible, and the dividing line constantly shifts.
In my own experience of this country, opposites and their strict separation seem to form the fabric and structure of society: man and woman, inside and outside, government and people. Yet as often as these opposites are visible, they can be seen mingling, undermining their separation, losing their mutual borders. You seem to find a contradiction or exception, every time you think you found out how the system works. The forms that Aghababaee uses, do not only refer to female bodies, exposing intimate parts in a non-figurative manner, but they also play with the strict difference between inside and outside, since they allow the spectator to see through layers, yet never exposing everything in one view.
Just like the work by Hedayat, this series manages to play around with the subjectivation of the individual body. When Aghababaee wanted to reflect on the experience of having a female body in Iran, she was given certain parameters of that experience, and certain parameters of form in which her reflection could take place. And within these parameters, she managed to make a series that is both a reflection of an ‘abstract experience’, thereby referring to the world outside art, and an aesthetic enterprise in its own right, with its own laws. It shows itself, and hides itself; gives an explanation in its title, but only a very poetical one, that can be understood in more than one way. It is this ambiguity that can hardly be followed, punished, or censored by the authorities.
These works manage to communicate an experience to the spectator, in the public realm, that has an immanent layer of critique on an imposed relation to one’s own body. It is hard to make an ‘innocent’ work about bodies, self-abstraction, and voyeurism, in the context of modern Iran, since none of these subjects are innocent themselves, and all of them have been politicized and moralized, especially since the Islamic Revolution. Initially, covering and hiding was imposed on their bodies in the public sphere, but the young generation of Iranians manage to make this non-figuration into a language of their own, understandable for all who live within the same parameters of personal expression. Turning restrictions into strategies, they prove that many ways are still open to talk about expressing the human body – even about the sound of hair.
Next in this series: how to make seemingly innocent miniature paintings about sex and the life behind closed doors.
- Aghababaee, Mona. Personal Interview (I). March 1, 2016, Esfahan.
- Aghababaee, Mona. Personal Interview (II). May 28, 2016.
- Foucault, Michel. “The subject and power.” Critical inquiry 8.4 (1982): 777-795.
- “Ghazaleh Hedayat – Magic of Persia”. Mop Cap. MOP Foundation, 2011. Web. 11 June 2016
- “Key Concepts.” Michel Foucault. October 30, 2010. Web. Accessed October 16, 2016. <http://www.michel-foucault.com/concepts/>
- Khosravi, Shahram. Young and Defiant in Tehran. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008
- “Works – Swallow Your Femininity” Mona Aghababaee. N.d. Web. Accessed 03 June 2016
- “Ghazaleh Hedayat”. Delfina Foundation. N.d. Web. 13 June 2016
- Foucault, Michel. “The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume I.” Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage (1990).
- Dabashi, Hamid. Iran: A people interrupted. The New Press, 2008.
- Abu-Lughod, Lila. Veiled sentiments: Honor and poetry in a Bedouin society. Univ of California Press, 2016.
¹ In 1979, a massive resentment against the Shah, expressed in enormous demonstrations and unrest, was seized by Ruhollah Khomeini to become ‘his’ Islamic revolution. In the years that followed, during the Iran-Iraq war that took around a million Iranian lives, strict laws were implemented, slowly but surely. The veil became obligatory, being politically critical became a dangerous thing to do, and in many ways, the body was a place where this new power was being expressed by the state on its civilians. In contemporary Iran, the strictness of these laws differ per era – one president is more moderate than another.
² Khosravi p. 43-5
³ There is a dress code of general modesty in Iran, both for men and women. In my case I had to cover my hair with a hejab and wear loose-fitting clothing with, for instance, a long coat that covered the buttocks.
⁴ Mop Cap
⁵ In Iranian society, the distinction between inside and outside is one of the most poignant ‘dividing practices’, as philosopher Foucault would call it, that makes a division between the inside of a private sphere and the outside of the public life, and who belongs where. Traditionally, inside is the place of the household, the woman as mother and daughter, and the family, or related people (mahram). Outside is the place of men, the unrelated people of the other sex (namahram). To go into this public life, the veil safeguards the women as it serves as a ‘mobile inside’, covering from the public gaze that which belongs to the inside. The veil is therefore also a safeguard to maintain the structural division that shapes Iranian society and, to a large extent, seeks to control the sexuality of its subjects.
⁶ With the term ‘discipline’, Foucault meant “a mechanism of power which regulates the behavior of individuals in the social body”. According to him, it is key to see what would be the ideal body for the state: malleable, docile, productive, and subjected. Source: Michel Foucault Key Concepts Website
⁷ “She works with different mediums to explore the theme of “silence” through the human senses.” http://www.delfinafoundation.com/in-residence/ghazaleh-hedayat/
⁸ Aghababaee II