Let me be clear – this series was inspired by a love for the people of Iran and its art scene: if I speak of critical art, I hope it becomes clear that simple oppositions do not serve to understand reality, that there are no good or bad guys. I am interested in the structures of creative resilience anywhere in the world. And above all, let it be clear that the unlawful sanctions of Trump’s administration are a curse to the people of Iran, not their government. It is making life inside Iran, including the making and selling of art, increasingly difficult. If nothing else, if you love art and the freedom of the creative mind, it should be clear to you that these draconian measures should be stopped at once.
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, often influenced by their own governmental policies. 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, sanctions, 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 must obey the same rules of modesty as the bodies of flesh and blood. Since exhibitions belong to the public sphere and therefore to the state, 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 second 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 two painters, Abbas Shahsavar (Kermanshah, 1983) and Maryam Ayeen (Bojnord, 1985), who play with the borders and places that are assigned to sexuality, in a somewhat mysterious series called Misunderstanding in the Blue Room (2014).
Imagine a series of miniatures, whose details can only be experienced in close-up. Each of the works depicts a scene of a private life of a married couple, located within the walls of their home. Their names are Abbas and Maryam, and in most of the scenes, they are captured in household chores, often dressed in pajamas, bathrobes, or changing into simple dresses.¹ In none of the paintings, they look at the spectator: instead, they seem to be preoccupied with their own tasks and thoughts, as they look away, down, or turn their bodies away from the perspective of the viewer altogether. Only one painting displays a clear interaction between the two, yet it is protected from the gaze of the viewer, who only sees the back of Abbas, as he is supported by Maryam, changing a light bulb. Most scenes depict only one of the figures, in which the pensive subject seems to have become a part of the interior. It creates an atmosphere of everydayness, but also playfulness and hidden thoughts. Abbas holds a bra, sitting in his bathrobe, Maryam lies on the floor with a bottle held in her hand and a cat next to her, Abbas looks at the underwear lying on the floor with his hands in his pants, Abbas sleeps on the floor with a pillow between his legs, Maryam holds up a dress in front of her body, Abbas follows Maryam into another room, upper body undressed. They radiate a sort of solipsism, either individually or with their attention fully immersed in the other. The works are painted in a certain hard realism, with clear and outspoken colors, though the borders between color planes are a bit fuzzy at times. The interiors of their scenery are bare with minimal decoration, and mostly cold colors. One of the most distinctive, almost weird elements in each and every one of the paintings, is the presence of a power plug or light switch, even in the most impractical of places. In some of the works these are accompanied by holes in the wall.
What the founder of the Azad Art Gallery, Rozita Sharafjahan, found so obvious that she would hardly spend any words on it in our short conversation, was that these works are suggestive, and loaded with sexuality.² This can hardly be pinned down to one specific visual element, and strictly spoken within the framework of the Iranian Shariat law, the depictions are innocent, despite perhaps a missing veil. Considered together, however, a sexual energy radiates from the poses of Maryam and Abbas, the underwear scattered on the floor, the wine bottle held in Maryam’s hand, Abbas’ erection, the holes in the wall, and the suggestion of nudity behind a held-up dress, or the action about to take place in a room we cannot enter.
In attempting to understand how to read this sexuality, some knowledge of the fundamental structuring element of differentiating inside from outside, shortly touched upon in the previous episode, is useful. Whenever a woman leaves the safety of the home, she has to dress up for the masculine outside world, by creating a ‘mobile andaruni’, a mobile inside, through veiling. This difference between inside and outside, private and public, is one of the most defining structures in Iran, that forms an order of places, who belongs in them, and how they are expected to behave. In almost all societies, there is a difference between how one acts inside one’s house and outside in the public sphere, but in Iranian society, this difference is relatively strict and literal. As Afsaneh Najmabadi explains in her modern history of Persian gender and sexuality, the private sphere is essentially the place of the feminine, whereas the public is the place of the masculine. Traditionally, the feminine has to be protected from the masculine: the family sphere must be covered from unwanted gazes and interaction. What bodies are allowed to do in each of these spheres (and who is allowed to see it) is so different, that its overlap is very rare. But even though the inside is displayed in Shahsavar and Ayeen’s works, what the bodies actually do in the scenes, is not the spicy action whose depiction might cause controversy: instead, the painters constantly allude to the invisible existence of that action. This leads me to a different interpretation than the owner of Azad Art Gallery seemed to think of as obvious. If it is so clear to Sharafjahan that the works radiate or allude to a certain sexuality, what kind of sexuality is that? Can we define it as fulfillment, longing, ecstasy, or perhaps frustration? Compared to the strict and loaded separation of man and woman, the atmosphere of these paintings is surprisingly shameless, and even playful. They seem to know exactly where the border lies of what they cannot depict, but also how to make it clear enough to what they are actually referring.
In other words, Ayeen and Shahsavar made sure it would be hard to pin down the exact controversial elements of expression, by giving the literal body a relatively innocent role to play in their works. But in a culture formed so deeply by poetry and metaphor, the way of reading might be easily turned towards that which is not literally depicted. Poetry is deeply entrenched within Persian culture, past and present, to a level that is hard to imagine for outsiders. Not only are the country’s great poets read and revered, poetry is a daily language through which people converse, especially if it is hard, rude, or impossible to express oneself directly. In this rich tradition, poetry has often been used as a vessel for critical or controversial content in the past, as poems have the liberty to mean many things at the same time. Iranian diaspora’s most famous artist, Shirin Neshat (Qazvin, 1957), explains:
“Poetry and calligraphy are innate in Iranian culture. I like poetry because it has the potential to be metaphorical, and for us Iranians, metaphorical language is essential. It has been used for many years and today it is used by artists and visual artists, because it provides the opportunity to “say what is forbidden to say” without being censored, and it allows you to make statements between lines in a country where we are forbidden from speaking out, especially women.”⁵
Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that the medium that Ayeen and Shahsavar chose, miniature painting, refers to another Persian tradition that makes use of implicitness: manuscript illumination. It usually conveys a message ‘in layers’, rather than presenting it explicitly to the spectator. ⁶
So what happens if you look for metaphorical, symbolic, and poetic elements in these paintings? Underwear, clothes lying around, and the suggestion of nudity behind a dress or outside the frame, all imply a certain intimacy. Some household scenes seem to refer to the moments just before or after the bedroom action, alluded to by the open doors which the couple passes through. Even the poses of Maryam and Abbas, especially the one in which she holds him up to change a light bulb, with his crotch remarkably close to her face, can be easily read as metaphors for sexual activity – in this case, a blow job. Abbas’ erection on the bench is hardly poetic. And what to think of all these recurrent light switches and sockets, in the most impractical places? I cannot think of another reason why there would be a light switch or socket in each of the paintings, other than a form of symbolism. It could be that electricity forms a metaphor for sexuality, or in a more simplistic reading, a power plug can be plugged in and plugged out, just like the reproductive organs. All sockets, however, are empty. Then there is that wine bottle in the hands of a reclining Maryam, and especially the way she holds it. One interpretation is that of a phallic symbol, and of course, alcohol is forbidden yet widely consumed indoors, but again there is more to a wine bottle in the history of Iranian poetry than one might suspect. As Nasrollah Pourjavady explains in his chapter on metaphors on love and wine in Sufi mystic poetry from Iran, wine is a widely used metaphor in describing both worldly love as divine love. The cultivation of wine, pouring, seeing, smelling, drinking it, and its intoxicating effect, all refer to states in which lovers can be. Although an interesting detail in relation to this painting of Maryam is, that for the Sufi poets, the real effect of wine starts with drinking it – whereas Maryam doesn’t drink, and the bottle is empty in her hands.⁷
These mixed signs, and symbols going various ways, lead me to think that these paintings are not just about something so sexual they cannot be depicted, hidden in innocent bottles and underwear. If it were about the visualization of a private sex life, made by both man and woman, why would there be as many references to the absence of sex, as to sex itself? The empty sockets, the empty bottle, the gazes turned away from the viewer’s eye, and the radiance of solipsism and slight boredom lead me to another interpretation. These works are not about sex, but about borders – the borders of the expression of sexuality, the borders of privacy and the public. I think the subject of sex is merely the way and the medium to express something else. Ayeen and Shahsavar have found a way to visualize the very borders connected to sexuality. Their series is about how bodies have to act, in private and public, and it expresses that boundary.
To understand why this expression is political, I turn to the work of Jacques Rancière (Algiers, 1941). In the series, both inside and outside are present, especially in the fact that Abbas and Maryam are not doing what you actually can do inside, because it will be visible ‘outside’ in an art gallery. This combination is a visualization of what bodies are supposed to do inside and outside, which undermines the segregating structure at the basis of that behavior. If invisibility and natural acceptance safeguards a structure of power, the spectator seeing this work is now forced to think about the borders of what he or she is allowed to do and where, and the power at the basis of that border is thereby undermined. Rancière explains this as the fundamental difference between his concepts of politics and police.⁸ The distribution of the sensible, or police, does not allow a void, and claims to be a whole, claims to be all there is. Politics, or the manifestation of dissensus, shows what police structured as invisible. Again, it is an undermining of the logic of what is visible and represented: where the state logic only sees a unity in image and content, in the arts, there is a rupture between them. This changes what is visible and invisible, and thereby changes our relation with the perceivable world around us.
“Politics breaks with the sensory self-evidence of the ‘natural’ order that destines specific individuals and groups to occupy positions of rule or of being ruled, assigning them to private or public lives, pinning them down to a certain time and space, to specific ‘bodies’, that is to specific ways of being, seeing and saying. This ‘natural’ logic, a distribution of the invisible and visible, of speech and noise, pins bodies to ‘their’ places and allocates the private and the public to distinct ‘parts’ – this is the order of the police.”⁹
But returning to the experience of Iran, as it was in 2016, it becomes apparent that everyone there, especially the younger generation, knows this border all too well, between what can be seen and what not. Does it have to be revealed, and does that actually undermine any ‘natural’ order? I don’t think so. Reading Rancière once more, I suspect that his idea of consensus, as the opposite of dissensus, is not quite applicable to Iran: this would mean that, despite all possible differences in opinion or values, there is still one central idea of reality to which everyone relates themselves. ¹⁰ This reality, in a consensual society, would be a given, not a topic of discussion – but in Iran, there is a difference in how many citizens, young and old, see themselves and their place in the world, compared to how they are viewed and visualized by the aesthetics of the state. In Rancière’s words, there is a conflict between the ‘sensory presentation and a way of making sense of it’. I would argue that there is no consensus to begin with, that instead, the fabric of life in Iran is deeply dissensual.
The paintings by Ayeen and Shahsavar are hardly a rupture with the minds and self-image of many of its spectators, and probably they are hardly provoked by it, because they already live in another ‘world’ of experience than the one presented and propagated by the state. These works are not only a depiction of a border, they are about the border of depiction, the boundaries of expression in the Iranian public realm. It feels as a typical expression of today’s Iranian youth, poking fun at the more serious generation above them, and the gap between different realms of perception. There is a certain carelessness in these works, knowing exactly when they would cross the line, joyfully and resiliently rope-dancing their way over it. But if it can be called a document of anything, it is that of the deeply dissensual character of contemporary life in the Islamic Republic.
In the next episode, less rope-dancing and more bare skin: I will discuss a series of photographic works by Ali Ettehad that can be characterized as downright artistic activism, pushing back hard when the state pushed so many young Iranians down, just before the tumultuous green summer of 2009.
- Al-Ani, Jananne; David A. Bailey; Gilane Tawadros. “Veil: Veiling, Representation, and Contemporary Art.” London: InIVA, 2003
- Dabashi, Hamid. Iran: A people interrupted. The New Press, 2008
- Marse, Amor. “The Word as a Weapon” Interartive. N.D. Accessed 20 September 2016
- Najmabadi, Afsaneh. “Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards” Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (2005)
- Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015
- Seyed-Gohrab, Ali Asghar, ed. Metaphor and imagery in Persian poetry. Vol. 6. Brill, 2011
- Sharafjahan, Rozita. Personal interview. March 7, 2016, Tehran
- “Gallery”. Shahsavar – Ayeen. http://www.shahsavar-ayeen.com/index.php/gallery?all > Accessed 30 September 2016
Further reading / looking:
- Rancière, Jacques. The politics of aesthetics. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013.
- Brown, Norman Oliver. The Challenge of Islam: The Prophetic Tradition: Lectures, 1981. North Atlantic Books, 2009.
- Becker, Carol. The Subversive Imagination: The Artist, Society and Social Responsibility. Routledge, 2014.
¹ One of the first striking things to be observed, with the knowledge of the past episode in mind, is the missing veil around Maryam’s head. Strictly speaking, the veil is not obliged inside the domestic environment, and combined with the fact that the painters are married to each other, this might be the reason that this was allowed to be exhibited in Tehran.
³ Najmabadi, p. 207-9
⁴ It has to be noted that the black-and-white gender opposition between man and woman is more of a modernist, European concept than a traditional Persian one, in which many in-between forms had a role in social life, especially before this European, ‘colonial modernism’ forced its way into Iran. However, for the analysis of this series, the difference between inside and outside is a key element, and these spaces have been widely characterized with the opposition woman-man, known-unknown, familiar-unrelated. – Dabashi, p. 45-6, and Najmabadi, p. 2-7
⁶ Al-Ani, Tawadros, p. 139
⁷ Seyed-Gohrab, p. 132-5
⁸ A few concepts to get you through the sentence: Rancière starts his thinking with the observation of a certain status quo: the way life is ordered and presented to each individual in society, and the places, rights, and expectations that are assigned to him/her. This is what he calls ‘distribution of the sensible’ because it is not only a distribution of parts and places of society, but the ordering of what each of us can perceive and can think in the first place. This is a power structure, and therefore he also calls it ‘la police’. The opposite of this distribution, and its silent acceptance, is ‘politics’ or ‘dissensus’: the acts that go against the distribution, that make it visible, or undermine its power. These acts, in Rancière’s thought, have equality as a point of departure. In his words: “[politics] begins when they make the invisible visible, and make what was deemed to be the mere noise of suffering bodies heard as a discourse concerning the ‘common’ of the community. Politics creates a new form, as it were, of dissensual ‘commonsense’.” (Rancière, p. 139)
¹⁰ 10 Ibid, p. 144