Friday, November 13, 2009

SF Intersection for the Arts: One Day In The Life: A Collective Narrative of Tehran

Founded in the 1960’s, during one of the more tumultuous decades in American history, The Intersection for the Arts continues to showcase works that question the existing zeitgeist. One aspect of the current political discourse is to demonize Iran and the Iranians, just as the Vietnamese were demonized and denigrated during the war in Vietnam.  The project was organized by two artists: SF-based Taraneh Hemami, and Tehran-based Ghazaleh Hedayat, who, along with the other contributing artists, want to demystify their life, challenge current stereotypes and promote cultural understanding (a huge agenda for such a small show!). It is a sad commentary on contemporary politics that these Iranian artists want to emphasize their similarity to “us” rather than to Iran’s rich cultural heritage; the work suffers from a generic modernism and a bit too much "tell" and not enough "show." Some of the photographs could be made in any urban wasteland; there doesn't seem to be anything specifically Iranian about them. Nevertheless, the artists hope that we view the work as rooted in Iran’s struggle for political freedom and a better life.

But, note that Iran is home to one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 4000 BC. It is the homeland of Zoroastrianism, considered to be one of the oldest religions in the world. The founder of the Bahá'í Faith, one of the newest of the world’s religions, came from Persia (Iran). Persian poetry has a tradition that reaches back to pre-Islamic Persia and an artistic culture that is equally ancient. The various Persian kings fought Rome for over six centuries, showing that East/West conflicts over that portion of the globe are long-standing and destructive for both parties.

Iran was once again reunified as an independent state in 1501 by the Safavid dynasty that established Shia Islam as the official religion of their empire, marking one of the most important turning points in the history of Islam. Shia Islam holds that Muhammad's family, the Ahl al-Bayt ("the People of the House"), and certain individuals among his descendants, who are known as Imams, have special spiritual and political rule over the community. Shia Muslims further believe that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, was the first of these Imams and was the rightful successor to Muhammad. Ali's murder in 661 CE, created the rupture between the two main bodies of Islamic belief, which continues to this day. Iran had been a monarchy ruled by a shah, or emperor, almost without interruption from 1501 until the 1979 Iranian revolution, when Iran officially became an Islamic Republic on 1 April 1979. There was a destructive war between Iran and Iraq which is little known in the west but which claimed half a million causalities. Nothing changed through this brutal conflict except for the families of the dead. Iran is still controlled by a ruthless theocracy and the current demonstrations may have shaken them, but change is a long way off.

Currently, Tehran is the 16th largest city in the world, with the same sort of urban issues common to any other city with huge extremes of rich and poor and ruled by a repressive dictatorship with illusions of world domination. The eight artists represented here want to show their everyday experience within the larger social and cultural contest of the city. One part of that experience – messages from Radio Tehran – is being broadcast as part of the show. The messages are written in Persian script on the walls, the flowing script at variance with the chilling messages, right out of any right-wing government, anywhere in the world, exalting those who die for religion and promoting their religious and political agenda. “Tonight the calls of Allah o Akbar for the Supreme leader Khomeini will fill the skies of the city.” “We are going to show our strong fist to the world.” (Installation by Nina Alizadeh, translated by Alizadeh).

Abbas Kowsari's three long, large format photos of the city move from generic urban smog of any city anywhere to more chilling images of Iranian political power – the center photograph is of black-clad, anonymous police rappelling down the sides of the police station as part of a public display. The last image, of people passing by each other, ignoring each other could be any city, anywhere except for the women, draped head to foot in black, another sign of the repressive misogyny of the current regime.

The traveling maps of Ghazaleh Hedayat, made before the current demonstrations, now have a “second reading as the routs of the public gatherings that became violent throughout the city.” (Taraneh Hemani). The lines were drawn on grid paper with different colored inks when she was in transit through out the city. Red stands for highways, the blue for main roads and the green for back roads and alleys; each zig, zag and jerked line another place where the car or bus hit a pot hole, bumped along in traffic (or not as the case may be) or jolted the artist on her journeys.The work would have been stronger if the tiny scribbles in Arabic script had been translated or if it was clear, without the explanation, what was being communicated. The same goes for the laser cut out of a felt map of Tehran. Placed in the middle of the room, it's unclear what point, if any, it makes.

Mehran Mohajer used a pinhole hole camera to take his photos of empty urban spaces. Inspired by Atget, his work is far bleaker, apocalyptic rather than elegiac, an allusion to the social situation they are living in. Mohammad Ghazali’s gelatin silver prints carry a nightmare message of entrapment and fear, "no way out."

Not every artist who participated in the original project was able to show their work.  Kevin B. Chen, Program Director for Visual Arts told me that one of the women artists involved in the project had to drop out. She had been taking photos of herself throughout the city, some of which were against the back ground of the current demonstrations. As she was easily identifiable from the photos, it was more prudent for her to withdraw rather than run the risk of being arrested. One of the installation pieces honors 72 people killed in the recent demonstrations.

John Lennon sang so long ago to "give peace a chance." We haven't done so yet but understanding is always better than misunderstanding, honoring cultures better than demonizing and hope, always, better than dispair. Regime change is always fraught with uncertainty and danger. Revolutions often eat their young and artists who take a stance against a police state are always vulnerable.

The artists' state that they hope for a better future. I hope so too.

Thanks to Kevin Chu for the images and his time.

Events associated with the project:
Sat, Nov 21. 2 PM: Readings by the Association of Iranian American Writers
Sat, Jan 16, 2010, 7 PM: Artists talk.

446 Valencia (Between 15/16) – be warned that the area is under construction but you can still access the gallery.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone 415-626-2787
The show is up until January 23, 2010

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