The current exhibition at the Asian Arts Initiative is small in scale but presents big ideas. That Person Who is Your Creation includes five paintings and two videos. Together these works create a narrative about identity and Iranian women artist’s investigations and negotiations in and of western culture.
The paintings from Mona Shomali’s Naked Folklore Series show female nudes or age-old stories such as that of Adam and Eve. There is also a portrait of the poet Forough Farrokhzad, whose poem, Call to Arms, inspired the title of this exhibition. The feminist themes in many of the works are inspired by Farrokhzad’s poem which tells women to “never submit to tyranny.” The passage from which the exhibition title is drawn reads: “For that person who is your creation, to enjoy preference and superiority is shameful; woman, take action because a world awaits and is in tune with you.”
Shomali takes action by painting nudes from life that are reminiscent of western art traditions. In this regard the works are very familiar for a western viewer. But, when considered in light of the artist’s Iranian culture, in which both figurative art and nudes are discouraged, the paintings take on a radical, and perhaps for some even shocking, quality. The artist noted that although her grandmother regularly asks her to stop painting nudes, she’s simply compelled to do it, and has been since her first figure drawing class at age fourteen.
The Strength of a Vulnerable Man, a reverse Adam and Eve narrative, is strikingly feminist. Shomali’s Adam offers a pomegranate to a lounging, distracted Eve and it’s unclear whether or not she will take the bait. Other works are similarly open ended. In Persecution and Prayer, a woman with her eyes closed and palms open could be asleep or awake, dead or alive, praying or making an offering, laying in a coffin or standing before a decorative niche. Her head, part of her face, and her neck are covered by either long hair or a veil. This covering could be offering protection or strangling her.
Haleh Jamali’s three minute, single-stream video, Someone Who is Not Like Anyone, investigates identity in relation to the immigrant experience. Jamali, who was born in Iran and currently lives in Glasgow, is seen in the video in straightforward head shots that flash by in rapid succession. The artist appears to wear hundreds of different guises, with or without veils or chadors, in different clothing and hair styles. Each particular manifestation is seen for only a second. While watching the video it at once seems easy enough to draw conclusions about who this person may be and where she may come from, but at the same time it is also clear just how unknowable this changing person is. But what really hits home is how much clothing styles and items like a veil, or lack of those things, define our impressions and assumptions about people. The things we cover our bodies with really matter, and the fluidity of Jamali’s self-presentation in these various outfits speaks to the artist’s investigations about assimilation, and how personal identities can function and form in relation to other people’s perceptions. The video is a self-portrait in many ways, but unlike a traditional portrait of a person fixed in time, it seems that Jamali will be ever changing and negotiating her identity.
This exhibition was curated by Sara Zia Ebrahimi and is hosted by the Asian Arts Initiative as part of their Community Curators Program. Ebrahimi started an organization, From The Mouth of the Lion, in order to increase awareness about artists of Iranian descent born around the time of the Iranian Revolution. Ebrahimi noted in an email that, “I spent years dreaming of what it would be like to be in a room of other Iranian American artists, to not be the only woman who went against cultural and gender expectations.” Her exhibition at the Asian Arts Initiative achieves this dream.