Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dissent, Iran and the Arts

In today's issue of Modern Art Notes, Tyler Green points out an essay by Claire Messud in the NY Review of Books discussing how difficult it is for us to imagine life in Iran under the present dictatorship because of the dearth of fiction.  I find this a bit difficult to understand because there is a lot of literature about survival under oppressive regimes. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books are one example among many. Another way is to read books about life before the current religious theocracy clamped down; an oldie but goodie is "Guests of the Sheik," by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Sge spent the first two years of her marriage in the 1950s living in El Nahra, a small village in Southern Iraq, and her book is a personal narrative about life behind a veil in a community unaccustomed to Western women. She arrived speaking only a few words of Arabic and feeling dubious about her husband's expectation that she adapt completely to the segregated society in order to accommodate his anthropological study. When she left two years later she was an accepted and loved member of the village, inspired for a lifetime of work in Middle Eastern studies. The story of her life among the Iraqis is eye-opening, written with intellectual honesty as well as love and respect for a seemingly impenetrable society.

But what can fill in the gap is the plethora and richness of émigré Iranian art, starting with Shirin Neshat (interviewed in his article) and Shirazeh Houshiry. There are also a number of excellent films from Iran, some even made under the current government. Green goes on to talk about some commercial galleries who have presented Iranian artists but he misses one of the most important shows in 2009. Held at SF's Intersection for the Arts, eight Iranian artists tried to present a visual picture of what life in Iran is now. While some of the artists were a bit too derivative of Western art and some of the art would have been urban angst, anytime, anywhere, it was a unique show and deserves to be remembered.

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