MONA SHOMALI AND HALEH JAMALI EXPLORE FEMALE IRANIAN IDENTITY IN A JOINT EXHIBITION
Opening February 19th at Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative is That Person Who is Your Creation, an exhibition of the works of two female Iranian artists, Mona Shomali, and Haleh Jamali. A collaboration between From the Mouth of the Lion, Sara Zia Ebrahimi’s US-based non-profit organisation dedicated to showcasing the works of emerging Iranian artists in the diaspora born on the cusp of the ’79 Islamic Revolution and artclvb, an online platform for contemporary Middle Eastern art, the exhibition will feature five paintings from Shomali’s Naked Folklore series, and two video installations by Jamali.
Taking its title from Call to Arms, a poem by the late Iranian poet (and director) Forough Farrokhzad (1935 – 1967), the exhibition explores the subject of female identity from the perspective of two Iranian women living in the West. Through the medium of painting and film, Shomali, an artist born and raised in the United States, and Scotland-based Jamali, curator of the Edinburgh Iranian Festival, examine what it means to be an Iranian woman, challenging both Eastern and Western perceptions and notions in the process.
Last week, I talked to Mona, Haleh, and Sara about some of the ideas and themes of the exhibition, the works on display, and naturally, the connection with Forough Farrokhzad.
Despite having passed away at an incredibly young age, leaving behind a relatively small body of work, Farrokhzad’s influence and impact on Iranian artists of all mediums – female artists in particular – has been immense. How, nearly 50 years after her death, has Farrokhzad inspired you as artists?
Mona - When I was a teenager, my mom talked quite a bit about how sexuality was different for women in America than it was for her in Iran. For example, she told me that no one ever said ‘vagina’ in front of her when she was younger, and she didn’t really know what the proper word was in Farsi, because it was so often referred to as ‘down there’. She made it seem as if Iranian women between the 50s and 70s were dispossessed of their own bodies. She was the first person to tell me about Farrokhzad. Her description of the poems was special, because she believed they were the first widely-read poems where an Iranian woman was talking about her own sensuality and sensual feelings in a way she saw fit for herself. Her excitement over Farrokhzad’s poetry was palpable, as if it were something rare and exotic, and she saw Farrokhzad as taking a stand and owning her sexuality in a way that hadn’t been done before. I continued to read Farrokhzad’s poetry in college when I took a Farsi class and studied with a Farsi tutor. I gained a deeper appreciation for her when I realised she was not just a pioneer when it came to sensuality, but also that her criticism of Iranian culture was very illuminating and truthful.
Haleh - I think that throughout her work she remained honest to her feelings, and her poems are very personal records of that. I believe her work is timeless; they’re not really particular to a certain era or period, and you feel like they could have been written yesterday. What is interesting about her poetry for me is her detailed focus on women’s struggles, and many of the issues they faced, and continue to face. You can really see the influence of her work in one of my video installations, Someone Who is Not Like Anyone Else, which again refers to another one of Farrokhzad’s poems.
Mona, a large body of your work deals with the identity issues you have faced as a female Iranian-American, as well as the preconceived notions surrounding Iranian women in the West. You were born in the States during the year of the Islamic Revolution, and grew up in a time of intense political hostility between your country of birth and your ancestral homeland, let alone experiencing the aftermath of 9/11 first-hand in New York City. How has being raised in America affected your Iranian identity and your self-perception as an Iranian woman? How have you been able to reconcile these two facets (i.e. Iranian and American) of your identity?
Mona - To begin with, I am happy to see that you have described Iranian-American identity as being very distinct from Iranian identity; this is not always recognised in the literature and art of the diaspora. There is a lot of artwork dealing with Iranian identity, but much less has been devoted to the identity of Iranians coming to age in the West. My artwork is very much about the inner conflicts, clashes, contrasts, hostilities, judgements, and juxtapositions of ‘being’ both cultures at once – both American and Iranian – and the inherent struggle that ensues when one ideology is pitted against another. As an artist, I try to explore the wounds that come from that inner battle within oneself – when these two cultures cannot see ‘eye-to-eye’.
We exercise our American choice to go against certain social pressures, parameters, and formal rules, and suddenly, we feel we are betraying our ‘Iranianness’, as dictated by our community
It is important to distinguish the hybrid Iranian-American (or the Iranian-British, Iranian-Canadian, Iranian-French, etc.), because they have different concerns and issues than the ‘fish-out-of-water’ Iranian immigrant. The immigrant can distinguish which culture is of ‘origin’, and which is of ‘choice’, whereas the first-generation hybrid Iranian-American born outside Iran, or who left at a very young age has more difficulty distinguishing their country of origin and ancestry, on both a conscious and subconscious level. Both cultures are at once ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar’, causing them to inhabit a space in between.
Sometimes we don’t feel Iranian enough. Sometimes we don’t feel American enough. We have been raised in a situation where there are two models of identity – a dichotomy of two countries of origin that are often at a cultural war with each other. We try to find a comfortable place between the two paradigms. It can be hard to know with whom we feel we belong, especially when we have chosen (not always consciously) the parts of our Iranian identity we want to keep and hold on to, and the parts we want to discard. Sometimes we want to want to be a part of the Iranian family ‘tribe’, and sometimes, we don’t. Sometimes, we want to be sensual and fiercely independent, and pursue careers against the advice, wishes, and gossip of the old-fashioned ‘clan’. We exercise our American choice to go against certain social pressures, parameters, and formal rules, and suddenly, we feel we are betraying our ‘Iranianness’, as dictated by our community.
What was it like growing up in this space ‘in between’, as you put it?
Mona - My own Iranian-American friends and I affectionately talk about common things our parents and the community at large would try to artificially differentiate for us by way of discouragement, and by trying to keep us ‘in line’, saying things like, ‘you are being so American right now’, ‘no Iranian would ever do that’, or ‘Iranians would be ashamed of you if they know you did such-and-such’. The pioneer immigrant generation refuses to claim responsibility for the behaviour of Iranian-Americans doing things they don’t consider to be truly ‘Iranian’, based on a rigid categorisation and ideology of purity. The original Iranian immigrant community that came to the West assumed their children would take from American and Iranian culture the same things they themselves did, and that was just not realistic. If you grew up like I did – as a 10 year-old girl with hairy sideburns and eyebrows who took khoresht to school in Tupperware, and had her friends ask her what language her parents spoke – you can attest to the reality that we didn’t feel ‘American’, simply because we were somewhat removed from our parents’ experience of being Iranian.
Of course, not every Iranian-American sees eye-to-eye, and we don’t think like a single organism, largely because we have all taken different parts of our ‘mother culture’, and have matched them to elements of American culture in a way that is relevant, or that works for our own unique experiences. The thing is, those of us occupying this ‘space’ in between can recognise each other, because we are deciding for ourselves the how and what to be of each culture. We recognise each other because we are deciding and choosing how to make this work. It is very important for us to have our own narrative space where we can find self-love and self-acceptance, and claim the constructs of our own identities that we understand to be true and meaningful.
Haleh, while Mona’s works largely depict the nude female form, your video installations explore the role of clothing in the understanding of the Iranian female self. To what degree do clothing regulations and norms in Iran play in the constructed notion of the Iranian woman, both in Iran and in the West? As well, how would you say this has changed throughout Iranian history?
Haleh - Someone Who is Not Like Anyone explores the depth of female identity that is primarily based on their appearance, and their different types of clothing. I began this project in a quest for the understanding of the identity of immigrants in a multicultural society, based on the assumption that identity can be made ‘fluid’ by changes in clothing and lifestyle, especially in attempts to integrate into a new society.
Only you, O Iranian woman, have remained in bonds of wretchedness, misfortune, and cruelty; if you want these bonds broken, grasp the skirt of obstinacy
– Forough Farrokhzad, Call to Arms
What people in the West think about Iran is based on what they see in the media; they think, like in certain cases in Afghanistan and some Arab countries, that we walk around shrouded all the time. People continually ask me if, for instance, if Iranians have to wear the veil, which they don’t. Of course, before the Revolution, the situation was different, as you had a lot of foreigners living in and travelling to Iran, and naturally, they had a much clearer picture of things, and saw that a lot of us actually didn’t even wear the hejab, let alone the veil!
Your video installations deal with two particular pieces of clothing – the chador, and the hejab. What do they represent to you? How do you feel about the notion – often held by both Iranians and Westerners – that they are symbols of oppression and submission?
Haleh - I think any form of clothing can be a symbol of oppression if people are forced to wear it, but as long as the choice is personal, there’s no issue; it depends on the situation, really. For example, the veil exists in the West (in wedding ceremonies, for instance), although it is used in an entirely different way.
In Departure, I’ve explored the relationship between women and fabric, particularly the shapes and forms created by the chador and the invisible gaze of veiled women. Here, the performer uses fabric as a symbol to depict the struggles, and sometimes the frustrations of individuals whose identities have been disguised. The fabric can be anything – a fake persona, an ideology; it represents something that we want to rid ourselves of. The performer in the video tries to overcome her frustrations and ultimately, get rid of the fabric and reveal her true identity. I didn’t want to limit myself just to the use of the chador here, though. I showed the piece to a Colombian friend of mine recently, and she didn’t even make the Middle Eastern connection – she thought the woman was trying to escape a bubble.
Do you think Farrokhzad’s ‘call to arms’ is limited to an Iranian/Middle Eastern context, or is hers a universal declaration? What does she have to say to Western audiences? What, ultimately, is the ‘message’ of this exhibition?
Mona - Farrokhzad began to deconstruct gender expectations in Iran, and I think we can universally explore these much more than we have done so far. It appears that in every culture, there are certain prescribed ways of being a woman and a man. There are gender expectations that vary to the degree of how traditional or contemporary one chooses to interpret their culture of origin. The idea of struggling with gender expectations is a very contemporary issue, and we assume that Western culture has a different belief at its core, despite the similarities. I believe that we are all on a continuum of interpretation when it comes to spiritual/cultural mythologies and creation myths, and that it is less about the stories and ‘rules’ of culture, and more about how often we revisit and break down previously held expectations.
Sara - One of my hopes for audiences viewing this exhibition is to widen the spectrum of representation of what it means to be a woman of Iranian descent. White people in America are afforded a wide spectrum of representation. All of us, no matter what race we belong to, are trained by the media to believe that white people can be nerds, artists, engineers, rich, poor, shy, outgoing, etc. You get the idea. But the rest of us as marginalised groups are not given that range, and our representations are narrow, and as a result, often very stereotyped. The reality is that every racial group has the counter-culturists, the conservatives, and the various subctultures; there’s no one way to be ‘Latino’ or ‘Iranian’, even though the media tries to convince us otherwise, and many of us buy into that and recreate that in our communities. In the West, our reference points have been women in chadors and the ‘Persian Princesses’ of Los Angeles. I see this exhibition as part of a step in another direction. The issues that Haleh and Mona are exploring add dimension to otherwise flat representations of female Iranian artists in the diaspora.
That Person Who is Your Creation runs through April 26, 2013 at the Asian Arts Initiative
Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.), an award-winning writer, is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Christie's, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Harper's Bazaar Art Arabia, Canvas, and Songlines, and is the author of a new translation of Omar Khayyam's poems from Persian into English.