Iran So Far Away

If you ask politicians, Iran is a dangerous enemy with fundamentalist ideologies that oppress its people and threaten the West.  I rarely ask politicians anything, though, because I don’t really trust a bunch of old white men who rely on fear-mongering to continue their careers and their paychecks.  How about we ask someone who has lived in both Iran and America?  Someone who has over fifty years of navigating between the two countries and their evolving cultures and who experienced Islam as an Iranian woman and as an American woman?  That seems to make more sense than listening to Lindsey Graham or Donald Trump ignorantly spout off about terrorists.  Fuck that.  How about we learn about Shirin Neshat and her art?

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Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957.  Her parents raised her Muslim, but were open to Western ideas as well as Islamic ones.  Neshat even attended a Catholic school in Tehran.  Her parents encouraged their daughters to become what they wanted to be and do the things they wanted to do.  Go, mom and dad.  In 1974, Neshat moved to California to study art at U.C. Berkeley.  She completed a BA, an MA, and an MFA.  Go, Shirin.  In 1990, she returned to Iran for the first time in 16 years.  After this visit, Neshat began to focus her art on the social climate created by modern Islam and the impact on women.  Her first solo show was in 1993 at the Franklin Furnace in New York.  From 1993 to 1997, Neshat created a series of photos called “Women of Allah.”  They are striking black and white pictures of women wearing the traditional chador and holding weapons.  The skin that is visible is covered in poetry written in Farsi by Iranian women poets.  These photos play with the ideas of femaleness and violence (usually associated with masculinity).  She released many videos during those years as well.  In 1998, Neshat began a three-part video series that utilized dual projection to emphasize the contrasts between men and women, and public and private spaces.  Neshat won First International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999.  In 2006, she received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.  For her film “Women without Men,” Neshat won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.  That same year, she participated in a three day hunger strike at the U.N. Headquarters protesting the Iranian presidential elections.  Neshat has had two retrospectives: one in 2013 at the Detroit Institute of Arts and one in 2015 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.  Neshat work has been shown in solo shows across the world from Mexico City to South Africa to Denmark to Singapore.  She participated in multiple film festivals and has been artist in residence at two American art centers.

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Neshat’s work is provocative and intended to open a dialog.  She uses photography and video to highlight contrasts: men and women, femininity and fundamentalist Islam, personhood and society, control and freedom, the West and Islamic culture.  She also addresses the ideal of martyrdom.  Neshat stated that “art is a weapon.  Culture is a form of resistance.”  By showing varying ideas, both conflicting and coexisting, Neshat allows the viewer to examine them.  She asks the viewer if they can be reconciled, if there are inequities, and if they are oppositional or complimentary.  Answers are not necessarily the point; the discussion is Neshat’s goal.  Neshat has turned her experiences, heritage, and observations into conversations about the many issues that relate to modern Islam and modern Iran.  And she’s done a beautiful job of it.

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Shuo Me the Way

China is familiar with change.  In just the last 50 years, it went through the Cultural Revolution, Communism, the Tiananmen Square Protests, and turned into a global capitalist power.  But frequent and rapid change doesn’t mean they’ve handled it with aplomb and adaptability.  Millions of Chinese citizens have been persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, killed, robbed of their land and possessions, and silenced.  People who speak against these abuses often find themselves on the receiving end of them.  But activists, artists, and writers continue to bring attention to the problems and contradictions of oppressive and hypocritical regimes.  Jiang Shuo is one of those awesome artists.

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Jiang Shuo was born in Beijing in 1958.  She studied sculpture at the Central Academy of Arts and Design, what is now the Academy of Fine Arts at Tsinghua University.  At the time, there were very few female art students.  Shuo then became the first female sculptor to complete a post-graduate degree in China.  Kickass.  Her first solo show was in 1985.  Shuo lectured at the school from 1986 through 1989 and then moved to Austria after receiving a scholarship to study at a university there.  In 1993, Shuo became an Austrian citizen.  She has exhibited her work in China, New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland.  Her work is sold in galleries and at auctions in New York, Beijing, and Hong Kong.  She currently splits her time between Austria and China and continues to produce awesome work.

Shuo is an expert in the lost-wax technique, also known as cire-perdue.  This is an ancient, like 2000s BCE ancient, method for creating bronze (and other metals) sculpture.  First, the artist makes a wax replica of what will be the sculpture.  Sprues, little tubes, are attached.  It is through these sprues that the melted wax will be removed and the bronze poured in.  Next, plaster is made and the wax model is encased in plaster.  This is placed in a kiln and the wax heats and melts and runs out the tubes.  Melted metal is then poured into the mold and allowed to set up and cool.  The plaster and sprues are removed and finishing touches can be added.  The sculptures, as we see with Shuo, can be quite intricate and detailed.  What is really cool about this technique is that every piece is unique.  There are no duplicates.

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Shuo’s early work had a folk-art feel to it.  She depicted children enjoying life, playing and laughing in bronze.  Beginning in 2003, Shuo started the ‘Red Guard’ series that drew on her experiences during the Cultural Revolution and the current transformative period as China evolves into a capitalist powerhouse.  The early ‘Red Guard’ bronzes show figures in the uniform of the Red Guard holding red flags and the red book.  These figures have an open mouth and no other facial features.  As the series progressed, the red flags and red books disappeared.  In their place were markers of Western capitalism and consumption: Coca Cola bottles, McDonald’s hamburgers, cell phones, coins.  The works are humorous, pop-like, and dare I say cute, but they offer a pointed critique.  The Cultural Revolution and its Red Guard went after the ‘bourgeois’ and its extravagances.  Now, those same people who persecuted luxury and capitalism are growing rich as businessmen and driving a growing capitalist economy with their consumerism.

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China has not always been kind to artists offering critiques.  But Jiang Shuo will not be intimidated or silenced.  She continues to make cool art with awesome techniques that has something important to say.  Rock on, Jiang Shuo!

The Longhi and Short of It

Ah, the Italian Renaissance.  An age of artistic mastery and amazing men: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, and so many more.  The Renaissance Man is believed to be a multi-talented gentlemen with a thirst for knowledge and a cosmopolitan outlook.  Except actual Renaissance men advocated strict social classism, didn’t want women to read or write because the idea frightened them, settled disputes by stabbing each other with pointy metal sticks, and were adamant that the world was flat.  Sounds fancy.  And yet, they are idealized and admired.  It’s the Renaissance women who should be applauded.  Not only did they have to put up with the men, but they had to fight to be included in any field of study or practice.  Women were believed to ruin creativity, but a few still managed to become great artists.

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Barbara Longhi was born in Ravenna, Italy in 1552, during the Counter-Reformation.  Her father was a Mannerist painter and she learned to paint in his studio.  She was involved in all aspects of the business: she helped on large commissions, modeled, interacted with patrons, and worked on her own paintings and commissions.  Longhi was well-known in the artistic community of Ravenna and respected for her talent.  She was prolific, but many of her works were lost and many were unsigned and thus unknown.  Longhi has only 15 known works, though some of the paintings attributed to her father may well be hers.  Only one of her known works depicts an adult man; the ‘Camaldolese Monk’ was done in either 1570 or 1573.  Longhi was commissioned by a monastery to paint St. Catherine and the resulting ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ is believed to be a self-portrait.  Most of her subjects are religious and devotional.  Longhi painted several St. Catherines, Judith with the head of Holofernes, and many depictions of the Virgin and child.  She was included in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1568.  Her paintings can be seen at the Museo d’Arte della Citta di Ravenna, the Louvre in Paris, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, the Museo Biblioteca del Grappa, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Santa Maria Maggiore in Ravenna.  Longhi died in 1638.

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Mannerism reacted to High Renaissance styles that emphasized balance, drama, symmetry, and proportion (i.e. the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).  Mannerism exaggerated proportion and played with asymmetry.  It emphasized elegance over emotions and grand gestures.  Longhi’s father was a Mannerist and some of these stylistic components can be seen in her works.  Longhi’s works are serene and elegant.  She did small works with simple compositions and a warmer color palette.  The subjects of her paintings convey a sense of peace and introspection.  Longhi’s paintings are great and her ability to be a successful, respected, talented artist in the time of Renaissance men shows her badassness.

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B. Yourself

Life in rural India is pretty shitty for women.  They struggle with poverty, hunger, homelessness, strict gender roles, misogyny, and physical and sexual violence.  But women are strong as hell and B. Prabha set out to show it.

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B. Prabha was born in rural India near Maharashtra in 1933.  She studied at the Nagpur School of Art and later received her degree from the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai.  Prabha had her first exhibit in 1956.  In 1958, her paintings were shown in the State Art Exhibition and she won first prize.  Hell yes.  She had solo shows in 1959, 1961, and 1993.  In 1996, Prabha’s paintings were included in the Contemporary Indian Painters show in Mumbai.  Her work has been in more than 50 exhibitions around the world and she has paintings in India’s National Gallery of Modern Art.  B. Prabha died in Nagpur, India in 2001.

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Prabha was a painter in a time when women were still fairly excluded from the Indian artistic community.  After experimenting with a variety of media while she was young, Prabha stuck with oil painting.  Her subjects are rural women, portrayed in daily life, elongated, elegant, and haunting.  The seemingly simple scenes show courage in the face of suffering, oppression, and poverty.  These images of poor women in rural communities were revolutionary at the time, and they still make a big impact today.  By showing the plight of women in her work, Prabha was able to bring attention to social and economic inequities and to give these women a voice in the wider world.  She stated that “I have yet to see one happy woman” in rural India, which was probably 100% true and 100% sad.  These women needed to be seen and heard, and Prabha made that happen.

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B. Prabha broke traditions and made some great fucking art in the process.  She was an artist when women rarely were.  She painted people who were neglected and ignored, all while affirming their personhood and their strength.  She brought attention to issues that were avoided.  And she did it all with skill, talent, and conviction. B. Prabha is an awesome Indian painter, and we should all know who she is and pay attention to what her paintings have to say.

Don’t Cry For Me, Norah Borges

I’m going to get this out of the way.  Leonor Fanny Borges Acevedo, or Norah for short, had a famous brother who wrote a bunch of stuff.  I could talk about him, but I’m not going to.  Women artists deserve to stand on their own, without having a brother or husband or father to give them legitimacy and attention.  All I want to talk about is Norah Borges and her art.

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Norah Borges was born in 1901 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  She was outgoing, adventurous, and daring.  She moved to Switzerland as a child so her father could receive specialized medical treatment there.  Then World War I started and the family was stuck in Europe.  While the Borges clan twiddled their thumbs, Norah attended the Ecole Des Beaux-Artes in Geneva.  In 1915, Borges wrote and illustrated her first book of poetry, ‘Notas Lejanas.’  She studied with Maurice Sarkisoff and Arnaldo Bossi, among many others.  Borges then traveled to Spain and began to do work for magazines involved in the Ultraism movement and illustrated books of poetry.  In 1921, Borges returned to Buenos Aires.  A surrealist magazine, ‘Manometre,’ published pictures of her paintings in 1923.  Her work was again published one year later in the Argentinean literature magazine, ‘Martin Fierro.’  In 1926, Borges showed over 75 paintings, drawings, wood carvings, and other works in the Asociacion Amigos del Arte exhibition.  She got married in 1928 to Guillermo del Torre, an author and artist also involved in Ultraism.  During World War II, Borges actively and loudly supported la Junta de la Victoria, an anti-fascist feminist group.  She spoke out against president Juan Domingo Peron and went to jail.  After being released, Borges went right back to illustrating books and making art.  She also served as art critic for the Anales de Buenos Aires under a male pseudonym, because, you know, a woman couldn’t possibly know anything about art.  Sigh.  Norah Borges died in 1998.  Over the course of her life, she illustrated almost 80 books, had illustrations in several Avant Garde magazines, and was an artistic pioneer in the Avant Garde and Ultraism movements.

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Borges, despite being prolific and active for decades, did not exhibit often and preferred to give her works away instead of selling them.  Perhaps this contributes to the rarity of seeing her art in museums and her obscurity as an artist.  But, her work is beautiful and deserves notice and appreciation.  Ultraism railed against modernism and sentimentalism, and rejected ornamental aspects and lack of substance.  Borges embraced these ideas and added many of her own.  Her style also incorporated expressionism, cubism, and futurism.  When at the Ecole des Beaux-Artes, Sarkisoff told Borges to reject the rules of art school and to forge her own style and artistic path.  She certainly did that.  Borges was an artistic trailblazer, a kickass artist, a proud feminist and activist, and managed to put up with decades of whiny poets and their poetry.  You’re a better woman than I, Norah Borges.

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Visual Activism 101

A constitution is written.  Laws are enacted.  Amendments are passed.  Equal rights and equal treatment are guaranteed and bigotry and violence fade away into the distant past.  Bunnies knit rainbows out of butterfly wings and free pizza and puppies show up at everyone’s doorsteps.  Or not.  South Africa’s Constitution (adopted in 1996) prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.  In 2006, the government legalized same-sex marriage.  And each year members of South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ community experience discrimination, hate crimes, and violence, including over 500 (reported, more go unreported) “corrective rapes” perpetrated on lesbians each year.  Despite the progress, true equality and safety remain out of reach.

Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, South Africa in 1972.  She grew up under apartheid.  In 1991, she came out as a lesbian.  She helped found the Forem for the Empowerment of Women in 2002, a lesbian organization and a space for women to meet and organize.  Muholi began studying photography in 2003.  One year later, she had her first solo show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.  In 2005 she received the Tollman Award for the Visual Arts.  In 2009, Muholi graduated from Ryerson University with a MFA in Documentary Media.  That same year, she founded another organization, Inkanyiso, which facilitates LGBTQIA+ activism through the visual arts and the media.  Their mission statement is “Produce.  Educate.  Disseminate.”  Muholi has won several awards and fellowships from around the world.  She has had solo exhibits in Nigeria, Austria, Milan, London, Amsterdam, Montreal, and New York City.   Her work has been shown in group exhibitions across the globe, from Toronto to Singapore to Brazil to Mali.  In 2014, Muholi presented at the prestigious Design Indaba Conference.

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But it hasn’t been all accolades and appreciation for Muholi.  In 2009, South Africa’s Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, left an exhibition that included Muholi’s photographs of lesbians saying it was offensive and immoral.  Three years later, Muholi’s apartment was broken into and over 20 hard drives were taken.  They contained years of her work.  Nothing else of value was taken, suggesting the theft was specifically motivated by her work and activism.  Real mature, people; that’ll stop her. *eye roll*

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So, what is so offensive about Zanele Muholi?  She is black; she is a lesbian; she is an artist; she is an activist.   Each one of those things would be cause for conservative undies to get in a bunch, but put it all together and you have a layer cake of controversy.  Her work, mostly photography and some video, focuses on the struggles of being black and LGBTQIA+ in South Africa.  Muholi stated, “You can’t change the laws without changing the images.  It is one thing to say we exist; it is another to show it.  Art is political, art is about activism.”  To instigate change, challenge prejudice, and raise awareness, Muholi creates series of photographs of people and daily life events in the black LGBTQIA+ community.  “Faces and Phases” is a series of more than 200 photographs of South African black lesbians.  They are striking, beautiful black and white portraits.  Muholi documents all aspects of LGBTQIA+ life: weddings, intimacy, funerals, hate crimes.  It is intense work.  “I have listened to so many people’s pain,” Muholi said, “and it meant I had to sleep with that pain…”  But by showing images of the community, by documenting its daily experiences, the LGBTQIA+ community is being seen.  It normalizes what is often seen as “other,” and challenges prejudices of gender, sexuality, and race.  Muholi, continues to challenge herself artistically.  She also, only recently, began to turn the camera on herself.  She found self-portraits to be intense and confrontational: “…you want to tell the truth, but at the same time you have reservations for confronting the self, dealing with you.”  In these portraits she often darkens her skin tone, emphasizing her blackness and its beauty.

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Muholi continues to create and to fight for the black LGTBQIA+ community, and the LGBTQIA+ community on the whole.  And picture by picture, she is making a difference.  Zanele Muholi: visual activist and badass extraordinaire.

Carmen Get It

101 years old.  Each morning you go into your studio to make art, same as you’ve done for the last seventy-something years.  Every now and then, you take a break and have a scotch.  Then you get back to your painting.  Your mobility has decreased, you are in a wheel chair, and have assistants that can help you when you need it.  You are successful and your work is internationally recognized.  When I am 101 years old, if I get there, I imagine I will just lie in bed and moan and drink tea with my dogs.   But Carmen Herrera, Cuban centenarian and brilliant abstract artist, just keeps on creating.

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Herrera was born in Cuba in 1915.  Her father was the editor of the El Mundo newspaper.  Her mother worked there as a reporter.  In the early 1930s, Herrera traveled to Paris.  She returned to Cuba in 1935 and started studying architecture.  In 1939, she met and married Jesse Loewenthal, a teacher, and they moved to New York City.  In New York, Herrera began studying art at the Art Students League.  She returned to Paris 1947.  While in Paris she began to simplify her style and focus on spatial relationships in her paintings.  Herrera said of this period, “I began a lifelong process of purification, a process of taking away what isn’t essential.”  She exhibited her work at the Salon des Realites Nouvelles.  Herrera returned to New York in 1954 and has remained there ever since.  Over the next two decades, she showed her work at the Galeria Sudamericana, the Trabia Gallery, and the Cisneros Gallery.  Herrera received a Fellowship from the Cintas Foundation in 1966 that ran through 1968, and a Creative Artists Public Service Grant in 1977.  In 1986, she exhibited at the Alternative Gallery.  She continued to remain pretty unknown, but kept getting up every day and painting.  She explained that “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure.”  It wasn’t until 2004, at the ripe old age of 89, that Herrera sold her first painting.  So much yay!  Since then, she has enjoyed growing recognition and success.  In 2009, there was a small retrospective of her work in the IKON Gallery in England that also traveled to the Pfalzgalerie Museum in Germany.  A large retrospective is planned for the fall of this year (2016) at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Herrera’s art is in the collections at the Tate Modern, MoMA in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., the Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  A documentary, directed by Alison Klayman, was made about her life, The 100 Years Picture.  It may have taken 90 years, but the world is finally paying attention to this kickass painter.

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Herrera’s art is abstract, geometric, and colorful.  She begins a painting by doing a pencil sketch on graph paper.  Then she makes a small color sketch on velum with paint markers, and sometimes does a larger color sketch on paper as well.  After that, she paints.  To get sharp clear lines and saturated colors, Herrera uses tape and rolls the paint on with a roller in several coats.  Once it is complete, it is hung on the wall and she thinks about it.  Sometimes she keeps it, sometimes she scraps it and starts over.  Herrera’s love of painting began almost a century ago, her success followed decades later.  Her paintings combine her intellect and her heart in minimal compositions with vivid colors.  And they keep on coming.  We should all be so lucky to find a passion that carries us through the centuries.  Carmen Herrera, you are a fucking inspiration.  Keep creating!

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