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?

neshatportrait

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.

neshatphoto

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.

neshat-beach

Advertisements

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.

shuoportrait

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.

shuosculpture1

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.

shuosculpture2

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!

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.

PrabhaPortrait

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.

PrabhaPainting1

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.

PrabhaPainting2

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.

BorgesPortrait

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.

BorgesPainting

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.

Borges Woodcut

To Infinity and Beyond!

Polka-dots.  Cheerful, bright, rhythmic polka-dots.  You run into them on clothes and home decor, kitchen ware and pet accessories.  And thanks to kickass contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, they are finally in art museums and galleries around the world.  Who is this wonderful polka-dot warrior?  Let’s find out…yayoiportrait

Yayoi Kusama was born in Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan in 1929.  She began studying Nihonga painting in Kyoto, Japan in 1948 but found the strict master-student method of learning to be odious.  In 1957, Kusama moved to Seattle and then to New York City.  She struggled for a time financially, but blossomed artistically.  Kusama worked quickly and was very prolific.  She had her first solo show in 1959 at the Breta Gallery.  While in New York, she found friendship with Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell, and other artists.  After almost two decades, in 1973, Kusama returned to Japan.  She checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill in 1977 after a life-long struggle with hallucinations, obsessive thoughts, and suicidal urges.  She has lived there ever since and has a nearby studio where she continues to create art, mostly large, brightly painted canvases.  Kusama also writes and has published works of poetry, novels, and autobiographical material.  In 2006, Kusama received the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award and the Women’s Caucus for Art’s Lifetime Achievement Award.  Her art is in the permanent collections at MoMA in New York, LACMA, the Walker Art Center, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, and the National Museum of Tokyo.  In 2014, one of her pieces, “White no. 28,” sold for $7.1 million at auction, the highest ever paid for a living female artist.  Yay, Yayoi!

So, that’s who, where, and when, but what about the art?  What about the polka-dots?  The polka-dots have always been with her.  In a childhood drawing of a woman, polka-dots cover over the page.  From around the time she was 10 on, Kusama began repeatedly using polka-dots in her drawings and paintings.  In the 1950s, Kusama created massive works she called “Infinity Nets.”  She took long canvases, 30 feet long and over, and covered them in dots and net-like patterns.  In the 1960s, she began doing installations and sculptures.  She lined rooms with mirrors and colored balls and lights and created the feeling of a space that continued forever.  She painted polka dots on object and people and took photos of the works.  Kusama began making films.  She also started staging happenings, doing performance pieces, and facilitating anti-war protests in the 1960s that involved her painting her own and other naked bodies with polka-dots.  These performances had awesome names like “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead at MoMA.”   Fuck yes.

In 1966, Kusama participated in the Venice Biennale.  Her piece, “Narcissus Garden,” involved hundreds of orbs mirrored on the outside and her standing in a gold kimono.  She sold the mirrored balls for a few dollars each to visitors until the Biennale shut her down.  I guess a critique of the art market wasn’t so popular in the middle of an art owner/art dealer masturbation-fest.  Go figure.

yayoiroomShe continued making sculpture, paintings, and installations.  She returned to the Venice Biennale in 1993 with a room lined with mirrors and filled with polka-dotted pumpkin sculptures.  In the 2000s, Kusama created furnished rooms covered in brightly colored polka-dots illuminated by UV lights; she called these “I’m Here, but Nothing.”  Her solo show “KUSAMATRIX” in 2004 in Tokyo drew in over half a million people.  That’s almost the same as the population of Tucson, Arizona.  She has had several Retrospectives: MoMA in 1998, the Whitney Museum in 2012, and the Tate Modern in 2012.  She has also created many public art pieces including a mural in Lisbon, a bus that runs through her home town, and a massive polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture.  She has collaborated with fashion designers as well.yayoipumpkin

In talking about her fascination with polka-dots, Kusama said, “A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm.  Round, soft, colorful, senseless, and unknowing…Polka-dots are a way to infinity.”  So, the next time you put on that retro polka-dotted dress or wash your polka-dotted Crate and Barrel plates, know that you are a little closer to the infinite energy of the universe.  Thanks, Yayoi Kusama!