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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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.

The Art of Trauma

Let’s talk transgender turkey for a minute.  Transgender women are women.  If you disagree and/or your feminism doesn’t include them, you kind of suck.  That said…

“Jewish gay transgender woman artist” is not a phrase you hear much, or at all, in the art world.  But, lucky for us, there is an awesome woman named Yishay Garbasz making art and busting through cis-hetero-patriarchal walls.  Now that I’ve rolled out a long string of labels, I’d like to roll them back.  Garbasz said in an interview in 2013, “I’m an artist.  I’m not a trans-artist, I’m not a Jewish artist, just an artist.  And I think that’s important; a lot of people struggle with gender as something that shapes their life…There’s a lot more to life than that.  Society constrains a lot of people into very specific things, and if there wasn’t a social ostracism they would have much bigger lives.”  And she’s right.  So, let’s just talk about a bitchin’ contemporary artist and her work.

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Yishay Garbasz was born in 1970 in Israel; her parents were survivors of World War II and the Holocaust.  She studied photography at Bard College in the early 2000s, though she also does installation art and performance pieces.  She won the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 2004.  In 2008, Garbasz moved to Berlin and has been based there ever since.  She won Berlin Woman Filmmaker of the Year in 2010.  Garbasz is interested in trauma.  The memories of trauma, the sites of trauma, the passing along of trauma from person to person and place to person, the post-trauma experience.  Her work also addresses identity and her life as a woman.

One of her earlier undertakings was begun in 2004 (ending in 2009) and involved Garbasz retracing her mother’s steps through the Holocaust and photographing it.  She went everywhere her mother was from 1942 through 1945: the Jewish ghetto her mother lived in as a girl, the concentrations camps, along the route of the death march her mother was forced to go on.  All while lugging a large-format single-negative camera on a tripod.  When speaking of “In My Mother’s Footsteps,” Garbasz said “my mother lost parts of her soul in those places and I had to go back and collect them.”  Garbasz also did a piece that centered on her branding her mother’s concentration camp number into her arm and photographed it as the wound healed.

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Documenting sites of trauma continued in her next project in which she traveled a variety of places including the DMZ between North and South Korea, the barriers running between Israel and Palestine, and the Peace Lines in Northern Ireland.  She also traveled to and photographed Fukushima, Japan post-nuclear disaster.  I think we can agree that if you want a guide for a sweet trauma-based vacation, Garbasz is your girl.

In 2008, Garbasz began “Becoming.”  She documented her transition through the gender-affirmation process by taking a nude picture of herself every week.  The 28 pictures were then made into a life-size zoetrope and a flip book.  After transitioning, Garbasz took her old testicles and exhibited them in a tank of formaldehyde.  The piece was titled, “Eat Me Damien.” Indeed.  You can take your stupid preserved shark, Damien Hirst, and suck it.

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Yishay Garbasz continues to travel and take photographs and exhibit around the world.  If you get the chance to see her work, jump on that shit.