Birmingham

Taravat Talepasand: Not an Arab Spring at Beta Pictoris Gallery

Taravat Talepasand’s work takes on the representational codes and image systems of the Iranian state: national currency, political propaganda, religious iconography, and gendered forms of identity making. The paintings in Not an Arab Spring open up the ideological assumptions that index Iranian identity, state power, and gender in order to consider how the body (male and female) comes to signify the state as well as rebel against it.

Khomeini

Taravat Talepasand. Khomeini, 2015; egg tempura on linen; 48 x 36 in.

However, there is more to Talepasand’s practice than poststructuralist critique. By staging provocative encounters between aesthetic conventions, techniques, and traditions of European and Islamic art, Talepasand’s work challenges the viewer to uncover (and thus confront) the tricks and abstractions that coalesce into effective forms of image making and propaganda, and reorder the various disciplinary processes that continue to shape our understanding of “Eastern” and “Western” subjectivity and aesthetics. If anything, the exhibition is a recovery project of the material images of contemporary Iran, and a sophisticated détournement of state power. Of course, states and nations do not exist a priori, but are founded in reified objects, invented symbols, cultural traditions, material bodies, ideological apparatuses, and reflexively discursive acts that replicate and reproduce power relations and inform the visual and conceptual consciousness of real and imagined communities existing within and outside borders and national goals.[1] However, the ideological unification between the assumptions and condition of Iran’s theocratic government, the will of the public, and the messy history that ignited the constitutional revolution of 1979 can never be fully covered over, as Talepasand’s mockery of famous propaganda images makes clear.

Over the course of three decades, the leftist and anti-imperialist ideals of Marx, Fanon, and Sartre transformed Iran into a nation of Supreme Leaders, hardline clerics, and Revolutionary Guards working together to punish and execute dissenters, with a cynical public victimized under U.S. sanctions and not eager for change from abroad.[2] One can find these ideological gaps and contradictions in Talepasand’s work; much of it begins with the appropriation of mass-produced images that hang in the Iranian subject’s social subconscious, and in particular, Ayatollah Khomeini’s recognizable three-quarter portrait, which can be found all over the streets of cosmopolitan cities as well as in textbooks, on national currency, and even over the sink in public washrooms. Talepasand’s Technicolor egg-tempera adaptation of the Imam’s stern gaze and sharp features bestows an uncanny artificiality to the image reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s neon screen prints of political and pop-cultural celebrities. By exposing these cultural actors as human commodities—the bearers of desire and cultural myth memorialized in the reproducible image—Warhol was able to point to the dialectic between fullness and void that animates the commodity fetish and its similarity to the symbolic content of the iconic figure. Talepasand directs her violence toward Khomeini’s golden aura, his noble head dissolving into itself as if it had been burned in protest or caught in some unnameable disaster; this interrupts the neutralizing action usually endowed by serialization of a reproducible image, and visually opens the leader’s political past to the possibility of destruction by individual or group action.

Blasphemy_7

Taravat Talepasand. Blasphemy VII, 2015; pigment and 12 hits of LSD on Iranian currency; 9 x 6.5 in.

The cultural image of the Ayatollah is pushed into even more extreme provocation in Blasphemy VII (2015), an appropriation of the Iranian riyal, which features Khomeini in a frontal position with his eyes looking up and away from the viewer, as if he were preparing to speak to Allah. Talepasand interrupts his holy thoughts and directs his gaze toward an ink drawing of a nude woman with legs open and arms curled around a breast and twisted into her hair. Twelve hits of lysergic acid splattered onto the currency lend the image a dangerous quality; LSD is a drug that offers its user a heightened spiritual experience often accompanied by feelings of loss of identity, ego, and relationship to the exterior world. It holds the possibility of reconfiguring the structures of gender norms that dominate Islamic societies into a more open, fluid field of relations. Sexually available and confident, the naked woman forms the repressed “other” in relation to Khomeini—the fetishized body that structures the opposite side of representational politics in Iran. Persian women and their bodies have become the surfaces upon which political, economic, religious, and social antagonisms foment. Discriminatory laws against women (such as the state-supported mandate that women are solely responsible for the moral behavior of men) and restrictive access to professional positions and administrative, religious, political, military, economic, judicial, and cultural institutions have rendered recourse to the law unstable for Iranian women. They are second-class citizens suffering from systematic disadvantages, structural inequalities, and institutional injustices promoted by forms of religious essentialism in a male-dominated society.

Still Life_Half Sin

Taravat Talepasand. Still Life: Half Sin, 2011; egg tempura and gold leaf on linen; 43 x 36 in.

The dramatic political shifts of 1979 shaped a women’s movement in Iran that is difficult to compare to more Western notions of feminist liberation and resistance. Losses to women’s civil rights under Islamic state authority are complicated by the strong political organization of women during “the spring of freedom” in the two years that followed the uprising; citizens from all political stripes and socio-economic backgrounds rallied around their newfound voices, only to suffer greatly as political factions collapsed under Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic mandates of the 1980s. As Arzoo Osanloo stated, the “long history of public activism for rights” allowed Iranian women to become immersed in the languages of democracy, equality, and civil liberties earlier than their Arabic sisters; in our contemporary times, there are high rates of female literacy, education, and women in the workforce, but Iranian feminists and progressives are still restricted by the opposing private and pubic performances demanded by the restrictions of the state.[3] Still Life: Half Sin (2011) captures this dichotomy in an ambiguous game of show-and-tell where outside and inside, public and private, ritual and recreation are assembled into a contradictory allegory of female sexuality and empowerment. Faces are identifiable or blank, breasts are exposed while faces are hidden, backs are turned, mouths are covered, graffiti is juxtaposed with the private imagery of sexual desire and fantasy, and playful peeking or teasing is often indistinguishable from hiding or fear. Unresolved in tone, Still Life sums up the ambiguous terrain of female civil rights in Iran.

While playful irony and destructive violence seem to make strange bedfellows in Talepasand’s work, this exhibition is not devoid of optimism. The exhibition title’s reference to the Arab Spring asks the viewer to consider Iran’s absence in the revolutionary wave of demonstrations, riots, and civil wars that began in Tunisia in 2010, and to acknowledge the emancipatory failures brought on by Iran’s 1979 Constitutional Revolution. It also points to the transformative possibilities that animate the most sacred and celebrated day in the Persian calendar—the beginning of spring, or Persian New Year (Nowruz)—as well as the appearance of the student-led Green Movement and protests sparked by the presidential elections in 2011. While Iran’s inability to participate in the uprisings that captured the world has caused many Iranian nationals and exiles to abandon any notion of political change or reform[4], liberatory sentiment is part of Iran’s national history and cultural consciousness. Looking at Khomeini’s face fading into a field of color or disintegrating into flame, I am reminded that spring is a rebirth with history at its back.

Taravat Talepasand: Not an Arab Spring is on view at Beta Pictoris Gallery in Birmingham through June 18, 2015.

 

[1] For similar concepts and theorizations of “The State,” see: Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State (New York: Routledge Press, 1997); Schlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of an Idea, 1815 to the Present (New York: Penguin Books, 2013).

[2] For excellent studies of Iran since the revolution, see: James Buchan, Days of God: The Revolution and Its Consequences (New York: John Murray Press, 2013); and Adam Shatz, “A Little Feu de Joie,” The London Review of Books, Vol. 35, No. 8, April 25, 2013, pp. 6-8.

[3] See Caitlin Pendleton and Olivia Zhu’s article, “New Feminism in Iran,” in The Harvard Political Review, November 8, 2011: http://harvardpolitics.com/world/new-feminism-in-iran/.

[4] This may have been a blessing in disguise, as the legacy of the Arab Spring is still in flux due to the aggressive increase of state censorship, violence, oppression, and authoritative rule ushered in by the protests.

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