A mustachioed, muscle-bound figure cradles a machine gun in front of his blue, flaming pick-up, adorned with Iranian wrestling chaps and a Dolce & Gabanna belt buckle. In Iranian artist Siamak Filizadeh's portrayal of Rostam, a Herculean figure from tenth-century Persian literature, he recreates an ancient figure of Iranian culture with accoutrements that seem largely materialistic and Western. The result seems to be a tongue-in-cheek blend of modern and national identity, whose spirit thrives despite the dominance of religion since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. A slim, though Hulk Hogan-esque, figure, Zaal, adorned with a cannabis necklace and a softball-sized belt buckle proclaiming in bright red letters "TEXAS," accompanies Rostam in Filizadeh's Zaal arrives to help Rostam, Rostan 2 the Return, 2008.
Filizadeh is one of 21 Iranian artists included in an abridged version of the Chelsea Art Museum's (CAM) exhibition Iran Inside Out, which is showing at DePaul University Art Museum until November 22. The art focuses on the breadth of vibrant identities in Iran, half of whose people are under 30, in light of the threat of sanctions from the West, political discord following a disputed election, and economic mismanagement by the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The results are dazzling, though meant to focus on the artists rather than purely themes of politics or oppression.
“Let’s not hijack the artwork,” says CAM curator Sam Bardaouil in Time Out Chicago. “[Iranian] artists are always burdened with all this history. This show is also about the artists as individuals.”
In the above shot of Iran Inside Out at DePaul, one sees Sara Rahbar's Did You See What Love Did to Us Once Again, Flag, 2008. The flag of the United States is draped correctly, superimposed with a embroidered golden outline of the Middle East. The words "Did you see what love did to us once again" are embroidered in Persian on the stripes, having come from the fourteenth-century poet, Hafez. Rahbar, a member of the diaspora fleeing the Iran-Iraq civil war, meant to portray her personal search for identity in melding pieces of Persian and American traditions. The exhibit notes explain, "conflicted emotions of love not only suggest her personal search for identity, but also the tortuous relationship between Iran and the United States."
In other works, the line between the West and Iran becomes further blurred and questioning of any perceived hostility. Arash Sedaghatkish's watercolors portray several hip-looking, attractive Tehran students dressed in jeans and puma shoes and backpacks, sometimes only distinguishing themselves from Midwesterners by a loosened hijab. In the CAM catalog, Sedaghatkish explains the desire to explore "the shift between familiarity and newness." Though the exploration portrayed could itself bend the rules of tradition and dress code.
To the right, Behdad Lahooti's A Cliche for Mass Media takes a stab at broken promises from Iran's government, highlighting domestic frustrations, through the use of a floor toilet. Flowing down the drain are slogans of government promises for "housing for youth," "economy," and "jobs." Lahooti's droll representation expresses the dissatisfaction of youth in relation to the Islamic Republic, which in my mind mirrors apathy in the United States toward the efficacy of its own republican government. In a snarky nod to common disillusionment with government, Lahooti identifies himself in the lower right-hand corner as a "sculptor for hire," giving his phone number and imploring the viewer to send him better ideas. I dare say that "tea baggers" in the U.S. could find common ground with Iranians in their dissatisfaction.
In a vein potentially more controversial with the west, Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi collaborated to make Operation Supermarket, an exhibit first shown in Bidoun magazine and Counter Gallery in 2006. The emphasis was on making stereotypes in the media regarding the Middle East into commodities bought and sold in the name of some questionable idea of progress. To the left is the commonly portrayed idea of intifada struggles against the West, the shallow commodification of which allows those ghastly blood stains to be magically whisked away with the help of laundry detergent. I could see a similar work where a detergent called "Donald Rumsfeld" magically brings peace and democracy to Iraq with the simple application of U.S. troops. The works seem to mock the idea that consumerism, capitalism, and the ephemeral idea of progress can overcome years of injustice and strong emotion between the West and Iran.
In all, the artists in the wonderful exhibition at DePaul show the range and depth of emotion that is often lost in the pervasive message of Us v. Them when it comes to relations between the West and Iran, young and old Iranians, and progressives and clerics. The CAM's Iran Inside Out invites us to look at the complexity of our situation as a collection of individuals who have similar frustrations with our respective governments, moralities, and with each other.
The Chelsea Art Museum's Iran Inside Out will be showing until November 22 at DePaul University Art Museum. On November 12 at 7:30 pm, artist, Negin Sharifzadeh, will present a dance performance, Beyond the Sense of Breaking.