Through sixteen years of art practice, I have learned that art is part myth, part reality, part fiction, part truth. But how to explore this rich paradox within my own art? This was the dilemma that motivated me to conceive of the Tales Left Untold (2000) series. I had already investigated issues of identity in earlier work, but I was coming to see that the way the photograph makes and breaks identities within the image itself is entirely another matter. The struggle, then, is to make photographs that comment on the very nature and culture of photography.
In this paradoxical and irreverent spirit, I dressed up in a traditional Persian outfit and explored hiding places. After traveling in the West of the United States, I found the recreated Mormon Pioneer town in Salt Lake City to be an ideal setting for exploring identity, playing roles, being known and unknown, telling and withholding. I never reveal all of me, nor all of the scene. In most of this photographic series, actually, only part of a feature or scene is shown, so as to allow more space for interpretation by showing less. Just as I have had to pick up the pieces of my identity along the way, so too, must the viewers of my exhibition turn the photographs into tales which make sense to them. My aim was to invite people to come and see this real and unreal world, this theater of identities. I tore the edges of all the photographs. I tore away at the straight documentary tradition of having to keep everything straight. I tore them to look like torn memories, torn identities–bits and pieces wanting to be whole. Tattered tales defy straight paths. Not to become larger straight angles, but to take on shapes not yet identified. Ultimately the tales are ways of a new North American, a Middle Eastern-North American woman trying to write her own myths within the older myths of North America.
In my subsequent series, I Am Not A Persian Carpet (2001), I challenge the ways that cultures have been reduced to commodities. Based on my observations in Europe and North America, it is not an exaggeration to say that in the West, the only thing known about Persian culture may very well be its carpets. In the United States specifically, all products from Iran were banned, the most lucrative ones––and, therefore, the most forbidden––being Persian carpets and caviar. I printed my body with black ink from wooden printing blocks that have many of the motifs used in Persian carpets. At times it is difficult to tell where the “real” carpet on my floor ends and the “human” carpet begins. However, the full female body or self is never shown, only fragments. At the same time that I embody the stereotype, I challenge it by being disembodied, as each photograph shows bits and pieces of a female identity that defies neat categorization. There are hints and clues to a particular identity, but they are neither definite nor complete.
Through this series, I hope to facilitate an encounter that will lead viewers to think deeply about the ways the Middle East has been stereotyped, where people have been turned into objects and categories. My photographs explore these issues in and of themselves, but also provide the space for others to debate them. At the same time that I am Not a Persian Carpet is a protest, it also serves as an invitation to ask difficult but necessary questions. In my series, I Am Not a Persian Painting, I perform in the photograph, pondering where my place is as an Iranian Greek American woman photographer in the history of the predominantly male tradition of Persian painting. In the end, I am both subject and object of my own composition, writing my own story against the backdrop of Iranian and American art.
I did not know from where in my subconscious I had pulled out the title for my photographic series, Tales Left Untold (2000). Two years later, on my first trip back in over twenty years to my native country, Iran, I found out. In a closet full of dust and disorder, with books stacked desperately in every direction, in the house we deserted twenty-one years ago when we ran to the airport for our lives, on a shelf deep within my memory, I found my parents’ book, Tales Worth Retelling. The installation, Re-Collecting Iran (2002-2004). embodies within its fabric both the process and product of my trip to Iran. It is a cultural re-collection of objects and memories left behind after twenty-two years of exile. It consists of black and white photographs taken in Iran along with personal and cultural objects that I brought back with me to the United States. Each group of objects is organized on a pedestal with a group of images relating to three themes: Transit, Home, and Visual Cross-Culture. The installation uses the ethnography exhibit aesthetic of a natural history museum, to challenge this tradition of exhibiting the Other as strange, native, backwards, etc. Because I am exhibiting the self, I am doing auto-ethnography, studying a culture as a participant within that culture– as a passionate, subjective and vulnerable observer not an objective one. Thus the objects on display have the look of a museum exhibit but are priceless only to the artist herself: from my first toys, bed sheets, and artwork that my family had deserted in Iran to contemporary Iranian popular culture items (like movie stars on key chains, photo and cinema magazines, etc.) that I brought back to share with the North American public.
It is in the process of re-collecting, that I dislocate and relocate my place between the Middle East and North America. Each act of cultural re-collection provides a material reference for me after having had my first relatives, friends, home, language and culture torn from under me. Each installation places a foundation stone into a new home that I am building away from home, but always in critical dialogue with the memory of that first home. To be ‘unhomed’, as cultural studies theorist Homi Bhabha puts it, does not mean that I am ‘homeless’. Nor does it mean that I can be accommodated easily. By occupying two places at once, a cultural hybrid becomes difficult to place. It is within this ‘third space’ of working, contesting and reconstructing that the hybrid cultural identity creates an opening for other positions to emerge. This installation is a space of ‘unhomeliness’–a space of trans-national and cross-cultural initiations.
My photographic performance series, Super East-West Woman (2002-2008) is motivated by a strategy of using humor and my own body for political and cultural critique. The idea started to take shape in 2002 after President George W. Bush branded Iran as one of the three nations comprising an “axis of evil.” It re-minded me of when I was nine years old and escaped with my family during the Islamic revolution in 1978-79. Iran’s new leaders labeled the United States as the country of the “Great Satan.” Growing up in the USA, I was destined to critique the two nations and cultures that inhabit my identity and who are so bent on vilifying each other. As an Iranian American, the demonization of the Other becomes a daily negation of the Self. At once you are depicted evil by the political propaganda of both ends of your identity: doubly evil, double negative, negating each other so that in the end you are good, because the evil cancels each other out.
So I took my chador (Farsi for Islamic covering) and turned it into a cape. The Superman figure of popular Western culture is transformed into a Superwoman whose chador turns into a cape of agency. She pokes fun at herself, her two cultures, and the ludicrous situations in which her life, between East and West, has placed her. Cultural displacement has not left her incapacitated; rather, it has given her the capacity to live out her healing vision. Armored with her Persian amulets and Greek anti-evil eye bracelets, Super East-West Woman hopes to chase away the evil for which each nation blames the other. Super East-West Woman allows her audience to have a good laugh with her– to invite and create an opening for conversation in the way that strong humor can do and take the dialogue to an inter-cultural and inter-national level. As the current news portrays escalating nuclear threats hurled back and forth by the Iranian and American government leaders, this series becomes not only timely but also necessary.
In my latest photographic performance series, She Speaks Greek Farsi (Milaei Agglika Farsi), my abdomen serves as the site of language. An expression in Greek, to speak any language in a “Farsi way”, is a comment on how fluent and well someone speaks that language. So to speak “Greek Farsi” or “English Farsi” is to speak Greek or English well. By implication and inspiration, if such a compliment exists today (despite the ancient history of war between the Greeks and the Persians), then other similar signs of respect between antagonistic nations might be possible.
From the concrete world of my embodied experience, language is abstracted. At once personal and universal, private and public, I write words on my skin from the flesh of my own tri-cultural heritage. Words whose meanings, however, hold great potency for anyone who has had to relocate and emigrate: family, place, language, love, friend, birth, land, home, person, history, life, memory, body, self, and world.
My own skin is the surface paper on which my art is born. Imagine love written on a womb like the stretch marks from giving birth. Words turn into marks of labor in the creative act. I write in what was my childhood’s handwriting on my skin, performing language. The Greek and Farsi words come from opposite directions, but meet in the middle, creating a calligraphy that travels somewhere between private graffiti and public tattoo. Against the backdrop of the political tensions between Iran and the United States, my work stands as an alternative interaction between differing cultures to the usual domination or demonization.