It was a
day in autumn 1984 when I started at the academy of arts – almost five years
after the victory of the Iran Revolution. And it was just about three years ago
that the fundamentalists had brutally seized the power. The official enrolment
at the various faculties took place in the huge auditorium of the Teheran
University. It was only permitted to enter the large complex of four buildings
with spacious studios if you could present the admission card handed out to the
new students that specific day.
Alphabetically ordered – and men and women seperated – we all stood in long lines, which moved on slowly. Conversations – if possible at all – were of low voice. Eye contacts were rather avoided. Everyone waited in silence for the next step torwards the admission card. In the line of the men at the right hand side conversations were louder and the gestures required more space.
The new social system of order consisted of strong religious rules that regulated public life in its smallest detail. To intensify public obedience – and also to prove it – occasions such as mass enrolments suited perfectly. We were the first students that were accepted for university after the Cultural Revolution. For two years all universities and colleges had been closed for the new government of the country to undertake a thorough Islamisation of the education system. Several lessons a week of Islam philosophy, Islam sharia, Islam moral, Islam history – and also more faculty specified Islam issues – entered the curriculum. Special Islamic instructions were added to the general regulations. Many professors were dismissed in the course of the Cultural Revolution. Others took Islam lessons, had long conversations, changed their out fit and grew a beard – and were finally allowed to stay.
It was a harsh time. The new rulers – an extensive net of faithful people, that came from most different social classes and groups – were one in their ostentatiously strict religiousness and had everyone firmly under control. All means seemed fair to them in order to cement their exhaustive power and control. The war seized its victims daily. Life was threatened. The Islamists understood this threat as a challenge to qualify for heaven after death. For many others the threat meant a hard time of depression. One hid ones wounds to avoid further hurting.
Dissenters were put to jail in masses. Others sought freedom in exile – among them many of whom were not older than fifteen years. Many died. Lists with names of those who had been executed were published daily. My father, one of the most active in opposition during the time of the Schah and who had supported the Revolution with great hopes for democracy, was arrested once again. My mother – a passionate democrat – swayed between falling silent and flying into a rage.
I took to hiding – in the gentle sight of my newborn son and in the sensual offer of painting. Likewise many of my generation I was deeply disturbed and I felt that I had been deprived of my ideals and of my future. My studies were a possibility to cautiously look into the future and make plans – rather making paintings than dwelling on the utopia of the Revolution.
For five years I studied at the Teheran academy of arts. The studios were seperated according to men and women – mostly with the help of wardrobes piled on top of each other in the middle of the room. The smaller part in the back of the space was granted to the women. In theory classes there was no wall in the middle, but the women usually sat in the back rows – exeptions were regarded as conspicuous. It was favoured that male and female students limited any contact. In order to follow the Islam instructions of seperation of the public and sexuality it was favoured that male and female students called each other "brother" and "sister" and that they did not look at each other. The physical presence of women was limited to the least – and of course – always totally disguised. In contrast to that, some men grew beards and wore army parkas as a sign of their solidarity with the battle against Irak. They wore simple trousers and high-necked up shirts and their gestures mixed oriental-masculine selfconsciousness wirh a striking "anti-elegance": they did enjoy their presence indeed. The other men had to submit themselves to them.
During the numerous drawing lessons we often stayed in a nearby park and studied trees and bushes with buildings in the background. In the studio we drew human models – ever inseparable from their large garments. Still life was way down in hierarchy: the profanity of this genre could not go with the propagandized Islam system of values. In higher semesters we enjoyed sketching musculous parts of bigger masculine and animal plaster figures, whose genitals were always covered up of course. A popular program was sketching people at work: in a bakery, on a building site and in a workshop... On such excursions women had to behave even more invisible.
Concerning our main subject painting: after an extensive period of gathering well grounded knowledge on painting in general and on painting techniques – taught to us following a casual naturalism – we finally were to deal with content. In order to serve the Revolution the "loyal supporters" painted war atrocities, martyrs and small children weeping for their fathers killed. Also popular were portrayals of religious ceremonies – mostly being funeral services for saints. Portraits of Great Ayatollahs were painted also...
For the sake of being close to the people some students made popular traditional paintings. This tendency was a general one: not only the religiously motivated, but also the silent opponents of the system thrived for pictures that expressed some yearning. Nostalgic pictures of everyday situations and things resulted – sometimes in the mode of an exaggerated heart-rending selfpity. This kind of paintings employed symbols – or maybe better: codes, that could transport hidden meanings. In former times these codes of clishé had offered a possibility to formulate free and forbidden thoughts, but now they turned to give evidence of a new narrowmindedness and superficiality.
A parallel approach in the search of content was to go into Old Persian-Islam Painting and to attempt a possible revival. Aside from the current Islam and militant mode of the country's identity also its traditional and historical roots were to be kept in mind. The rather experimental aspect of this approach gave us a more healthy frame for our work - thus becoming more playful and poetic. These paintings were only condescendingly tolerated by the religiours rulers of the academy. The professor in charge of this class was dismissed later.
The religion lessons were obligatory and required several hours per week. In Islam art-historical lesson we were wittnesses to some revolutionary theses – for example to the claim, that the first mosque built up by Mohammed himself, consisting of three clay walls and a roof of palm leaves, was one of the most important and beautiful architectural monuments in history. Western Art-history was embedded in a social context. It was taught up to the classical modern. Soviet Art was given more respect than Western Art because eventhough there existed an ideological dissent, it was conceded a substancial quality. Western Art instead was accused of being corrupt. A pervert individualism, understood as a consequence to the loss of religion, was presented to be the reason for the dead end which Western Art and culture had reached. The arguments brought forth were obvious and needed no evidence.
The library of the academy of arts had caused a lot of work for the guards of Islam values: thousands of catalogues and books – most on western art or originating from the time prior to the Revolution – had to be censored carefully. Not the texts, but the images were crossed out with black ink. Female nudes and male genitals were painted over with black colour...
In a structure thus overpowering, religiously affecting all public life, only the private left a limited space for self-determination. The gap between public and private life grew constantly. Schizophrenic behavior became natural. The justifiable effort for self-defence does evoke insidious distortions though: The forced upon censorship brought about conscious, but also unconscious self-censorship. The latter (the unconscious self-censorship) continuously spread out to affect the whole society. The defenition of self-respect and free thought became all the more fragile and vague.
The distance that has grown within me between that, which is here now and that, which was there back then, does not mark a strong border. This distance opens up spaces in between, in which definitions can be reflected and modified. That assures me of a self-image even there, where I am absent. These spaces inbetween hold the simultaneousness of nearness and distance and relate them in an alternating process to each other. A method derived of this process is the discovering of parallels in differing structures. It enables me to construct associations that can then be clearly visualized.
To give an example: In Old Persian Miniature the human being is – all the more in a society seized by fundamentalism – part of an "ornamental order". There exits no individual view. A great effort is made to try to cover up any ambiguity by means of an illusory surface of repeated and among each other harmoniously matching patterns. The gaze slides from the curved lines of figures to the curvaceous fir trees, to soft clouds, domes and hills... All surfaces are filled with the vibration of the patterns: a harmonious image of the world, a sign of the divine power and glory. This holy harmony does hide a great potential of brutality though. That which does not submit to this ornamental order cannot be represented and is therefore not existing, it is cast out into the periphery of the unworthy, it is doomed to perish.
With this example an amazingly similar parallel corresponds to the "new world order" after the 11th of September. Though not to be made out in total, there is a polarizing tendency of transforming differences into hostility and free spaces into occupied territory. Our life has since then been enriched by many grotesque images and ideas and by questions that have no answers. As for me: I do not feel obliged to arguments of "realpolitik". They fail under the weight of existential questions. I would just like to comprehend what is happening with the real people and with their real utopias. Will there be any space for real utopias in future at all? Will they be settled in the center of our creative processes of developing the world – or will they be pushed away into the periphery of the dreamers and the mad? What importance will the new world order give to art, and what importance to art from abroad?
The interest of the western society in art and culture from the Oriental-Islam world has increased highly lately. Maybe due to the well-meant idea of deriving knowledge from these alien societies by the means of art. But how open are western societies and how many Oriental-Islam characteristics does it take for that other art to be acknowledged as such?
The field of intercultural communication is ploughed by clichés and phrases. They serve to cover up the "blind spots" that threaten to grow rampant. Each effort of intercultural interaction is endangerd by its own abusal. Each effort balances between facts and delusion. For me as an artist every place given to me seems to be accompanied by a feeling of displacement. Swaying between optimistic activism and cynical reservation I realize the gaze that fixes me and the projection that alienates me.
Thirteen years ago, when I arrived in Germany, I was Parastou Forouhar. But over the years, in collaborating with Western colleagues and delineating my own artistic territory I have become "Iranian". To give you a recent example: During my participation in the exhibition "Far Away Nearness – New Positions of Iran Artists" in the "House of Cultures of the World" in Berlin, I was invited to "Sabine Christiansen", a popular political tv-talkshow. The topic of the show was: terrorism at the gates of Europe. The editorial office was in search of a profile of Moslem people well integrated in German society. One of the editors informed me, that I was to present my every day experience of a changed awareness and of changed reactions torward Moslems in this society. My demand for more free personal space for this topic in order to avoid simplifi-cations was denied in kind words: the design of the show was already fixed. I canceled my participation but saw the show on tv with great curiosity later on. The well integrated Moslem couple, both university graduates, the woman slightly veiled, gave an authentic report on all that, what had been expected from them in the casting. I sat in my flat in Frankfurt, infront of the tv, and watched my double uttering the answers I had been asked for in fluent German. Mrs. Christiansen nodded with great sympathy and the audience was once more offered an "open dicussion".
This forced upon ethnical identification I always felt took a new turn with the assassination of my parents in their home in Teheran, 1998. My effort in pursuing this crime had a great impact on my personal and artistic sensibilities. Political correctness and democratic co-existence lost its tangible meaning in my daily life. As a result, in my work, I have tried to distill this conflict of displacement and transfer of meaning, turning it into a source for creativity. My personal disconnect between the self and others has now been compounded by the socio-political situation of our world today. Stangers are identified by markings which are paradoxically familliar. But the automatic recognition of the unfamilliar is an indication for the way in which "reality" is constructed – also by preassumptions. The examination of this production of identity and reality and the repressive mechanisms by which it occurs is the focus of my work.