ASIAN ART NEWS 99, March/April 2011
Taking a political position as an artist has its risks and sometimes its rewards. There are certain limitations that become inevitable. One such limitation is the problem of finding the point of balance on the spectrum between art and politics. Where exactly does it reside? Often this can- not be easily predetermined. In the work of Iranian-born artist Parastou Forouhar, whose work carries both a strong personal and theoretical aspect in which politics and sexuality are frequently intertwined, the point of balance is constantly shifting. There are times when the colorful symmetrical patterns employed in the Rorschach butterfly prints, such as Ahuraday Butterfly (2010), appear innocuous in their ornamentality until one discovers that the shapes are distorted figurations that imply victims enduring torture. Another digital print on photographic paper, entitled Khavaran Cemetery (2010), also in the shape of a butterfly, upon closer examination reveals contorted bodies piled in a mass grave.
These are shocking, not very pleasant reminders based on the artist’s experiences growing up in Iran. Both her parents were intellectual dissidents who believed that the aftermath of the 1979 revolution in Iran would constitute positive change over the repressive rule of the Shah. As the situation worsened in the early 1980s, as they saw many of their colleagues imprisoned and murdered, it became clear that they were in store for another style of repression—in some ways, more brutal than that of the Shah. The unexpected assassination of artist’s parents in 1998 revealed the culmination of their ongoing struggle for democracy in their homeland. This tragic personal event has continued to have a reverberating impact on Forouhar’s life and direction as an artist. In addition to the digital prints, such as Board game (2010), in which a grid of brown and black square units each has a knife, the impending threat of violence has taken on a reality of its own. In fact, the presence of knives appears frequently in her works, often disguised within various forms of ornamentation, as in Eslimi (2003), where a series of elegant women’s scarves appear on display as if in a boutique. As one examines these printed textiles, it soon becomes clear that the patterning consists of sexualized imagery and knives. The contrasting images are both seductive and threaten- ing. In addition, Forouhar has designed flipbooks in which victims are being assaulted in various ways. The disguise or concealment of what is actually present in these small vignettes becomes a statement on the persistent inhumanity that occurs in the legal chambers of interrogation and prisons based on stories that have been re- counted from her homeland.
Parastou Forouhar talks about art as a place in which “to create space to reflect on the human condition of our times.” While she makes it clear that not all art is about politics or violent atrocities or the deconstruction of repressive ideologies, she is adamant that this is the focus of her work. Therefore, when we see two office chairs near the entrance of the RH Gallery draped with ceremonial Shiite coverings, we are reminded both of the absence of her parents for whom she mourns, but also the hypocrisy between ornamental signs of religious ecstasy and the function of everyday bureaucratic structures. This kind of bifurcation or split between appearance and acthality in Iran has been going on since the early 1950s.
In Swanrider (2004) —a documentation of an event, shown as a digital print— the artist is shown in a traditional Muslim burka riding in a white swan boat on a lake, as if engaged in afternoon recreation. Of course, there is something much more ironic, if not ominous, about this scenario. Similarly, in Elsa’s Annunciation (2005) —shown in another digital print— the hide of a white steer is covered in Farsi. Although most Westerners may find such a work inacces- sible, the fact remains that even the rural landscape has been altered, suggesting that even if you do not have access to the daily newspaper or a television, you can read what you need to know on the hide of cattle.
Although shown previously in the Global Feminism exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (2007), Parastou Forouhar’s first one-person exhibition in New York is an unsettling one, as we learn that what seems to be apparent in Iran contains other hidden messages. Whether this con- cealment is persistently nega- tive carries a strong subjective aspect within the totality of the current political climate; yet it is precisely this subjectivity that Forouhar places under scrutiny as we try and decipher the terms of identity that are available to women within this culture at the present moment.