Metaspace: another dialogue
In 2005, in conjunction with the Jewish Museum of Australia, Gertrude Street Studios and RMIT University School of Art, Metasenta brought to Australia Parastou Forouhar, an Iranian artist residing in Germany. Parastou was involved in the international exhibition and dialogue, Intersections – reading the space, exhibited at the Jewish Museum of Australia and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco with New York artist Jane Logeman and Irene Barberis (instigator and co - curator). While in Melbourne Parastou held a residency in the RMIT University School of Art AIR program, and also in the inner city Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces.
Metaspace: another dialogue was held in studio 11 at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in 2005 and explored further ideas within Intersections with Irene Barberis – this was performative, in film and an exhibition. Following is the artist’s statement from Intersections 2005-2006.
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 separated – we all stood in long lines, which moved on slowly. Conversations – if possible at all – were in low voice. Eye contact was 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 Islamic philosophy, Islamic sharia, Islamic morals, Islamic history – and also more faculty-specified Islamic 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 lessons on Islam, had long conversations, changed their clothes and grew beards – 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 one’s wounds to avoid further pain.
Dissenters were sent to gaol en masse. Others sought freedom in exile – many among them no older than fifteen. Many died. Lists of the executed were published daily. My father, one of the most active in opposition during the time of the Shah and who had supported the Revolution with great hopes for democracy, was arrested once again. My mother – a passionate democrat – vacillated between falling silent and flying into a rage.
I took to hiding – in the gentle sight of my newborn son and in the sensual promise of painting. Like many of my generation I was deeply disturbed and felt that I had been deprived of my ideals and of my future. My studies were a chance to cautiously look into the future and make plans – better to make paintings than dwell on the utopia of the Revolution.
For five years I studied at the Teheran Academy of Arts. Men’s and women’s studios were separated – mostly by 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 – exceptions were noted. Contact between male and female students was limited; they were supposed to call each other brother and sister and not look at each other. The actual physical presence of women was limited – and of course – always totally disguised. In contrast, some men grew beards and wore army parkas as a sign of their solidarity with the battle against Iraq. They wore simple trousers and high-neck shirts and their gestures mixed Oriental-masculine self-consciousness with 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 went to 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 propagandised Islamic system of values. In advanced classes we enjoyed sketching muscular 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 be 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 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 enjoyed pictures that expressed some yearning. Nostalgic pictures of everyday situations and things resulted – sometimes in the mode of an exaggerated, heart-rending self-pity. These paintings employed symbols – or maybe better: codes, that could carry hidden meanings. In former times these codes of cliché had offered the possibility of formulating free and forbidden thoughts, but now they gave evidence of a new narrowmindedness and superficiality.
A parallel approach in the search for content was to go into old Persian-Islamic painting and to attempt a possible revival. Apart from the current Islamic and militant mode of the country's identity, its traditional and historical roots were also to be kept in mind. The rather experimental aspect of this approach gave us a more healthy framework for our art - which became more playful and poetic. These paintings were only condescendingly tolerated by the religious 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 Islamic art history we were witnesses to some revolutionary theses – for example to the claim that the first mosque built 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 although there existed in Russia ideological dissent, it was conceded a substantial quality. Western art instead was accused of being corrupt. A perverse individualism, understood as a consequence of the loss of religion, was presented as the reason for the deadend which Western art and culture had reached. The arguments brought forth were obvious and needed no evidence.
The library of the Academy of Arts made a lot of work for the guards of Islamic values: thousands of catalogues and books – most on Western art or originating before 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 private life left a limited space for self-determination. The gap between public and private life was ever widening. Schizophrenic behavior became natural. The effort for self-protection does provoke insidious distortions though: the forced censorship brought about conscious, but also unconscious self-censorship. The latter (the unconscious self-censorship) continuously spread 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 in between hold the simultaneousness of nearness and distance and relate them in an alternating process to each other. A method derived from this process is the discovery of parallels in differing structures. It enables me to construct associations that can then be clearly visualised.
To give an example: in old Persian miniatures the human being is – all the more in a society seized by fundamentalism – part of an ’ornamental order’. There exists no individual view. A great effort is made to try to cover any ambiguity by means of an illusory surface of repeated and mutually harmonious 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 hides a great potential for brutality. That which does not submit to the ornamental order cannot be represented and is therefore non-existent; 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 September 11. There is a polarising tendency of transforming differences into hostility, and free spaces into occupied territory. Our life since then has been invaded by many grotesque images and ideas and by questions that have no answers. As for me: I do not feel obliged to answer 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 centre of our creative processes of developing the world – or will they be pushed 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?
Recently Western society’s interest in Islamic art and culture has greatly increased, perhaps due to the well-intentioned idea of deriving knowledge from these alien societies by 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. They serve to cover up the ’blind spots’ that threaten to grow rampant. Each effort at intercultural interaction is endangerd by its own abuse. Each effort balances facts and delusion. For me as an artist, every place given to me seems to be accompanied by a feeling of displacement. Swinging between optimistic activism and cynical reservation, I realise 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 Iranian Artists in the House of World Cultures in Berlin, I was invited to Sabine Christiansen, a popular political TV talk show. The topic of the show was Terrorism at the Gates of Europe. The editorial office was in search of a profile of Muslim 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 Muslims in this society. My demand for more free personal space for this topic in order to avoid simplifications was denied in kind words: the design of the show was already fixed. I cancelled my participation but saw the show on TV with great curiosity later on. The well integrated Muslim couple, both university graduates, the woman slightly veiled, gave an authentic report on all that had been expected from them in the casting. I sat in my flat in Frankfurt, in front of the TV, and watched my double uttering in fluent German the answers I had been asked for. Mrs Christiansen nodded with great sympathy and the audience was once more offered an ’open dicussion’.
This forced ethnic identification I have always felt took a new turn with the assassination of my parents in their home in Teheran, 1998. My efforts in pursuing this crime had a great impact on my personal and artistic sensibilities. Political correctness and democratic co-existence lost their 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 disconnection 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 familiar. But the automatic recognition of the unfamiliar is an indication of the way in which ’reality’ is constructed – by pre-conceived ideas. The examination of this production of identity and reality and the repressive mechanisms by which it occurs is the focus of my work.