About ten miles west of Tom Bradley International Terminal — where thousands of demonstrators gathered this weekend to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order banning scores of refugees, along with visitors and legal immigrants from seven majority Muslim countries, including Iran — artists of the Iranian diaspora were being celebrated at the opening of Focus Iran 2 at The Craft & Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile.
Presented by the museum, in partnership with Farhang Foundation — a non-religious, non-political, not-for-profit organization dedicated to sharing Iranian art and culture with mainstream audiences Focus Iran 2 is the much-anticipated second biennial exhibition of contemporary photography and video representing the culture and heritage of Iran.
The nearly 40 jury selected works chosen for the museum’s exhibition from throughout the United States and abroad were introduced in an unsettling new American order, that brought with it an unintended solidarity with LAX protestors wielding rudimentary drawn signs bearing urgent messages: “I Am An Immigrant,” and “Build a Wall We’ll Tear it Down,” their own commentary on social and cultural issues of times; of love and loss; struggle and rebellion.
In Elham Masoudi’s dual-sectioned photograph titled, “Protest Dance,” the resident of Atlanta, Georgia, explores similar themes of resistance in the color-filled movement of feet in dance; on top, monochromatic heads and hands in protest. The piece was inspired by a student demonstration over the junk food supply at her school in Tehran.
“The students banged spoons on table,” she noted in her artistic statement. “I believe the behavior of Iranian youth has changed from being introverted to extroverted. They are yelling and asking for their rights. They want to move from black to colors. I think no one can hide or censor the real image of people because they no longer want to be silenced.”
Giving voice to those who feel quieted is also thrust behind “False Roots” by Sanaz Khosravi. A striking digital black and white piece, that has become the promotional centerpiece for the exhibition, showcases the cultural taboos for women revealing their uncovered tresses in public in the Islamic state.
“Sometimes the voice we’ve been searching for in the outside world, can only be heard in the confines of our own being,” noted Khosravi, a Tehran native living in Berkeley, Calif., in a statement. “After the Revolution in Iran, compulsory hijab tied the knots that entangled the daily lives of many Iranian women in a cultural struggle where the female hair braided the chains that held her captive to the headscarf.”
“One of the first thoughts in an American’s mind about women from the Middle East is the hijab,” said Tehran-born artist Labkhand Olfatmanesh. As she reflects on the modest Islamic styles of dress, her piece, “Fly”, moves as effortlessly as the waves on the beach in the background, mimicking its ease as the hijab sweep across the woman’s face in stark contrast with her stern, dutifully clothed body.
“After leaving Iran in 2003, I was judged and felt a constant need to explain myself,” said Olfatmanesh, who now lives and works in Studio City, Calif. “Even now with no obligation of covering, I still carry the shadow of it.”
The politics of women’s bodies — an issue which took center stage in the global Women’s March on January 21 following the U.S. presidential inauguration — is also captured in the video installation by Seattle-born Emelie Mahdavian. An experimental film, using motion capture composited with video to create the film’s three layers, explores the boundaries of Iranian women’s dance performance and what constitutes a woman’s ”body” in the digital age.
“Given that women ‘dancing’ in public is illegal in Iran today — and even animated movies are censored — the film sets to find the lines of constitutes a body and what constitutes an Iranian woman,” according to Mahdavian, who now works in San Francisco.
Then there’s the breathtaking beauty of “Wind Dancer,” from Tehran-born, Atlanta resident Mohammadjavad Jahangir who catches 21-year-old Ahmad in mid-flight as he jumps over a cavernous space between Avicenna Mausoleum in Hamadan, Iran as he runs to get cigarettes.
Also on display are other sights of every day Iran from artists currently living in Tehran including Armin Amirian “Iranian carpet,” honoring the rustic rug weavers who use their fingers to create one of the most legendary forms of Iranian art; “Rural Woman” a quiet scene from Madjid Mohammadi featuring a traditional rural woman taking lunch from home to her husband who works on an adjacent farm; and Ahmad Belbasi’s “Mourn” as he follows the pilgrimage of Turkmen heading to the shrines of pre-Islamic prophet Khalid Nabi and his son-in law, Ata Chofun in the mountains of Turkmen Sahra, Golestan Province.
From their collection of staged photography, “Silent Symphony,” artists Ameneh Larijani,
Hamed Touri Karami, Mahmood Saki and Mahsa Solfaghari, of the ensemble Machine Studio in Tehran, unveil lesser known aspects of Iranian folklore. On display is their rendering of the story of the devil, Aal, portrayed as a scrawny red woman, who would abscond with a woman and hurt her newborn infant if she was left alone. Prayer was used to ward off Aal as well as drawing lines with sharp metals all the way around the pregnant woman, or placing an onion above her head. The group studied classical western paintings in order to achieve the pictorial form in combination with contemporary forms of photography.
Another relevant piece, titled “Path,” part of a series of prints by Parna Baharali, in which the traveler is faced with two roads from which to choose, is inspired by the poet Jalaluddin Rumi. “With this piece,” said Baharali in a statement, “I am seeking to show the world my unrevealed emotions in life, the thoughts, the fear of making choices, and all the doubts and pain that burdened my heart all along, but were at no time revealed.”
From Mashad, Iran, Omid Sariri Ajili’s “Love” is a cheery, colorful poetic mediation on the rare places one can love — “something that can be felt,” he said in a statement. “I always seek for this kind of love. One day, I found it in an obsolete place and captured it with my camera to make it live forever in that frame.”
A reminder there is still that same hope for those still willing to look for it.
All photos are courtesy of Farhang Foundation. Focus Iran 2: Contemporary Photography and Video is now in exhibition at The Craft & Folk Art Museum through May 7, 2017; at the University of California, Irvine’s Viewpoint Gallery from September 16 to October 13, 2017. This photo story features the following Iranian contemporary artists and scholars: Elham Masoudi, Sanaz Khosravi, Emelie Madhavian, Mohammaddhacar Jahangir, Ahmad Belbasi, Ameneh Larijani, Hamed Touri Karami, Mahmood Saki, Mahsa Solfaghari, Parna Baharali and Omid Sariri Ajili. The exhibit also features works about Iranian life and culture by Mehrdad Afsari, Sobia Ahmad, Ooldouz Alaei Novin, Saskia Boelsums, Parisa Ghaderi, Gazelle Samizay, and Javid Tafazoli.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is Senior Editor of Women, Media and Culture for Los Angeles Review of Books, an author and filmmaker. Her independent feature, Lovers in Their Right Mind, a romantic drama about an African American woman and an Iranian immigrant, is in development. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.