At the Middle East Studies Association 2001 special session, "The Art of Iranian American Women: Politics and the Construction of a New Identity," Sharon L. Parker, Kendal Kennedy, and Haleh Niazmand examined the complex processes of identity construction and the performative and reflexive role of art. The presentation of this material at the MESA conference was both timely and insightful, especially in light of the rising prominence of Iranian American artists, the relative lacuna of research on the art of Iranian American women, and the presenters' unique theoretical and aesthetic perspectives. Many Iranian American artists have immigrated to the United States in the past twenty years and have become prominent not only in local art circles, but have also become renowned internationally. Interest in Iranian American art has helped spawn societies like the Center for Iranian Modern Art in New York, and the art of Iranian American women has been featured in numerous venues throughout North America, including, but not limited to, galleries in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington DC. Relatively few scholarly works specifically address the art of Iranian American women, although related panels have been presented at other conferences. The speakers featured at this MESA session share the experience of being either Iranian-born or having lived in Iran for extended periods of time and they have collaborated on various conference panels, exhibits, and manuscripts. For instance, Parker presented a related paper at a panel for the Third Biennial Conference On Iranian Studies in 2000 and both Niazmand and Kennedy presented papers at the 2001 Center for Iranian Studies Association Conference. Kennedy, who chaired both of these panels, and Parker, who has presented her research internationally, are currently developing a manuscript on contemporary Iranian American women artists. Niazmand and Kennedy are both active artists and all three presenters have worked together to create and promote exhibits of Iranian American art. Presenters not only discussed Iranian American women's role "in" art as creators and subjects, but demonstrated the ways in which gender, identity, and art can be simultaneously reflective and generative.
The session organizer, Sharon L. Parker (Comparative, Cultural and Literary Studies, University of Arizona) presented "The Veil and Beyond: Exile, Post-Exile, and the Development of an Iranian American Identity in Art" after introductory remarks by the session chair and discussant, Sarah Moore (Art History, University of Arizona). In her paper, Parker discussed the works of Taraneh Hemami who immigrated after the revolution and is currently active in the San Francisco Bay area. As Parker pointed out, Hemami's aesthetic choices and her conception of identity are symbiotically linked. An intensely personal and highly reflexive process, Hemami's creation of art involves movement between different and competing identities. For Hemami, memories, especially feelings of longing and belonging, are emphasized. Autobiographical material is central to Hemami's artwork. In pieces like "Recounting," Hemami collapses experiences that are temporally and spatially distant by hiding inside memory. Although Hemami's photo is at the center of "Recounting," the creator's image is invisible to audiences, because it is overlaid by 14,000 dates of personal and collective significance. Other works, including "Ode to Alphabet," pay homage to the loss of home and identity by referencing the Persian language, especially in the form orthography and poetry. In other pieces, including "Vessels of Identity," Hemami symbolically uses burlap, shellac, dried flowers, and photos of her body in order to represent new growth and the transition from exile to post-exile. For Hemami and the other Iranian American artists featured in this session, the creation of new works often involves placement of the self, both physically and metaphorically.
The second speaker, Haleh Niazmand (Artist and Cultural Critic), presented "Issues of Contemporary Politics in the Art of an Iranian Exile: Haleh Niazmand and the Survey of Common Sense," and discussed the political and aesthetic considerations important in her work's creation and reception. Although faced with the constraints of converting a gallery exhibition into a brief paper presentation, Niazmand effectively conveyed this experience. The session attendees were asked to answer the twenty questions presented in the "Survey of Common Sense" as they viewed twenty pairs of corresponding images. Although it emulates a survey, Niazmand's work does not seek answers, but rather urges reflection and ultimately, action. For instance, when posed with the question "Does exploitation of others bring you comfort?" the viewer is confronted with visual references to the processes and products of international trade. Similarly, Niazmand juxtaposes the question "Are you represented fairly?" with images of a woman's hips, a man's mouth and their respective implications of silent object and speaking agent. As Niazmand later explained, one impetus for this exhibit was her frustration with the 1996 US Presidential debates, their quiz-show format, and the meaningless simplicity of their associated slogans and promises. To address the mechanisms that foster complacency in the US, Niazmand used art that would be easily accessible to the general public (it can be viewed interactively, online, at http://www.surveyofcommonsense.net/) and would stimulate viewers emotionally and intellectually. Niazmand's work is an excellent example of the powerful ways in which image and language can be combined to comment upon and provoke responses on a wide range of socio-political issues. In less than ten minutes of contact with the exhibit (each slide was displayed approximately 25 seconds), viewers were forced to reflect upon global imbalances in power and representation, to deconstruct the artificial boundaries erected by the privileged, and to confront their own complacency and responsibilities in this process.
After opening with the reflexive words of Rumi, "When Will I Ever See the am that I am?" Kendal Kennedy, the third and final presenter, compared and contrasted the artistic approaches and identity constructs of Iranian and Iranian American women. In "The Right Shade of Gray: Constructing a New Identity," Kennedy (Education, Columbia University) argued that the art of Iranian Americans is a by-product of a dichotomy in their experience and this art cannot be categorized as either Iranian or American, but Iranian American. Like other marginalized minorities who are besieged by essentializing images and stereotypes, Iranian American artists struggle to assert the complexity, diversity, and depth of their experience and identities. However, the art of Iranian American women, especially prominent figures like Shirin Neshat, is often misread by audiences who cannot disentangle their viewing from misconceptions and misrepresentations of Iran and Islam that are promoted by Western media. Artists' range of approaches to their work and identity includes the use of art to find that which was lost, the portrayal of a self reconstructed from two others (Iranian and American), a drastic choice between being Iranian and American, or the creation a place in between. In conclusion, Kennedy argued that for Iranian American artists, the search for self can be realized by finding the right shade of gray.
This session documents a formative period in the expressive culture of Iranian Americans, a period in which individual and collective understandings of gender and identity are questioned, contested, imagined, and created. The issues and concerns addressed in this session and other related MESA 2001 events, including the thematic conversation "Crossing Borders: The Case for Middle Eastern American Studies," coincide with a growing interest in and need to document the unique histories, perspectives, and contributions of Middle Eastern communities in North America. This session also reminds us that for artists and viewers alike, especially recent immigrants, memory is not merely a doppelganger that reflects and chases an elusive self, but it can invite or even command transformative ways of seeing, being, and acting.
Wendy DeBano is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, California, USA.…