"The Art of Iranian American Women: Politics and the Construction of a New Identity"

Article excerpt

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. …