WE Curate: Persian Art

Named after a beautiful lady “Aryan”, the vast land of kindness and nobility witnessed changes of time, times of changes. It was meant to be peaceful and harmonious, shining with its glamourous heritage and wisdom. Their Almighty granted them struggles and challenges – inviting foreign powers and internal conflictions onto its world, fighting and rewriting its history and the future. In Iran, stories of the former culture of Persian world are always about everlasting hardships, as if their blood was born and evolved to be militaristic. After fights for a brighter future and freedom, Iran is a place of strength.

“For thirty years, I suffered much pain and strife With Persian I gave the Adjam verve and life” Ferdowsi (A.D. 935 – 1020)

“Our nation has always been threatened from the outside. The least we can do to face this danger is to let our enemies know that we can defend ourselves. Therefore, every step you take here is in defense of your country and your evolution. With this in your mind, you should work hard and at great speed.” The vocal of Seyed Ali Khamener on the stage are still in our ears, his silhouette in our eyes, telling us that Iran is no weaker, regretting that the coming and going of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Russia, or even Mongolia, Germany, and the rest of the world, should not have been with such ease.

History remains alive only in the witnesses’ minds. but as time goes by, the two-thirds of the Iranian population are younger than 30, having no memory of lives under the Shah, no experience of the struggle that led to the Islamic Revolution, and no bitterness about fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. Instead, it is soaked in the edgy time of technology, the power of the internet, and the bond with the rest of the world. It is no “axis of evil” – at least not to its people, who still dance, sing and create in their homeland, inside the spot that vexes foreign nerves. They are a brand new tribe, following a brand new stream to wisdom, modernity, and sentimentality.

Sara Rahbar’s Scarps of Life Condensed as Art

Iran. The Revolutionary War, casualties of reason and innocence; the Iranian Revolution, hail Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the light of democracy, the dilemma of truth. America, the Utopia that people craved for “a taste of freedom, democracy and a better life”, music and dance, the paradise for billionaires and optimists. “People immigrate mainly because their countries have become unlivable for various reasons; war, poverty, political situations, governments or economies. It’s interesting how governments play such a key role in our individual fates. If the revolutionary chaos and the Iran-Iraq War were not developed in my country, I might be still living there,” commented the inspirational Sara Rahbar.

When Sara Rahbar and her family left her homeland Iran, she was five and her brother an infant. Seven days of journey on foot, famine that dragged them to the edge between life and death, brought them closer to a better future – which gave her a chance to study Fine Art in Central Saint Martin’s in London, and later in New York; to have her works exhibited in galleries worldwide, and featured in various medias including the New York Times, BBC Persian, Tehran Magazine and Iran Times, to introduce her powerful art to audiences through installations such as the Queens Museum of Art.

Indulgence in western freedom; yet passion for her homeland is deeply rooted. Finally one day, she returned to her homeland – which was still as complicated as it was – where she founded her artistry. “I will never forget how it all started: it was on my very last day at university in London when it all began. I knew that as soon as the term ended, I would get on a plane and return to Iran, and give life to the concepts and ideas that I had been in my head for years.”

Fed up with events too bitter for a child to digest, Sara Rahbar was shaped to be an artist of complexity. While women are supposed to hide themselves doing nothing but to follow moral virtues that the society and the culture believe in, she films, paints, photographs, and directs in the Persian Art Festival. Between the identity as a westernized artist and an offspring devoted to her culture and home, she embodies the dilemma and complexity in life into her work which audience can hardly grasp the other end – without her own elaboration.

Here Sara Rahbar, a remarkable Iranian female artist, tells WestEast about her life, her art, and her story.

Tell us about your work.

My work is a mirror image of my life, my environments, and my memories: it reflects my life. Every new piece that I create is like a meditation: I heal myself with my work.

I have had worked with organizations speaking on subjects surrounding Iran and women and human rights. I have been an art teacher for various programs such as “Woman for Afghan Woman”, some professional development programs for correctional educators, and the Flushing Library in New York. On the other hand, I was the film photographer and production coordinator for a Neda Sarmast documentary ‘Nobody’s Enemy’ that unveils the secrecy shrouded the faces of Iran’s youth for the past 26 years. It examines their lives, voices and hopes in a time of great change and international instability.

How is human improvement carried out through art?

I take a quote by Jeff Koons very seriously: “Artists are even more powerful than politicians. As we have unlimited freedom in what we can say or do.”

My work is not just about art, but a world to take on, transform and rebirth. It’s about starting a conversation, and I use my work and my voice as my medium. The key moment that I became very clear about the level of power that I have as an artist, and the shift that I could cause through my work, was when the Queens Museum of Art selected me to do a second piece for their 2007 Biennial. There’s a war going on, people dying every second, all I could think about was to open people’s minds to what was going on.

I wanted to bring the war into the clean, white space provided for the installation which was not neat and pretty, and not in a blustering way, but was an awakening that looked at the world around us. I wanted to use my power as an artist to show a reality that was being ignored.

And a soldier who had just returned from Iraq visited, and just stood and stared at the installation. He had tears in his eyes, and said “You’re doing a really good thing. Things are a lot different over there and people are under the wrong impression. We are killing children, mothers, and families. We thought we were there to save Iraqis, and now they need to be saved from us. When I close my eyes, everything plays over and over like a never ending nightmare.”

At that moment all doubts dissolved, and I knew that my work made a difference.

Which is the greatest exhibition you have participated in ever? How was it?

The current one. I was commissioned by the Queens Museum of Art to create work for the subject of tolerance. This show is all that I think about all the time, and has become my entire life for the last couple of months. The work is truly strong, and will truly shift people’s perceptions.

I chose to look at the subject under a new light, from a fresh angle. I simply ask viewers to re-question our levels of tolerance for one another. Yes progressed we have, advanced we are, yet we are still talking about tolerance. I took this opportunity to ask the community once again, are we tolerant? My work for this show is about co existing, about mankind, about reminding this mixed community that they are not mixed at all. It’s not so much about tolerating one another, but rather being with one another, and perhaps even seeing one another without labels.

What does Iran mean to you?

I see Iran as my child, my mother, my father, my friend and my lover. She is my escape, my retreat from an unsettling world, my inspiration and my lifeline. I am Iran and she is me, and she rests quietly in my heart until I return to her.

How do the United States and Iran vary, in terms of culture and social mentality?

How different is China from Russia? And Morocco from Bangladesh? We all have different geographic and social structures. It is difficult to compare a country like Iran with a country like America, as they are so different in so many aspects, and meanwhile similar. Let us remember that we are talking about centuries verses millenniums. The contrast lies in a combination of cultures, societies and religions.

I am quite anti-flat; they play a major role in keeping us divided, building up a mindset that we differ from one another. My work addresses identities and notions between geographic and cultural borders, and questions the concept of belonging. I am a human being who happened to be born in Iran, and raised in America. In the end my work is based around the concept, that we are all citizens of a very fragile world.

Iran is always associated with militaries. Please elaborate or defend.

This all stems from ignorance and brainwashing by the censored media. Iran is a very misunderstood country, and it has been wrongly interpreted, analyzed, and raped. In the end to find truth, go above and beyond the filters.

You once said “the only time I feel like a feminist, and remember that I am a woman is when I am in Iran.” Why?

I never considered myself an immigrant or a woman, only a human being seeking to grasp and save myself and my life. The only time I feel like a feminist, and remember that I am a woman, is when I am in Iran.

From the moment I wake up, until the end of every day, day after day, I attempt to prove that I am strong and can claim basic human rights, and can get the job done. In America it doesn’t even occur to me that I am a woman, I am independent.

According to my country’s law, a woman is half of a man. You must kill two women to be counted as killing one human being. Women do not enjoy basic human rights that a man does. There is a system of apartheid against Iranian women, for example the ‘hejab’ that attempts to control women in every aspect down to the way they dress.

I used to be really frustrated every time I returned to Iran, and now it plays a key role in my work. Instead of being angry, I take it on as a challenge, and am committed to transforming things.
WE: Ultimately, what do you create art for?

I have many goals as an artist, and many challenges ahead of me. It’s more than painting pretty pictures that match people’s couches. My work is not just about galleries, collectors and simply art, but for being put into museums, universities. I want to educate, to speak for human rights and woman’s rights. I want my name to be an advocate for human rights.

We must empower, educate and support one another. When women stand up in Iran or elsewhere, and speak up for their rights, we must stand up for them, and get them heard throughout the world. Drawing the world’s attention and arouse its action is a very powerful move towards human rights. Speak up, write letters, form groups, write blogs, create websites, write books, and articles. You would be surprised what a difference you can make, no matter how big or small the act is.

Which one do you feel more like, an American or an Iranian?

Neither, the only thing I feel like is a human being.

Text by Ren Wan
Published in Issue 25 GlobalisAsian