Saturday, May 30, 2015

Iran through the eyes of a diaspora photographer

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through September 20, 2015

When I first saw the image for this exhibit (pictured here), I thought perhaps this was the same person whose work I had seen in the African Art Museum a couple of years ago.  I looked up the show and found that I was thinking of Lalla Essaydi, from Morocco.  This is Shirin Neshat, from Iran.  Both of them use writing on women's bodies to make a point about the treatment of women in the Middle East, so I don't feel too bad about my mistake.

Neshat left Iran in the 1970s and has not lived there since.  She did return to the country in the 1990s for a visit, but has not been back since.  I gather that the government is not fond of her work, and it's not entirely safe for her to return.

This exhibit, which is one of the Hirshhorn's 2nd floor monsters that I call Bataan Death March shows, focuses on her works concerning the 1953 ouster of the elected Prime Minister and his replacement with the Shah, the 1979 revolution which lead to the ouster of the Shah, and the 2009 Green Revolution, part of the Arab Spring.

Her photography is more than thought-provoking; it's quite intense.  Her "Women of Allah" series shows women clothed in burqas, frequently with guns.  She overlays her photographs with Persian calligraphy - not religious texts, but contemporary poetry.  One of the difficulties for the Western viewer is that those of us who can't read the text are missing part of the message.  The Hirshhorn does try to overcome this problem by setting up information in the inner ring of the 2nd floor, which includes translations.

The other two photography series are the "Book of Kings" and "Our House is on Fire," both also intense.  I might not be able to get the full message, but I feel like I got quite a bit of it.

In addition to the photographs, there are also several videos in the show, mostly two screens showing parallel or dueling images.  The show was large enough that I didn't linger to see any of them in their entirety, but I think they would repay a full viewing.  They examine the roles of gender in Iran and the oppression of women there.  It's not anything you don't know, but it forces you to confront it head on.

Verdict: A large show; you'd need two lunch hours to really see everything.  Not light-hearted by any stretch of the imagination; you're presented with the ugly truth of modern Iran and you can't look away.

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