In conversation with Azar Emdadi

(This text was partially published at The International Museum of Women, January 2014)

Azar Emdadi, born in Iran Western Azerbaijan, lives and works in South Yorkshire, UK. She obtained her BA in Multi-disciplinary Design specializing in Photography at Staffordshire Polytechnic in 1989. In 1996 these skills were developed further through a postgraduate course in Gender Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, where Azar majored in the field of ‘Women in Film.’ In 1990 she was commissioned to document the war with Armenia in Soviet Azerbaijan. This extremely sensitive and important work was published internationally in many journals.

Azar’s engagement is with art-based concerns, with particular emphasis on social, political and gender issues.  Her works have been widely exhibited both in the UK and internationally, including a solo show at the World Cultural House Berlin, the Silk Road Gallery in Tehran, Iran, the Homeland Society in Baku, North Azerbaijan and many group shows in the UK, including Stoke-on-Trent Museum, St David Hall Cardiff, the Rose Issa Project, and many more. Azar’s work has been collected by many private collectors, including the Salsali Private Museum Dubai.

Dinner in Tehran is a series of 12 images, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. These images explore the various paradoxes that exist within Iranian society today; the issue of public and private personas, the fractured identities, censorship, religion and strict social codes, which result in many Iranians living a double life.

All 12 images show the same woman center stage, putting the role of a woman at the heart of Iranian society. In each image the table is properly set and the food is plentiful as it plays a fundamental role in Iranian society; joining people together on a daily basis. These images are of young actors, professional models, friends and family members. Using the perspective of an Iranian woman living in the West, Azar Emdadi reexamines and questions representations of Islamic identity.

The following conversation was conducted by email in December 2013.

Q: You were born in Iran but you are living in the UK. How much and in which ways do these opposite cultures mark your works?

A: Being an Iranian living in the West, I feel myself curiously ‘bound’ equally to both. It is as if being caught between the divergent cultures of both East and West have somehow re-‘molded’ my perspectives, allowing me to appreciate and understand them in new ways. Because of this, I find myself politically, psychologically and emotionally torn. So much so, that even time spent in either sphere is physically disorienting. This continual conflict within my life has shaped – and continues to – my character and personality. Being centered from within, my principles and values clearly reflect these influential conflictions externally through my work.

Q: “The Orient has helped to define the Europe (or the West)” argued Edward Said in his seminal work Orientalism, What do you think in this regard?

A: It is my considered opinion that Said’s critique concerning the media representations of Globalism, West of the ‘Orient’ remain fiercely resilient, and are as applicable today as they ever were. Said himself asserts that in the US little has changed compared to Europe where slight improvements are more visible. But we could argue these factors must be weighed against huge technological advances that have facilitated the peoples of Europe to discern with greater clarity the ‘Orient’ as defined by them. Unfortunately, the dominant discourse remains very much the discourse of the great powers. More than anything else, I am alarmed to note how corrosively this blatant homogenizing of this ‘Orient’ impacts upon all people of various countries within the ‘Orient,’ as Muslims continue to carve out their identity in separatist Islamic terms. In reality, peoples of both the ‘Orient’ and the ‘West’ gathered in Europe live alongside one another, even if in largely segregated worlds. Meanwhile the divisions and misunderstandings of ‘us’ and ‘them’ escalate in an unwavering advance that dominates the European landscape.

Q: What does it mean for you to take a tradition and use it – is this just an endorsement or are you doing something else with it – something unexpected?

A: Contemporary art today explores ideas, concepts, questions, and practices that examine the past. This means using tradition as a vehicle, a visual platform to describe the present, and imagine the future. Often this helps to understand the underlying questions one is trying to answer and the ideology, or label it is subject to. Contemporary art can often seem overwhelming, difficult, or so simple that the viewer might wonder if they are missing something. Sometimes to understand where the behavior comes from, it is necessary to study the values and beliefs of the traditions that underpin them. It is an intensely personal undertaking for any artist to look into their own traditions to seek understanding. So, for myself, I see what is happening today in my homeland, and I ask why certain traditions are disappearing and how these experiences have an impact on how Iranians see themselves on the world stage. It is hard to realise that, because of this, many younger Iranians are losing interest in their own culture and heritage.

Q: Why do you define yourself as an artist? And what is the role that art has in your everyday life?

A: An artist is someone who connects to others emotionally through various media relevant to their creative practice in order to give them pause, to capture the attention of others through word, image, color and sound. I see myself exploring these media in order to grow both technically and emotionally, thereby evolving on a daily basis within the new technology to create dialogue. Art enabled me to find myself and at the same time lose myself; art has helped me transit the displacement process. I owe it to my art practice to continue and to establish a dialogue that is more of a universal language.

Q: Can women do everything?

A: Throughout history women have proven they are capable of doing and partaking in many professions, undertaking a variety of jobs very well indeed. Of course they may be subject to physical restrictions on certain heavy jobs. But this is not a sufficient hindrance to prevent women becoming active members of society and effective role models for the future generations. Today the younger generations of women are striving to perfect themselves. In most underdeveloped countries more girls are able to enroll in schools than ever before, but still women are paid so little compared to men, so that they are frequently dependent on men for their survival. We need to remove a fixed set of expectations, a false objective in that, simply speaking, because we feel we can do anything, we feel we have to do everything.

Q: Do you think it is correct to label the art of Middle East as “Islamic” art? And, do you recognize yourself in these terms?

A: Not really, I come from where the majority of people are Muslim but that does not make my art Islamic. Today the world tends to generalize and package all Muslim artists into one category without regard to their background, culture or politics. We wish to make art like any other Western artist but we are labeled by the religion of the country we originate from; this is a cultural cliché. I come from Iran where there has been a revolution, what was once a secular country is now an Islamic state. This has created many identity issues for all artists alike and, particularly within the younger generation, it has generated tremendous confusion for them. My work deals with such issues as identity crises that result from those acts of cultural prejudice that typify living in modern Iran. Most of my work deals with the issue of East and West, private and public, and the issue of identity and gender issues. My work has many layers and each layer is a moment, another identity. This creates unnecessary complexity and further confusion.

Q: What do you want to achieve or demonstrate with your art?

A: I interpret the world through the window of my art. I make comment about issues that matters to me the most.Through the medium of art, I communicate with my audience. Art is the most powerful medium to communicate in an immediate way the sensitive issues I wish to convey. This allows me to share my vision in an educational or informative manner. Sometimes, the image may simply be appreciated for its own sake, as an aesthetic delight; another time, I wish for the audience to be moved emotively by it as well as conceptually engaged.

Q: How does Dinner in Tehran explore the extant paradoxes prevalent in Iranian society right now?

A: Dinner in Tehran focuses on the desire of many Iranians, especially the young, to free themselves from the social and cultural conditioning of a strict society. The images in Dinner in Tehran explore those subcultures that undermine and subvert their strictures and balk against the autocratic confines apparent in Iran today. I refer in particular to those trafficking in sanctioned banned goods on market stalls,such as medicines, Barbie dolls, dollars and euros. We see older women meeting together to share photographs and to discuss their memories of children no longer with them, who have emigrated. We see women artists, whose works explores their political and social position as women in Iran today. As consequence of this bravery, they are putting themselves at great personal risk, frequently being imprisoned for voicing their creativity.

Q: Why did you choose to use a globally known masterpiece such as The Last Supper? Why did you choose a Western icon?

A: The Last Supper was chosen precisely because it is globally known; and as a universal image its message is immediately understood. This iconic motif – Christ’s Last Supper – I discovered in the house of a friend of my mother, and both women are in their late 70s. One of them is Christian and the other a Muslim. Without any awareness of the narrative behind the image, the Muslim lady loved the image, purely from the emotive beauty it raised within her. From this I developed the idea of using a Western icon within an Iranian setting to create an image of the time and historical period depicted in the painting. It served as the perfect base from which to build a universal message, not bound by culture, fulfilling my own impression of Iranian society in the here and now.

Q: What is the role that religion plays in your daily life?

A: The underlying principal of my beliefs are humanity and human rights, in that context I have defined a system of belief, the values of which will help myself and those dear to me, both near and far, to better understand our world and the people in it.

Q: In what way does Dinner in Tehran represent Iranian society?

A: My work takes into consideration all those layers within Iranian society, breaking these layers down. It depicts the older generation in addition to the younger generation. Many young Iranians wish to represent themselves; they want to be in control of their own identity and to express themselves creatively through fashion, art and youth culture. My images expose all these layers and the paradoxical Iran of today in order to reveal it as it stands.

Q: I would like to know more about the contexts in which you see your art practice as an artist. Who responds to your work?

A: It has been my pleasure to see both young and old respond equally to my works. In Iran I had a solo show where many young Iranians expressed considerable interest in my work, discovering they had a connection to it. This generated lots of stimulating discussion and comments. My mother, who has found herself featured in my work, appreciating her own connection to it through the old ladies depicted there. I demonstrate how older women like her are left behind with no-one to care for them since most or all their emigrant children no longer live near them. My images act as a mirror to our modern society today, right here, right now. The younger generation is rebelling, thus reinventing their own identities. Yet still they are too heavily influenced by the globalisation of Westernculture that suggest plastic surgery and tattooed eye brows for the middle classes. Such controversial imagery finds use within my work, serving to highlight the Westernisation of the East through its emphasis on such ‘fashions’.

Q: What do men make of it and does this vary by class, by culture, by ethnicity?

A: Men have offered both negative and positive comments. In particular, middle aged men do not like a woman being the central focus, replacing that of Christ in the original painting, especially one assuming the role of ‘woman’ as this represents her as constituting the very fabric of Iranian society. Currently there are issues regarding the high divorce rate of the younger generation happening in Iranian society today and where women are being openly blamed for it. Despite this, many young men have expressed their approval and support for my ‘feminist’ presentation of the key figures of this subject as women rather than men. So, I suppose I could say that, yes, the younger generation are very open to it but, not so the older generation of men whose traditional ideas are in open contrast with modernity.

Q: Do you consider yourself a “Feminist”?

A: I was born in a predominantly female family in Iranian Azerbaijan, where having a son meant a big deal. In order for my mother to have the benefits and joys that the treasure of being a boy incurs, I was brought up as such until the age of eleven. So, for myself, I feel this fortunate opportunity gifted me and invaluable experience of life as a boy. This meant having freedoms and privileges denied to my sisters. In particular, this included cycling in public, which is quite common in the West for girls, and playing late on the streets with other boys. This has shaped my world immensely, giving me the insight to better understand and appreciate the strength of a woman, her world and her true value as an equal. Insofar as I believe in the equality of everyone, especially regarding the right to be paid the same amount for their work, I suppose that does make me a feminist.

Q: What was subverted regarding Iranian female identity – if this is not a critique?

A: If I understand your question correctly, there has always been an attempt to subvert Iranian women’s identity but they have fought back. If you want a contemporary synonym for ‘subversion,’ it is ‘Iranian women.’ In response to the subversion of their identity by force they have, in turn, fought back in the darkest corners of their private life and also in the public space to subvert against the imposed desired ‘ideal type’ stereotype of a ‘chaste woman’ proscribed by the state. Every strand of their exposed hair has been a symbol of a collective subversion of a state-sponsored definition of a woman.

Q: What does it mean for you to take a western tradition and use it? Is this just an endorsement or are you doing something else with it – something unexpected?

A: I see myself as part of this culture, I studied the image, I understand this image and live in that culture, although I am neither here nor there; I come from the East and live in the West and both equally feel a part of me. It therefore feels natural to take a Western image and use it in the East. In putting these two together, I hope to make sense of both cultures and to generate a discussion through its dialogue.

Q: All the human figures are depicted around a table, talking in groups of three, with their bodies, gestures and their facial expressions half-hidden by the table. Who are those people? And which roles do they play in society?

A: They are young people under the age of 30, who constitute the largest demographic group in Iran (young fashionable women, young men and children), older mothers, intellectual women and street market holders. They represent all walks of life. Even soldiers who fought in the war with Iraq who are now in their late 40s are represented by real figures. Soldiers that were involved in the war against Iraq have brought their memorabilia from the war. I depict mothers whose children left home and who, even in their country of Iran, live a lonely life. Children are brought up with mixed messages at nursery; young boys and girls with plastic surgery and heavy make-up, and finally, intellectual woman fighting for their beliefs.

Q: Why is food always present in this series?

A: Food and eating plays an important part in Iranian culture, bringing people together on a daily basis. In each image the table is set appropriately for that group of people and the food selected is relevant to the age group. I also use food as a symbol. In the image of the soldiers I use the Iranian delicacy of the sheep’s head uncooked with blood on it as a symbol of violence. In the young men’s party I use fast food to emphasise my point about younger generation being heavily influenced by western globalised culture, and so on.

Q: The city in the background, Teheran, how would you describe it?

A: As a city I no longer recognise that I lived in and went to school during the revolution of 1979. Now it is very overcrowded and pollution is at critical levels. In a city of 10 million, one can easily get lost and forgotten. The gap between rich and poor is vast. Between the richer areas of the north and poorer areas of the south there exists an insidious sense of being ‘within a city’, whereas many high rises induce their own complex ‘large city’ living issues. Here, by contrast, the newly rich are to be seen in their flashy cars.

Q: There is a sharp division between public and private space in Iranian culture. Why? Why do people act differently in these two spheres?

A: In Iran under the enforced rules, men and women lead double lives; one which is private and inside their own homes, another which is public and outside on the streets. Within this society, various sub-cultures have developed exogenous to such hypocrisy. Inside the home, within the private sphere, women can show their hair, people can wear what they like, watch banned TV programmes, drink alcohol and listen to pop music. Outside the contradictions continue. Everybody is expected to wear dark colours and there are strict limitations on the choices of colour worn. Women must cover their hair and wear the hajab. They also experience a segregated civic life at schools, universities and when travelling on public transport.

Q: Do you think judgment is part of your culture/religion?

A: Yes, it is a tragic element that pervades our culture to be judgmental. But that does not mean that I agree with it or practice it, it’s wrong according to my own system of morality to pass judgment on another human being.

There is a famous wisdom verse within the bible, attributed to Jesus Christ and oft quoted being quite well known today, by which I place my own credo of live upon, it is: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”

Q: Can Islam influence and change the life of the people?

A: Yes. Islam can influence and change the life of people, but the change and the direction of that change very much depends upon exactly how one interprets Islam. There are many interpretations and re-interpretations of traditional Islamic Scripture (The Quran). These can vary from the slight to the most liberal. Among all the traditions and religions, none has produced such magnitude in terms of their influence or impacted so dramatically on so many diverse different aspect of human life as Islam has done.

Q: The woman in the centre of your photos is always the same, holding this same position. Who does this woman represent?

A: All 12 images have the same woman centre stage, representing women’s place at the heart of society, keeping the fabric of Iranian life together. I drew on autobiographical experiences for this central image.

The images in the Dinner in Tehran series are numbered 01 to 12. My numbering of the photographs relates to the subtle finger counting that the central female figure is doing in every image.

She represents the mother, sister, wife and hard working woman of Iran who has kept the family together in the last 30 years during the revolution, throughout war and sanctions, etc… She is always composed and calm, sitting in the middle counting her fingers gently. I like to leave it to my viewer to interpret the counting however they like.

Q: Can religion and art be related? And if yes, how?

A: Art and religion have influenced and affected each other throughout all ages. Much of the world’s art was made for or been inspired by religious reasons and ideas. African art is a fine example of this. Ancestor worship, spirits, magic, and other aspects of the religion of African peoples are reflected in their art. Art was also created for marriage ceremonies, for funerals, for honoring leaders, and for celebrations. Nearly all African art has a function. Statues are carved to honor ancestors, kings, and gods. Masks are used in rituals surrounding boys’ and girls’ coming-of-age ceremonies, at funerals, and for entertainment.

Art through the ages has been a powerful voice for secular and religious ideas.

Q: Can art change the world?

A: “There is much wisdom in art, for art is life.” Art is an innovative agent for transformation; art can therefore be a great force for change in the world. Artists bring imagination and new vision to the world. Artists and poets and other creatives are the first to be silenced when governments or other establishments become threatened by such visionary polemics.

Art is the fundamental creativity that inspires every aspect of our lives, whether that be political, or simply for pleasure: art induces evolution of mind and spirit. The purpose of art is to inform and delight. Art is a language that has a direct link to our unconscious mind and emotions.

Q: In the last photos there are only doves. Why? Is because they represent peace and freedom and is this what you wish for your country?

A: I created 12 images for the number of people on both sides of the table, in ten of those images; a table is surrounded by all 12 people on the same side as that of the middle woman. Finally, in one image only there is one person, and in the last image, with no one but doves.

The images of doves represent intellectual freedom and hope, the escaping of social norms, and the creation of new landscapes for Iranians to possess.

Q: In The Last Supper, everybody is animated, using hand gestures for example, to show a narrative that references the parts played out by Christ and Judas. It is evident that the sentence pronounced by Christ (“One of you shall betray me” (Matthew, XXVI, 21) generated all these different reactions. This is Leonardo’s novelty: “shows the effect of the Word, he does not limit to indicate it.” [the quotation here, can you create a reference for it?  We can put it in brackets] What is the sentence behind the movement of your protagonists?

A: We strive to win.

Dinner in Tehran (2012) was exhibited as a solo show in Tehran Silk Road Gallery (Iran), part of it in the London-based Rose Issa Project, and at Art Space London and Art13 London. The last exhibition was held in May 2013 at the Dubai Art Space Gallery.

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