The Art of Living of Art: Felipe Ehrenberg

This article was first published at FADmagazine.

To approach a man of Felipe Ehrenberg’s calibre is no small thing. The last of the modernists and the first of the conceptualists, a philosopher who through forms and colours sought to provoke pleasure, and sometimes indignation.

Ehrenberg started his artistic training at a very early age under the mentorship of Mathias Goeritz and José Chavez Morado. Fleeing from dangerous times in Mexico, Felipe arrived penniless in London with his two young children and their mother, Martha Hellion. Behind them, an involvement in a massive anti-government movement brutally quelled by a massacre, and the ensuing witch-hunt launched by the government prior to the Olympics of ’68.

Allowed to remain in England for “attenuating circumstances”, he proceeded to merge into the art scene spawned by the ’60s. Together with Martha, David Mayor, and Chris Welch, he founded the now legendary Beau Geste Press,[1] which was dedicated to presenting visual poetry, conceptual and neo-Dada art, and the work of many artists closely related to the Fluxus movement. Ehrenberg was one of the most important exponents of Fluxus’ principles in Europe.

Ehrenberg returned to México in 1974 and made a significant impact as a member of the country’s los grupos movement. Los grupos artists created socio-political work that addressed oppressive political regimes by combining activism and anti-art.

Indeed, his interest in the socio-cultural aspects of art and the involvement of the community led him to be present as a public figure in the 80’s. Although an unsuccessful candidate for the municipal elections in 1982, Ehrenberg was actively involved in the reconstruction and protection of the Tepito neighbourhood against the real estate speculation after the 1985 earthquake.

In 2001, he accepted to be a cultural attaché in Brazil under then-chancellor Jorge Castañeda. A post of which he was discharged when he appeared naked in Beto Brant’s film Delicate Crime. In 2014, he moves again to Mexico, this time permanently.

Ehrenberg had received the Perpetua Prize and Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships among others.

Defined a neologist by his friend the writer Fernando del Paso, Ehrenberg adopted this title to describe himself: “the man who studied new things”.

Ehrenberg helped to redefine and claim a social role for art with his career through the adoption of innovative and experimental modes, both conceptually and technically. His commitment to resistance and to questioning any imposed concept is present in all his oeuvre.

All his works evoke an attitude of a constant critical examination of society, which crosses Ehrenberg not only through analysis, but also physically, using urban space as a political gathering place. He was one of the first artists to approach the topic of violence in Mexico. Indeed, one of the most repetitive topics in his production was Death, especially the mixing and adaptation of Mexican indigenous traditions with Christianity.

For Ehrenberg, there could be no division between art and politics, and his goal was to unite his viewers under this line of thought. “Art is only an excuse”, said the visionary artist in his compelling homonymous work… “an excuse to live life, to explore it, to question it, to enjoy it.”

Felipe Ehrenberg passed away the 15 of May from a heart attack in Morelos, Mexico.

Ehrenberg was not only an artist, he was also a traveller, a neologist, an intellectual, a politician, a writer, an actor, a teacher, a tireless traveller, and above all a friend.

He was faithful to himself and to his work, and his work was and will be faithful to him.


[1] Currently the CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux in France is hosting an exhibition on it.




Clemencia Labin and the Colorful Pulpa Chic

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, June 2014)

Since 2001, artist Clemencia Labin (born Venezuela, 1947) has been producing a series of works called Pulpa Chic.

These objects share with pop art the flat color, artificiality, and re-contextualization of objects. The pop art Labin alludes to responds to the connection between these works and the popular culture of her native country Venezuela. In Spanish, the word “pulpa” describes the edible part of a fruit.
From her own description, Labin’s Pulpa are soft, fleshly, and padded works often covered by expandable lycra or other fabrics. They are usually built on wooden frames, filled with polyester fiber, and partly painted with acrylic paint.

With few exceptions – such as Pintamuros the flattest of her 21st century pieces – most of Labin’s pieces occupy space and are sculptural. All of her works display a plush array of shapes, fabrics, and textures filled with something enigmatically shapely but soft. Their construction has the rigor of the Bauhaus while simultaneously displaying a casualness that celebrates improvisation. They incarnate an aesthetic which demands a narrative, one that the artist is not shy to talk about.

In 2011, Labin represented Venezuela at the Venice Biennale, and she explained how after having lived in Hamburg, Germany for over 20 years why rediscovering her home city of Maracaibo changed her art practice. On a casual visit to the neighborhood of Santa Lucia, she discovered a new palette in the bright colors of the houses’ façade and interior décor.

Although that neighborhood was recognized as dangerous, she bought a house there and since 2011 has been hosting an annual art festival called Velada Santa Lucia. It is evident that the colors and patterns of her current neighborhood are reflected in her present work, albeit her worldly perspective.

Until 1968, Labin lived and attended school in Maracaibo. After, she moved to New York where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Arts in 1972 and later a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Columbia University before moving to Germany. Throughout her career, she studied under the tutelage of Kai Sudeck, Franz E. Walther, and Sigmar Polke.

Labin’s works invite interaction and she herself interacts with the viewer as a performer. Indeed, Pulpa Nueva Mega Lucrecia (2009) puts the viewer at odds as to whether one should find shapes, or simply squeeze it or lie down on it.

Nicola Costantino: Art of Sensation

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, July 2014)

Nicola Costantino was born in Rosario, Argentina, on November 17, 1964, into a family of Italian descent. As a child, she was a little unusual, with remarkably popping eyes and many scientific and technical leanings.

While she attended the course of Fine Arts at the National University in Rosario, her interest in new artistic materials and techniques led her to research and work in craft workshops and factories. At ICI Duperial, she experimented with silicone molds and matrices on polyester resin apt for flexible polyurethane foam injection. Her skill in this technique proved decisive for the development of her art work, and enabled her to achieve the real-object perception that would become characteristic of Nicola’s art.

Costantino achieves in her art what visual arts should do: her sculptures, installations, videos, and photographs catch the eye and alter perception. Because they are predominately rooted in sensation, and not just in concepts, her artworks trigger an immediate, physical reaction. Casts of animal fetuses, molds of human skin, and soaps made with the artist’s own fat build up a tension between ornamentation and revulsion. Her innovation revolves around ethical values and the alienation from nature. Even sexuality is turned into compulsion, flesh, and transmuted bodies, turning everything into an oppressive eroticism.

In 1995, she started to experiment with an almost exact copy of human skin made in silicone that she used for the production of her clothing. And it is for theses silicon sculptures and clothes resembling erogenous parts of the human body, that she achieved notoriety. Also, she made her first coat with navels and human hair, which she herself wore during her frequent trips to New York and Los Angeles. Fashion –  a topic that had been present throughout her life along with consumption and the human body as a tool of seduction – has become a recurrent theme in her work.

Costantino frequently employs visually and conceptually shocking means to investigate corporeality, and the relationship between animals and humans. With a background in sculpture and having worked with her mother in a clothing factory as a child, Costantino constantly seeks to incorporate new materials and processes in her practice. She studied mechanical engineering to make her kinetic works, taxidermy for her casts of animal carcasses, and soap-making to create soap from her own body fat. In her later career, Costantino has turned to photography, exploring themes of doubling and manipulation.

In 2003, she started her project Savon de Corps, with soaps made with a part of her own fat obtained from a liposuction. She held a solo exhibit of her Boutique at Senda Gallery, in Barcelona’s Paseo de Gracia, a street where the world’s most glamorous clothing brands are based, and another exhibition with her whole work at Casal Solleric, Palma de Mallorca, both in Spain.

Cochon sur canapé (1992), her first solo show, was considered a forerunner of contemporary Latin American art.

In 1994, she was admitted into the Antorchas Foundation’s Barracas Workshop, coordinated by Suárez and Benedit and moved to Buenos Aires, where she settled down and started working. In 1998, she represented Argentina in the San Pablo biennial and then began to take part in several exhibits in museums around the world, such as those in Liverpool (1999), Tel Aviv (2002) and Zurich (2011). In 2000, she performed a solo show at Deitch Projects (New York); her Corset of Human Furriery became part of the MOMA collection. In 2004, she presented Animal Motion Planet, a series of orthopedic machines for stillborn animals, and Savon de Corps, a work that caused great impact in mass media.

Her reunion with Gabriel Valansi in 2006 lead her into photography, where she has more than 30 works in which she always takes the leading role embodying different characters of photography and other art forms. Her interest in video performance drives her creation of self-referential work Trailer (2010), her first cinematographic-like production, as well as her embodying of a historical and emblematic female character like Eva Perón in Rapsodia Inconclusa (55th Venice Biennial, 2013).

Liliana Porter and the Toys of Solitude

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, May 2014)

Liliana Porter is an Argentinian artist (born, 1941) who has resided in New York since 1964. Her works are storytelling based on fairy tales and children’s toys. Her oeuvre spans sculpture, photography, video, canvas, print, collage, and installation. Each sculpture is a particular world, a space where the conscious and the unconscious melt together. It is a narrative of imagination obtained by the assemblage of sculptures with small-scale objects, figurines, and utensils — all part of a collection Porter has accumulated throughout the years. These objects rarely appear together, they pose always alone; the character appears static in an empty visual field, and if they do engage in a dialogue, they do so with an object of a different species. Each element is distinguished by its discreet fragility, by a thin line between the everlasting and the transitory, where the exercises and the repetition of certain manual gestures constitute the essence of her work. These works, by mean of their small scale, allude to a human being’s solitude, highlighting the duration of time and remarking on the importance of space. The issue of solitude is, in fact, Porter’s central theme.

The more perfect the void in which the character is placed, the smaller the object is in relation to its background. Indeed, the small figure contrasts with the vastness of the space. This contrast gives rise to a temporal notion associated to the finite and the infinite, to the vast and the minute.

Thanks to the distortion of the toys into paintings and photographs, Porter creates new fictions, which are a fragile narrative exposed to transformations. Porter’s world is timeless, the artwork embodies itself in multiple reflections, as a place of changing point of view as well as an historical space irremediably incomplete that is progressively the subject of new readings. As such, each work assumes an extensive temporal meaning.

Through transformation and enrichment, Liliana Porter combines two parallel languages that allow the opening of a hermetic dialogue toward more complex and multidisciplinary fields, in which the text formulates new ways regarding the pre-established discourse posed by the images themselves.

Sandra Vásquez de la Horra: Hybrids

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, March 2014)

Born in Chile in 1967, Sandra Vásquez de la Horra grew up under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. From this chapter of Chilean political history and her personal experiences, she developed personal work through a combination of elements that gave rise to non-linear narratives; they appear ecstatic, traumatic, and surreal all at once. Sexuality, popular culture, and death are recurring motifs in her works, which allude to melancholy dreams and apparitions creating and overlapping each other, interlacing a poetic achieved through an austerity of media.

These fictions — created from a combination of real facts and memories confronted with elements drawn from popular culture, mythology, and literature — form a tapestry of figures isolated that embody a richness of meanings. These are passages between the dreams and the evocation, where a web of ideas, associations, and hidden stories seem to envelop figures of a magic shape that avoid falling into the abyss.

Sandra Vásquez de la Horra produces drawings on small pieces of paper, employing color pencil and watercolors, followed by the application of a wax bath and a transparent film that provides protection and permanence to each piece. Her work is informed by film, fairy tales, and botanical and zoological textbooks.

Her drawing is concise and made from fluid lines that create personages on a neutral background. In this space, Sandra Vásquez de la Horra often writes words in Spanish, English, and German, with delicate touches of color that show a fragment of the narrative that enhance or complicate the iconography.

Her mysterious and intimate works suggest the influence of Surrealism, Dada, and Francisco Goya’s phantasmagoria. The sober figures and the austere monochromatic of the composition reflect a language based on the texture pattern, typography, and the accumulation. Despite this, Sandra Vásquez de la Horra’s works are fully autonomous and have a very unique and clear sense of their own characteristics, compressing and inventing new territories.

Vásquez de la Horra’s work is part of various public and private collections. It has been exhibited at the Oldenburger Kunstverein, Germany (2012), the Musée d’Art Moderne, St-Etienne (2011), the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (2010), the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2011, 2009), and the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf (2008). The artist was awarded the prestigious Guerlain Prize in 2009. In 2012, she participated in “La Inminencia de las Poéticas” at the 30th São Paulo Biennial.






El Lugar de la Mujer: A Woman’s Place


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

Alicia D’Amico, born in Buenos Aires (1933-2001), was an Argentinian photographer. Camera in hand, she always preferred her photographs in black and white as well as the format of 35 mm.

Alicia graduated from the National School of Fine Arts as Professor of Drawing and Painting in 1953. In 1955, she was awarded a scholarship by the French government and lived in Paris for a year, which allowed her to improve her knowledge in Visual Arts and purchase her first camera.

Two years later, Alicia made her first photographic work thanks to studying and her father who was also a photographer; later, she become assistant to photographer Annemarie Heinrich. Along with Sara Facio, Alicia opened a studio in the 1960s and taught at the School of Photography in Argentina, where she was called “master” by his students.

Between 1983 and 1999, Argentina witnessed a critical mass of women artists emerge who organized exhibitions and events, and challenged the patriarchal discourse. In 1983, alongside the filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg, Alicia became cofounder of A Woman’s Place (Lugar de la Mujer). It was one of the first feminist institutions in Argentina to host interdisciplinary feminist activities. It was open to lesbian feminists too, who, in 1986, together with the photographer Ilse Foscova, organized public interventions in favor of women rights.

Alicia’s photographic work focused on teaching and collaboration in books, especially with artists and intellectuals of South America such as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, Oscar Painter, Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Angel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, and Astor Piazzolla — many of whom were the subject of his black-and-white portraits.

Her work has been exhibited in many countries as part of group shows with other artists such as Pedro Luis Raota, Osvaldo Salzamendi Francisco Tenllado, Rubén Sotera, and Alicia Sanguinett but her work has held individual exhibitions worldwide as well. On August 30, 2001, Alicia died in her hometown of Bueno  Aires but her photographs continue to enlighten.

In Conversation with Ana Álvarez-Errecalde

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

Q: Blood and nudity seem to be a leitmotif of your work. Why? And what is your relation with them?

A: I have created many artworks that deal with nudity but only a few that include blood. Many things motivate the direction of my work. I am interested in the vital cycles and the passage of time. I am interested in the body as an intimate territory: a map of registered memories that are not always in line with what religion, science and socioeconomic interests have led us to believe. How I relate to nudity and blood is a mirror of my fascination with life. I am accepting of my changing body, amazed with how my children grow and intrigued by the aging process. I have enjoyed my pregnancies and have had joyful, intense home births. The blood and nudity seen within the context of my artwork is linked to authenticity and undiluted sensuality.

Q: Identity is a repetitive theme in your work. Has identity become so important since you are an Argentinian living in Europe? Is it a need to find and define (or re-define) yourself? 


p style=”text-align:justify;”>A: 
I have lived half of my life away from my family and country of origin as an immigrant on two continents. These experiences have influenced my interest in Identity. In other projects, I do not focus so much on nationality as an identifying factor but in those experiences that we live that permeate us and determine the way we see the world.

Q: Female nudity… Is it a sort of re-appropriation of the female figure?

A: Yes. In my artwork I intend to go beyond the physical and aesthetic re-appropriation. My intention when photographing female nudity is also to re-vindicate the right to openly share experiences and add to the collective imagery. Love and sex among the elderly, orgasmic births, scars that leave testimony of a survived experience, all these have something to contribute to our common reality.

Q: It is obvious to me to link Canova’s Le Tre Grazie with your Tres Gracias Sangrantes. 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? A: Tres Gracias Sangrantes was conceived as a parody to Canova´s Le Tre Grazie which are supposed to represent beauty, charm and joy and preceded banquets for the mere purpose of delighting the guests of the gods. Raphael created a chaste version of the piece and Rubens painted the Graces in a voluptuous and exuberant way. I wanted to add an irreverent image to the vast voyeuristic and salacious representations in Art.The advertising industry tries to convince us that women´s blood is blue, that menstrual cycles stink, that menstrual pain is normal and should be medically numbed, and that mood swings are part of a syndrome (PMS) which is treatable by a huge range of pharmaceutical solutions. External control over women´s physiology and psychology reach debates about abortion legality and illegality, backs up the endless interventions on pregnancy and birth which ends up in an incredibly high rate on C-sections in most of the developed countries. 
The external manipulation of women´s hormones sometimes starts in the beginning of adolescence.
 The devalorization of old age sends more and more women in an anguished and frustrating search for eternal youth.
 In Three Bleeding Graces I give visibility to blood in order to denounce the devitalization, domestication and exploitation of this process that negates women.

Q: Is HISTOLOGÍAS a metaphor for the lack of empathy toward others?A: HISTOLOGIAS proposes getting into someone else´s skin and alludes to the complexity of this act. I present the skin as a canvas which is both influenced by the life that marks us from the outside (aging, illness, aesthetic, etc.) as well as the marks that come from the inside (the subconscious that overflows, explodes and stains).
 There are moments in life when it becomes almost unbearable to fit inside the boundaries that conform who we are, those are the moments when we are able to grow emotionally and expand our limits.

Q: ALQUIMIA seems a spiritual work where the absence becomes presence. Would you tell me more about this work?A: I created this series of photographs and sculptures soon after the death of my sister Bany. We were very alike and very close. We would laugh at the same things, we had the same smile. When she passed away unexpectedly from cancer I could not accept that she was gone. I was searching to be with her in a tangible way as an intent of transcending her absence. I brought her back into my life by creating this collaborative work. I based the artwork on her poetry, which I even embroidered on the dresses that I used for the series.

Q: I found El nacimiento de mi Hija (The Birth of my Daughter) the most “transgressive” of your works. How do people respond to this work?

A: There are people who admire the work and appreciate my motivations for creating and sharing these self-portraits. Art history, Hollywood, the media and the advertising industry show maternities from a viewpoint which mostly corresponds to a heterosexual masculine fantasy. Everything related to the mother is portrayed as sacred, virginal and aseptic.

Other people are horrified by seeing a naked woman giving birth, smiling and showing the baby, umbilical cord, placenta and blood. Some feel it is not a “sincere” image of birth because their accepted version of women birthing involves pain, being out of control and needing guidance and assistance. They feel confronted by an image that challenges their most profound beliefs. 
For me, experiencing birth without interference was always an incredible and powerful event. A rite of passage that is transcendental and primordial. I know that my experience is similar to that of many women and I wonder why that experience was never portrayed before and hardly ever discussed.

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

A: Everyday I am talking, planning, thinking, avoiding, fed up with, enjoying, loving, hating, amazed by, bored by, getting hope from and creating Art.
 My artwork is a way of processing some of the most meaningful experiences that I have encountered: birth, illness, displacement, death…
I can’t separate art from my daily life. My husband, Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada, is also an artist and we have three children who love to be involved in our projects. Discussing concepts, learning and working in an organic and combined manner can happen at the dinner table or keep us busy for weeks.

Q: Can women do everything?

A: Yes, if you are comparing women´s ability to men, women have already shown that they are as capable as men to execute the most physical and intellectually demanding jobs as well as also being capable of the same ability for error. The problem is that they should not be doing everything.

During approximately the last sixty years, women have been struggling to do everything because that was another expectation that society had placed on them. Women became an active part of the workforce but kept the initial role of taking care of the household. For many women is an overwhelming amount of responsibility.
 To add to all these, the societal pressures of doing it all, doing it happy and doing it while being young and beautiful had made of women incredible consumers, making huge profits by fomenting insecurities. 
It is great to know that we can do everything we want but we need to free ourselves from the external pressures of doing it all.

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

A: I like to make visible experiences that did not have much exposure, that for different reasons were not sufficiently recognized, accepted or validated. I am amazed by the richness and variety of human experience and I do not want to conform to a narrow and limited version.

Q: How men react to your work? Does this vary by class, by culture, by ethnicity?

A: Most men give support to my artwork regardless of their background. I have received some negative feedback from both men and women who do not feel comfortable with how I portray nudity because it does not coincide with their “ideal” of what “beauty” is. I do not strive to show “beauty” in nudity because I do not believe that art must be beautiful. I want to go beyond the aesthetic and if you find it beautiful or troubling it is because of your perception. 
Regarding the self-portrait Birth of my Daughter specifically, some people made commentaries comparing the vulgarity of these birth images to the vulgarity of photographing someone defecating. I am not offended by these comments because I know it is an indicator of how these people were raised and that their belief system connects these natural processes to being sinful or dirty. This is an indicator of the lack of respect that women´s bodies have and it is worrisome reality that this is the value that some people give to birth, breastfeeding, infancy and other natural things in life in general.

Q: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

A: I embrace the value, uniqueness and equality of every person and that is for me what feminism stands for. I wish there was another word that would not have a gender connotation to oppose to the concept of Patriarchy. As with any other label used to gather many people with similar ideas, there are different ways to understand feminism and the nuances of what feminism is, is easily lost within this broad label. There are some feminists that do not appreciate my focus on maternity because they have been trying to conquer other roles for women to occupy and talking about motherhood seems like a step backwards to them. But for most of the women alive today motherhood is a reality. My work is created in order to counteract the predominant over medicated and detached view of maternity.

Q: Can art change the way we perceive our life?

A: Once all essential necessities such as food, health and shelter are guaranteed, art can have an amazing impact on our lives. It can influence thought, provoke dialogue and question all facets of existence: from politics to education, from religion to entertainment. Art has a way of transforming ideas into emotions and that has the potential of awakening society from indifference and indoctrination.

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.

Mira Schendel: Portrait of a Brazilian Artist

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, November 2013)

Myrra Dagmar Dub, known as Mira Schendel (1919-1988), was a Brazilian artist. Born in Zurich, to parents of Jewish heritage, Schendel was raised in Italy as a catholic and studied philosophy at the Catholic University in Milan. In 1938, she was displaced of her Italian nationality and forced to end her study. After traveling across many countries in 1949, she arrived in Brazil where she began her career as an artist.

She said of her arrival there, “I started painting in Brazil. Life was very hard, there was no money for paints, but I used to buy cheap materials and paint like crazy. It was a matter of life or death for me.”

In fact, in order to make a living, she worked as a graphic designer producing posters, illustrations, and book covers. She drew inspiration from artists such as Giorgio Morandi, Giorgio de Chirico, and Paul Klee. Her work constitutes an experimental investigation into profound philosophical questions relating to human existence and belief, addressing the distinction between faith and certainty, being and nothingness, and the “void.”The painting of the 1960s are characterized by a move towards geometry. Schendel remarked, “No matter how much I use geometric shapes, the sensory element of the brushstroke, the texture, is always there; for me this is very important. I would never make a completely smooth painting.”Interestingly, spiral motifs recur in all her oeuvre. Often compared to Archimedean spirals which describe, in mathematical terms, the unending spiral recession of a point in time and space, away from fixed point. Schendel also started a series of works using semi-transparent rice paper in 1964, investigating themes of transparency and language by the use of letters as graphic elements.Her most enigmatic works are The Return of Achilles (1964) and Apologia pro vita sua (1974), both with reference to the Homer’s epic poem the Iliad.

 Although little-known outside Brazil, Mira Schendel remains a unique and influential figure in twentieth-century art.

Meriem Bouderbala

(This text was originally published at The International Museum of Women, October 2013)

When we speak about the Arab Countries, and specifically of Arab Women, we immediately associate them with the idea of harem, veil, and dance. Arab women are seen as oppressed and repressed by a culture that does not leave space for the feminine side of itself. This can be true if applied to a certain sphere of that culture. But, it is also true that female Arab artist have come a long way to gain recognition in the contemporary art world. This is the case of the Tunisian Meriem Bouderbala.

By using her own body in her work, the artist challenges the enduring Orientalist vision of the image of the Arab women by comparing her own body with that of exoticism that become established in the collective imaginary. Meriem studied painting and engraving at the school of Beaux-arts in Provence from 1980 to 1985 obtaining a Post-Graduate Diploma in Plastic Arts. She then moved to London in 1986 to study engraving at the Chelsea School of Art. Since 1986, Meriem has exhibited her artwork frequently in Tunisia and throughout Europe. Meriem’s work has received wide recognition and she has won a number of prizes and important commissions. Some of her work are parts of the permanent collection of the Arab World Institute in Paris.

Meriem’s work is theoretically conditioned by her passion to explore and exploit the potential of “minority art,” or contemporary art that works outside of traditional schools of thought. Her works play with photography and installation, and challenges the body representation and identification of oneself and of the other. Her art also explores a multiplicity of themes including femininity, chaos, and culture. She uses many mediums comprising textiles and a variety of papers and canvases. She uses rust and natural dyes with a focus on natural products such as water, sand, powders, and metal.

Today, Meriem lives and works between Paris and Tunisia, and she truly believes that belonging to both cultures has a central influence on her work.