Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017): art is only an excuse.

This article was first published in Artheorica Magazine.

 Felipe Ehrenberg was born in Mexico City in 1943. He started his artistic training early, under the mentorship of Mathias Goeritz and José Chavez Morado. In 1960, after the Tlatelolco massacre, he fled to England together with his first wife, the artist, Martha Hellion and their two children, and was in exile.

While in England, together with Martha, David Mayor, and Chris Welch, Ehrenberg founded Beau Geste Press (BGP), which was dedicated to presenting visual poetry and conceptual and neodada art. In 1968, he founded the Polygonal Workshop (1968) with Richard Kriesche, Daniel Cazes, Rodolfo Alcaraz, and Mick Gibbs, which snubbed the 7th Paris Biennale. In 1974, back in Mexico, he cofounded Proceso Pentágono, part of what is now known as the Group Movement. He worked with the Tepito Arte Acá collective and taught at the Universidad Veracruzana. In 1979, he founded the H2O Talleres de Comunicación collective, where he taught independent publishing and mural art.

Ehrenberg’s rebellious and irreverent artistic trajectory is of quite varied, too, for he experimented with various techniques, from mail art and visual poetry to performance, fanzines, graphic work, and conceptual art. In addition, he served as Mexico’s cultural attaché in São Paulo from 2001 to 2006, a position he was dismissed from for having starred in the critically acclaimed Beto Brant’s film Crime Delicado (Delicate Crime). Ehrenberg has received various awards, including the Femirama Prize (1968), the Perpetua Prize and Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, among others.

Ehrenberg, who was a member of the Fluxus movement, realized some fantastic pieces, including his famous A Date with Fate at the Tate, where he arrived at the Tate Gallery in London with his head covered with a hood, claiming himself as an artwork. Ehrenberg recorded all the conversation he had with the museum guard (who did not let him enter) and that was his piece. The recording was later acquired to be incorporated in the museum’s collection. I do not think there was even one episode in Ehrenberg’s life where art was not the crank wheel of his existence… In addition, he had that powerful gift of becoming your best friend just moments after meeting you. Felipe was an inexhaustible source of knowledge, an extraordinary draftsman, a performer, a writer, a great walker, a rebel, a provocateur… and an untiring discoverer of the new or better said, a neologist as his friend Fernando del Paso defined him. Felipe began his journey to eternity this past 15th of May in Morelos (México) due to a heart attack. Ehrenberg’s rebellious and irreverent trajectory explores, in his own nomadic methodology, one of the subjects he liked must: the enjoyable skulls, full of life and humour. Indeed, one of the most important themes in his production was death, especially the mixing and adaptation of Mexican indigenous traditions with Christianity. Ehrenberg’s career redefines and claims the social role of art through the adoption of innovative and experimental modes, both conceptually and technically, and his works were of the greatest variety. For instance, once he cut himself on the chest and then imprinted his blood on a roll of paper which had the form of bird footprints. Yet again, when he placed a piece of grey duct tape on a wall, the artwork was the frame’s shape itself, as created with the tape. His commitment to resistance and to questioning any imposed concept is present in the entirety of his life-long oeuvre. All his works evoke an attitude of a constant critical examination of society, which Ehrenberg crossed not only through analysis, but also physically, using urban space as a political gathering place. Art for Felipe was only an excuse, an excuse to live… an excuse to love…

 

 

 

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ALIGHIERO, LUIS Y YO

Traducción Viviana Lombardi
Texto Original en Inglés | Publicación original 30 Junio 2015 en azaharliterario

Londres, junio de 2015

Estimados Alighiero y Luis,

¿O tal vez tendría que decir Queridos Boetti y Borges?

Confieso estar un poco confundida con ambos. Sugiero que ustedes lo decidan. Para colmo, recién caigo en cuenta de que el mayor de los dos tiene otros nombres (Jorge, Francisco e Isidoro)… ¡Para mí es un lío!

Antes que nada, espero que, donde sea que estén, se encuentren muy bien.

Demás está decir que es la profunda admiración que les tengo, las palabras de uno y las imágenes del otro las que me hicieron crecer en erudición, me estimularon la imaginación y nobleza obliga, también me confundieron un poco las ideas.

Me dirijo hoy a ustedes y no a Frida1 o a Luigi2, porque ambos ya me aclararon las ideas con sus respectivas explicaciones. Largas horas y gruesos tomos de aprendizaje mediante, espero que con ustedes me resulte más fácil.

Como recién advierto que no los presenté al inicio de la carta, me disculpo por la torpeza y procedo a hacerlo ya. (Ignoro si ustedes se conocen)

-Alighiero, te presento a Luis (y a todos sus otros nombres).

-Boetti, te presento a Borges.

Y permítanme que yo también me presente: “Soy Fortunata y/o Titta, como me llaman mis amigos íntimos (Omito los otros sobrenombres para evitar más confusiones)

De hecho, la razón por la cual les escribo es que yo, igual que ustedes, tengo un problema con la identidad. Es más, en la sociedad contemporánea en la que vivo, parece ser que el asunto está cobrando trascendencia ¡Se los puedo apostar! Basta con mirar la confusión que nos rodea. Al menos ustedes tienen la suerte de estar por encima de todo y de vacaciones permanentes.

Debo aclarar que esta carta no intenta ser ni un ensayo, ni una sesión de psicoanálisis; no soy académica, ni mucho menos psicoanalista, por el contrario, ésta intenta ser la carta abierta de una joven mujer, llena de preguntas, dirigida a quienes (ustedes dos) tal vez conozcan el tema mejor que yo y puedan dilucidarlo para explicárselo, aunque más no sea, para darle ciertas pistas que le permitan emprender el “camino correcto”.

Creo que a este punto resulta obvio, queridos señores, que espero ansiosa la respuesta de ambos.

Así que permítanme hablar en serio.

En su obra Luis, más precisamente en su poema “Borges y yo” y tú, Alighiero, en tu trabajo “Los Gemelos”, ambos refieren al tópico de la identidad, la identidad propia y el cisma del yo con respecto del otro. Luis habla de sí mismo en tercera persona, y Alighiero transfigura sus fotografías cuando aparece en ellas sosteniéndole la mano a su gemelo.

Ahora bien ¿Qué es la identidad? ¿Y por qué les gusta jugar con ella?

Pasaré a considerar algunas definiciones en un intento de elaborar algún razonamiento lógico.

Según Erik Erikson (¡vaya nombrecito!) “Se considera como identidad personal a las idiosincrasias que separan a una persona de la otra”

Weinreich por su parte, aporta una definición más compleja: “Se define a la identidad de una persona como la totalidad de la propia auto-conceptualización, por la cual el modo de concebirse a sí mismo en el presente, expresa la continuidad entre cómo uno se concibe como fue en el pasado y cómo uno se concibe y aspira a ser en el futuro”.

A partir de lo cual, tomaré en consideración el cuento de Borges:

Borges y yo” propone muchas cuestiones filosóficas acerca del yo y de la epistemología. El poema (¿es un poema?) medita sobre la relación entre las esferas de identidad pública y privada.

A pesar de tratarse de un poema muy simple, en términos de vocabulario y palabras, contiene ideas muy complejas ¿Quién escribe la historia?

La trama explora el interesante concepto del auto-conocimiento a través de la descripción. De hecho, el énfasis que el autor le adjudica al recibir la correspondencia de Borges y leer acerca de Borges en un libro, puede analizárselo bajo la lente del conocimiento adquirido por descripción formulado por Russell. A la distinción entre personaje y yo puede interpretársela como una diferenciación entre autor y escritor. El escritor se correspondería con el personaje y con Borges. El autor pasaría entonces a ser el Yo y el “yo”. En teoría, el escritor podría ser cualquiera, es casual que sea Borges. Mediante esta interpretación, Borges parecería estar ilustrando las diferencias cognitivas entre procesar información a partir de la tercera o de la primera persona.

El narrador encuentra, sin embargo, que a medida que Borges escribe sobre él, va perdiendo su propia esencia reconocible. En realidad, se convierte cada vez más en un texto creado por Borges y cada vez menos en un ser humano.

Por otro lado, el deseo instintivo de Boetti de llegar a la raíz del asunto aparece hasta en su nombre. Se rebautizó a sí mismo como un personaje duplicado, Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero y Boetti), reflejando en parte los factores arquetípicos opuestos representados en su obra/vida: el individuo y la sociedad.

Alighiero”, nos dice, fue la persona que “aquellos que saben mi nombre nombran”, mientras que “Boetti” fue su nomenclatura más abstracta, “el apellido, como categoría, como dispositivo de clasificación”.

De hecho sus obras operan al igual que su nombre, atrayendo inicialmente al espectador hacia un nivel familiar para luego permitirle sumergirse en el análisis conceptual.

Su obra busca el equilibrio entre lo intelectual y lo formal, entre individualidad y colectividad. Mediante la fusión del rigor conceptual, la vocación experimental y el juego, Boetti siempre permite que la oportunidad y la coincidencia interfieran en su trabajo.

Ambas obras evocan en mí la sentencia de Roland Barthes: “La escritura es un espacio neutral, oblicuo, híbrido, donde nuestro sujeto se desliza, el negativo donde se pierde toda identidad, comenzando por la identidad misma del cuerpo que escribe” en su magnífico ensayo La Muerte del Autor.3

De hecho, según Roland, el autor es un producto de la sociedad, una figura moderna; representa el prestigio del individuo en desmedro del texto. En realidad, al texto se lo limita al adjudicarle un autor, y al darle visibilidad a su vida, personalidad, gustos, inclinación política y pasiones en vez de reservarlas a la privacidad del autor mismo. En definitiva, Barthes critica a la crítica que confía en las características de identidad de un autor, ya que al hacerlo las vivencias y prejuicios del autor quedan reflejados en el texto como explicación.

Sostiene asimismo que al matar al autor, el origen de la obra pierde énfasis para beneficio de su destino, que adquiere importancia al poner al anonimato del lector en una posición de privilegio.

El lector es siempre neutral. No tiene una historia, biografía, religión, o psicología tendientes a influenciar al texto.

Mallarmé, antes que muchos otros, se interesó por suprimir al autor para beneficio de la escritura.“(…)son los lenguajes los que hablan, no el autor; escribir es, a través del prerrequisito necesario de la impersonalidad, alcanzar un punto donde sólo el lenguaje actúa,‘ejecuta’ y no el ‘yo’.”

Si damos muerte al autor y cerramos los ojos, podríamos imaginar que la Venus de Botticelli es el auto retrato de una bella damisela, y que los sonetos de Shakespeare los escribió una mujer. Matando al autor, abolimos las fronteras entre géneros, destruimos las jerarquías, erradicamos el ego, y por extensión, hacemos de este planeta absurdo, a menudo insensato, pero siempre arrobadoramente bello, un mundo mejor.

Ignoro si esta carta tenga sentido alguno, ni siquiera sé a qué quería llegar con ella. Puede que me haya confundido a mí misma más que antes. Ojalá les haya provocado la inquietud de cuestionarse y profundizar sobre sí mismos. Debo decir que a pesar de “No saber quién de mí la escribió”, disfruté muchísimo al hacerlo.

 

Cuídense mucho,

Besos a los dos,

Siempre suya

Fortunata, Titta y Calabrò

 

P.D.: ¡A mí también me encanta el sabor del café!

Notas Bibliográficas:
1-Me refiero al autorretrato de Frida Kahlo, “Las dos Fridas”, 1939.
2-Me refiero al libro de Luigi Pirandello “Uno, nessuno e centomila”, (Uno, ninguno y cien mil), 1926. El titulo de la novela es la clave para entender la versatilidad del yo: el concepto de que el hombre no es unívoco y la realidad no es objetiva: El uno es aquél que lleva ‘vida de extranjero; el que ha comprendido que los hombres son ‘esclavos’ de sí mismos y de los demás. El completo rechazo de la persona significa el aplastamiento del yo, que pasa a disolverse completamente en la naturaleza.
3-R. Barthes, La muerte del Autor, American journal Aspen, no. 5-6 ,1967.

 

Frida Kahlo and Mexican Tradition Identity

This essay was previously published at Visual Past.

Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was perhaps the most radical woman painter of the 20th century. Who is not familiar with her flamboyant appearance – the austere, beautiful woman with her black hair and dark unibrow?

Frida Kahlo was radical in the clarity with which she told of her life and suffering. However, despite her weeping and love, or desperate soul searching, Kahlo’s art inquires into the contemporary political and cultural stress of her Mexico. She did not draw inspiration from the world’s art metropolises but, rather, from the pictorial storytelling tradition of the Mexican people. Popular image, in the case of Frida Kahlo, is the artist herself, her image, her elaborate hair, her featured brows, her Mexican costume. She embodies a set of axioms about Mexico itself: passionate, exotic, yet constantly struggling against pain and deceit.[1]

Her paintings tell stories, together with her writings, (she kept a diary for the last ten years of her life as a repository of her feelings) and together they explore the toughness and vulnerability of the human body. In many paintings she melds together the ancient past with her present, merging animals, plants, personae and mythical beings. It is a practice that is artistic as much as it is shamanic, one related to the concept of Aztec duality and that is also addressed in other terms.[2]

According to Anderson, while, on the one hand, Kalho’s paintings reflect the nationalist ideology of post-revolutionary Mexico with the re-evaluation of indigenous and past traditions, on the other hand, Kahlo refuses to romanticize the autochthonous, as post-revolutionary Mexico attempted to do. Kahlo, instead, through personal introspection sought to redefine the modern mestizo/a.[3] Indeed, the evocation of the Aztec and Zapotec, and the imagery of a folk Mexico is an evident pattern in her paintings.

After Porfirio Diaz’s thirty-four year dictatorship, in 1920 the election saw Alvaro Obregon as his successor. He rejected the anti-autochthonous philosophy and policy of his predecessor, and developed a program for the creation of public, social art that would allow the masses to receive the ideals of the Revolution.[4]

Since Frida grew up after the Mexican revolution and reached maturity when indigeneity and Mexicanidad were strong forces in her country, we would expect to find her politics reflected in her art. In 1920, when the popular uprising of the Mexican Revolution began, society’s values were still entirely established upon the veneration of the male as the center of the family and as having the right to the possession of both land and women. As a consequence of the violence of the Revolution, the idea of attempting to construct a new society arose, however this causes difficulties in maintaining a national identity, while it clashed with the constant advances in technology and capitalism that were represented by the United States, and this took place in a Country that is divided both geographically and culturally.

The education system was extended to serve indigenous and rural populations, and there was a considerable commissioning of murals depicting folkloric elements of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, from both the past and the present.[5]

Contemporary manifestations of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past were supported and glorified by the Government and focusing on the variety and richness of Mexican culture.[6] A strongly anti-Spanish idealization of Aztec Mexico and a focus in the ‘Indian Question’ became the center of interest of the Mexican indigenista[7]. By refusing Spanish colonialism, Mexican nationalism identified the Aztecs as the roots of an indigenous political unit. This glorification of indigenous peoples evolved into what Luis Villoro has described as the dialectic of the indigenista mindset.[8]  The unique and pristine nature of Mexican culture, through the re-appreciation of its autochthonous people, was a protagonist in the revolution, and supported the nationalist movement between the 1920s and the 1940s. However, by the early 20th Century the United States began to replace Spain in interfering in the country’s internal political struggles. The aim of the leaders was to elevate the life style of the ‘real’ Americans against the rest of the world, but particularly against the United States.[9]  

The glorification of ancient and contemporary native culture stimulated a largely mestizo population to incorporate previously disclaimed features of their heritage. As Stuart Hall asserts, this process of incorporating the past was indeed a manner through which to rediscover that past, but was also an intimate path in search of identity: ‘not an identity grounded in the archeology, but in the re-telling of the past.’[10] Within the chaos of this revival, Frida Kahlo, placed her interchangeable figure, not only as an artist, but also as a woman. She stresses that she belongs to the Mexican Tradition by changing her birthdate from 1907 to 1910, thus making it coincide with the Mexican Revolution. Kahlo liked to say she was a daughter of the Mexican Revolution.[11]

My Dress Hangs There

Many of Kahlo’s painting demonstrate anti-imperialist, anti-materialist, and, more specifically, anti-US themes[12]. Indeed, it was during her American sojourn, while her husband, the well-known muralist Diego Rivera, was working on his Rockefeller Central mural – unfinished and later destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller due to the identification of Lenin’s portrait in one of the characters – that Frida painted My Dress Hangs There (1933; figure 1). Achieved through a mixture of collage, photography and painting – My Dress Hangs There is representative of a critique of industrialized North America. The painting – as Oriana Baddeley has stated – is Kahlo’s most formally adventurous work.[13] Kahlo, in a theatrical manner, depicts the destruction, greed and abuse of capitalism. Through her symbolism she reminds us of, and underlines, the evils and excesses of industry and consumerism. The painting seems to be a stage and the audience is invited to see the show of the world around them.

The profound contrast between Mexican values and those Frida experienced in the United States served to crystalize her political attitudes. The Painting scourges the United States – equipped with a bourgeois life-style – represented with images of a toilette, and a sports trophy on the top of a classical column; and a telephone situated on a pedestal in the form of a skyscraper. Kahlo depicts its hypocrisy by wrapping a dollar sign around the cross of a church. The steps of a Federal building, presided over by a statue of George Washington, are a collage of a financial graph showing “weekly sales in millions” [14], while the commercialization of sex is interpreted by a deteriorating poster of Mae West as a Hollywood fantasy. The Church, the Industry and Wall Street are joined together by telephone lines and, behind this inhuman environment, Kahlo places the people, highlighting their distance from their surroundings by the artist’s use of photo-collage.

The lower part of the canvas delineates the contrast between wealth and poverty in American society. In the forefront of this moral decay, corruption, poverty and suffering, Kahlo places a vibrant immaculate figure: the traditional costume of Zapotec women, from the Isthmus of Tehuantapec, – located
 in the South Eastern part of Mexico in the region of Oaxaca – but the Tehuana dress hangs empty. There is no flesh, no human presence, no hearthbeat or breath – only a dress. Zapotec women, – according to the mythology that revolves around them – do indeed represent an ideal of freedom, economic independence, and of a matriarchal society. The image that they embodied may have led to Kahlo’s choice of the dress[15]. The absence of Nature, and a strongly masculine technology that masters the canvas, is in juxtaposition with the feminine presence that is embodied by the empty dress, the Statue of Liberty and Mae West.

Women in the Tehuantapec region are known for their majesty, beauty, sensuality, intelligence, courage and strength. Popular legend recounts that their society is a matriarchy, where women manage markets, are responsible for fiscal affairs and dominate men. Their dress is lovely: an embroidered blouse and long, usually purple or red velvet, skirt with white cotton voile at the hem. Frida, in a certain way, opted to dress as a Tehuana for the same reason that she adopted the “mexicanidad”: to please Rivera. However, she does not modify her character to match the Rivera ideal. Rather, she invented a very individual personal style to dramatize the personality that she already had and that she knew Diego liked, and to hide her physical imperfections. Rivera was moved by the Tehuana costumes and headdresses, in fact, he stated that all Mexican women should wear traditional Mexican costumes:

The classical Mexican dress has been created by people for people. The Mexican women who do not wear it do not belong to the people, but are mentally and emotionally dependent on a foreign class to which they wish to belong, i. e., a great American and French bureaucracy.[16]

Frida Kahlo was able to perceive the semiotic qualities of the clothing, which lie within its role as a metaphorical vehicle, and which is also easily understood by the eye of the viewer. Frida’s use of this traditional dress to strengthen her identity, reaffirming her political beliefs, and concealing her imperfections, also built on her own sense of heritage and personal history, defining her identity, reasserting her indigenous values and her Mexicanidad.

Her transitions from being a single to a married woman, from a private to a public role as the spouse of a well-known artist, and from being an individual to being an artist are reflected in her conscious appropriation and assimilation of her culture, both ancient and contemporary.[17] Indeed, her personal transition mirrors Mexico itself, in a “phase of self-examination and self-definition after the revolution” [18]. Frida expressed her belonging to what she called la raza (the race), not only through her art, but through her conduct, in the decoration of her home and, above all, in her wardrobe[19]. Native costumes highlighted her link with Nature. The Indian costume represented one more way of proclaiming her alliance with the race[20]. The Zapotec women, is identified with the image of the strong Indian woman, La llorona (the weeping woman), in strong contrast to the Chingada, whose representation is related to Mexico’s hybrid post-conquest culture.

Both characters, – as described in Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude[21] – are descended from an Aztec mother goddess: Llorona is, in a broader sense, the symbol of the trauma of the Spanish invasion. Mad with grief over the loss of her child, she wanders the streets, crying and calling for a spectral memory of the past before the Conquest. La Llorona is a long-suffering mother figure. In contrast, the Chingada is the mother of the mestizo culture, ‘the Mother forcibly opened, violated or deceived’. The feminine soul, defaced and stolen by the male forces of the Spanish invader.[22]

The Indian Mexico raped and abused by the conquistador yet bearing his bastard child. The rhetoric of the Tehuana opposes the nihilism of traditional feminizations of colonial trauma, and asserts the potential of a dignified cultural resistance.[23]

The empty Tehuana dress is in sharp contrast with the industrialization of consumerist North America. Since Kahlo does not depict herself within it, it suggests absence and displacement. According to Herrera, in fact, Frida did not enjoy her stay in New York, often complaining of homesickness, and of her dissatisfaction with the racism she experienced.[24]

The Tehuana dress, for Frida, therefore, embodies the true Mexican identity. It represents the exotic Mexican in a reality where industrialization is the first on a scale of values. The Tehuana dress represents the purity and richness of a culture that is far from the industrial world of the United States which is, on the contrary, over-saturated, consumer-oriented and depersonalized. It represents the most recondite belonging to the real Mexico. In a letter to a friend, Kahlo writes:

Meanwhile, some of the gringa-women are imitating me and trying to dress a la Mexicana, but the poor souls only look like cabbages and, to tell you the truth, they look absolutely impossible. That’s doesn’t mean that I look good in them either.[25]

The Tehuana dress is the most decorative of the pre-Hispanic forms of clothing. The Mexican Indian dress is extremely variable in every region of the country. Kahlo’s devotion to her country, and her use of the themes and symbolism of the indigenous Aztec make her art, at the same time, both political and cultural. Kahlo knew what she wanted her art to be[26]:

Some critics have tried to classify me as a Surrealist; but I do not consider myself a Surrealist…. I detest Surrealism. To me, it seems a manifestation of bourgeois art. A deviation from the true art that the people hope for from the artist… I wish to be worthy, with my paintings, of the people to whom I belong and to the ideas which strengthen me.[27]

Her emphasis on the Aztec, rather than on the Mayan, Toltec, or other indigenous cultures, corresponds to her political demands for a unified Mexico, nationalist and independent. Unlike Rivera, who approved of Trotsky’s internationalism, Frida exalted the nationalism of Stalin, who was probably seen as a unifying force within his country. Her focus was anti-materialist and, especially, anti-US.

The Mexicanidad of Kahlo takes the form of a pure nationalism, focusing on the art and artifacts that unite all indigenistas, regardless of their political positions, and on the Aztec tradition so revered as a symbol of native, pre-Hispanic cultures. In her art, Frida expressed her nationalism, encouraging the representation of the pre-Columbian, powerful and authoritarian society that had joined a large area of the Middle Americas by force and conquest.[28] Indigenismo was the expression of a nostalgia for an imagined, folklorized figure of indigeneity. Most indigenous people were separated, socially and economically, from the mainstream of Mexican society, even though lo indigena embodied the root and essence of all ‘true’ Mexicans. Paradoxically, lo indigena incorporates, for Mexican society in general, on one side that which is most ultimately Mexican and, on the other, that which is most foreign and separate.[29]

Frida started to dress in traditional clothes on the day of her marriage to Diego Rivera: 21st August, 1929. Eventually, it wasn’t bohemian insouciance that encouraged her to choose as a wedding dress, a skirt, blouse, and rebozo that she borrowed from an Indian maid. Of uncertain origin, the rebozo is a rectangular woven shawl of cotton, wool, or silk, sometimes embroidered and with long fringes. It was worn by all social classes, differentiated only by the type of its material.[30]

By dressing, she was choosing a new identity. This is demonstrated by the photographs (1926, figure 2) in which – still a young girl – she appears dressed as a male, in a family photo taken by her father, Guillermo Kahlo.

Dressing, for Frida, was always a way to state her freedom and her personality. In Frida’s dress one can recognize creativity and the deep sense of color that she had as an artist. Her clothes, besides being in themselves a way to hide physical and emotional weaknesses, translated her temperament. Her outfit was a key element in building the strong personality that has transcended the history of twentieth-century painting. For her, clothing was equivalent to a kind of language, and, after she married, the intricate link between clothing and her image of herself, between her personal style and her painting, became more evident.

Kahlo, quite distinctly merges the private and public aspects of her life in her sartorial allegory of post-revolutionary Mexico. Her fashion was her public statement of her mexicanidad and of post-revolutionary Mexico’s attitude towards U.S. economic and cultural colonization.

If, on one hand, the Tehuana dress has political meaning, on the other, it can be seen like a piñata – the traditional papier mâché container stuffed with sweets and gifts that is set off during fiestas – as simultaneously being the embodiment of the decorative and the explosive. Yet, the dress was also a form of humor, an exalted theatrical camouflage, as well as a call to the image of the suffering, naked body beneath it, and the discovery of its secrets. Necklaces, rings, white organdy headgear, flowery peasant blouses, garnet-colored shawls, long skirts, all of it covering the broken body. The clothes, for Frida, were nevertheless, more than a second skin.[31]

Nonetheless, from the New York visit Kahlo gained a clearer perspective on Mexico. Through the cultural and physical distance from her country, Kahlo was able, by the observation and appreciation of the Tehuana dress as a symbol of her Mexicanidad, to define her identity.

Self Portrait with Hummingbird

In Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Hummingbird (figure 3) from 1938 (or ‘Self Portrait with Necklace of Thorns’), that she sold to Nickolas Muray,[32] we are presented with Kahlo’s direct gaze, almost martyred by wearing Christ’s crown of thorns; an association that is strengthened by the presence of blood, caused by the thorns which ring her neck. Suspended from the necklace of thorns hangs a dead hummingbird, the hummingbird of the painting’s title. The miniature of the hummingbird holds many meanings. In Mexican folk tradition, the hummingbird was used as a love charm to bring luck in love. Indeed, Kahlo painted this self-portrait in the months following her divorce from Diego, perhaps Mrs. Rivera used its symbolism as a talisman through which to attempt to re-establish the lost love. In a pre-Columbian association, the hummingbird embodies the images of courage, oracles and magic, and it is associated with the great god Huitzilopochtli, and the god of rain, Tlaloc. In the Aztecs’ mythology these birds symbolized the reincarnation of the spirit of dead warriors.[33]

From both sides of the shoulders, two small animals stain the green wall of leaves that are in the background of the painting with black. A menacing cat, that seems ready to jump on the bird, and a monkey, precisely Caimito de Guayabal – a gift from Diego – is playing with Frida’s necklace.

The leaves in the background of the picture, with their veins, front and back, are turning to the audience, just like the picture of Frida with her frontal position. Among the leaves you can see two flowers transformed into a dragonfly, perhaps as a symbol of transcendence, as the two filigree butterfly brooches adorning her head may be. [34] For Kahlo, the butterfly was also a kind of emblem. In Mexican tradition the butterfly, with its intrinsic duality of transformation, from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, was one of the founding tropes.[35]

This picture also evokes the miracle of Saint Veronica, who, after having wiped the face of the Savior, found His picture, with the crown of thorns, mysteriously transferred onto her veil. In addition, Veronica (from “vera-icon”) is associated with the stopping of the blood flow. The frontal position of Frida – not common in other portraits – and the lack of depth, makes this painting a sort of secular icon image. The monkey, her sweet monkey, which appears in at least eight other paintings, serves as a religious attribute and further emphasizes the iconic image. Probably, Kahlo, also refers to the nahual concept in Aztec tradition, and the use of the animal as an alter ego. [36] For the Aztec, parrots were considered beings that could take many forms. ‘In cultured Aztecs circles nahual gave nahualli, wise man and poet, and nahuatato, speakers of many tongues.’ [37] In the Mexican culture, in fact, the bird is seen as a symbol of divination. Frida, who liked to call herself “la gran ocultadora”, the great concealer, and considered herself to be a magical being, might have identified herself with the veiled identity that the bird represents, a multiple identity that is similar to the story of her Mexico.[38] Frida’s uses of animals: monkeys, dogs, cats, parrots, in conjunction with nature, could be interpreted as an allusion to the Mexicans’ religious belief, according to which their gods had the ability to transform themselves into animals. Iconographic analysis of Frida self-portrait cannot “explain” their meaning, asserts Lowe.[39] Moreover, it indicates the sophisticated and intrinsic level of meaning. ‘Kahlo never represented a single self but always a multicultural one. By mingling symbols from a diverse body of beliefs, she manages to reveal relations between things known and unknown.’[40]

Always, she drew a story into history, where dreams, reality and history were, for her, interchangeable.[41] She, herself made it clear in her statement ‘I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality’. [42] By painting herself as a martyr, Frida iconizes herself, she becomes, like an image in the votive painting, at the same time an abstract symbol and a powerful physical presence. Her self-portraits were like ex-voto, and she was the first artist to have rediscovered it.

According to Paul Westheim:

What Frida retains of the popular spirit of the ex-voto, in addition to that vital affirmation, is the sincerity, the childish character of the forms and the expression of a truth told in such a way that it appears to contain a lie, since there are no limits separating the real, the natural, objective world and the world of the imagination, the world of the unreal and the symbolic. [43] 

Conclusion

Kahlo painted astonishing images, combining objects that are not linked with one another, mostly joining them with her self-centered image. It seems that Kahlo also perceived herself and the world around her as a single entity. [44] Recognizable and recurring elements of her artistic universe are the Tehuana costumes, tropical flora and fauna, the splitting or doubling of her image, eyebrows turned into birds’ wings, that are the personal form of Kahlo and the cult of the ego. The native costume from Tehuantepec gives her an exotic identity and defines her as the ‘Other’ in the city centers of her country as much as it did abroad. This was, for Frida, a declaration of solidarity with the traditional Mexico in the face of a changing world of social, political and economic modernization.

Kahlo’s own observation of herself plays two interchangeable roles. She is the subject and the object at the same time. In her personal introspection in seeking her identity, Frida explores the inner and outer world of her ‘physical body’ and plays with these two worlds. She merges and confuses them. By privatizing the public and ‘publicing’ the private, she makes them a whole. As much as her querido Mexico: ‘reduces and institutionalizes the Revolution into icons for mass identification and consumption.’ In her images, Mexico appears to be pre-Columbian and post-revolutionary at the same time.[45]

Inevitably, given her strong interest in Aztec culture and in her homeland, her art encompasses both the political and the cultural aspects. She painted herself, she painted Mexico, and, she painted in such a way as to be understood by the people.[46]

Kahlo had been sympathetic to Communism since her youth: she joined the Young Communist league in 1927, when she was twenty. She compares the emblems of Communism with those of the Aztecs, and poses attention to her politics and her commitment to social causes. The evocation of Aztec civilization echo being political acts at a time when the increasing interest in indigenous art coincided with an ardent sense of nationalism. By the mid-forties, her interest in Communism had moved beyond social conscience and had become an epistemological, perhaps even religious, search for “pillars” that could support her faith.[47]

To better understand Frida Kahlo’s cultural contributions, one must pause to look at the growing interest in native Mexican Indian culture at that time. Indeed, this was considered to be the preservation of the ‘essence’ of Mexico’s past, as ‘immutable’ in the changing ocean of modernization.[48]

One of the principal characteristics in Kahlo’s oeuvre are her searches for identity in terms of opposition or Others. This alluring retrieval of the ‘exotic’, or the Other, is represented by Kahlo ‘through the cracks and fissures in the mask that promises insight or revelation, but that neither exhausts nor even completely reveals, leaving intact a certain element of the unknown, after the viewer’s gaze has been enticed to draw nearer’.[49]

[1] O. Baddeley, ‘Her dress hang here: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 14, N. 1(1991), pp. 10-17

[2] S. R. Udall, ‘Frida Kahlo’s Mexican Body: History, Identity, and Artistic Aspiration’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 24, N. 2 (Autumn, 2003 – Winter, 2004), pp. 10-14

[3] C. Andersen, ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound: Frida Kahlo and Post-revolutionary Mexican’ Identity, South Atlantic Review, Vol. 74, N. 4, Reflections on Empire: Depictions of Latin American Colonization in Literature, Film, and Art (Fall 2009), pp. 119-130, p.19

[4] Ibid. p.19

[5] L. Duran, ‘Las culturas indigenas de Mexico y su proceso de cambio e identidad’, in Jose Alcina French (ed.). Indianismo e indigenismo en America (Madrid: Alianza, 1990), pp. 245–246

[6] R. Blancarte, ‘Introduccion’, in R. Blancarte, ed., Cultura e identidad nacional (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la cultura y las artes, 19940, p.19

[7] B. Keen, The Aztec in Western Thought, (New Brunswick: Ritgers University, 1972), pp. 463–508

[8] Luis Villoro, Los grandes momentos del indigenismo en Mexico, (Mexico City: La Casa Chato, 1949; rpt. 1979), p.10

[9] R. P. Montfort, ‘Indigenismo, hispanismo y panamericanismo en la cultura popular Mexicana de 1920 a 1940’, in Cultura e identidad nacional, p.344

[10] C. Andersen, ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound: Frida Kahlo and Post-revolutionary Mexican Identity’, South Atlantic Review, Vol. 74, N. 4, Reflections on Empire: Depictions of Latin American Colonization in Literature, Film, and Art (Fall 2009), p.120

[11] S. Grimberg, ‘Thinking of Death’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 14, N.2 (Autumn, 1993 – Winter, 1994), pp. 44-50

[12] C. Andersen, ‘Remembrance of an Open Wound: Frida Kahlo and Post-revolutionary Mexican Identity, South Atlantic Review’, Vol. 74, N. 4, Reflections on Empire: Depictions of Latin American Colonization in Literature, Film, and Art (Fall 2009), pp. 119–130

[13] O. Baddeley, ‘Her dress hang here: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 14, N. 1(1991), pp.15

[14] H. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, Bloomsbury Publishing, (Great Britain: 1992), p.101

[15] J. Helland, ‘Aztec Imagery in Frida Kahlo’s Paintings: Indigenity and Political Commitment’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 11, N. 2 (Autumn, 1990 – Winter, 1991), pp. 8-13

[16] H. Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p.111

[17] R. Block and L. Hoffman-Jeep, ‘Fashioning National Identity: Frida Kahlo in “Gringolandia”’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 19 N. 2 (Autumn, 1998 – Winter, 1999), p.10

[18] C. Schaefer, ‘Frida Kahlo’s cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical real, and the Cosmic Race,’ in Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992), p.3

[19] H. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Painting, (Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd:1992), p.7

[20] H. Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 147-150

[21] O. Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, trans. Lynsander Kemp, (London: 1985), pp. 67-79

[22] O. Baddeley, ‘Her dress hang here: De-Frocking the Kahlo Cult’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 14, N. 1 (1991), p.15

[23] Ibid. p.15

[24] H. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, Bloomsbury Publishing, (London: 1992), p. 63

[25] H. Herrera, Frida, p.173

[26] J. Helland, ‘Aztec Imagery in Frida Kahlo’s Paintings: Indigeneity and Political Commitment’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 11, N. 2 (Autumn, 1990 – Winter, 1991), pp. 8-13

[27] In a 1952 letter from Kahlo to Antonio Rodriguez, quoted in H. Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 263

[28] J. Helland, ‘Aztec Imagery in Frida Kahlo’s Paintings: Indigeneity and Political Commitment’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 11, N. 2 (Autumn, 1990 – Winter, 1991), pp. 8-13

[29] L. Villoro, Los grandes momentos del indigenismo en Mexico, (Mexico City: La Casa Chato, 1949; rpt. 1979), p.207

[30] Donald & Dorothy Cordry, Mexican Indian Costumes (Austin: University of Texas, 1978), pp. 11-130

[31]The Diary of Frida Kahlo: an Intimate Self-Portrait, Introduction by Carlos Fuentes (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with La Vaca Independiente S.A. de C.V., 1995), pp. 22-23

[32] H. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, Bloomsbury Publishing, (Great Britain: 1992), p.142

[33] S. R. Udall, Frida Kahlo’s Mexican Body: History, Identity, and Artistic Aspiration, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 24, N. 2 (Autumn, 2003 – Winter, 2004), pp. 10-14

[34] H. Herrera, Frida Kahlo: The Paintings, Bloomsbury Publishing, (Great Britain: 1992), p.142

[35] C. Schaefer, ‘Frida Kahlo’s cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical real, and the Cosmic Race’, in Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992), p. 12

[36] S. M. Lowe, Frida Kahlo (New York: Universe Publishing, 1991), p.57

[37] S. R. Udall, ‘Frida Kahlo’s Mexican Body: History, Identity, and Artistic Aspiration’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 24, N. 2 (Autumn, 2003 – Winter, 2004), pp. 10-14

[38] Ibid. p.13

[39] S. M. Lowe, Frida Kahlo (New York: Universe Publishing, 1991), p.57

[40] Ibid. p.57

[41] C. Schaefer, ‘Frida Kahlo’s cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical real, and the Cosmic Race’, in Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992), p.13

[42] C. Burrus, Frida Kahlo: I Paint my Reality, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2008), p.70

[43] Ibid. pp. 48-49

[44] S. Grimberg, ‘Thinking of Death’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 14, N.2 (Autumn, 1993 – Winter, 1994), pp. 44-50, pp. 45-46

[45] C. Schaefer, ‘Frida Kahlo’s cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical real, and the Cosmic Race’, in Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992),pp. 10, 24-36

[46] J. Helland, ‘Aztec Imagery in Frida Kahlo’s Paintings: Indigeneity and Political Commitment’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 11, N. 2 (Autumn, 1990 – Winter, 1991), pp. 8-13

[47]The Diary of Frida Kahlo: an Intimate Self-Portrait, Introduction by Carlos Fuentes (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with La Vaca Independiente S.A. de C.V., 1995), pp. 28-29

[48] C. Schaefer, ‘Frida Kahlo’s cult of the Body: Self-Portrait, Magical real, and the Cosmic Race’, in Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1992), p. 10

[49] Ibid. p. 23-26

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? 

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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.