Sussan Babaie doesn’t want you to misunderstand her.
The History of Art assistant professor cautions for a careful handling of our contact with a country whose history, social mores and political sympathies we are acquainted only through snippets.
These snippets of Iran – news reported through CNN, inflammatory speeches at a New York university, a uniform that has become an emblem – are extremely evocative. We hold them up to our understanding of our own culture and, naturally, make comparisons. UMMA Off/Site’s new exhibition, “Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran,” which is now open and runs through Dec. 30, is one instance of that.
But Babaie, who is herself Iranian, says well-worn comparisons of freedom and modernity deserve consideration under a more focused light.
The photographs in “Visions” are gathered from 20 different artists living and working in Iran. The majority of the dated photographs are from between 1997 and 2003, predating the more stringent current administration in Iran.
Some visual elements could anchor us, if we let them, to the quilt of Iranian imagery we’ve already seen, interpreted and incorporated as basic assumptions. There is the familiar chador, scenes of violence, images of religious piety. But reviews and the gallery’s own materials combine careful arguments for a reevaluation of the “familiar” meanings of this imagery with instances of all too familiar and easy evaluation of it.
While it would seem that such an exhibit would be a tough sell to a country with laws against nudity and works critical of the ruling regime, it’s the U.S. side of the exchange that has had to evade official judgment. The United States has a sanction against official cultural exchange with Iran. The 60-some images simply could not have been curated and shipped out of Iran without each work getting the OK from the appropriate ministry in Iran. The American equivalent will not lend its authority to the exhibit.
Babaie, a small and commanding woman with gray- and black-streaked hair in a pert, asymmetrical cut, called for attention to the subtleties of the arrangement and of the exhibit itself.
“One needs to be aware of the particulars of the culture one is looking at,” Babaie said. “What is important is to see the nuances in this location as we see it in other ones.”
Babaie said such nuances might get lost if viewers approach these images with the Euro-American-centric mindset many are inclined to. There’s much talk in the writings on the exhibit of modernity, of that what may and may not be shown, of an awakening to Western influence.
UMMA’s own pamphlet, which heavily cites Babaie’s ideas, says “subtle threads” in the exhibition “suggest that their makers are quite self-consciously engaging American viewers.” Although the exhibition was curated for American viewing (in a collaboration between art centers at the University of Tehran in Iran and the University of Minnesota), such a claim can’t be made for these disparate photographs.
At the moment, Babaie is teaching a History of Art course on contemporary Iranian art. She has offered the course before, and took advantage of the Off/Site exhibition to offer it again this fall.
Babaie pointed to a recent article in the Metro Times, a weekly newspaper based in Detroit, that she said demonstrated self-referential Western pandering. The review infers repeatedly that the photographers are intentional influenced by Western culture, and that their use of modern visual technology is evidence of an outcry directed at the West. Although such things have surely happened, it’s not clear those goals are present in “Visions.”
But having this kind of explanation for the works at the ready is a typical way to miss the logic of the image, Babaie said.
“To see these all in reaction to and under the influence of the West misses the point,” she said, gesturing at Shokoufeh Alidousi’s series of black-and-white photographs that have become the show’s most recognizable images.
“We must look at art from a local point of view, rather than thinking ‘Oh, they’re doing this in opposition, and they’re trying to say look at how Western and modern we are,’ ” she said.
The local point of view Babaie speaks of is what critical viewers hope to use for every piece of art they see. It seems only fair to look at creative work within its local context, on its own terms and in mind of its own goals.
“This assumption of the influence of the West removes any agency of the artist,” Babaie said. “It ignores an artist’s capacity to discard what they don’t want for their visual language.”
The Metro Times article, for instance, claims that censorship against nudity and criticism of the regime in imagery “explains the engaging, elusive character of many works on view.” When Alidousi, in her self-portraits, pulls her chador across herself, the crescent sliver of her rouged lips in the corner of the frame and the snapshot she holds up in front of her bright against it, is she brazenly pushing her art to the limits of censorship?
The aesthetic choices of her photograph seem to have little to do with avoiding nudity. Certainly her chador is a dramatic presence, but rather than getting in her way, it enables the whole graphic aesthetic. And as Babaie pointed out, her lipstick was hardly rebellious in 2003, before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime.
“We tend to think of these things, ‘Well, if they were free, they would have done something else,’ ” Babaie said.
While the veil for many is solely oppressive, and while the policy leaving women no choice but to wear it is certainly oppressive, the presence of a chador in a contemporary Iranian photograph is not automatically a cry for help.
“Breaking all that is boundary is assumed to be an expression of modernity,” Babaie said. “Maybe many Iranians don’t think that way.
“No one has a monopoly over what it means to be modern.”