Two women artists from Iran and Pakistan recently exhibited their new works of art in New York, in which they represented the interaction between Western and Eastern culture, and evoked stories of iconography and how women, in particular, are represented by others in the History of canonical art.
In an interview with Global Voices, artists Negin Sharifzadeh and Qinza Najm said that by using contemporary tools, such as photography and animation, they pretended to “question traditional narratives.”
In each case, the artists adapted works of the Western canon, and entered there in a tension of opposition and integration, subversion and homage, and through this they claimed power over their own bodies and the right to occupy influential positions within art, History and society
Negin Sharifzadeh, a multidisciplinary artist and storyteller living in Brooklyn, New York, earned her bachelor's degree in sculpture from Tehran University, Iran, in 2002, and a degree in Performing Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010.
In his “Natural appearance” exhibit, Sharifzadeh examines the concept of the European Renaissance as an isolated phenomenon rather than a period in an organic conversation with movements that had originated before in the Middle East.
In paintings from the Italian Renaissance period, such as “The Annunciation” by Pierro Della Francesca and “Lamentation of Christ” by Andrea Mantegna, Sharifzadeh sometimes appears dressed as Mary, sometimes as Jesus, and sometimes she is simply watching.
“I introduced myself in the photographic recreations of the iconic paintings of the Italian Renaissance to create works that are simultaneously homage and subversion, with the aim of exploring the impact of the most extensive Mediterranean culture, art and any ideas that contributed to the creation and transmission of the rebirth of Europe, ”Sharifzadeh said.
“Quite often,” he added, “art historians placed European art in a privileged position, discarding and underestimating the art of the most extensive Mediterranean regions. Through this recontextualization and recovery, I intend to challenge the idea of European difference and the Middle East. ” That recontextualization and recovery occurs when Sharifzadeh places his female body, of the Middle East and contemporary, within the images, iconography and physical geography of the Italian Renaissance.
His work also constitutes a critique of current cultural conflicts.
“Negin's point of view, influenced by his Iranian identity and his life in the United States, is very extraordinary because it makes it possible to inspire a sense of dialogue and reconciliation, something much appreciated in the current political confusion,” said curator Giulio Verago , director of the residency program for artists in Milan Via Farini. “The use of irony, particularly in an era of great depression and disappointment, celebrates the freedom of artistic expression. It takes into account divergences in the representation of the female body between East and West – for example, how the influence of the classical representation of female nudity shaped, in some way, the way we perceive women's bodies and their desires and ambitions today”.
Sharifzadeh said he raised many questions regarding the exchange of art and architecture between the Italian Renaissance and its more extensive Mediterranean Ottoman Empire. “Hopefully, these conversations will generate in my audience more curiosity about that specific era, and at the same time (they will sensitize) that our interrelation through art and culture has been a phenomenon that manifested itself throughout history.”
‘Still, I wake up’
Pakistani-American Qinza Najm, who was born and raised in Lahore, studied the career of fine arts at Bath University in the United Kingdom and the League of Art Students in New York. Najm originally graduated as a psychologist, and uses interpretation, video, painting and other means to generate empathy and understanding between societies and cultures to address the deepest social traumas.
Based on an extensive part of art history, Najm uses a wide range of techniques to “break the frame.” For example, in his works with “extended carpets” he takes the Persian-style rug, ubiquitous in much of the Middle East, and accompanies them with stretched female bodies to explore the contradictions and cultural conflict between contemporary life and the traditional conservative world . An impressive work in the exhibition, based on an earlier interpretation, was the “Veil of Bullets”, which portrays Najm covered with a veil of 18 kilos made of net mesh and more than 1100 caps representing honor killings in Pakistan occurred the previous year, and also the 1100 children and adults killed during school shootings in the United States.
In another series, “Rashida's Story,” Najm explicitly explores the issue of gender violence and the subjectivity of women. And he represents it using photographs of his own mother, cousins and friends holding ordinary household objects – from cheese graters to scissors – that have been used against women as tools to inflict domestic violence in Pakistan, a country where honor killings are a lawful and widespread practice.
The exhibition's title, “Still, I wake up,” refers to a poem written by Maya Angelou that pays tribute to the recognition of women in the context of slavery and black culture. Curator Tami Katz Freiman explained that “Najm chose words that promise redemption, and thus endows her personal history with a universal feminist context, and at the same time considers the issues of empathy, generosity, transformation and change.”
“His fluid movement,” Freiman added, “between the different disciplines is illustrated in this exhibition, which includes a selection of four works of art that resonate with each other.”
“I am interested in the body as a medium and subject – the circumstances surrounding its occupation of physical space, the norms and laws that regulate bodies as political subjects, and the irregular burden that these norms often impose on women and minorities” , writes Najm in his statement for the exhibition, and adds that, “based on my upbringing in Lahore, Pakistan, and my adult life in the United States, my sculptures, installations and interpretations address the issues of gender policy, displacement and the cultural influence seen through the lenses of geography and social identification. ”
In his art Najm indicates that he often uses the “theme of extended, deconstructed, distorted and carried bodies beyond their limits. The manipulation of the body is a reflection of how they exert power over our being. However, I am more interested in portraying the human potential – a stretched body demands a space that goes beyond its expected role, both physically and figuratively. In particular, my goal is to raise questions about how we could transcend and combat cultural stereotypes, prejudice, displacement and sexist norms. ”
Najm told Global Voices that violence is universal, and it is very possible that he will unite us through the empathy and compassion that is currently needed in the international dialogue of the East and the West, which divides the narratives and what the media portray, particularly between the United States and Islamic countries.
“This exhibition and the conversation it generated gave me material to go deeper into the dialogue of this exhibition,” he emphasized. “I am excited to see what I produce from this and I like to be surprised by taking more risks and experimentation.”
Both “Natural appearance” and “Still, I wake up” evoked iconography stories and the way in which women, in particular, are represented by others in the history of canonical art. The artists rescue this representation as a place of power, using the contemporary tools of photography and animation to question those traditional narratives. Both exhibits strongly questioned the role of women along the borders between Western and Eastern cultures, and through their art, they claim a power over their own bodies and their right to occupy influential positions within art, history and society. .
Both exhibitions were in A.I.R. Gallery in October 2019, Brookly, New York.