In order to get to a new exhibition of contemporary Persian art, Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet, my museum guide tells me that I need to go through Syria first. She means the Syrian exhibition. My breath stops in my throat. I don’t want to walk through Syria. As a former prisoner of conscience in Tehran’s most notorious prison, Evin, I am nervous enough about returning to Iran, even if inside the safe confines of Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum.
My family and I have survived two revolutions: Russia, 1917, and Iran, 1979; my grandparents escaped the communists and I, the Islamists. From 1982 to 1984, when I was in my teens, I was charged with anti-revolutionary activism, tortured and raped. Many of my friends were executed and are buried in mass graves.
I somehow put one foot in front of the other, but the massive rock of pain that fell on my chest when I was tortured at 16 has become even heavier. It’s as if I have stepped into a haunted version of the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the first English book that I read when growing up), one that leads to the grim realm of stifled souls, artists trying to create a country of their own.
I am sure that this exhibition is full of hidden codes, and I am a guide or interpreter of messages hidden in every display. This peculiar landscape I know and understand.
The works displayed in the Persian exhibition confront issues such as gender, politics and religion through quiet rebellion, humour, mysticism and poetry. The purpose of this exhibition is to shed light on the identity of Iranians today by examining the art that has been created by Iranian artists practising both inside and outside the country.
As soon as I enter, I meet Dr. Fereshteh Daftari, the curator. She suggests that I watch a short video titled Sundown by Hamed Sahihi – about three minutes long – on a screen mounted to a wall. She asks me to be patient; even though the beginning of the film will be eventless, something will happen at the end. The video has been shot on the shores of the Caspian Sea, where I spent most of my summers and where my happiest memories were born. The last time I saw the Caspian was almost 30 years ago. The sound of waves take me in. I still dream of the Caspian often, but here at the museum, my past is alive and timeless. I watch the colourless silhouettes of vacationers strolling on the beach at dusk. Children fly a kite. My eyes focus on a little girl who seems happy and carefree. Then, on the right side of the screen, the weightless, slight body of a young man floats slowly toward the sky. His posture tells me that he has been hanged. The people on the beach don’t stop their activities. They pay no attention to the ghost rising toward the heavens. My bones turn into ice. I feel like I am the ghost.
I turn to a black-and-white photo of a few women on a beach, an untitled work by Shirin Neshat. They are all wearing the chador – a large, black, bedsheet-like piece of cloth that covers all of a woman’s body so that only her face remains visible. The women walk toward the water, its gentle waves crashing into the sand. They look like black birds with their backs to the camera. I can sense their movement. I believe the artist intends the sea to represent freedom. I want to tell them to run; whatever the sea might hold cannot be worse than what they leave behind.
On the next wall, there are three black panels, photos titled Friday by Parastou Forouhar. They are covered with the shimmering leaf-like patterns of a woman’s chador. In the central panel, two white feminine fingers hang on to the fabric; the black has not entirely devoured the woman. Her form, her story and her strength have cracked the darkness. She reminds me of myself in Evin, where I was forced to wear the chador. When my interrogators tortured me, they intended to kill my soul and they believed that they had succeeded, but they were wrong.
I move on, but I still feel like the ghost in the video. Light, yet heavy. Floating, but anchored. In this strange place, my past flashes in front of my eyes with clarity.
The next artwork is made of glass: the image of the curvy, elegantly clothed body of a woman, The Lady Reappears by Monir Farmanfarmaian. But as my glance moves upward, I see the lady has no head. A beautiful, shining, headless woman. In my mind’s eye, I see thousands of them standing on the shores of the Caspian next to their chador-clad sisters, escaping into the endless waters, into possibilities that may never be. There is no Snow Queen here. She has probably been hanged or decapitated. Or maybe stoned, along with the innocent. The walls close in on me, but I need to see more. I have to decipher these stories. It’s as if all the paintings, photos and sculptures are floating around me like spirits.
I notice some colour, and my eyes are drawn to it – Miss Hybrid 3 by Shirin Aliabadi. A young woman with blue eyes. Her bleached-blond hair shows from underneath her headscarf. Her eyebrows are perfect. Fully blown pink bubble gum covers her mouth and part of her nose and cheeks. A woman could be arrested on the streets of Tehran for showing her hair. She has makeup on. Her jacket is purple. After all the black and white, she feels alive and unghostly. Her eyes are filled with young defiance. Beauty is a form of resistance in Iran.
A middle-aged man from an Andy Warhol-style image stares at me. He is Khosrow Hassanzadeh. I am told that when he was 17 years old, he had to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. Above him, the sky is an unnatural blue. He sits cross-legged and holds a pot of flowers and the framed photo of a bearded man – his father. Around him, there are the collaged pictures of a young man and woman – his children. A small suitcase rests on his lap. What does it mean? Does it represent the Iranian artists’ constant state of homelessness, statelessness? We are perpetual travellers, even when we are “home.” On a sheet of paper next to Khosrow, it says: “‘Terrorist’ Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Nationality: Iranian, Religion: Muslim, Age: 41, Profession: Artist, Distinctive Traits: Missing tip of left forefinger, Personal History: Several exhibitions both in Iran and abroad. Most of his artwork makes use of religious motif.”
On a wall, I see a black-and-white painting that seems like the traditional pattern of a Persian rug. It’s called Untitled #11 by Nazgol Ansarinia. I approach it, closer and closer, until I’m only a couple of inches from it. Embedded in its delicate patterns, there are many unusual, tiny images. Are those satellite dishes? Yes, I’m sure they are. Are these schoolgirls covered from head to toe, standing in a schoolyard in front of an older woman who holds a megaphone to her mouth? Propaganda. Yes. Motorbikes on a busy street, each carrying a family – a usual sight in Tehran. There are little stories hidden in the carpet. This is Iran. Nothing is what it seems. I look around me and the room transforms into clear words that replace the images. I have deciphered the code hidden in everything on display here: the long and layered story of the suffering of the people of Iran. The years and years of one dictatorship after another.
In a photo – Untitled II by Shadi Ghadirian – two women are covered in black burkas in the style of the Qajar dynasty. A portrait of faceless women. But the fact that they have posed for this photo is a statement. The words floating around me spell “Rebellion,” but this is not the kind of movement that’s easily visible to the untrained eye. This is a story that hides its resilience under every surface, in small, yet undisputable detail like the curves of the female body, the pinkness of bubble gum or women walking toward the sea. Voices rise in between the images.
I find myself standing in front of another painting. Under a calm turquoise sky, there is an inferno-like jumble of mutilated things. It’s called We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet by Ali Banisadr (pictured at top), who experienced the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) as a child. I immediately recognize the destruction of war. Everything under the sky seems to have been blown up. This must be his nightmare, a scream trapped in his throat that has translated itself into a chaotic image. I remember the war. How can I forget?
I can smell the stench of burning flesh, which has not left me since then. When the air-raid sirens sounded during the early days of the conflict, we would seek shelter under beds and in closets, but after months of constant explosions, when the ear-piercing warning sound filled the air, we would stop in our tracks in an absent-minded way on the street on our way to work or school, stare at the usually pale-blue sky, and wait for the big “boom.” Once it came, we would continue on our path. Passersby would not make eye contact with one another. We knew innocent people had died. We knew maybe the victims were our friends or family and that we could be next, but we had accepted the reality of war. Death was not an idea or a possibility; it was a real, loud, persistent and immediate presence. What was the point of panicking? No, Ali, we haven’t landed on Earth yet. To land means to be stable, firm and measured. To truly land requires thought and pause and understanding. As long as there is war and preventable suffering, we will not land. We will be ghosts. We will be trapped.
The images of the exhibit have penetrated layers of history and pain, but they are still confined, trapped. However, they continue to reach out, to try to break free. An image by Y.Z. Kami called Black Dome looks like a black hole made of bricks. In mystic and Sufi traditions, one has to pass through darkness in order to enter light. I turn to find myself face to face with the blue sculpture of the calligraphy of the word “nothing” in Farsi: heech. Again, in Sufi tradition, one has to become nothing in order to reach “the beloved” or God.
At the end of the exhibition, there is a sphere that comes almost to my waist, Becoming, by Morteza Ahmadvand. It sits on the floor in the centre of one area. Around it, three videos play on three screens: One is a cross, one the star of David and the other a cube that represent Kaaba, a building at the centre of Islam’s most sacred mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. All three symbols revolve slowly and become spheres. They become one.
In Iran, many of us have experienced suffering, darkness and nothingness. But as I look around me, I feel the resilience of every artist whose work is included here. They all tell the story of human creativity, beauty and dignity. Somewhere in the depths of night, hope has crept into every hairline fracture in walls that cannot contain the human spirit. Beauty sings and rises among ghosts.
Some of the artists whose work is on display here still live in Iran, a few live abroad but visit Iran often, but there are those, like me, who have left and can never return, because if we do, we will be arrested, tortured and executed for our self-expression and our resistance to tyranny. As dual nationals, even when we don’t hold an Iranian passport and have been adopted by other countries, we never feel entirely safe. An exile is always an exile. To the West, we are terrorists – Donald Trump has made sure that we remember that – and, in our country of birth, we are spies, traitors and enemies of God.
Hope is not the lack of pain and darkness. It is what we need to carry on, to bear the weight that can crush mountains. We have to keep at it, one tiny pattern, word, colour and sound at a time.
Marina Nemat is the author of two memoirs, including Prisoner of Tehran.
Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians runs at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto from Feb. 4 to June 4 (agakhanmuseum.org).