I walked into the exhibit Meditation, Metaphor and the Age of Anger with a frankly cynical eye. Even before I entered the room, my academic antennae were on high alert. I study the political economy of art and architecture, examining how art fits into the political and economic discourses that shape our everyday lives. I engage in “critical analysis.” So when I entered this exhibition of what was ostensibly Iranian-Canadian art, preceded by newspaper coverage making the requisite allusions to multiculturalism, I was naturally skeptical.
Not that I see anything inherently wrong with multiculturalism as a concept, of course. These days, however, one must be constantly vigilant of a mutant strain known as “neoliberal multiculturalism”. This particular version of multiculturalism, it is argued, is merely a cover for global capitalism, a sort of “free art” that supplements the system of “free trade”. In the words of art critic Julian Stallabrass, it hails the destruction of cultural barriers that accompanies the lowering of barriers to trade, saluting the “glorious cultural mixing” that results. But the global system of bienniales, spectacle and rapport with mass culture that results from this cultural alchemy is apparently smoke and mirrors, masking, even justifying, the flows of global capital multiplying exponentially behind this artful screen. In the process, it creates a global cultural system that is disarmingly uniform in its celebration of “difference” -- a system of bienniales curated by the same globe-trotting curators, a cookie-cutter template for exhibitions aspiring to be avant-garde. As Stallabrass argues, “The filtering of local material through the art system ultimately produces homogeneity…It reinforces neoliberal values, especially those of the mobility of labour and the linked virtues of multiculturalism.”
This exhibit, however, is not in an über-chic cosmopolitan gallery or part of a global bienniale. It is hosted by Gallery 96, a small gallery and artist run centre in Stratford Ontario whose tenuous survival depends on the beneficence of the Trillium Foundation (thank god for gambling) and the numerous stalwart local patrons who loyally turn out for the gallery’s fundraisers. Curious as to how this melding of my own Stallabrassian- induced cynicism and earnest local multiculturalism will play out, I am propelled to the scene.
At first blush, my suspicions appear warranted. As I chat outside the exhibition room, I hear a drummer playing rhythms with a distinctive non-western beat in the background. Later, a woman chanting to the sounds of a Tibetan prayer bowl kneels before Farhang Jalali’s installation Amputation, a pile of hundreds of cast plaster “amputated” hands.
All of this contributes to a mesmerizing gallery experience, but one can be forgiven for questioning the link between Tibet and Iran. Is this, I wonder, a case of what the late Palestinian academic and activist Edward Said would call Orientalism? Said argued that for centuries, Western artists, writers, linguists and scientists have created a discourse through their work that counterposes an exotic, mystical, irrational East to a “normal”, lawful, rational West. The label, in this case, seems plausible.
Seeking clarification, I approach Jalali, who explains that his work is intended to remind us that dismembered body parts are a daily scene in some parts of the world. The “chanter”, who was actually brought in to complement the “meditation” component of the exhibit inherent in Fatima Garzan’s work (we’ll get there in a minute), was simply paying homage to those lost souls so far away.
He walks me over to one of his drawings hanging nearby. Entitled “Ce n’est pas la civilisation”, the drawing features dozens of Bosch-like miniatures including a portrayal of 9/11, an activist bearing a peace sign, a factory owner, and various other scenes intended to fulfill Jalali’s commitment to art as social commentary. I query his intentions in including 9/11 in this complex piece, which took him five months to compose. “I’m saying 9/11 is a crime against humanity. Whether it happens in New York or Iraq, it doesn’t matter. The outcome is the same – violence.”
Jalali refuses to sell his art. “I don’t want to work for the market,” he explains. “My art is intended to defend the rights of humanity. I don’t want it in a private house. I work for people, society.”
He introduces me to his co-exhibitor, Soheila Esfahani. Based on the work of the classical Persian poet Rumi, Esfahani’s pieces are abstract slices of Persian calligraphy layered on top of one another until they are unreadable even to those who know the language. The words “start from script but become a visual experience,” she explains. “Visual enjoyment is all that matters, you don’t need translation to understand it.” When I ask for the source of the titles of two of her works, Mystical Path I and II, she explains that they are composed of words from a Rumi poem that says, “Lovers, oh lovers, I shall turn your dust into jewels…” The poem is about the quest for divine assistance in transformation.
I ask her if she sells her art. She looks at me as if I am daft, but answers politely that yes, she does sell her art, she needs to recover her costs and make a living. Does that dilute her spiritual message, I wonder aloud? Of course, not, she replies. “Wherever I go, I meet people who understand my art and appreciate my message. Does it change its meaning because someone paid to hang it on their wall? I don’t think so.”
I wander over to Fatima Garzan’s giant mandala, which covers an entire wall at the end of the gallery. Surrounded by lines of Esfahani’s abstract script, the effect is mesmerizing. Garzan has a BA in economics and worked for years as economist in Iran, until the massive gendered “downsizing” that followed the Iranian revolution left her unemployed. Coming to North America to allow her daughters more choice in their careers, she did a BA in Fine Arts and re-invented herself as an artist. Her work is based on meditation, and is an attempt to visualize mandelas and mantras. Inspired by both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, each of her mandelas is mathematically calculated to induce a feeling of peace and calm.
As I leave the exhibit, I realize that although each of these artists happened to be Iranian-Canadian, their work had little to do with their ethnic heritage. With the exception of Esfahani, it had almost no relevance whatsoever. I visited curator Michelle Salter to ask her about her motivations in organizing this exhibit. “When I was in art school,” she explains, “one of my professors said that in order to be cutting-edge, you had to go to another country to absorb their art influences into your work. I couldn’t do that, so I thought I’d look at artists who came here, and see how it had affected their art practice. The fact that each of the participating artists was Iranian-Canadian was serendipitous. I had originally planned to work with artists from many different countries, but in the end, this is how it worked out.”
She denies, however, that there is little connection between these artists’ work. “They’re clearly very influenced by western art tradition, they were educated here. But there is a strong element of Iranian influence in all of their work,” Salter maintains. This is clearest in Esfahani’s work, obviously, with its Persian writing. “Calligraphy has always been considered high art in Iran” Salter reminds me. The jewel tones in Garzan’s work are reminiscent of the glowing colours inherent in Persian tiles, she points out, and the miniature figures in Jalali’s drawings continue a long tradition of Persian miniature painting. “I want to emphasize that all of them would deny this vociferously,” Salter tells me. “They think their art is international. It’s just what I see.”
I ask her if she thinks the fact that she sees this is “Orientalist.” One could further argue, I point out provocatively, that the chanting and the drumming at the exhibition Opening reinforce this Western idea of what the “East” is, despite the fact that it may bear no similarity to how those living in the “East” may perceive their reality.
“Maybe,” she muses. “The “chanter” was there because of Fatima’s focus on meditation. I think I was trying to reverse the idea of Orientalism. I was trying to see what these artists had to say about us.”
I take Salter’s comments back to the artists. “I can’t deny my art is Eastern – it’s derived from Persian writing,” responds Esfahani. “My art came from a place, but it’s universal. I studied here [in Canada]. I came here when I was 12. My education and training are Western.” She pauses. “Yet somehow my artwork turned out Eastern. So maybe I’m Orientalist too. Maybe what I’m doing is looking back to my childhood in a nostalgic way that is similar to the way Westerners perceive the East.”
She notes that while she strives for universality in her art, people always want to know the lines to the poem she has derived her paintings from. Once you know what the line means, she points out, it’s no longer abstract art. “Why do people need to know the line? Do they have to somehow justify this image to themselves?”
Knowing the meaning of the line adds something to your appreciation of the painting, I offer.
“Exactly, but in this case, that can be Orientalist,” she counters. She means that having Persian writing in their house also validates the Western consumer’s identity as connoisseurs of non-Western art.
As Salter predicted, all three artists firmly resisted labeling their art as Iranian. “Soheila’s art may be in the voice of the East, but it’s far from Orientalist,” says Jalali. “As for me, I’m Iranian, Somalian, American, whatever. I don’t believe in the concept of Iranian art. Multiculturalism is just a term society wants to hear, it has more to do with that discourse than with my art.”
Garzan and Esfahani concur, noting that they resisted any marketing of the exhibit that focused on them as “Muslim” women, even though that might be more appealing both to audiences and grant giving agencies. “I’ve never seen my art that way,” says Esfahani. “I don’t want to market my art by my ethnic identity. This is the first time my art has ever been considered as “multicultural”, and that’s because all three artists happened to be Iranian. The whole appeal of Rumi’s poetry to me is that it is universal. His God could be anyone’s God, whether they are Muslim or Christian.”
“My art doesn’t come from a place,” argues Garzan. “What is global, anyway? How do you connect with it? Meditation doesn’t belong to any place, you can do it in Iran, Canada, anywhere. It really is universal. Is there a difference between global and universal?”
Garzan’s question was highlighted by a gallery-sponsored poetry reading by the poet Charles Mountford, who read from his translations of Rumi’s poetry.
Buddhist, sufi or zen. Not any religion.
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, nor out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist.
am not an entity in this world or the next
did not descend from Adam or Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body nor soul.
By the end of the evening, a room full of people, half of whom had likely never heard of Rumi before, had been transformed into fans of sufi poetry. Later, Governor General award winning artist Jamelie Hassan spoke of her art critiquing Orientalism and American intervention in the Middle East.
I suppose one could be a cynical academic and say that those who attended were only honing their distinction as appreciators of “global” art. Or, you could argue that for a few hours, those people stepped out of the global into the universal. And that, indeed, is what an “art” gallery should be all about.
1. Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: the story of contemporary art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 13.
1. Ibid., p. 29