Standing at the touchpoint
Sara Rahbar, a liminal and activist artist
By Hossein Ganji
It was natural that modern art, which arose from the social spheres of modern life in the newly industrialized world and nurtured and strengthened itself in the conditions of aversion to repetition and imitating and under the influence of intellectual views, one day would appear as an intellectual, become the mainstream of social movements and activism. And be placed on the border of contradictions and new thoughts and ideas as well. From this point of view, the art of the last century, following new social conditions, first shed the skin of the tradition, and it didn't take long for it to have an impact on the role of its author. It became a main actor and tried to experience activism instead of passivism. “Activism in a border position is a movement between the dualities.” Said Maqsoud Farasatkhah. Dualities turn to pluralities in times of tension, and the artist has a difficult task in this role, which is no less than intellectualism. Sara Rahbar is one of the most important and closest examples of a liminal and activist artist who, with a universal language, tries to find a new way in the middle of signs, contradictions, and thoughts. She said in an interview, “With art, I can be more powerful than politicians; because I can say everything.” This is all that contemporary art has tried to achieve since its inception. Perhaps no Iranian artist can match up with her elegance because she skillfully evokes the emotions of the audience and transforms ambiguity and concealment into an artistic tool. She has made art a tool to express her words, live on the edge of borders, and reveal the occasional ridiculous conditions of contemporary humans as well. By combining traditional and modern textures and using Eastern and Western spaces, she creates different works, and she has tried to find her own unique language while moving between opposing lines. In sculptures, installations, and other various mediums, and also by using objects collected from her surroundings, she examines the human condition and their feelings and difficulties in life. In her works, specific and familiar formal and practical elements strongly help each other. None of the symbols in her works are subservient to the other and this contrast makes each more prominent. Some parts and pieces in her works can be ornamental and useful, which represents an unusual idea compared to others, and some others convey a practical message without direct thought or metaphor. Contemporary art is a few steps ahead of the modern art before it; now it is the pioneer of movements and even new science. Firstly, it accurately depicts the current human condition, and secondly, the future. A future that no one is closer to understanding than art, and no tool can penetrate and explore it better than art.
She shows the peak of an artist's liminal activism by juxtaposing different cultural signs in her collection of works, especially “Swarming”, exhibited at the Carbon 12 Gallery, Dubai, and “Carry Me Home”, an exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary Gallery, Dallas. Also, at a higher and tangential point to the concept of border activism, the two collections of “Arrivals” and “Flags”, exhibited at the Katonah Museum, New York, and the Boghossian Foundation, Brussels, the idea is more visible. Perhaps with centuries of war, these signs can be put together; but in the works of Sara Rahbar, they are placed side by side with an inner conflict of the artist and with the understanding she gains from the world.
Sara Rahbar's works can be seen as a reflection of her lived experience and, in a more general view, a reflection of the contemporary human condition during political and cultural developments. “Elements with general and symbolic concepts are placed in company with ordinary objects and images, and in this way, they create a connection between collective and individual experiences. Violence caused by war and politics, migration, separation, not belonging, and in general, the complexity of the human life situation on a social and personal scale, can be considered the main concepts that Sara Rahbar has displayed in her works.” Sara Rahbar is an Iranian-American artist who creates her works with a variety of materials. Her main source of inspiration is her personal experiences from this liminal life, as well as her thoughts on the human condition among discourses and cultures. Sara Rahbar and her family immigrated to America in the early eighties, during the Iranian Revolution.
Carry Me Home
By Justine Ludwig
Deputy Director/ Chief Curator at the Dallas Contemporary
Carry me home reflects upon the relationship between self and Other as well as the socio-political tensions present in nationalism’s relationship to violence. The exhibition brings together works that express the range of Rahbar’s practice from cast sculpture to constructions of accumulated objects and textile works. Each piece tells a story of the relationship between individual and society by drawing upon Rahbar’s personal history as well as global dynamics. Rahbar mines the politics of belonging.
Rahbar’s bronze body parts are present and unapologetic. Taken from casts of the artist’s own body, they are ripe with tension—muscles clenched as fingers contort and toes twist. It is a utilitarian presentation of limbs as they are reduced to base physical purpose. At times grafted upon pinchers, hooks, and chains, the body parts become symbols of labor and its human element.
Similarly, wooden sculptures comprised of found and used objects such as vices and rifle butts rendered slick and shiny through human use, speak to the hybrid man-machine. They are ruminations on the relationship between humans and the tools we employ to build, control, and kill. These are found “lived” objects with a history of use. Personal in scale the assemblages are simultaneously intimate and imposing.
Rahbar’s militarized flags directly tie to the objects and symbols in which we place faith. Specifically as they relate to national identity and belonging. She contends with the history of the United States as a military super power with strong socio-political ties globally. In doing so she brings attention to the human cost and impact of warfare.
As a whole, Carry me home looks at the legacy of war and the construct of the homeland. Rahbar addresses the codified systems of control that we have come to take for granted and the fraught, yet profoundly powerful, notions of belonging and home.
Born in Tehran in 1976, Rahbar lives and works in New York. She pursued an interdisciplinary study program in New York and also studied at Central Saint Martins College of Art and design in London. She has exhibited widely in art institutions including but not limited to Queensland Museum, Sharjah Art foundation, Venice Biennial, The Centre Pompidou, and Mannheimer Kunstverein, and her works are included in the permanent collections of the British Museum, The Centre Pompidou, Queesnland Art Gallery, The Davis Museum at Wellesley College, and the Sharjah Art Foundation amongst others.
By William J. Simmons
Art historians often want to add a veneer of intellectual remove to artists’ work in order to add an academically acceptable rigor or to make it more palatable to a pearl-clutching audience. However, there is rigor in activism, and this is Sara Rahbar’s intervention. Rahbar’s activism is working to expand the individual acts of violence she has experienced into universal ones, to amplify the sufferings of humanity through her chosen materials. The weight of these bronzes is the weight of the world; the marred skin of these bodies is the skin that connects all of us – a skin that can be cut and must bleed even as it can regenerate. These sculptures combine heavy materials – the heft of the soul, perhaps – with intensely precarious arrangements that cause us to feel not optimism, but rather pressure, discomfort, and vulnerability. After all, to require anyone who has experienced racial discrimination to be happy for the sake of the majority is a kind of violence. Rahbar is not interested in rose-colored glasses; she instead casts them aside and gives us only the coldness of bronze. Isn’t this what we deserve?
Something kept running through my mind as I looked at these sculptures: “How can I help these bound and agonized figures?” Who are they? Where do they come from, and what do they need from me? What happened to them? Perhaps Rahbar wants us to feel productively helpless. After Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, white progressives finally felt helpless for a moment, while their colleagues of color have always known that feeling in a racist society.
Privileged liberal individuals, especially millennials, are finally beginning to understand what others have felt all along – a lack of safety, a fear of the state, daily discriminations. Maybe, then, the answer is that we cannot help Rahbar’s figures. They instead suffer so that we may know the price of our silence. They writhe and clench because we have been heretofore reluctant to act, and while we cannot save these individuals, we can work tirelessly until there is no more suffering to illustrate.
When History Encounters Aesthetics
By Catherine Grenier
Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude or any other anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order. With these words, in 1890, Maurice Denis articulated what would be the maxim of Modernism, to be written about endlessly by critics and art historians thereafter. By ushering in an era in which paintings were analyzed according to form, he closed the door on iconographic and contextual interpretations, and put an end to what people in the modern scene referred to as the subject.
In 2011, this idea is but a distant memory. Contextual interpretation has taken the place of formalist studies. This is evident when one reads articles and interviews about Sara Rahbars work. The majority of them focus on her primary motif, the flag, and on the particular context that arises from the artists birthplace and life story. And yet, unlike many artists who work with political issues, her work results from great visual refinement. In fact, the artist herself has often said that one should look at her works as paintings. Seen from this perspective, her work follows on from collage and assemblage practices. The first works for which she became known are, in terms of their technique, the descendants of Cubism and the Bauhaus just as much as they relate to the Neo Dada assemblages of the European New Realists and Junk Art in the United States. In terms of aesthetics, one can discern traces of Pop art, a movement that, through the work of Jasper Johns, turned the US flag into a flat surface like the conception of painting Maurice Denis was referring to. Finally, references to popular culture, its techniques, images and traditions which have fueled modernity since Symbolism and Expressionism form the primary resource of Rahbars compositions.
Sara Rahbars first works are assemblages of textiles sewn onto US flags. The artist has produced an important series of works, each of which is an encounter between the US flag and the emblems and materials of Rahbars native country, Iran. She uses real flags, installed vertically and horizontally, and sews a diverse range of materials onto them, while leaving the blue rectangle and its 50 stars untouched. These assemblages are composed of fine embroidered fabrics, bits of carpet, ornamental fringes, fragments of writing or whole texts, and, in some cases, yet more objects and images. She sometimes adorns the flags with other symbols of her adopted country: John and Robert Kennedy, military stripes, a crucifix. . . elements that all combine to form a lush surface, seductive with the colors and ornamental beauty of the fabrics. Aesthetics is thus crucial to understanding these works and is even one of the main factors in its effectiveness. Certainly, to inscribe fragmented memories of Persian culture on an emblem of the US carries a particular meaning, which becomes richer the more these various elements accumulate. But beyond the political, social and psychological meanings determined ever since the artists first Flag, made in 2005 her work offers us a reflection on art and its ability to intervene in civic life at a specific register. A register that is not the only political statement, in which the intention and the demonstration take precedence over form, but the combination of this statement with visual formalization. Aesthetics, and its corollary, the sense of beauty, situate political discourse in a time that transcends the immediacy of the present, just as it transposes a local context into a universal space.
Throughout this series of nearly 50 works, Rahbar explores a range of hybrid forms on the backdrop of the flag, lending each one its own identity. Each flag is dressed differently, and its ornaments and decorations lead us to consider each composition as a kind of portrait. Portraiture is one of the themes that the artist focuses on. Among her works are numerous photographic portraits of women, from her own self portrait, adorned with oriental fabrics and belted with a US flag, to images of women wearing the veil, hidden behind thick, printed textiles. In these images, the artist once again juxtaposes emblems of the US and Iran, in particular the flags of both countries. Before studying art at St Martins College in London at the beginning of the 2000s, Rahbar studied fashion design in New York. The influence of this early interest is still present in her aesthetics, whether it be these portraits or her Flags. Given how common the theme of the veiled woman is in contemporary discourse, Rahbars radically aesthetics-driven approach is original. Indeed, it make us realize that unlike the avant-gardes mistrust of the seduction of form, beauty is now a mode of subversion that is just as pertinent as the violence that people once professed against beauty. Likewise, ornamentation, once thought of as mere decoration, proves to be a spontaneous means of expression by oppressed and marginalized cultures. It is, moreover, one of the shared borders between Western and Eastern art.
The use of fabric and clothing in art has a history discontinued but nevertheless significant that runs the length of the 20th century. Formalist schools, advocating the abolition of borders between the arts, developed their research into textiles and costumes. The Bauhaus in Germany and the Vhutemas in the Soviet Union were particularly vibrant in this area, with Sonia Delaunay and Alexandra Exter standing out in particular. From the 1960s, installation and performance art practices considerably expanded the range of materials that artists could employ in their work. The use of fabric and sewing was not restricted solely to female artists. Helio Oticicas Parangole costumes, like James Lee Byars Dress for 500 (1968), are good examples of the diversification of disciplines and techniques. Be it assembled, sewn, twisted or stuffed with kapok, fabric was increasingly used in the experimental approaches of artists working in antiform and vernacular fields. Thus, from the work of Louise Bourgeois to Annette Messager, Claes Oldenburg and Yayoi Kusama, a whole category of soft forms came to inhabit the artistic arena. Apart from its use in sculpture and installation, the use of sewing was claimed by feminists such as Miriam Schapiro and Faith Ringgold, who went on to use sewing in politically critical works. Schapiro defined these works by coining the term femmage (female art of collage). Accordingly, she turned embroidery and patchwork (or quilting) into a paradigm of the feminine condition.
These two artists were pioneers of the art of patchwork. It is a technique intrinsically linked to the popular history of the US, whose emblematic presence in the American home has inspired many artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Mike Kelley. Sara Rahbars Flags, despite their clearly Eastern components, also speak very directly to this model. In a very enlightening article (1), Geraldine Chouard recalls patchworks diverse connotations, which I will paraphrase here. Patchwork conveys the spirit of America, which likes to represent itself through the juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements welded into a unit. These assemblages of fabrics, often representing maps of the US with all the different states, are a cultural and geographical metaphor for America. In Lolita, Nabokov compared the geography of the US to a crazy quilt one with no pattern or blueprint (2). Beyond geography, one can find the whole of US history and its various attitudes in these quilts, which are also used as protest quilts to defend certain civic causes. These works by women, which have accompanied the whole destiny of the American people, have seen renewed interest since the 1960s, and were honored with an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1971.
Beyond US borders, patchwork, popularized by hippie movements, gained a more universal meaning and took on a metaphorical stature. Thus, in their book A Thousand Plateaus (3), French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari used this folk art as an example of what they define as rhizomatic model of thought: A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. This state of being, which is non-definitive, relational by nature and which articulates time and space, corresponds to the self image that the US wanted to convey. Patchworks are compositions of fabrics of different origins and histories united by a common future that is stitched together by a needle. With no model of reference, but always associated with the major cycles and passages of life, patchwork is inherently imbued with movement and change. Many quilts evoke westward migration and the history of families traversing the American continent. Patchwork in conformity with migration, and with the affinity it shares with nomadism will not only be named after trajectories, but will represent trajectories, becoming inseparable from speed and movement in an open space, recalled Deleuze and Guattari. Patchwork proposes the particular example of a visual form, which, in itself, regardless of what it may represent, and regardless of its constituent parts, encompasses multiple meanings. The product of a collective feminine practice, created in these quilting parties, some of these patchworks read as albums, while others have compositions of abstract, colored shapes. In the contemporary art scene, some artists are inspired by quilts to find models of composition based on dehierarchization, decentralization and rhythm. As a symbolic object, patchworks uses can be diversified. During the 1980s, the Names Project movement produced thousands of quilts bearing the names of those who had died from AIDS, often made from items of the victims clothing. These were displayed outdoors in front of the White House in 1987 as an enormous protest banner.
Rahbars Flags carry with them all the burden associated with patchwork: symbols of hybridity, the expression of heterogeneity, community projects, feminine practice, sites of memory. . . By using the starred flag as the backdrop, she guides the viewer toward this traditional American model. But the maze of oriental fabrics is also laden with another history and points to other models. The East is famous for its decorative compositions, as it is for its textiles and fabrics precious commodities forever sought by the West. In this area, Eastern folk tradition is much older and richer than American tradition. Its influence has also been crucial for some modernist artists. Influenced by Alois Riegls writings on Islamic art, Matisse was one of the first to be inspired by textile designs and study the schedules and rhythms of ornamentation. Without directly using the fabric in his work, he collected oriental carpets and materials an important source of inspiration. His curiosity, marked by the taste of the time for primitivism, pushed him toward the folk arts: Indian, Chinese, Persian and Arab fabrics, Turkish costumes. Even beyond their aesthetic qualities, these materials contain a sensitive, voluptuous nature that Matisse transposed to his pictures. One finds the same combination in Rahbars compositions. Together with the symbolic meaning of these compositions, the rich and shimmering universe of oriental fabrics lends her work an aesthetic quality and sensuality that serves her aims. Her work is imbued with the magic that is inherent to the use of historically charged materials and forms. It also refers to her immediate surroundings, where she finds the materials. The artist operates at the intersection of two traditions that art has often brought together Eastern tradition and Western tradition a feat she achieves by basing her work on her personal history, creating an aesthetic of mixing.
Sara Rahbar was born in Iran, but from the age of five she was brought up in the US. Fleeing because of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran Iraq War, her family was torn between their home country and their adopted country. Her father, who went back and forth continuously during these years, eventually returned to Iran. Sara also made frequent trips there as a young adult, taking documentary photographs. For many years she divided her time between the two countries, the two cultures. In her work, themes of uprooting, disappointment with the promised land, dual culture, war, trauma and scarring refer directly to her personal experience. Though political, her work is no less intimate, committed as it is to the reelaboration of personal memories. Memories of childhood, family and a split identity are the soil that nourishes her work, which is mostly autobiographical. Her choice of fabrics marks the beginning of a process of research that, as she says, can develop thereafter through other materials and this allows for two levels of reference: the intimate and the social, and the personal and the cultural. The patchworks that I referred to earlier reflect a collective history of mentalities in the US; they are also, in a manner of speaking, portraits of each of the women who made them. In many paintings and photographs of American families, these women chose to be portrayed holding their quilts, like pieces of clothing or emblems. Similarly, the entire set of Rahbars Flags as well as new textile works that take oriental carpets or clothing as their basis compose a portrait of the young artist. Through this body of work, her intellectual engagement and her emotional reactions are perfectly legible. Aesthetics is today the preferred site for the meeting and reunification of the individual and the collective, of autobiography and history. As an artist, Sara Rahbar is an heir to multiple heritages, both American and Iranian. Through her work she has chosen to address this fundamental multiplicity by speaking with a single voice. And she has achieved this by developing an easily recognizable script, or style, that shapes this multiplicity in her own personal form.
Another aspect of Rahbars artistic practice is her photography. Since 2005, she has done freelance work during her trips to Iran, and has contributed to documentary films. Her subjects are by turns political, social and cultural: since her first coverage of the election of president Ahmadinejad, she has touched on numerous subjects. However, the photographs she exhibits are very removed from the spirit and aesthetics of photojournalism. They are composed images born out of a dual perspective: performance since the artist is often the model in these works and painting. The performative element puts fiction at the heart of the composition, and at a register that is more allegorical than narrative. In any case, the artist says that it is her subconscious that dictates the images; these images impose themselves on her.
Through a series of 11 photographs entitled Love Arrived and How Red (2009), Rahbar tells the story of a marriage between a young woman, whom she plays herself, and an Iranian soldier. The artist initially wears a traditional dress, followed by a Western wedding dress with a US flag for a veil, while the soldier wears his military uniform. Both of their faces are concealed by black balaclavas. The relationship between these two people evolves from image to image, from the portrayal of a classic ceremony to a more performative scene in which the soldier lifts up the bride to inspect the flag recalling the traditional inspection of conjugal bed sheets after a wedding night. In the final photograph, the bride, dead, holds a split pomegranate that spills its seeds on the ground. In this series, in which each image is characterized by a visual richness, the photographic conception is essentially pictorial. In each image, she imposes an aesthetic and invokes references that directly relate to the history of painting, to its frames and its rules. Symbolism and aesthetics are closely linked, both in how she depicts the characters and in her choice of costumes and attributes. Thus, for example, the iconographic motif of the open pomegranate is used in many compositions. A symbol of fertility, this fruit of Paradise from Iran is a traditional motif in Renaissance painting and Persian miniatures alike. The rich and picturesque feminine costumes, moreover, recall the models of Orientalist painting. Even though the photographs progress as a series, which is generally the case in her work, each is precisely framed and has its own artistic autonomy. As a result, the aesthetic and aestheticizing nature of her work should not be related to Pictorialism that is, an aestheticization of the photographic image but to a pictorial affiliation. The artist uses photography to organize the clash between two different registers: performance and painting. In doing so, she enters the tradition of the tableau vivant (living picture), a tradition that she rejuvenates by charging it with politics that have rarely been associated with it. With her carefully composed scenarios, she endows the vocabulary of political activism with a more general meaning and allows it to reach the level of historical painting. She, along with other artists of her generation, contributes to the regeneration of a genre that has fallen into disuse.
Thus, one of the major characteristics of Rahbars work is to restore the dialogue between history and aesthetics. Her originality is in bringing art not only in its new forms, such as video and performance, but also in traditional forms that have been reappraised today onto social and political terrain. With her Flags, as with her photographic compositions, or in turn her recent hybridizations that no longer take the flag as their basis but instead tarpaulins and bags used by US soldiers, she invents a new relationship to history. A rapport that is individual, moral, social and political. But also, above all, a rapport that is artistic, characterized by an aesthetic that is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.
Beyond the moral crossroad of war, atrocity and surveillance
the exterminating angel looks on....
By: Shaheen Merali
Rahbars passionate encounters seem to overflow from the pages of her notebooks, which resemble an ethnographers sketchbook, to the folds, straps and stripes that make up her predominantly textile assemblages. The need for the term, Predominantly, can be attributed to the fact that textiles form only a part of the everyday and everywhere that finds itself caught in the crossfire of these magnificent and beautifully observed, layered works. Flags form the basis of much of her work and, increasingly since 2007; she has worked with embroidered cloth in the form of rectangular pieces. All of these embroideries have their origins either in domestic usage or are employed ritually in ceremonies for the family, tribe or nation or on religious occasions. The fact that they form a basis for the concept of identity in her furtherance of their role and purpose in her artworks imbues them with even greater significance and appeal as we ultimately recognise ourselves within them. The flags and these embroidered pieces both provide a loaded plane, a cultivated form, of difference but definitely recognisable as heritage; they allow the viewer to identify their place of origin, possibly arousing the first stirrings of prejudice. To a lay-person, the embroideries seem to reflect a certain type of Middle - Eastness or a part of central Asia, in the way the motifs, colours and stitches crisscross the moody background hues to make abstract shapes informed by land and natural forms. A prime example is the textile work I wait for the sun to return, and for another birth, which from its title symbolically asks for a regeneration and the notion of waiting and time. It seems that Rahbar, like many artists of our time, is in this limbo of observing an unleashing with unpredictable results; one that is affecting the global standard like a virus. In the work mentioned above, small groups of similar people enact similar, often violent, acts on each other. Hooded and masked men look out from their work in postures of a heightened masculinity, carrying their weapons of choice, guns, sticks and rocks. The viewer is left to question are these protestors or civil police? Against a gory backdrop of a diagonal grid that resembles a sun-kissed mosaic, a kaleidoscope of terror and terrorists becomes an ingrained pattern like that of eventualities, which are currently working on creating a new cold world.
In the cases of the flags, prejudices are frighteningly mixed with a sense of patriotism (depending on who and where you are)- of the reality of nation states that seem to be on the verge of war, if not disturbingly close to the vacuity of a stand-off that has already succumbed to a diplomatic disaster. The two countries implicated in the work are, of course, the two places that Rahbar inhabits as an artist, a citizen and as an observer- the USA and the Islamic Republic of Iran. A duelling treatise indeed.
The work, flag# 41 what ever we had to loose we lost, and in a moonless sky we marched, is another typical use of morose wit within a poetic stoma as a title for her work. The main subjects of this work are the iconic beauties of the American democrats, the assassinated presidents- the Kennedy brothers, JFK and RFK. They feature as portraits in a heavy, dark, nearly pomegranate red background of stitched saddle-bags and gun belts. In the midst of this portraiture a flying eagle tries to land on the White House, whilst, in one corner, a crucifix with army appellations hangs sadly over the whole composition. Rahbar has a penchant for dramatic compositions that are blazoned with the symbolic glaze of Americana, where violence contrasts with the folkloric, almost innocuous, richness of tribal artefacts from Iran. These flags are territorial markers of her understanding of a fractious history between the two nations, which now remains encased like the basis for the designs and symbols, employed in a hidden past of violated glories and inexperience of global domination. These textile works like seepages, numbered as this one is as #41, forty first evaluations of past specters that have come to haunt contemporary atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and nearby Iran.
The final suite of images is a recent series of photographs, all against a dark, barren, black background. Here the subject is the artist herself - to be more precise the artists back is the subject. Dressed in a number of differing costumes, a continuous obsession with texture, destiny and design is further explored by a series of performative poses, using a number of props and stylisations. Similar to the flags and embroidered textile works, the title for the series prepares the viewer for its intent. I lay in the darkness of an anonymous grave, stripped of you, I remain is at first glance a pared-down, quieter, even meditative work in its relationship to the busy overbearing of the textile work. On closer inspection, the photographic works carry an amended set of information but still flex within an existing, if not a heavily symbolic, space of motif that carries on playing an important port of carriage for Rahbar. The visual, which leaps between flags and embroidered spaces, allows the viewer to fix and multiply meanings in those contradictory procrastinations that appeal to our temporal senses of space, in relation to these spectral times. A further reasoning is quietly introduced in these photographic revelations of a female back, its face turned, its identity no longer of value whilst a striking intention of time develops. They are symbolically reminiscent of the famous 1988 painting by Gerhard Richter, Betty, - a romantic but powerful portrayal of his daughter looking out of the frame and into time itself. Like Rahbars work, Betty, is adorned by a richly embroidered jacket that becomes as important as the mystery of the averted gaze.
The sartorial rage.
In folding all her works into this trifocal embrace, Rahbar makes apparent that she is, after all, a product of an unevenness that has exploded in our faces; an inequity of disruption and uncertainties that evaluates us as we try to comprehend how it plays with our lives and values. Her explorations in all three medias, textile works, new embroideries and photography allows a space in which to evaluate her notion of aesthetic continuity within a context. For Rahbar, like many of her contemporaries, this context is mindful and interested in asserting its right to speak freely and openly about the advancing strategies that no longer upgrade freedom or values of democracy but rather strangulate peace. These works speak of the processes that have currently been fortified within a shock doctrine that is burying long-fought battle cries that had seemingly permitted civility and diplomacy.
Her work is important for it acts like a witness box, informing us of the shameful reversal of fortunes, Like a visual human cry, leaping between the incensed anxieties of un-belonging and the dark clouds remaining over our heads, her work captivates us with its devilish intentions.
Clash of Ignorance (After Said)
Essay By Saheen Merali
On October 4, 2001, Edward Said, the Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, wrote a scathing review entitled The Clash of Ignorance as a response to the much acclaimed article by Samuel Huntington entitled The Clash Of Civilization. It is important to recall such collision of theoretical positions, often and excitedly enacted in print media. The brunt of Huntingtons inept argument, clumsily articulated was made threadbare by Said memorable words the personification of enormous entities called the West and Islam is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly, with one always more virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary.(1)
Said, writing one month after the attack on the twin towers in New York, purposefully continues this questioning of rudimentary thinking and the terms of its engagement and application to larger complicated configurations including histories, nations and belief systems. Huntingtons use of monochromatic terminologies from a populist language, with its simplistic trappings of difference then applied to real life situations, was exactly the way that the eleven oddballs who attacked the Twin Towers came to represent 1.5 billion Muslims during this traumatic period of American history. In such a careless moments, like Huntingtons article exemplified, it takes immense courage to pick up the loose strands left in the affray, that assist in affirming both distaste and otherness. Huntingtons articles immense popularity helped to reveal a sensitivity to the application of knowledge, conversely Saids response encouraged a return to a deepening understanding of the generalizations, which abound our daily thinking, of queried subjects which are reduced to common parlance by seeping prejudice. By taking to task Huntingtons bland and superficial categorization, Said allows us to deepen our understanding, rather than to allow contributions that inflame the complex, which we have leaned to call globalization. By careful scrutiny, of these terms of ridicule and in the unintelligent manner of their usage, Huntingtons position becomes untenable, Said continued In fact, Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make civilizations and identities into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing.(2)
It is in looking at the differences that have been mediated in culture, including the cross-fertilization of ideas, the migration of philosophy and poetry, the movement that has articulated action and people, that we have now reached an immensely rich global stratus, where the palimpsest and bricollage forms ourselves, not the the basic paradigm of West versus the rest (the cold war opposition reformulated) remained untouched, and this is what has persisted, often insidiously and implicitly, in discussion since the terrible events of September 11. (3)
New vexilloids amidst poetic renditions.
In her artists statement, Sara Rahbar, comments on her familys flight from Iran to New York at the time of the Iran-Iraq war. The following essay is a reading of the artists work in regard to the arguments outlined by Edward Said, of multi-centric narratives, in relation to the subjective nature of Rahbars implosive biography. This reading reiterates the artists arguments for the notion of the end of belonging- a nomadic-motionless-nationalism that rises out of the uncertainty of purity. As the hybrid performance, group La Pocha Nostras manifesto states, If there is a common denominator, it is our desire to cross and erase dangerous borders including those between art and politics, art practice and theory, artist and spectator - ultimately to dissolve borders and myths of purity whether they be specific to culture, ethnicity, gender, language or metier. (4)
One of the key images/objects that is repetitively used by Rahbar and which forms the main body of her work has been an object that has been around for the last 4,000 years. The flag, one of the oldest recognizable symbols of nationalism and belonging in her spirited hands, becomes a foundation for woven paintings, a base upon which to place the accumulated denotations that she rummages through remnants of the exodus where once refined textile and embroideries end up- the flea markets and remote accessory depositories. She skillfully stitches these dishevelled, uneven collections, building upon this most pure form, the Flag, into a new version, creating a barrage of new meanings that dispel its authenticity. One of the oldest authentic flag design of ancient peoples includes a metal flag from Iran, ca. 3000 BC, known as a vexilloid, which is also found on ancient Greek coins, Egyptian tomb carvings and other such reliquaries.
Vexillology is the scientific study of flags. This word comes from a Latin word, meaning to guide. These early flags or vexilloids were made out of metal or carved wooden poles. Gradually, 2,000 years ago, pieces of fabric or material were added to some vexilloids for decoration, which gradually evolved into the flags we know today.
These coloured fabrics, geometric emblematic symbols, are readily used for sending signals and messages from a person or a group of people. The works by Rahbar are artworks, sending signals, even opening windows onto her subjectivity. (5) But since subjectivity is a complex reaction, it cannot be understood entirely separately from the material world in which it is based; as a result, the interaction finds itself placed between the viewer and the artists intention.
What are the intentions of these works?
Beautiful and significant, are two of the evident reactions to these series of works, imbued, as they are with selective, handcrafted remnants from traditional sources. The audience is feted with nostalgia, gleaned from patterns, which have been floating within the visual sphere for generations. Like with quilts, one starts to examine the richness of design, their magnificent, embroiled history blending to make calligraphic sense and abstractions drawn from nature; a whole universe of interpretations is made possible. Lush landscapes of birds, animals and fauna occupy and create a plethora of images within which the ocular resides. The rustic is interspersed with diverse repetitions; the flag works are made to shape our imagination, but also to violate our senses by articulating anxieties. We are unleashed into a museum that combines the seemingly sacred, the artisanal and (un)bracketed fragments of atrocities. The work uses tradition to recover a sense of history, implying questions by the use of indexed positions. A co-existence develops, which helps to configure the critical understanding of their narrative paradigms. These flags help to scrutinize dualities that are continuous for the artist, the duality of Iran and America.
In multiplying the number of possible readings by drawing on heritage, it provides a diachronic innovation within which interpoetic relations are realizable- both on the level of aesthetic inventions from multiple sources but in how styles and ideas illustrate certain realities- of geographies, of hope and of history. In routing the audience through the multiple spaces that one image can occupy, Rahbar manages to provide a matrix within which a cultural translation and contradiction is articulated. By curating tradition, as these beautiful flags do, they attract both the western gaze and allow for an aesthetic dynamism to be exemplified. We begin with attraction and end up being repulsed within the same moment of negotiating her works- in refusing the atrocious to be removed from the works, Rahbar creates a political power that imbues her statement of seeing and being.
Often, the stripes in the American flag are replaced by slithers of heavily embroidered fabrics, drooping like an ethnic and ethical compass, accompanying the blue background and white stars that symbolize the number of states in the USA. State authority remains a counter point in this negotiated hegemony, replaced by a counter public â€“represented by fragments often drawn from womens work-which then becomes the symbol of the nation. These adventures of inclusion are often titled with poetic lines, drawing on another level of alienation-confusion reigns, as we are bombarded with mixed messages of critical improvisation and protest of cited Islamic culture in the changed optics of infectious Americana. In her quest to create beauty, these works also destabilize our notion of distance, like magnets of cultural power; the flags create a critical vigilance but deny one territory. These asymmetrical renderings are titled by what often seems to be derived from love tempered, of unmarked cases of silent suffering, of systems broken down, Those days are gone, As I step forward your promises dissolve and dissolve and unstable, you disappear in the distance, shifting again the paradigm of our reading.
In inventing a new sensibility to our reading of her work, through poetic references, she endows us with further knowledge. Rahbars aim and oblique references allow for a further archaeology of impressions to be unearthed. We become complicit in her gestural as well as her poetic references, located in her narrative, even resentful in our identification with beauty and grace. This proximity, this closeness, allows us to linger, to be part of the dense sense of the personal imagery, text and iconography. We reconcile our perceptions and aesthetic centric reading, even postponing the source of her protest. The combination of images and text as title makes us aware of her full intention, which becomes- one of unreleased inculcating anxiety in these isolated moments between us and her and between the two phases of looking at her image and understanding it through the title.
This bewildering set of flags, vexilloids returned, with its orientalist coding and binded symbolism, allows the audience to be captivated by the multifarious information which structures the restricted field of its momentary vision, connecting the contemporaneous to a historical and cultural translation and the violated, cracked, conflictive ambivalence between the demand of living tradition and occluded modernities, mesmerizing us with the duality of belonging that consistently works within the vectors that modulate between the influence of signs of progress and her mission to play with all its registers. Love arrived & how red Similarly, in the accompanying photographic work, we encounter two hooded subjects, with slits for eyes and mouth; in part tribal, in part a guerrilla presence, rather than interned subjects- a conflictive aesthetics develops here. The work seems to stem partly as a reaction to the on-going psychiatric experiments carried out in the Middle East, with martyrdoms, Bagram Bases and enforced internal displacement (of values, goods and alliances). Her dramatic photographic work, Love arrived & how red, could be read, reasonably and by assumption, in the titles reference to traditional societies horrific expectation of a virgin bride, but this would be a symbolic reading of such a rich, convoluted series of performed contacts between the two protagonists. The first few images, are of a woman, covered in a tribal, star shaped headdress-of a type usually used to decorate donkeys and horses, with exuberant textile pompoms and wearing an embroidered dress standing next to a guard in a full balaclava. Her neck appears bedecked by military braids, in the colours of the flags of the USA and Iran.
She is joined in this series by a man, dressed in fatigues and army boots also wearing a balaclava but resplendent in military braids, hanging from his shoulder in the colours of the flag of Iran. In the next set of images, we see the couple in a wedding pose, in which the female counterpart is dressed in a white bridal gown and a veil made from the American flag. In later images, the woman, now deceased, is held in a Christ-like pieta posture. Her sudden demise follows the path of the military braids, as they are initially present on both of the two protagonists, starting as a concentrated mass on the female, then gradually being transferred to the male in the purer nationalistic colours of Iran.
This bewildering set of works, with its nationalist coding and symbolism, allows the audience to be captivated by the dominance of the genre of information which structures the restricted field of patriotism. Connecting modernity to militaristic agency and the violated, cracked, conflictive ambivalence between the genders, it mesmerises us with the duality of belonging that consistently works within the vectors that modulate between the banality of evil and the erasure of life.
In one of her recent statements, she states, Our foundations lay, but our houses have burned to the ground. Building castles in the sky, for a species that cannot fly, brick by limb we tear it down. Thinking that we are moving forwards, yet moving backwards all along. Gajar woman and golden toys, we wait for dawn. (6) Even within this contemporary evocation, across borders and palpitating with barbarism, her constant vigilance regarding the fallen past and an unrealized future remain the means of her economy and imagination. The global neighborhood, she inhabits, where disenfranchisement through plight and flight are becoming important, offer the fragments by which we understand the configurations of the US version of free trade and democracy. Rahbar was born in Tehran yet was forced to leave with her family during the period of immense upheaval that followed the revolution in Iran and the start of the Iran-Iraq war, has created a maligned distance. A relational proximity has developed, based on memory, longing and inertia in inhabiting tensions of dual disjuncture. Rahbars antagonisms were further exacerbated and encouraged during her studies in London and New York, and now she spends most of her productive life between Tehran and New York. In this going back and forth, an apocalyptic memory has been revised in her reworking of traditional materials into proto-contemporary textiles and textures of national belonging.
The symbol of ideological and nationalistic violence, the Flag, remains one of the main focuses of her collage conversations and contestations, but it is in these performative sites which are photographed, where her magisterial authority and assertion about order and culture remain poised on the brink of doubt and confrontation. As one of her aptly titled works suggests, unstable, you disappear in the distance.