The below essay was written by Paniz Musawi on the occasion of HAYP Pop Up Gallery sixth exhibition and event series “Lips of Pride”, which focused on women’s sexuality and societal perceptions of shame. Paniz presented her essay in English on April 10, 2016 to a packed and interested audience in Yerevan, Armenia. On-site translation into Armenian was provided by Artashes Emin. Scroll down for a slideshow of images from the presentation.
Paniz Musawi Natanzi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She holds a BA in Political Science from the Free University of Berlin’s Otto Suhr Institute (2013) and an MSc in Comparative Political Thought from SOAS (2014). Paniz has published in the German daily newspaper taz. die tageszeitung, the French revue l’imparfaite and has a forthcoming book chapter which is going to be published by Hurst & Co and Columbia University Press in 2016. She is currently based in Tehran, Iran, for her fieldwork on “The Gendered Geopolitics of Afghanistani Visual Arts: Visual Knowledge Production in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in times of On-Going Insecurities and the Construction of the Nation-State”.
The talk examines the potential of visual arts to produce knowledge about embodied experience. Looking at women’s visual artwork in Armenia, Iran and Afghanistan, I first focus on women’s local conditions of art production in the three cases. Second, I link the local and international looking how geopolitical interests have shaped and initiated international intervention and investment into the politics of gender and visual arts in post-Soviet Armenia and post-Taliban Afghanistan in contrast to post-revolutionary Iran. Are local processes of visual art production and the artwork itself influenced by geopolitical scenarios, and if yes, how? What is the potential of visual arts to produce knowledge about local embodied experience in these spaces? Calling for transnational feminist responsibility when producing knowledge about gendered artwork the talk critically points out the power/violence of representation when producing textual and visual knowledge.
“Postcolonial feminist geopolitics: deconstructing gender politics and visual knowledge production in Armenia, Iran and Afghanistan”
What I am going to talk about is not a “finished” project. Rather, these are initial ideas for future transnational cooperation in our region. I remember when I was little, maybe the age of 12 and I was told that I should not sit cross-legged. That is not how I am supposed to sit like as “a girl “. I didn’t really get the problem at that point, because I thought it was perfectly comfortable. But this “how-to-sit-properly” experience took away the comfort. Apparently, there was something inbetween my legs that I had to keep secret and I became aware of now. And when I close my legs, it will disappear in front of the audience. Just like our period: we are not supposed to say out loud that we have our monthly menstruation. It is shameful to have a red spot on your back, it is shameful to have your tampons and pads openly in the toilet if guests come by. In Iran I began to talk openly about it to my friends and although some, particularly, male friends, still laugh out loud nervously when I talk about my menstruation, I think they are getting used to the idea that my period is nothing to be ashamed of, it can be treated in a ‘private’ or ‘public’ way by me, I should make the choice without feeling ashamed of something: if giving birth is “natural” then my my crossed legs and period should be, too. I would like to add at this point that the discussion about the shaming of female bodies and sexualities are not intrinsically an Asian-conintental phenomenon, but the othering of women also takes place among Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and atheist or agnostic communities throughout the world.
These type of experiences taught me what physical and ideal areas of shame are. Shame is derived from the Germanic word Scham that describes the process of “covering your face”. In Persian sharm, in Armenian amot. I heavily experienced ”shaming” when I moved to Iran to do empirical fieldwork for my doctoral thesis. Walking down the streets in the Bazaar area of Southern Tehran with a Kabuli girlfriend, an older man, maybe in the end of his 60s passed us and told me “Khanoom, eibet malume!” meaning “Lady, your flaw is visible!”. Now, eib means flaw or defect and can be used for both genders. However, he chose to say it to me, whose coat was open and below it I was wearing jeans. So, I decided to shout back in my anger “Why do you look at it? And your trouser are too tight!” I just saw him running away quickly.
The idea of shame divides women into two groups: those who are honourable and those with a lack of honour. This is also why women’s bodies are weapons in war and conflict: in the Armenian Genocide women were sexually humiliated, raped in front of their men, taken into sex slavery and forced to re-marriage by the Ottoman forces in order to intimidate Armenian men before they were killed, similarly to systematic rapes and women’s shaming in former Yugoslavia, mass rapes in Bangladesh during the independence war in 1971 and in Rwanda in 1994. While men were the bearers of ethnicity, women and children were susceptible to assimilation, which started with complete silencing of women and disintegrating them from their ethnic and sectarian community. In Armenia the shaming and sexual violence women experienced in the genocide obviously differs from gendered and sexual violence in contemporary Armenia: while the genocide was supposed to destroy the feeling of Armenian-ness, violence in the domestic and outside in today’s Armenia are patriarchal and misogynist habits that reproduce the subjection of women as less honourable beings than men. And many regard this discriminating social habit as rather normal in today’s world.
But why are women in Armenia, Afghanistan and Iran rather subjected to judgements about shameful behaviour than men? In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler (1999) explains that the idea that gender has a material “substance” is the result of metaphysical a priori statements. The man made categories of man and woman – in the truest sense of the phrase – are considered to have always existed ontologically. For instance, Judaic, Christian and Islamic communities are based on the assumption that heteronormative relations, i.e. the partnership between men and women, are the foundation of a reproductive society enabling the continuing existence of a specific socio-political formation. According to Butler, the idea of what characterises a “men” and what a “women” is a performance that takes place within the regulatory, productive and compulsory practices of “gender coherence”. These practices have become naturalized. Maybe gender can be imagined as a screenplay, which was written for thousands of years. Each law, each convention and social practice, documents such as medical reports or court decisions added a further statement to the net of statements of the discourse of gender, sex, and desire. As a result of this process of “regulatory practices” we cannot “ do gender” anymore. Gender has already been done for us; the screenplay is written. We shall perform what we were taught to perform. Now, we act shameful when our behavior, attitudes and style challenges the role we have been given by the law of our fathers and mothers. I integrate here mothers, because I assume that the law of the father would not be successful if mothers’ would not cooperate. Mother’s and daughter’s have learned to “bargain with patriarchy”, to put it into Deniz Kandiyoti’s (1988) words, in Armenia, Iran and Afghanistan. I am not saying that our mothers and sisters who live with the law of the father have no agency, but argue that patriarchy is a reciprocal system and is based on regulating female cooperation either through force or by naturalizing gender difference and hierarchy. As paradox as it is, the strategies that establish and normalize women’s subjection are at the same time “means” of her empowerment. Let me give an Armenia specific example: Kaitlin Fertaly (2012) examines in her research on women their movement from the so-called public to the domestic space in the post-Soviet era as a reaction to Soviet politics. Back in the kitchen, women have been praised in their traditional roles as “caretakers” and “mothers” in Armenian households. Fertaly examines how women were able to express themselves from their homes, especially from their kitchens and thereby challenging existing feminist human rights approaches claiming the domestic to be merely a space of oppression and not creativity and production. Fertaly argues that cooking Khash became a tool to appeal to “ ‘public’, national narratives from within their ‘private’ spaces” especially in the 1990s during times when families needed to survive and live with what was available. The enactment of these skills continue to evoke “national feelings of Armenianness and feminine morality”. It is the women’s cooking that makes the sons and fathers of the family strong since women are the “bearers of traditions” and therefore essential for the “reproduction/survival of the nation-state”. Re-reading Foucault and Butler, scholar Saba Mahmood (2005) explains the “paradox of subjectivation” as the “processes and conditions that secure a subject’s subordination” and simultaneously are the tools by which the subject re-creates herself as in the example of women’s housework showed. However, the performance of the role of the mother or daughter, is the “ritualized production (…) under and through constraint”, according to Butler. At the same time the “constraint” preserves “performativity”. This means that performance takes place within the regulatory, productive and compulsory practices of “gender coherence” embedded in the naturalizing “metaphysics of substance”.
How is this related to shame? A women who is not able to cook like me, because she tries to spend her time as an active member of the so-called public sphere as many of you by producing artwork, curating and creating in other ways, is shameful, because she does not provide for the nation-state in the traditional way, but is taking over a place in culture, politics, economy which are all still male-dominated homosocial spaces. When performing gender we reproduce “reality” by our clothing and movements, however, we simultaneously change it by breaking dichotomous ideas of what a real man is supposed to be like and a proper woman. So, we tackle shame through our very individual performance of gender.
Now, feminist geopolitics has developed from these poststructurally informed ideas that focus on knowledge-power relations and have been than complemented by postcolonial approaches that compare processes of knowledge production, i.e. epistemology, about a people and the realities of these people, i.e. their ontology. The latter has become essential in order to de-centre the focus on the state and relate it to local everyday life practices, regional power constellations and international decision-makings since all these together shape our embodied experience. What I find personally most attractive about critical and feminist geopolitics is, as Deborah Dixon (2015), one of the main theorists of this way of thought explains, how it undermines the authoritative status of textual work allowing to consider “other modes of thought” in academia such as visual artwork, as I argue. However, as Deborah importantly highlights, even a critical postcolonial feminist geopolitics is historically and geographically already located.
So keeping that in mind, I argue that women’s arts is a way to deal with issues of sexual and gender-based discrimination and violence. However, the artwork does not necessarily need to be linked to female sexuality. It can, but it does not have to simply because you identify as a woman. I will later explain when talking about Afghanistan, why I emphasise this point.
By visualising embodied experience the women artist materialises through an artistic lens observed and experienced realities of local lifes. Although some might feel offended and provoked, and this is and should be one of the purposes of art, when seeing vaginas, pink pussies and open-legged women, the very exhibition of these works resists the one-dimensional, discriminating and violent idea of the pure and proper honorable women. I can be honorable and sit cross-legged. What is between my legs should not be the only component defining my moral and capacity to act in a human manner.
To embed this women-focused HAYP exhibition into Armenia’s national, regional and international place in geo-politics. On the geopolitical level, post-9/11 Washington expressed increasingly its dissatisfaction about the regionally functioning Iran-Armenia relations and increased its presence in the Caucasus. Iran had become the second largest investor in Armenian economy in 1996. Since 2006 the Armenia-Iran gas pipeline is being build. At the same time Tehran criticised Armenias diplomacy trying to get along with the US, Russia, Iran and other regional major powers. In February 2002 the US deployed up to 200 Special Force troops to Georgia which was the first US military deployment to the Southern Caucasus since the end of the cold war. In March, the US turned to Armenia and a time of intensified military relations begins during which the US also built the second-largest US embassy worldwide in Yerevan after Baghdad. Also, in 2002 the UNDP office in Armenia established the UN Thematic Group on Gender and Development to discuss issues concerning women in Armenia. Neither western feminists nor Soviet ideology was succesful in implementing their ideas of gender relations: primarily because both underestimated the history, culture and social difference that determines how issues are addressed and resolved in different societies.
On a national and local level during the so-called dark years of the 1990s, Armenia struggled with the lack of gas, electricity and goods, the number of local aid organisations and NGOs increased. A development, that we can also observe in Kabul, Afghanistan: The military invasion and on-going “colonial presence”, as human geographer Derek Gregory calls it, in Afghanistan was framed by the mission to rescue “Afghan women” and “girls” (UNSCR 1214; UNSCR 1267) from the repression of the Taliban. Since 2001, foreign investments, NGOs, and aid organisations have developed Kabul into a transnational space in which women are “key sites”, as feminist geographer Jennifer Fluri (2012) argues, showcasing western nation-state-building processes as the judicial, socio-political and economic model of justice. A process which took also place in Armenia, however less visible in international media since Armenia as a dominantly Christian country is not part of the Muslim “axis-of evil”, as Bush used to describe amongst others Iran, but a geopolitically valuable place from which to show presence in the region. However, liberal peace-building creates predicaments of legitimacy and “multiple tensions between local and global players” who have quite different ideas of what the state-building process should look like and how gender politics should be made. Armine Ishkanian (2007) explains that gender became a battlefield in post-Soviet countries, because it was one of the issues of direct confrontation between capitalism and socialism. In both countries, the number of gender-related NGOs increased during the post-Soviet and post-Taliban era. A gender political issue such as domestic violence is in all three countries highly present, however, despite grassroots activisms domestic violence remains one of the biggest challenges in the struggle against gender-based and sexual violence. In Iran, the Islamic Revolution introduced a regression in regards of gender politics – especially with regards to the right of free bodily movement – although it provided many ways for women to participate in the construction and promotion of the Islamic nation-state: for instance, after the Iran-Iraq-war the “new [revolutionary] Shi’i women with pride” began to rise in urban spaces. There is for instance the Khaharan-e Zeynab (Zeynab’s sisters): these “young and educated” vice squads, who are armed, but not allowed to fight, control women’s behaviour and outward appearance in urban spaces. Now, in contrast to Iran where the ideology of the Islamic Republic in regards to the role of women in society was implemented by force from above, but also with the support of the masses, Armenia and Afghanistan did not have a broadbased grassroots movement calling for a specific gender ideology. This task was taken over by western feminists and individuals from the diaspora. In Armenia domestic violence became an issue addressed by women’s rights and human rights NGOs in the early 2000s, according to Ishkarian. However, similar to Afghanistan, these campaigns were perceived as imposed by the west and resistance arose to US AID campaigns in Armenia while US institutional presence in Iran has not been existing since 1979. What was a private issue to many Armenian men became publicised, but the topic did not came up in a process of discursive contestation, in other words it was not discussed by Armenian society but implemented from above by western feminists who provided policy recommendations and defined the problem. Feminists did fail to understand the local context and integrating locals from the very beginning into gender politics; this might have been amongst others because Armenian women were rather perceived as passive victims of patriarchy and not considered in their diversity as active within and outside the household, as I tried to highlight with the Khash example of Fertaly. Anti-domestic violence campaigns were perceived by many as attacks on the importance of the Armenian in the nation-state. Hence, as Ishkarian argues, local Armenians issue with campaigns such as domestic violence is not to argue that it does not exist, but how it is framed by western donors and experts today. I would argue that in this regard Armenia differs from Afghanistan where the national law is challenged by the Pashtunwali, the rule of law of the Pashto, with misogynist rules that are customary law. In Iran, Islamic law provides certain securities for women, however, they are not given in order to create equality, but to sustain gender difference. The law itself is conceptualised in an extremely gendered way making it rather impossible for women human rights lawayers and feminists to become active, because their acts might be understood as an action against the state.
In Afghanistan, Armenia and Iran, the constitution provides legal equality among the genders, however, often people either do not know their rights or cannot make use of them. In all three countries, woman are the bearer of the honor of a family. Also, it is the family which is the most important smallest unit in society, not the individual as in neoliberal western societies. However, neither in Iran, Afghanistan nor Armenia there has been a coherent women’s or feminist movement since Armenia’s independence, Iran’s Islamic revolution and Afghanistan’s invasion by the US. The medium where women issues have been visualised and brought into the attention of people on a local and international level was women’s art therefore. Women’s modern arts has become a channel, a tool to talk socio-politically.
In order to conduct a responsible and critical postcolonial feminist geopolitics approach it is necessary to consider how “embodied epistemologies”, as the geopolitical feminist thinker Jennifer Hyndman (2004; 2007) calls it, shape the specificities of embodied experience. Hyndman explains that “embodied vision” which is “ontologically committed, partial perspectives” can have the “potential” to undermine prevailing “geopolitical narratives” and can possiby also have an actual impact on those people who are actors in the visualised scenarios. I argue that, women’s contemporary and modern arts has the potential to produce visual embodied epistemology which prevails and undermines women’s representations in Iran, Armenia and Afghanistan. While women artists in Armenia can legally thematise sexuality in their work, Iranian artists are limited in their expression if they want to exhibit in public. In Kabul, women artists are officially not subjected to strong censorship, however, they have to learn to self-censor themselves for their own protection. Nevertheless, women artists in Afghanistan have thematised through nudity female sexuality, but with the risk of being followed up by the Taliban such as in the case of Kubra Khademi and Malina Suliman who are now living in Europe. So, after having drawn the local, national and geopolitical scenario in which women produce visual arts let’s look now in more detail at women’s artwork and art history in the three countries and the potential of visual arts to produce knowledge about embodied female experience.
Women’s visual arts in post-revolutionary Iran, post-Soviet Armenia and post-Taliban Afghanistan
The institutionalisation of art through formal education systems promoted by the state emerged in the 20th century during a period of idealisation of western industrialisation and the idea of modernism in the Middle East and North Africa including Afghanistan. The Arab-Iranian modern art scenes have in common that the struggle between tradition and modernity characterised much of the work throughout the 20th century. Contemporary, fine and modern arts emerged when monarchies from North Africa to central Asia glorified western lifestyles, art and literature, promoting a kind of occidentalisation of artistic techniques and styles existing on the Asian continent, as art-historian Afsaneh Najamabadi explains. Today, the massive immigration of artists as a result of war, conflict and regime changes has encouraged the development of a a new diasporic art scene that is often shaped by the unrest in the region and the commercialisation of artwork in the neoliberal art market haing in this region its heart in Dubai. The contemporary art scene in Iran, meanwhile, has become established due to the political stability of the country since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The contemporary art scenes thrives in public and domestic spaces.
Institutional manifestation of modern and contemporary art in Iran, was initiated by Farah Diba, the Shah’s third and final wife, by the foundation of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) before the Islamic Revolution and was part of the state’s modernization project that started during the Qajar dynasty. During the Islamic revolution the museum was closed, but reopened in the late 1990s. The new governing class can control the museum while the curators of the museum can resist in subtile ways the ruling state apparatus through the deconstructive and critical capabilties of contemporary art. Exemplifying the significance of age and generational difference in the context of young Iranian artists’ work, Daneshvari’s (2013) essay on the “art of the new generation”, i.e. individuals born post-1979, engages with the work of a “new” era. Daneshvari argues that the work of the contemporary artists is “fundamentally ontological”: it depicts “doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity regarding structures of knowledge, knowing and the veracity of historical narratives”. The works suggest that the “real identity” of subjects remains invisible or erased by the state. Before we take a closer look at Iranian women’s artwork let’s go a step back: In Central Europe, the most discussed, fantasised and visualised gendered space has been that of the Middle Eastern and North African “harem” during the 18th and 19th century. The harem was a recurring trope of European Orientalist painting and literature, which fictionalised the “Oriental” women’s sexuality. The de-mystification of the “Orientalised Oriental” that Edward Said (1979) describes in Orientalism unveils a colonial discourse that created over centuries until today’s neo-colonial era of on-going political, economic and cultural interferences, an essentialist idea of passive and silent “Oriental” female bodies. As the allegedly ‘post-colonial’ mission is about uncovering power relations between coloniser and colonised it fails to rethink the socio-political and economic continuities and changes of this relation in the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. As political geographer Derek Gregory (2004) explains, the “colonial presence” though is not just shaped through political, military and international legal action, but also by cultural practices that infiltrate local cultural images and practices. In the colonial mind-frame the female body as “the standard-bearer of the nation’s culture”, according to Bulbeck, became the measure of backwardness or civilisation. While Orientalist painting presented a sexualised image of “Oriental” women, neo-Orientalist artworks of the 20th and 21st century represent, especially Muslim women, through a visualisation of patriarchal violence on women’s bodies. A case in point is the work of Shirin Neshat, a celebrated artist in Euro-America. Neshat has extensively engaged with the chador (Farsi for tent), a veil that covers everything but the face, and the women bodies in her artwork. The artist, who since 1975, has been residing in the US, has gained fame for her work in the West with her black and white photographic series, Women of Allah depicting weapons and veiled women whose bodies are inscribed in Farsi calligraphy. While being very expressive, the narrative of Neshat’s series represents Iranian women in the Islamic Republic as mere subjects of paternalistic and military violence. In this way, in all its aesthetic power, reproduces the “totalising – and silencing – tendencies” that Said (1979) describes in Orientalism: as a diasporic artwork the photographies represent the artists personal perception of her country of origin. While in Tehran this work is perceived among artists as reductive and one-dimensional, not grasping the diversity of women experiences in Iran, it rather speaks to the western gaze linking Islam and Iran, even before 9/11, to pure violence. The women in Neshat’s work has no agency and remains speechless in the same way that the sexualised women bodies in European Orientalist paintings remain silent and passive. As art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan (2013) notes about Iranian diaspora artists, their works are critical engagements with “questions of context, identity, critical interpretation of ‘self’ and ‘other’ and cultural memory” often resulting in “socio-political commentaries” based on the artist’s “personal narrative”. What is perceived in Europe and North America then as a representation of Muslim women denies the different roles women have played in public and in the private sphere of the domestic space in Iran. Also, it creates the impression that all Iranian women, are Shia Muslims, rendering impossible the various ethnic groups and migrants living in Iran. The visual knowledge provided by the diasporic artist differs from local Iranian artwork. The position from which the woman artists produces art, hence, matters and makes it necessary for the feminist researcher to situate the artwork in international, regional and local artistic discourses. Despite shifting meanings of artwork depending on where and by whom it is being read, one cannot deny the necessity to tackle gender-based and sexual violence through art. Particularly, in today’s Tehran, issues such as sexual harassment on the streets and in private, discrimination of women at work and in university and domestic violence are social issues that need to be highlighted to create an atmosphere of solidarity and cooperation among male and female residents of the capital city that is home to over 8 Million people.
An analysis of arts potential to create knowledge can help to examine whether visual arts can be a strategy to materialise and visualise “embodied” experiences, as feminist geopolitical thinker Hyndman (2004) describes knowledges from zones of war and conflict – also in the case of post-war Iran. Hyndman argues that the analysis of “embodied vision” which provides “ontologically committed, partial perspectives” can have the “potential” to undermine prevailing one-dimensional “geopolitical narratives”.
The veil is the most visible object of observation. The Iranian sovereign power, embodied by Ayatollah Khomeini, declared the “hejab edict” in 1979 (Sedghi, 2007). The sovereign transferred the power of policing women – this means that also children who show early breast development can be concerned – to women. The women not adjusting to the Islamic women’s code of conduct are labelled as “bad-hijabis”. Mir-Hosseini (1996) suggests, in light of the attention that the sovereign power gives the bad-hijabis, that
“(…) hejab has its own payoffs; and in the context of social life in Iran today it is an empowering tool for women. (…) In a bizarre way, hejab has even empowered those whom it was meant to restrain: Westernized middle class women”.
The bad-hijabis ridicule the sovereign’s obsession with modesty by using their “power and potential threat in such mockery”, explains Mir-Hosseini. Their individual behaviour weakens the institutionalization of veiling. Naghibi (2007) supports Mir-Hosseini writing that she crystallizes how “(…) the bad-hijabi’s creative interpretation, indeed subversion, of state-enforced ideals of Islamic modesty (…)” show the resisting force of everyday practices. Iranian women’s ways of fashioning their bodies are extremely diverse: from the doll-like bad-hijabi in Iran they are called in urban Persian “palang” meaning leopard – to the modestly dressed, all these women have agency, however they are embedded in national and international political and economical systems of knowledge and power. The Iranian artist Homa Arkani visualized the first mentioned female style in her exhibition “Share Me”.
Her exhibition shows “young girls” of the Iranian middle- and upper-middle-class living in their “fantastic world”. The girls are all bad-hijabis according to the sovereign’s definition and the “stereotypical adolescent city girl in today Iran”. The individuals share “vanity, overindulgence, artificiality, extravagance” (Moussavi-Aghdam, 2014).
Nevertheless, Arkani’s women are all veiled to a certain extent: they are subjects of the Iranian sovereign power, in other words the nation-state’s rule of law, and neoliberal market forces. But the physical veil has become an accessory in “Share Me”: a young woman looks seductively to the side and takes a “selfie” of herself in the mirror of the lift. Her black hair falls out in the back and in the front. The girl’s facial expression is for the camera and supposed to be cool yet sexy. In the background one sees that this picture was uploaded on Facebook in order to be shared. The woman makes herself a spectacle in a non-spectacular environment. In another piece Arkani depicts uniform wearing young women, probably students, attempting to sustain their image in a toilet mirror. They inject bottox into their faces as if they are putting on make-up. Moussavi-Aghdam (2014) explains
“These doll-like girls yearn to have a Western lifestyle: luxurious, high-tech, liberating, joyful, colourful and beautiful. Such a wish, however, can never be carried out, since, on the one hand, it is not possible for them to ignore or escape from their traditional background; and on the other hand they are the consumers of a distorted image of the West, i.e., such a world does not factually exist.”
The geopolitical and national context of Iranian modern and contemporary art’s differs from the emergence of these visual arts in Afghanistan in times of on-going insecurity and the construction of the nation-state.
Contemporary women artists in Afghanistan received wide attention with the reconstruction of the Afghan nation-state and liberal peace building in the years succeeding the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Not primarily for the quality of their art, but for the fact that they were female residents of post-Taliban Afghanistan. While the quality of the artwork has strongly increased throughout the past 14 years, the instrumentalisation of women’s art has not. The textual and visual work of Afghan-US-American artist and scholar Amanullah Mojadidi shows that engagements with the blue chadari (Dari-Farsi word for burqa), or the use of graffiti is “co-opted and instrumentalized” by western governments and donors (Mojadidi quoted in Montagu 2014; see also: Mojadidi quoted in Burke, 2011) since women artists are perceived as symbols of progress and civilisation. Again, women are the standard-measure of progress always in reference to Euro-American ideas of women’s emancipation.
Due to war and conflict Afghanistan’s history of art was violently interrupted in 1979. Before, fine arts were practiced but not engaged with in scholarly studies. Most arts discourses were located within archaeology and the study of ancient arts. The motto of the Kabul Museum, “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive” reminds of the relation between art and the nation-state, as the first shapes the latter (Massoudi, 2008). This definition links Afghanistan’s cultural heritage of the past to the present to justify the Afghan nation of the future. Hence, the following thoughts do not just point a finger at the colonial powers in Afghanistan, but also interests of the elite to reconstruct the nation-state.
Shahrani, who write before the Saur Revolution of 1978, argues that the quality and status of art increased due to Germany and the US’ teaching influences denying Afghan art practices that existed before its art historic interaction with Europe in the 19th century (Farhad, 2010). Many Afghan students were taught western knowledge in their education abroad and late came back to teach in Afghanistan (Shahrani, 1978). The art institutes in Kabul, the Kabul School of Fine Arts, which was founded by the famous Afghan artist Maimanagi, and the Creative Art Center at Kabul Darul Malemin are named as the two major and only art institutions led by foreigners. The Germans have led and shaped the Kabul School of Fine Arts, for instance (ibid.). But art teachers were also from countries of west and South Asia such as Iran, Turkey and India. However, the geopolitical scenario has changed and while the explicit support of women arts was not a concern of discussion in the first half of the twentieth century, it is today. However, it is important to note that the history of western investments in Afghan art are not a novelty such as Germany’s funding for the opening of the Centre Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA) in 2004. In the abovementioned geopolitical scenario, Omerzad, artist, curator, lecturer at Kabul University and founder of the first space for CA in Kabul, the CCAA, opened the space primarily for women in 2004 (Omerzad, 2014; Oates, 2009:14). To set up the center Omerzad received funding from the Goethe Institut in Kabul (Recchia and Tugnoli, 2014). On the opening day about 200 women came to become members. While Omerzad created the center primarily for young women to participate in the “Female Artistic Center” (Oates, 2009) men were also allowed in gradually but they are a minority in the CCAA (Noora, 2014). In 2008, the CCAA organised the first “Female Painting and Modern Painting Exhibition” in Afghanistan funded by the Women of the World (Omerzad, 2013; Oates, 2009:13-14). As Omerzad highlighted in his speech on the opening event the artists were first, female, and second, young women between 16 and 25 years old. Most of them did not have an artistic education (Omerzad, 2013).
In light of the tradition of replication and the preference for naturalism, today’s contemporary art scene is a novelty since it “disrupted” (Enwezor, 2007) the tradition of replication on canvas. However, looking at the agenda of donors funding women artists, CA seems less disrupting: the funding of women artists’ visual engagement with “women rights” continues the replication of what the liberalising eye expects to see, in this case, supressed women who raise their voice through visual means. It seems that certain contemporary works of art use the visual to produce knowledge about issues of local and international relevance that visualise the role and position of Afghans and Afghanistan in the geopolitical tension field. However, it becomes really hard to judge whether the artwork was made by the artists out of an artistic agency or because an UN official in Kabul asked the CCAA to organise a further exhibition with women’s artwork about gender-based violence marginalising the diversity of issues, largening the gap among artists who cooperate with the kharejis (foreigners) in Kabul and those who try to avoid to depend on them. Promoting ‘Afghan art’ made by “Afghan women” creates an image of Afghanistan that Europe and the US “would like” to see in the war-torn and conflict-ridden country, argues Mojadidi. He describes the trend to promote art in contexts of conflict, violence and occupation as “conflict chic” (Mojadidi, 2014) that invests into the instrumentalization and commodification of CA (see also: Montagu, 2014). Both, Mojadidi and Omerzad are contemporary artists, but with differently expectations of art: Omerzad is promoting art for patriotic reasons (Omerzad, 2014) while Mojadidi critically represents contemporary Afghan art on the international art stage. Both, are actively resisting the instrumentalisation of women’s CA while emphasising the opportunities that the art scene opens up for young women artists. I mentioned earlier why women artists’ work does not necessarily need to be “female” or engage with issues of female sexuality simply, because assuming that women make “female” art we – as researchers, journalists and writers categorize before the artists even had the chance to speak for themselves. My research in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on Afghanistani artists has shown up to now that many women engage with questions of home, belonging and violence that can be examined from a gendered perspective, but not exclusively.
In today’s Kabul the relation between contemporary and the nation is twofold: on the one hand, contemporary art can be imagined as a critical tool promoting discussions among Afghanistan’s artists of younger and older generations. On the other hand, “cultural nationalism”, or as Omerzad would probably describe it ‘patriotism’, can be misused by agents of liberal peace by supporting the depiction of the plight of women in Afghanistan and thereby replicating the one-dimensional idea of the surpressed Afghan woman.
So, my areas of research in the past wo years have been Iran and Afghanistan. I am looking now at Armenia and hope to continue the discussion with you together since I am not an expert at all and am looking forward to learning from you and begin a long-term conversation and cooperation on a trans-national. This can help since the lack of literature on Armenian art, women’s art and its place in the region have not been studied yet enough apart from in Armenian. In order to learn about the art scenes here we need to bring together our knowledges and produce feminist works about Armenia’s modern and contemporary art from various perspectives.
Armenia is a small but culturally rich people (first cinema in Iran opened in Tabriz by an Armenian). Armenian art developed independently of the developments in other Soviet states. It has in common with other Soviet states that modern and contemporary art functioned as a form of resistance to the art of Soviet socialism, according to Angela Hartyunyan (2008). Armenia was the first Soviet country where modern and contemporary art emerged in public. The Museum Modern Art in Yerevan which was founded in 1972 had its first exhibiton showing works of the artists of 1960s both from Armenia and Diaspora.
In the post-Soviet period, the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art, which describes itself as a nonprofit foundation became active in Armenia since 1992 and was founded by New York artist and poet Sonia Balassanian, with her husband, architect and planner Edward Balassanian (Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art 2016). It was officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Armenia and the United States in 1994. The ACCEA introduced Armenian artists to the international art market and organized the first official participation of Armenia at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Starting in 2011, the Government of Armenia took over Armenia’s participation in Venice directly. Since April 1996, ACCEA is working at a centrally located space provided by the Government of Armenia. Although the ACCEA enjoyed governemental support, this was not the case for others: there is a lack of gallery space, artists complain about divisions among artists, a lack of money and governemental support for modern and contemporary arts, as Karine Aghanjanyan cites art critic Eva Khachatryan (Aghajanyan 2015). The condition seems similarl to what artists told me in Iran and Afghanistan in interviews. An NGO such as HAYP hence supports the struggle to make women’s visual arts visible within the societal scene and easy accesible as an open space.
Apart from diaspora artistic activities in Armenia, Hartyunyan (2008) reminds of the artist group “Act” which was active in Armenia from 1994-1996 and called for political participation communicating this visually through arts. Artists such as David Kareyan, Diana Grigoryan and others were part of this movement. For instance the group organised a march during the voting for the first constitution in 1995 from the stature of the modern painter Martiros Saryan to the Museum of Modern Art linking modern art’s history in the country with the use of art as a tool of socio-political and economic articulation. Hence, “art” was used “as a political oppositional action” and put Armenian artists between “deploying revolutionary avant-gardist strategies to negate and radically transform the dominant social order whilst at the same time employing modernist formal experiments of subverting art and adopting a post-modernist scepticism about the notion of the subject as having any agency or free will.”. However, as Hartyunyan explains, these projects were carried out exclusively “within the space of art as institution with a view to entering the global market and embracing its value system” and did not result in a broader societal process of raising awareness.
Modern and contemporary arts have been supported by all three states to very various extents. While the Iranian state owns a precious contemporary and modern collections, remainings from Pahlavi era including international pieces by for instance Warhol and Pollock, it also possess Iranian artworks of which many are in the archives of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. While Tehran has a relatively high number of private galleries, artists lack funding and work spaces and have to consider appropriateness in their artworks in order to be able to exhibit works in public. Visual censorship, however, has lead to creative results and critical artistic engagements which have established themselves in the international art market and increased the presence of “Iranian arts” from Dubai to London and New York. Although the ACCEA has received space from the government, artists in Yerevan also struggle with financial support, lack of space and supportive networks. While Armenia and Iran do not suffer of political violence and on-going insecurities such as artists in Afghanistan, the latter had throughout the last ten years, since the fall of the Taliban and the beginning of the US’ “war against terror” enjoyed financial support in short-term projects by international organisations and NGOs. Although foreign NGOs have been influencing gender politics in Armenia, there has not been a determined support for Armenian women artists as their has been in Afghanistan; neither Armenian women artists were integrated to the same amount into the international art market as in the case of Iran. The politics of gender and the politics of visual arts while being highly intertwined in Afghanistan, remain rather separate spheres in Armenia despite the increased presence of the US and international organisations and NGOs in the country since the beginning of the 2000s. These developments might be due to the sensationalism surrounding artwork from regions dominantly inhabited by Muslims and regions of war and conflict. In this game Armenia seems to be rather associated with its shared religious heritage with the west. At the same time, gendered and sexual violence and social forms of exclusion through shaming in Armenia show that misogyny and gendered violence are not intrinsically related to a specific religion such as Islam or Christianity, but a social attitude. And this is where grassroots groups, activists and networks can create awareness and change.
The exclusive focus on one social group leads to the exclusion of other embodied experiences such as queered and racialised and/or class- or age-related experiences and ableism. Therefore, first, the talk aimed to shape a transnational feminist responsibility when producing knowledge about gendered artwork. I pointed out the power/violence of representation when producing textual and visual knowledges. Second, there needs to be on-going conversation among us about the visualisation of gendering, shaming, discrimination and gendered violence through art by contextualising it. We need exactly these type of platforms, as here at HAYP, to connect, exchange and plan in order to learn with and from each other. The artwork should not on the very first sight be considered to represent anyone else but the artist’s embodied experience of being and observations of (gendered) lifestyles in the city.
Let me embed this project into a larger context: When I was preparing this talk I came a cross a book named “Saving shame” by Virginia Burrus. I read “Shaving Shame”- yes, Freudian slip – and thought: in order to confront the ideas of female shaming we cannot shave misogyny, sexism and gendered injustices away, because as we know our hair growth it grows back and is thicker and blacker than ever. We need to find a way to tackle the root together. Lazer away the roots of misogynism and gender-based discrimination and sexual violence. Doing research as a young woman researcher I figured out for myself that confronting men makes me feel stronger and also men and women around me. Let’s get louder. We work on similar issues through different mediums: the women artist has the potential to be a visual ethnographer, but there is no force to be just this. Since both the artist and the academic produce knowledge through visuals, art is as an “alternative form of knowledge production” about being in this world. And we can use it to shout back.
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