Art & Photography Interviews: artists female artists Iranian paintings Iranian-American art Mona Shomali nudity painting
by Pars Arts
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Iranian-American artist Mona Shomali paints lush, vibrant images of Kahlo-esque nudes in Iran-inspired settings. We asked her about her art.
Pars Arts: Your work was featured in the all-female, SoCiArts-produced show, feminine, where it stood out because of its interesting use of nudity. Your current series is called “Naked Folklore.” Can you discuss your use of nudes and why you decided to pair nude women with Iranian motifs?
Mona Shomali: Naked Folklore is a series of paintings that pairs together brazen nude females with Iranian cultural artifacts of great significance. The women in the paintings can question and transform ethnographic taboos, assumptions, and traditional rites of passage of both Iranian and American culture without fear of repercussions. These women are surreal and provocative as they experience their own self-defined identities- regardless of what is possible.
The use of nudity was my way of challenging the images of Iranian women I saw in the American media—black shrouded formless sexless women. Besides the paintings, books and photo albums of my family members, the only contemporary images of Iranian woman that I came across were with a “chador”, literally translated from Farsi to English as “tent”. I wanted to explore the sensuality, volition and complex desires of the authentic woman who was underneath the tent.
Nudity is also very significant taboo within Iranian culture and Iranian art history. Although cultures from Europe, Africa and the Pacific Islands have had their own figurative art movements featuring nudity, Iranians have not yet enjoyed their own figurative movement. A figurative art movement becomes even more difficult within the contemporary Iranian state. The Islamic government’s position is that nudity in art violates the limits of Islam – it is prohibited and shameful. This is an ironic part of my identity because the Iranian position on nudity could not be more in contrast with the bohemian “American-ness” of where I was raised: the San Francisco Bay Area.
PA: You emphasize that your work is not Iranian but Iranian-American. What distinguishes Iranian-American art – your art – from that of your Iranian counterparts? How would you define or describe the characteristics of Iranian-American art vs. Iranian art?
MS: This series is a narrative expression of what it is to be an Iranian-American woman, an illustration of societal “Iranian-ness” and individualistic “American-ness” that is experienced from adolescence to womanhood. It is about finding a personal balance between modernity and tradition – sorting through clashing cultural ideas of what it is to be a “good woman”, “good wife”, and “good daughter” and choosing a standard for oneself. It is a story that reflects a very distinct and specific period in history. My narrative also reflects the era of globalization, both the benefits and disadvantages.
Iranian-American art can not be collapsed with Iranian art because the histories and narratives are completely different and must be honored in their own right. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Iranians who live in Iran have had their own rich and difficult experiences that translate to their own collective and personal narratives. Contemporary Iranian narrative art reveals politically charged stories from the Iran-Iraq war, the divide of close-knit families, harassment by the Islamic police, the unfolding of the hostage crisis, student riots, protests, imprisonment, and so much more.
It is essential that I distinguish myself from Iranians that live in Iran. My cousin recently emigrated to the U.S. from Iran two years ago and she keeps a blog for her Iranian friends. She writes, “My friends in Iran do not know what it is like to go outside and feel the wind blowing through their hair”. Her story is of an Iranian living in America. My story is of being Iranian-American. I have never worn a chador and I have no idea what that must be like for all my Iranian female counterparts.
My Iranian-ness was experienced in the Western world – not based on contemporary Iran, but based on stories of immigrant nostalgia and American media images. Growing up with Iranian immigrant parents in the suburbs in the 1980s, it was impossible to escape the tension between Iran and the United States. I remember that at age 11, it was the first time I sensed from my friends that being Iranian was not a good thing. Unfortunately, I even asked my mom to not speak to me in Farsi in public out of embarrassment and fear of my young classmates. This was because I had internalized the negative images of Iranians I had seen in the American media. The hostage crisis had resulted in a lot of resent and hostile feelings towards Iranian immigrants.. In my early teens, I remember feeling defensive when asked questions about being Iranian. I felt as though I was always trying to compensate and trying to show alternative and positive perspectives of Iranian culture. Personally, I found it very difficult to operate and behave within two opposing cultural standards. I felt most comfortable somewhere in between rebellion and renaissance.
Iranian-American artists express the tension between the two countries of our diaspora identity, and as a result, our “Iranian-ness” becomes more accessible to the non-Iranians in the countries we live within. For example, one of my favorite artists is Iranian-French. Marjane Satrapi’s storytelling is through her comic styled books and widely acclaimed movie “Persepolis” has allowed for non-Iranians to have such a deeper understanding of Iran. Her stories are authentic and personal, but they can also be universally re-affirming for Iranians all over the world that can recognize themselves in her art.
PA: In the last few years, there’s been an inordinate amount of attention on Iranian female writers, particularly in the United States and Europe, and it’s become a bit of a fetish. Is this happening in the art world, as well? If so, how does this affect you in your work?
MS: With the current American focus on the Middle East/Iran, there is an teachable opportunity that writers can take advantage of. Especially for members of the Iranian diaspora living in America, writing a personal novel is a very revealing and non-threatening way to introduce the issues that Iranian women face.
Furthermore, writers, like artists, are interested in creating their own stories and versions of history. Unlike a textbook that deals with the orientalist version of Iranian culture, Iranian women’s art can provide a much needed indigenous perspective of culture and identity. Unlike the exact and reductionist nature of science, art is not “wrong” or “right” when it recounts events and stories that have taken place.
PA: In “Naked Folklore,” only one painting depicts a man – the rest are all of women. Can you describe the meaning of the painting with the man, “The Strength of a Vulnerable Man”?
MS: One of the reasons my mother left Iran during the Islamic revolution was because she did not want to wear the chador that would soon become mandatory Islamic rule. I always was aware of the official stated reason for the chador: that the bodies and head are covered so the women do not tempt men other than their husbands, etc. In the Koran 24:31, it states, “Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it.” The idea that women “tempt” men is not only restricted to the Koran. In both the Bible stories of Adam and Eve and Samson and Delilah, it is a woman that tempts the man towards sin, or betrayal of God.
In many Islamic governments, it is law that the women cover up and keep hidden in order to “prevent” the man from sinning. The restraints are not on the men’s desires, but on the object of their desires. This stems from an assumption that the sexual desire of a man is not controllable, that men are reduced to savage animals that can not control themselves. Simultaneously, it becomes the woman’s “fault” for tempting or provoking the sexual acts of a man.
I am aware that women globally have fought long and hard to shed the outdated patriarchal restrictions that have been imposed on women by men. What I can not comprehend is how the state imposed chador helps create more value and respect for women. I do understand that all of us are a product of our gender socialization and conditioning. From whatever cultural vantage point that may be, we ask, “what makes a strong man?” and “what makes a strong woman?” To what extent do we “naturally” behave like our own gender? For certain cultural belts running through the world, behaviors such as machismo, possessiveness, protection or even violence may be expected of strong men. For other cultures, male strength may be illustrated through sensitivity, rational choice, due diligence, and in the measure of self control. Personally, I acknowledge that women possess sexual power, but I also acknowledge the restraint that the modern man is capable of. This respectful restraint should not be underestimated.
These ideas of strength and weakness are so deeply embedded into our cultures that we rarely question them – until these ideas clash. Gender politics are most heated when the norms and expectations for gender and sexuality are in transition. Because of these juxtapositions and contradictions between male and female strength, I wanted to illustrate the opposite of a classic image between Adam and Eve. What if it was Adam that was really tempting Eve by offering her the forbidden fruit? Would the ideas of “strength” and “temptation” change? Who would be vulnerable, and who would have to resist whom?