Sixth Edition December 2002 - Azar 1381 
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Women’s Best Friend

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School Counselors: Clichéd and Useless?

 

 

 

I AM NOT AN ARYAN

 

An interview with performance artist rbshapour

Tirdad Zolghadr

rbshapour moved back to Iran three years ago. Two years ago, she performed a performance art piece in a public space in central Tehran. She is currently working as a “bureaucrat, albeit a glorified one”.  

 

TZ: First, the usual questions. Where did you grow up, what did you study, your age, etc.

RS:  I’m 36. I spent my early childhood in Iran, then moved to the US where I lived for 22 years. I came back to Iran three years ago, stayed for over a year, left, then came back again. I studied theatre and postmodern critical theory.

TZ:  Are your parents intellectuals?

RS:  Do you want my opinion, or the opinion of society at large? [laughs] My father is a retired engineer. My mother is much younger than he is, which is very common to marriages of that time.  She is considered an intellectual. She makes films.  Both of them are Iranian.

TZ:  Let me ask you that question of WHY you came back.

RS: Do you want the Reader’s Digest version?

TZ:  The Bad Jens version.

RS:  Well, the reasons for coming back are always complex, for everyone.

TZ:  And often you don’t realize them until later.

RS:  Yes.  The stock answer I give everyone is, “My father is old, and I wanted to hang out with him”. That certainly did have a lot to do with my coming back. Also, my parents were divorced when I was very young, and I didn’t spend much time with either of them. So on a very personal level this was an attempt at reconciliation. But there were also other reasons. I was having an identity crisis. [laughs loudly]

TZ:  That’s going to be the title of this interview.

RS:  I needed to explore the dimensions of my identity or culture. I needed to find certain ingredients of my makeup that were still ambiguous to me. When I was coming back, I would tell my friends that I wanted to go someplace where I looked like everybody else. That’s important to every person of color who has lived in the US. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from – it’s something that speaks to you. And I wanted to experience what it was like to live someplace where people wouldn’t react to the color of my hair. (They can’t see it here. [laughs])

I wanted to know what it was like to go to a store, and not have the clerk follow me because I didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes.

TZ:  And did you find that here?

RS:  Of course not. Because the female experience here is very much like the experience of being a person of color in the America. And while store clerks no longer follow me around, there are other things at play here. They have to do with your mobility.

Let me give you an example. The other day, I needed some PVC piping. Not just some, it wasn’t a matter of just going to your local hardware store. I needed several hundred meters of it. I had to go to the part of town where all the PVC wholesalers are. I was the only woman. I went with a male colleague, and he negotiated the price. Essentially, I would tell him, and then he would tell them. It took them 15 minutes to acknowledge my existence. I was, after all, the one who was making the decisions.  I was the one who was paying for the piping. But I didn’t have the power to negotiate the terms of the transaction.

This happens all the time here, particularly when find yourself trying to maneuver in a context that falls outside the accepted gender roles. Women often have a hard time defining the landscape of their lives. For example, a woman’s word is only half as good as a man’s. Hell, even cab drivers ignore you when you ask them to take a certain route. I have come to a country where I look like everybody else. But by virtue of my gender, I’m still on the outside looking in.

TZ:  What are you doing professionally right now?

RS:  I’m trying to find the funds to finance my next project. The project has to do with my relationship with my mother. In many ways, it’s an attempt to reconcile myself with the reality of our relationship.

My mother was a largely absent figure in my life. But nonetheless a very influential one. When I came to Iran, the physical absence was no longer an issue, but the emotional one resonated tremendously in my life. I used to think the absence was a function of geography. I realize now that it’s a lot more complex than that.

I want to make a video piece. I’d like to confront my mother, but I’d like to document it. That’s what I’m working on.

TZ:  Can I mention who you work for?

RS:  I don’t think they would appreciate that. I have a day job, like many artists. But I don’t think it defines me in any way.

One thing you can put in, that I feel very strongly about, is that I found Tehran a very difficult place to live, like any other urban area. If someone had told me it takes THIS kind of money to live here.  I mean, a 1985 Honda Civic costs you $9000. Unless I’m dreadfully out of touch with the car market in the US, I don’t think it costs you no more than $3000 there.

So it’s a difficult place to live. I can remember during the first week I was here, I was alone at my mother’s place, everyone had been invited to a party, when suddenly water started spurting out of the kitchen drain. There was a spring in the middle of my mother’s kitchen. So I ran over to the neighbors and asked for the yellow pages, and they said, you know, “what’s a yellow pages”. So I phoned my family, and all the while there’s this deluge coming out of the kitchen, and they have me phone the plumber. Well, see, the thing you unblock your drain with, in English you call it a “snake”. So I call the plumber and ask for a snake and he hangs up on me. But that’s just an example. Nothing in Tehran is easy. Buying screws at your hardware store isn’t easy.

That’s why I thought I should make a website for expats who are coming back to Iran, or foreigners who are going to make Tehran their home. It would be good to have this sort of reference.  A guide that would tell you things like where to get a plumber, or where to buy ironing board covers in Tehran. But also other information, like what are you supposed to look like when you arrive here and you’re a woman. This was a big issue for me – none of those travel guides have a picture of what real women look like walking down the street. It’s simply not enough to say, “wear loose-fitting, long-sleeve clothing”. You can make loose fitting, long-sleeved clothing out of cellophane. But is that appropriate.

Once, in a survey I did among Iranians in the States, I asked them, if they could bring only one thing to Iran, what would that be. They all said  “something to wear that is black”. That was virtually unanimous. They said I’d be going to a lot of weddings and funerals. [chuckles]

 

You know, most people, and certainly most foreigners, say they had no idea of how exciting Tehran is.  It has a very wonderful urban character, and some really great things to offer.  You just have to know where to find them. I love it here.

TZ:  You had a career as a performance artist in the US, and then you moved here and continued working. I’d like to know how that affected your work.

RS:  The limitations on my work here became an issue that I had to confront. In many ways it was a very good thing. Essentially, the limitations the hejab put on my work were very positive. I didn’t have unbridled freedom, and as a result, my work grew in many ways. I had to redefine my idea of what my body was doing in my work, to accommodate the social and legal constraints here in Iran. The process has brought out many interesting things.

It’s very different to sit down, and conceive of a piece, and not be able to say “I’m gonna do THIS, and then I’m gonna do THAT, and THEN –“. The very idea of women and performance, well, you know: you can’t dance, you can’t sing, you have to comply with the hejab laws.

TZ:  It’s interesting that you’re speaking of your constraints in these terms. If you’ve never lived under censorship, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than dulling, or as hampering your thinking.

RS:  Well, now that you’ve brought up censorship, I think that there’s a lot less censorship going on in Iran than many people – including Iranians – would imagine. A lot of the censorship is self-imposed. People aren’t willing to push the outside of the envelope, to see where the limits are. Maybe censorship isn’t even the right word for it.  Much of what people call censorship here is really about limitations that people put on themselves, based on their perceptions of the order of things. 

I’ll give you an example that has nothing to do with art. When I first came to Iran, both my parents told me that I wouldn’t be able to travel through Iran by myself. They said it was illegal for a woman to travel alone, without her husband, brother, father, or someone like that. And that’s a total lie, it’s a total misnomer, I mean, these people are running around spreading misinformation.  But what is important is that they believe it to be true, and their belief in the truth of it is so strong, so irrefutable, that they are not willing to question it in any way.   I’ve traveled many times, to many places, and I have never been denied a hotel room, or anything of the kind.

TZ:  Can you talk about the work you did in the US?

RS:  No.

Well, OK.

My work dealt with identity. I feel that there is a common geography for everyone who has shared the American immigrant experience. It does not matter where you were from. By virtue of the experience of migration, you occupy a common space. I explored that space. What it meant to be, particularly, an immigrant daughter of America. Towards the end of my stay there, I found myself moving toward a middle-eastern identity, or Islamic woman issues. My work centered on how Muslim women experienced the migration. By virtue of certain religious and cultural issues, Muslim women share a particular orientation that women from other immigrant groups don’t share.

TZ:  I’d like to mention that you did have a successful career, especially for

a performance artist. I don’t want readers to think that Iran was a last resort

after doing open-mike nights in San Francisco, or something like that.

RS:  “A successful career, especially for a performance artist,” I am not really sure what that is supposed to mean.  I was a working artist. I didn’t go to open-mike nights in San Francisco, because stand-up comics go to open-mike nights. Anyway, I have my problems with success, and what success is and who defines it.

TZ: Are there particular expectations towards an Iranian woman artist?

RS:  That is a big problem. There are always expectations of an artist of color. Some you put on yourself, some the art world places on you, some of them are embedded in social currents like the PC movement.

At some point in my work, it was difficult. There was a period when I found myself constantly apologizing for who I was – for being Iranian, for being Middle Eastern, for being Muslim. But that didn’t last very long. There came a point when I wasn’t interested in explanations or justifications any more.

TZ:  I like the fact that you speak of being Muslim. What does that mean to you personally.

RS:  To me, it’s important to claim the religion and the title, with all its denotations and connotations – I came of age in America during a time when being a Muslim meant that you were a terrorist. It meant that you were to be avoided at all costs.  The perception was that when you moved into a neighborhood you were likely to blow it up. And I embrace the concept with all of its negative connotations, because in my experience, a Muslim isn’t someone with an AK47 under his coat.  Remember that it was a white fundamentalist Christian, and not a Muslim, who blew up the Oklahoma State Federal building.  In the early hours of the explosion, however, Muslims were being accused by the media, and even Clinton stopped just short of making that accusation.

TZ: I also think it’s important because in Iran, the other major label that people have come up with is Aryanism. The myth of the Persian-Aryan race.

RS:  You know, I don’t want to be called an Aryan for all the tea in China. It’s a label I disassociated myself from a long time ago.

TZ:  It’s shocking to come here and to see with what ease people use it.

RS:  It’s appalling. I have no interest in aligning myself with a label for which some of the worst atrocities against humanity have been perpetrated. I am not an Aryan.

It’s funny how Iranians, especially Iranians in America, are so vested in the idea of being white. They fight so hard for the right to call themselves white.

TZ:  So what happened when you came to Iran.

RS:  When I came to Iran, I really wasn’t expecting to work here. I didn’t know what the art scene was like. I was lucky to meet people. I call it luck because I have since met many people who have come back, and have led very solitary lives.

I got to know a burgeoning, and very interesting and active art scene. A lot of artists here grapple with things in very much the same way any artist does anywhere else in the world.

TZ:  And you did do a piece here.

RS:  Yes, I did. But I have to tell that so much of my work is about the process, and so little about the product – in the end, the product doesn’t stay around for very long.

But the process of getting to that piece was a significant one. Originally, there were five of us who wanted to do a group show. Ultimately, and unfortunately, three artists ended up leaving the project, and it came down to two of us, myself and Ghazal Radpey, who refused to let it die. But the initial process, of finding ideas, and looking for a space, and talking to people who owned these spaces, was fabulous. Because the whole idea of performance and installation art is so far removed from what the mainstream expects of art – anywhere, not only in Iran.

Besides, we were trying to negotiate the use of those spaces with people who had very little exposure to the arts. And, well, our ideas didn’t jive. It was hard, and we couldn’t get it together. But after several months, we talked to Fereydoun Av, who is himself an outstanding artist. He agreed to show our work in his space.  He did so with commendable integrity, and without holding some kind of discourse on the identity of art, and on whether our work fell into that.

Ghazal took the gallery space, and I took the window.

TZ:  Which looked out onto a busy street.

RS:  That’s what was fantastic. Ever since coming to Iran, I had been enamoured with the idea of doing public art. But it became clear early on that it wasn’t possible, because the process of getting necessary permits from the various overseeing bodies is very arduous. It would mean someone would have to forget everything else in her life for six months and just go from office to office. Neither of us had that kind of time, so we gave up on that idea.

But this experience came very close to public art. The space is on what is perhaps one of the busiest streets in Tehran, and we got tons of people who just happened to be passing by.

It was good to do a kind of work that reaches a public beyond the usual gallery set, one that doesn’t usually have access to art.

TZ:  What was there to see.

RS:  One saw 100 meters of crumpled cheesecloth, and people had to really look very closely to see the figure lying underneath. As you can imagine, 100 meters of cheesecloth is a LOT of cheesecloth, and I was very much buried under the whole volume. And there were also chrysanthemums that were placed outside the gallery, which people could choose to put on top of the cheesecloth, or take home, or whatever.

TZ:  And it worked well.

RS:  Yes, the reaction of the people was really remarkable. The northern Tehran gallery set, they were very angry. They came to the gallery expecting something else, something hanging on the wall, and they felt infringed upon.

A couple of young women kicked me. That whole crowd that we know as  “intellectuals”, or “beautiful people”, they were very hostile. Whereas regular folk who just happened to be passing by, and stopped because they saw some sort of happening, they were the ones who connected with the work. And ultimately that was the main reason why we had to shut it down. Because these people refused to leave. They just stood around and talked about the piece. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear, and I knew that it was quite a formidable crowd, and in the end, we were told to close down the show early because the crowd of people could pose a fire hazard.

During the happening, there was this police officer on his little scooter who was passing by, and he saw the large group of people, and he stopped to see what was going on. He certainly didn’t expect to see all these people crowded around what, to him, was nothing at all. Someone wrapped in 100 meters of cheesecloth in a gallery window.

And he started screaming, “would SOMEONE explain to me what the MEANING of this work is!” A friend came over and told him what his understanding of the work was, and the police officer said, “ok, there’s just too many people here”. I could hear all those things, but I was still happily fermenting under my 100 meters of cheesecloth, and in the excitement no one clued me in on what was going on.

TZ:  Do you really think closing it down had to do with some fire hazard, or with the interpretation of your work that your friend offered to the officer?

RS:  I refuse to speculate on that.

I hear people say, “the show was CLOSED DOWN”. And, well, that’s true, but it wasn’t like that. I understand that there was a time, years ago, when art shows were carefully monitored. But this incident was about an officer unfamiliar with art - certainly with performance or installation - who saw a bunch of people in a very small space watching something he just didn’t get, or didn’t think was art, or whatever. I really don’t feel like speculating on what his motives were. 

TZ:  Do you think young Iranians expect something different when it comes to

art compared to the West?

RS:  That’s a good question. I think that the idea of art as being something decorative is fairly universal. It’s only people like us who sit around for hours talking about what art is and who defines it. I don’t think young people here have very different expectations compared to their counterparts in other places. But there are other things here, culturally and socially, that add some interesting twists. I find that young people here are a lot more broad-minded than their say, American counterparts. Their definitions are a lot more flexible, and that’s refreshing.

TZ:  I also think they’re more comfortable with contradictions. They don’t put themselves under pressure to have these perfectly coherent positions that would sound exactly the same if applied to x, y, and z.

RS:  Well, that there is a very Western notion, I think, and it has to do with the ownership of actions and ideas. In the West we’re told that we have to claim our actions and ideas.  We have to take responsibility for them, and so we work very hard to make these actions and ideas into something that is defendable. And that completely falls apart in a place like this, because Iran is so full of contradictions in general.

So they’re more willing to accept contradictory thoughts, because they’ve grown up with them, in terms of, say, your public face and your private one  – especially for the women. There is an incredible amount of dualities that comes with being born a woman here.

TZ:  I don’t know whether you want to talk about this murky chapter in your life, but you’ve had a brush with journalism, and for one thing, I wanted to credit you with your copious ideas on stories about women that Bad Jens has been stealing shamelessly.

RS:  I’m glad to hear that.

TZ:  Compared to other countries, Iran has a very low number of foreign journalists. The few foreign correspondents who are here, they hold a disproportionate amount of power over what the world is going to think of this country. And I think this has hurt Iran in the past.

When working for Bad Jens, it’s hard not to take on this missionary attitude of being out to “rectify” the picture that the foreign media is giving.

RS:  I agree with you. I don’t think that foreign journalists are giving a fair and accurate, or well-rounded picture of this country. Iran has a lot of stories to tell, and the foreign media isn’t telling them.

They have to print what they think is best for selling their advertising space. So essentially, they’re after what happens in the political arena. As you know, the media moves along fashion trends. So all of a sudden, you get this whole gaggle of journalists who descend upon Tehran, and the hotels are filled with these foreign journalists who all want to talk to the same people. And who all want to tell the same story. For example, they all want to tell a story about the hejab.

In my opinion, the hejab is not the most significant issue in the lives of Iranian women. It’s an issue, to be sure. But it is simple-minded to think that one yard of fabric is the biggest problem in the lives of 30 million people.

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