When the arts become intimately tied to questions of national reputation, religion, identity and the like, you know you are in tricky territory. November’s installment of the annual Paris Photo exhibition received a blow when four Iranian photographers scheduled to exhibit their works under the umbrella of Tehran’s Silk Road Gallery were summarily banned from participating — by their own government no less. The offense in question: “mocking Islamic values and the image of Iranian women.”
Arash Hanaei’s use of writings taken from a ketab-e-estekhareh (book of specific imprecations to God — here superimposed on the face of a woman), Yelda Mayeri’s depiction of women dancing sans the requisite hijab, Ramzin Haerizadeh’s recreation of the female body and Shadi Ghadirian’s presentation of women as faceless domestic objects (brooms and the like) donning veils all managed to irk the powers that be who run the Islamic Republic’s cultural outfit.
Three artists (all but Ghadirian) were given funding by the state-run Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) to travel to Paris for the exhibition, and in the end, were forced to accept the censorship. Ghadirian, for her part, went ahead and showed the work. She no longer has a close relationship to the TMCA, while most recently she showed the veil series (concurrent to the Paris show) at the Luxembourg Biennale.
But questions remained about the timing and nature of the ban. Most of the work in question had in fact been shown in Iran before (not to mention Dubai, in Hanaei’s case), hence raising questions as to why the works were suddenly inappropriate in the far-removed context of Paris. The museum, for its part, defended its decision. Censorship continues to be a rule of thumb in Iran, though many continue to find admittedly ingenious ways to circumvent its oft-predictable reach.
And censorship of this variety is not an exclusively Middle Eastern phenomenon. A November fundraiser for an exhibition of Palestinian artists faced the possibility of being shut down last November. New York State Assemblyman Ryan Karben, whose district includes much of Westchester County, issued a two-page statement condemning the Made in Palestine exhibition, calling for its cancellation and arguing that it “glorifies terrorism.” Karben had the following to say about the show: “it is offensive to me as a Jew, as an American, and as a civilized human being.”
Karben’s beef with the exhibition? He noted that one of the artists, Abdel Rahmen Al Muzayen, was a former general in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), while the PLO, he argued, was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis and Americans. Other pieces within the show included Emily Jacir’s Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948 (created and shown while the artist was taking part in the PS1 Museums Studio Program), artist Ashraf Fawakhry’s homage to the first thirteen Palestinian martyrs of the Intifada, as well as a work that depicted an Arab kaffiyeh trapped in a star of David fashioned from barbed wire. The list continues. In fact there was precious little within the exhibition that Karben did not find problematic.
In the end, the Made in Palestine fundraiser was allowed to carry on as planned, though the degree of outrage it inspired managed to reveal that censorship is not only the tactic of choice by the “rogue.” It seems that civilized world, courtesy of Karben and company, is privy to its uses as well.