The Artist, The Censor, and The Nude: A Tale of Morality and Appropriation By Glenn Harcourt DoppelHouse Press. 190 pp. $34.95
by Glenn Harcourt
Of all the topographies that exist in the world, that of the human body is perhaps the one that has been the most relentlessly contested – both the actual body comprising flesh and blood, and the virtual body as it is written and visualized in representation. This is true of the body both male and female, and of the body both clothed and unclothed. Issues of personal and cultural identity; of sexual and theological politics; of religious and political ideology are all articulated in terms of the body and its represented image. The body as it is lived and pictured serves both to instantiate and to adjudicate cultural norms and to facilitate their transgression.
Thus it is that both the body and its image have come to be censored, at various places and times, and under many cultural regimes. That censorship has certainly been a fact in post-Revolutionary Iran, where laws governing the dressing, adornment, and deportment of the physical body, as well as the body’s image in cultural production have been continuously in place, if at times somewhat erratically enforced.
In the realm of cultural production, the western artistic tradition (grounded as it is in the depiction of the human body) has been a specific target. Yet even though works of western pictorial art may be especially targeted as un-Islamic in the essence and carriers of an alien “westoxicated” culture, such western images still circulate more-or-less freely in Iran, although they are often subject, for example, to the hand censoring mark-up that we can see in a copy of Alan Cumming’s Eye Witness Companion to Art that was fortuitously re-imported into the United States.
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. From DK Eyewitness Companion to Art, hand censored in Iran. Collection Kurosh ValaNejad.
Artists working in Iran seem publicly to have accepted, at least by and large, the general cultural topography that is also mapped out by the swipes of the government censor’s marker across the pages of Cumming’s book. When the represented body appears in Iranian public space it is almost exclusively what we can define as the “political body” – the portraits of heroes and martyrs of the Islamic Revolution (and especially the War against Iraq) or candidates for public office, for example. (The public display of the body in the films produced by the vigorous and talented artists working in Iran’s prolific film industry must be the focus of a different discussion.)
Against this notion of the private or personal body as a thing that has been effectively, almost sanitarily “disappeared” from view, or at least from public space, we might counterpoise works by several women artists from Iran.
In Katayoun Karami’s photo series “Censorship” (2004), for example, the artist uses a sequence of self-portraits to display the work of censorship as if it were a source of existential devastation. On her website portfolio, the artist writes,
Censorship knows many guises, the likes of which, or at least in my country, Iran, force themselves on the public domain as much as they do on the private. Being it through the rough imposition of moral strictures, or the subtle filtering of the unconscious self, the impact of both ends up the same; suffocating, hurtful and, ultimately, destructive.
Grigor argues that Karami’s photos present “a frank commentary on the condition of artists and women in contemporary Iran,” a conclusion that seems incontestable, at least for a woman of Karami’s generation (b.1967). In this situation, the body and the self seem bound together in immediate jeopardy. In one of the photos, which resembles nothing so much as a mug shot of a political prisoner, the artist has covered the details of her nude torso with a 1993 Iranian license plate and slashing marker strokes. Indeed, Karami herself comments [ironically] on this self-portrait: “How better to protect the dignity of my being, than having my naked flesh concealed by the crude strokes of the cultural guidance official’s ‘moral values’ marker?”
Another work from the 2004 series shows her face masked by a hand, and as she explains in the same text on her website,
double-exposed with a puzzle, and so divided in many pieces, [my] uniqueness instantly destroyed. […] But the jigsaw does not extend fully to the mind, the sole domain where women can still hold onto their self-determination and autonomy.
The piece is also like a Rubin Vase, and the optical illusion of a hand grasping a miniature figure’s naked torso, seen from the side, adds to the artist’s insistence on her body’s lack of visibility, which she describes as physical proof of her existence, an existence that “must be publicly denied.”
Karami’s work in both photography and sculpture is imbued with traces of trauma, as her website portfolio makes plain. Another example of her self-portraiture illustrated here from the 2009 “Resurrected” series is especially jarring. Both the pose and the barbed wire crown of thorns identify the artist as the dead or suffering Christ (in itself an interesting strategic move) with tumbling cascades of hair concealing otherwise exposed breasts. This abject body (whose radical imitatio Christi suggests the Virgin Mary or the repentant Mary Magdalene) is further disfigured by its frame’s broken glass and a crudely lettered text in English and Farsi. Looking just at the English elements of the inscription, the most frequently repeated word seems to be “atheist,” although the words scattered across the figure comprise an expansive and resonant – and, we assume, personal – vocabulary: resurrect, right, female, independent, insight, intolerance, crave, charisma, prophet, love, justice, miracle, blasphemy, rapture, lust, defiance, among others. Given all this visual and textual material, it should be possible to construct a reading of the image that captures both the sense of abjection that seems to pervade the figure, and the status of the entire image as an artistic and existential manifesto.
However, given also the complex and contradictory nature of the text (for example, the juxtaposition of “atheist” and “blasphemy” against “prophet” and “justice”) as well as the use of an explicitly Christian visual quotation within a putatively Muslim context, this reading would demand the broadest possible visual, biographical, religious, and political contextualization, as well as all the interpretive delicacy necessary to approach the work of an artist who describes her own work as the visual text which
speaks a common language in the place where I live. Portraits of my generation, our common experiences and challenges in life. A generation that has experienced revolution, war, immigration and more. Experiences, any one of which are said to be sufficient to turn a boy into a man, but which are apparently assumed to leave the other sex wholly untouched. In my own small, personal voice I say: Not so.
A closely linked issue, to which Karami has also spoken, is the invisibility of the body in society. Shadi Ghadirian alludes to this by means of synecdoche or indexical trace, as in her series on the complexities of gender relationships provocatively titled “Nil.” In her magnificently composed and dramatic photograph Nil #1 (2008), the juxtaposition of a pair of shining new red high heels and a pair of worn and scuffed military boots, one of which is marked by a drip of fresh, glistening blood, condense (even in this single excerpted image) a powerful and resonant narrative. Even the relative placement of the shoes evokes an image of absent bodies standing facing each other and thus enhances the narrative, which Ghadirian herself describes in these terms:
I wanted to talk about the woman and the man both inside the house. And show also the war, there is a war. The man is in the war. The woman is inside the house. She is waiting for him.
The woman – the man – the house – the war – waiting: this is really all one needs to know in order to understand how the photo’s luminosity opens up its important questions: Which woman? What man? Whose house? Which war? Waiting for what? It is not entirely clear from the photos how we are to understand the relationship between these two worlds; that is, the world “inside,” and the world without – the world represented by the war. It seems certain that the artist sees the world “inside” as being under threat, and identifies that threat as coming from without: a seemingly endless sequence of “wars and rumors of wars” [Matthew 24:6] that she associates with the male presence. The juxtaposition of discarded shoes suggests the dominant position of the woman within the relationship through its contrast between “her” fashionable contrapposto and “his” rather flat-footed defensive stance; but the glistening trace of fresh blood on one of the boots also suggests the proximity of violence, and the possibility of trauma: the sort of interior, psychic damage that bedeviled Haji in The Marriage of the Blessed.
Those images in the series that don’t actually contain munitions, ammunition, hand grenades, etc., keep the presence of the war oblique, as in Nil #1, but also in Nil #4, an image which presents a stark contrast between a brightly colored headscarf [hijab as “fashion statement”] and the gritty monochromatic metal of a soldier’s helmet. Furthermore, Nil #14, where a truncated view as if into a closet shows an expansive array of brightly colored women’s garments (blouses, sweaters, perhaps a scarf) interrupted by a single jacket of military khaki bearing the designation “RANGER,” provides an equally expressive if less narrowly focused commentary on the gendering of couture, which stands throughout as a metaphor for the contrast between the world inside (the house) and that outside, in this case: the battlefield. However, the fact of the military jacket’s English identification complicates any simple notion of (the) war as confined or contained, and in fact it implicates the multifarious foreign interventions that both permeated the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988, and others that have been ongoing in the strategic crossroads of the Middle East since classical antiquity.
Among Iranian female artists of Ghadirian’s generation (b.1974), we can compare the work, for example, of Gohar Dashti (b.1980), which is at once more literal (a [married] couple actually appear as actors in Dashti’s narratives) and features a quite surrealistic mise-en-scene.
In the photo series “Today’s Life and War” (2008 – that is, exactly contemporary with Ghadirian’s “Nil”) Dashti sets her protagonists adrift on the battlefield (the best they can do for a house is a bunker padded with sand-bags) where they must attempt to reconstitute the routines and rituals of daily life within a blasted and war-scarred landscape: they set off from their wedding in the junked remains of a car gaily decorated in pink; they attempt to converse over tea under the watchful “eye” of an abandoned tank’s cannon, etc.
As a child of the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) Dashti’s visual meditations on the traumatization of a life scarred by institutionalized violence bring her evocative tableaux-vivants literally to life. Considering the fact that she grew up on the border of Iran and Iraq, these site-specific photographs, one can imagine, may very well take place in a landscape immediately familiar to her.
Gohar Dashti, Untitled (Today’s Life and War), 2008. Two photograph from the series. 70 × 105 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Although it might seem natural to view Dashti and Ghadirian together as representatives of a single generation without direct or conscious recollections of the 1979 Revolution, and hence as members of a post-revolutionary cohort of artists, this is not quite how things are viewed in Iran, at least from the perspective provided by social scientist Shahram Khosravi. Khosravi’s research defines the “emic post-revolutionary generation” as having been born during the 1360s of the Iranian calendar (1981–1990), the often so-called “60-generation.” This generation has a strong sense of self-conscious internal cohesion, according to Khosravi, and feels itself especially targeted by authoritarian restrictions. At least to a certain extent, this feeling is well grounded in genuine cultural perceptions; yet it also becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Looking again at Dashti’s photographic series “Today’s Life and War,” we see a hypothetical social situation that is understandable in terms of Khosravi’s analysis of the desires characteristic of the “60-generation,” of which Dashti herself is almost (or perhaps “liminally”) a member. The young couple who serve as the protagonists of the series seem intent on establishing a relationship at once familial, yet cut off from the complicated set of generational and marital connections that define the traditional, patriarchal Iranian family. Their relationship seems rather to be founded on the idea of mojaradi (“single,” but in a wider sense “autonomous,” or “free from societal entanglements”). They are young, typically hetero-normative, childless, and their relationship is played out against a backdrop defined by the detritus of past, present, and future war, a powerful metaphor for what Khosravi defines as “precarity,” the precarious nature of contemporary Iranian existence.
Khosravi uses the short-hand “precarity” throughout his study “to cover a broad range of social vulnerabilities that Iranians are struggling with: from insecure work conditions [a major “revolutionary” failing] and physical vulnerability [including, the near-criminalization of youth] to hopelessness, purposelessness, alienation, and disconnectedness from a sense of social continuity,” as well as a “growing sense of [internal] exile from home and homeland among Iranian youth.” And yet, Dashti’s photographs are not marked by a sense of hopelessness in the face of insurmountable odds. Rather, they speak of a sense of hope among the rubble; of struggle, but also (especially in the “honeymoon” picture) of endurance grounded in a kind of suffering good humor. In conclusion, the “60-generation” has felt itself alienated from the dominant culture, but has also wanted a “normal” life. Unfortunately, having been born out of the wreckage of the Iran–Iraq War, that normalcy has proved elusive. The couple here can live within the system well enough to avoid the kind of violent existential “censorship” that marks, for example, Katayoun Karami’s “Resurrected” and “Censored” series, but their opportunities are truncated, circumscribed, cut off by circumstance, and they are forced to live in the metaphorical shadow of what surrounds the coming into being of their generation.
As a way of bringing our argument “full circle,” we turn to a series of erstwhile fashion photos (which can also function as a series of Duchampian “rectified ready-mades”) from Shadi Ghadirian’s “West By East” of 2004. Ghadirian presents us with a series of young women, fashionably dressed and posed as might be appropriate for use in western fashion advertisements. Following Ghadirian’s own title, it seems safe to see the photos as “presumed” western artifacts, subjected, like the illustrations in Cumming’s book, to the attention of an anonymous bureaucrat, ready (as always) with a rectifying marker. Still, what Ghadirian has visualized in her altered photographs is not a situation existentially or immediately threatening. Unlike Katayoun Karami’s untitled self-portrait that reads like a censored mug shot of a prisoner photographed in the nude, Ghadirian’s pictures seem critical (of western fashion? of Iranian censorship? of the national dress code?) and, with perhaps a single exception, are not really hostile in their intention. How then, should we interpret them? In light of Ghadirian’s other work, which though insistent in its message is never overbearing in its presentation, perhaps we can see them as an invitation to a dialog that the artist is having with her peers. By defacing the photographs in a way that seems almost “neutral” – even (in her wonderful half-length study) appropriated to aesthetic ends – she also sees a long future ahead, where young Iranians actively seek the joy in remodeling culture, an endeavor with lasting socio-political implications.
Shadi Ghadirian, “West By East” series, 2004. Photograph, 90 × 60 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery. Shadighadirian.com.
Glenn Harcourt is a widely published critic based in Southern California who writes about the history of art and visual culture. Many of Harcourt’s short form essays and reviews are available at Artillery Magazine and X-TRA Contemporary Quarterly.
 All artist quotes are from Katayoun Karami, “Censorship 2004,”: http://katayounkarami.com/Gallery
 Talinn Grigor, Contemporary Iranian Art: From the Street to the Studio (London: Reaktion Books, 2014) 146–148; 149, ill. 90.
 For the series as a whole, see the museum catalog with essay by Kristen Gresh, She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, MFA Publications, 2013) 84–91.
 Ibid., 86.
 Ibid., 92–99.
 For this generational insight, as well as innumerable other observations on Iran throughout the post-revolutionary period, see the invaluable work of Shahram Khosravi, Precarious Lives: Waiting and Hope in Iran (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). With thirty years of in-country observation and no obvious ideological axes to grind, this look at Iran’s contemporary youth culture through the anthropological and sociological lenses of an Iranian social scientist provides both valuable objective data and descriptions, and a vivid sense of the interiority and lived experience of his informants. Also essential, and a work that resonates with numerous points throughout the argument is Roxanne Varzi, Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006).
 Khosravi, 94–104. From one of his female informants (twenty-eight, an architect, unemployed, still living with her parents): “Marriage and starting a family do not fit our style. We want to keep our freedom [personal autonomy] even after marriage. We do not want the former generation’s form of marriage. Mojaradi means […] experiencing life in its real sense […] experiencing love and sexuality” (96).
 Ibid. 5; 4–6 gives an overview of the concept’s development in social science in general, as well as its applicability to the Iranian situation in particular.
 See the extensive gallery at the artist’s website: http://shadighadirian.com/index.php?do=photography.