My old work on paper, As I Sit Here Musing, Fires Will Burn is currently on view in an exhibit of political art at the Depaul University Art Museum in Chicago. I made it in 2003: the year that my aesthetic language and vision began to take shape after a period of agoraphobic isolation post-9/11. This work is packed with psychological symbolism. I wanted to convey a complex alternate-world view. It must be seen in person because of the tiny detail. But here is an image.
When I was making this work, it did not matter to me that the imagery would be hard for viewers to decode. Persian miniatures can still be enjoyed by broader audiences unfamiliar with underlying texts and symbolism. I wanted to create an overall unsettling, dizzying, cacophonic feeling.
This is a freak show: Iran, as viewed from a US audience seat (where I happen to sit). There are Orientalist symbols here --mostly phallic. I was flipping some middle fingers at repression and violence -- but I was also re-telling the dynamic of degradation and "cartoonification" of Persian culture in the US. I was obsessed with this notion of the "Joe Camelization" of representations of Iran and Muslims in the US. Camel cigarette ads were historically represented with Orientalist imagery, and in the 1990s they evolved into the gross, ultra-phallic ubiquitous Joe Camel character. After 9/11, in the art world, Jason Rhodes was being celebrated for his ultra-offensive Mecca Tuna installation, seemingly immune to any criticism. Conversation about these stereotypes was not happening back then in the art world and in the larger culture.
There is a burlesque, even Bollywood quality to this work. The late Terry Adkins was one of the first to see this piece in a really supportive / enabling studio visit. He described it as taking place "at the gay disco." Really astute observation, given that a favorite escape for most of my teenage years was the NYC club scene. In the work, a fully-veiled phallic figure with Dorothy-red glitter heels is bumping and grinding against a tortured Western figure with a Football head. It's a dance club replay of the Iranian regime's efforts to bump out Western Influence. Nevertheless, the citizenry, comprised of miniature "Farrahs" engage in Britney Spears-level partying --dancing, snorting, caresssing, thong-wearing. (The Farrahs were a favorite symbol in my old work from this period -- Persianate monobrowed females with Farrah Fawcett hair. A nod to the global reach of fashion in 1970s Iran, and the deposed Queen of Iran with the same name.)
The title of this piece As I Sit Here Musing, Fires Will Burn is borrowed from Arabic text that I came across when I visited Olana after 9/11 -- the Persian-influenced home of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. I was haunted by the resonance of this quote. It managed to express the guilt I felt in partaking in the escapist partying that was happening in NY after 9/11 while downtown was still burning, amidst massive sorrow and suffering in NY, in Iran, and around the world. Surprisingly the art world seemed so non-political in 2003. I felt an urgent need to put out images that represented this extremely charged, maddening time period.
My work in these early years was packed with so much imagery, so much symbolism, which it seemed as if I could not stop generating. Although there still is so much cause for distress in the world at this very moment, and this will always be a sad day of reflection -- thankfully (for personal reasons) this intense political reeling and rage is no longer a part of my work. What remains is an obsession with Persian art, and its power to be expressive, human, personal, raw, and electric.