Friday, July 3, 2009

On Art! Unveiling Gender and Ethnic Identity

(On Art! is an occasional item on artifacts of transnational culture)

The eve of our nation's birthday seems an appropriate time to reflect on the numerous dimensions of American identity, particularly those that are not often brought to the fore. “The Seen and the Hidden: [Dis]Covering the Veil,” an exhibit at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Manhattan through August 29, offers an excellent opportunity for readers to do just that. While I must admit that I've not yet seen the show, I am a great fan of one of the artists, Negar Ahkami (below right), who was profiled in the N.Y. Times last month. Negar is not only an artist, but also an IntLawGrrl; I met her over ten years ago when she was an associate at Simpson, Thacher, and Bartlett and, luckily for me, my mentor as a summer associate. She soon moved to the legal department of the MOMA, at the same time beginning her "Lipstick Revolution" series of portraits of veiled Iranian women created using only lipstick and paper.
Negar's work seeks not only to express the complexities of Iranian-American identity but also to push back against the male chauvinism inherent in the depictions of women by leading modern artists from Picasso to Gaugin. One of her earliest paintings portrayed several men eating at a steakhouse, smoking cigars, with footballs in place of their heads. Negar's more recent work has made striking use of phallic symbols to express her discomfort with misogyny and sexual violence. Her current art aims to convey a more nuanced image of Iranian women than that presented in the mainstream media, and at the same time to critique the sexism prevalent in popular portrayals of women both Iran and the United States.
As she narrates in more detail in this interactive version of her painting "The Fall" (left), Negar's art grapples with the "way that the culture she love[s is] 'degraded, demonized and reduced to a cartoon' both here and in Iran." Her work incorporates the exquisite, refined detail and elaborate narrative of Persian tradition with the open emotional angst of Western art, and in doing so, packs a powerful punch. It will certainly leave the viewer with plenty of food for thought about gender and ethnic identity in America.

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