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Pictures of the End of the American Dream - Philip-Lorca diCorcia in the Schirn Kunsthalle
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The Subversive Potential of Hermès Scarves - Shirin Aliabadi discloses the desires of young Iranian women
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MACHT KUNST - The Prize-Winners: Gray Zones - Radoslava Markova´s Emotional Landscapes
Theaster Gates: Inner City Blues
Violence and Creation: Imran Qureshi in the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

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The Subversive Potential of Hermès Scarves
Shirin Aliabadi discloses the desires of young Iranian women


Urban living environments are the subject of the exhibition “Stadt in Sicht”, which can be seen in Dortmund’s Museum am Ostwall until the beginning of August. Among the most surprising works in this show from the Deutsche Bank Collection are the photographs by Shirin Aliabadi, one of the artists to whom a floor in the Frankfurt Deutsche Bank Towers is devoted. The key topic in the work of this artist, who lives in Teheran, are the wishes and desires of young women in Iran. Achim Drucks looks at Aliabadi’s images of a generation between tradition and western lifestyle.


“The best time I ever had stuck in traffic” – are the words Shirin Aliabadi uses to describe the work on her series Girls in Cars, produced in 2005. And it was also a traffic jam that gave the Iranian artist the idea for these photographic works from the Deutsche Bank Collection: “I was stuck in traffic one weekend in a pretty posh part of Teheran. We were surrounded by beautiful girls made up to go to a party or just cruising in their cars and I thought then that this image of women chained by tradition and the hijab is not even close to reality here. They all had music on and were chatting to each other between the cars and making eyes and conversation with boys in other vehicles. Although respectful of the laws, they were having fun.” Indeed, Aliabadi’s young women seem like counterimages to the stereotypes in the back of many western minds in particular: no trace of the black shador, the floor-length cloth that completely covers the body. And here, the hijabs – veil-like headscarves that all women have been legally obliged to wear since 1979 – adopt rather the function of a fashionable accessory. Slipping back decoratively, they disclose a view of the hair. The woman whose body is hidden like a pearl in an oyster – obviously the Girls in Cars make little of this ideal propagated by the clergy of the Islamic republic. They represent a young generation shaped by urbanity. The lifestyle of the Girls in Cars and their longing for unburdened pleasures, however, can clash rapidly with the official morality and national laws of their home country, which restrict the freedoms of women in particular.

Iran is a very young country: more than 70 per cent of the inhabitants are no older than 30. This also influences the atmosphere – especially in the country’s capital: “Teheran is positively awash with teenie hormones,” according to curator and author Tirdad Zolghadr. As there are no discos and clubs, people meet at private parties. On street corners it is possible to buy pirate copies of the current Hollywood blockbusters. From yoga to iPod, global trends are also present in the metropolis of 8 million. This has not always been the case. In the first years of the Islamic republic the country isolated itself to extremes and was also involved in the first Gulf War with Iraq. But the social climate became slightly more liberal with the presidency of Mohammad Chātami in the 1990s. Parallel to this, a flood of images and information has streamed into the state of God via satellite television and Internet: western ideas and lifestyles promise alternatives to the rigid ideology of the regime. These influences are manifest, for example, in the form of “bad hijab” – the carelessly worn headscarf that does not completely cover the hair. But a special morality police force takes action if too much of a woman’s hair or skin can be seen. Warnings, fines and even prison sentences may be incurred.

“Bad hijab”, blonde hair, blue or green coloured contact lenses – the young women in Aliabadi’s series Miss Hybrid (2008) also prefer this look. The artificial studio portraits made the artist internationally well-known overnight. No wonder. Many western observers only realised with great incredulity that these coquette Barbie dolls, nibbling bright-coloured lollies or bursting purple chewing-gum bubbles came from Iran of all places. The small plasters on the women’s noses point to recently undergone plastic surgery. Such operations are very popular among the better earners in the country. Iran is regarded as the “Nose Job Capital of the World” and women are usually the ones who submit to the surgeon’s knife – for a nose à la Nicole Kidman. The post-operative plaster is then worn proudly in public as a status symbol. Barbara Kruger’s slogan coined in 1989, Your body is a battleground is still valid: the female body is subjected to a range of ideologies, whether religiously motivated or whether it is the ideals of beauty in a western consumer society, shaped by the mass media, that women emulate.

The accessories also have a signal effect. They play a central part in City Girls (2011), Aliabadi’s next series after Miss Hybrid. “Banal as the symbols of consumer society may seem: Starbucks, bags by Goyard or iPods,” Shirin Aliabadi explains, “in Iran they become a subliminal instrument of the so-called cultural invasion from the West, which the Iranian authorities equate with the ‛great Satan’. For the young generation, in particular for the women, such fashion accessories become – in  a beguiling manner – a kind of passive rebellion. This is the moment when fashion is not only fashion — in this context the message is not superficial.” However, it is a rebellion in which only the prosperous part of Iranian society can participate. The correct status symbols are needed to belong to this “subculture of modernity”.

Aliabadi’s heroines stand for the process of individualisation within Iranian society. The artist shows young women who are attempting to explode the restraint of religious regulations – from clothing to relationships with the other sex, the whole of life is regulated – and who are winning their own freedoms. “I don’t believe that you automatically become a rebel with a Hermès scarf around your neck, but in the context of the society in which we grew up, within an educational system that has different values to those in the West, the phenomenon of fashion turns into an interesting paradox. But ultimately, these young women’s concern is not to overthrow the government but to have fun.”

The artist herself is at home in both Iran and in the West. Born the daughter of an author and an artist in Teheran in 1973, she studied art and archaeology in Paris. Today she commutes between the two cities but lives mainly in Teheran. Her gallery, The Third Line, is based in Dubai, however, where the social climate is considerably more liberal than in her home country. After returning to Iran, Aliabadi began to work as an artist and realised several projects there, such as “Miss Hybrid” and co-productions with her husband, Farhad Moshiri, one of the country’s most significant artists. In their joint series Operation Supermarket (2006) the couple displayed the packaging from domestic cleaning materials and washing powders – staged as products in customary glossy advertising. But the captions speak a different language: here, we read “Shoot First Make Friends Later” or “We Are All Americans”. They not only point to the West’s fears of a different, alien culture. Particularly in a country where only one single type of washing powder could be bought ten years before this series was made, Operation Supermarket shows that such products also stand for a lifestyle and an ideology. It is all about a new form of imperialism that is conquering even countries such as China or Iran with its tempting surfaces and status symbols, and establishing an increasingly homogenised culture of consumerism, even there.

Moshiri combines calligraphy, traditional craftwork, kitsch and Pop Art in his works. He is greatly influenced by everyday life, as he explains – by “the mall, the bazaar, the decorative and ornamental, and wedding culture in Iran”. An opulent, “dream wedding” based on the western model is one of the great desires of many young, middle-class Iranian women. One series by Aliabadi, which she did not realise in the form of photographs but as drawings, centres on this wedding culture. Eye Love You (2009) shows designs for the opulent eye make-up with which brides are beautified on their big day. Three make-up designs can be seen on each sheet of paper, the size of a school exercise book. In their naivety they are reminiscent of drawings produced by girls, according to Aliabadi, “while dreaming in a boring class at school”. The eyes of the brides, embellished with candy-coloured eye-shadows, glitter, paste gems and motifs such as flowers, swans or butterflies seem completely over the top, but they are exact reproductions of current trends in wedding make-up. Here, traditional Iranian motifs are cheerfully combined with the kind of airbrush-aesthetics familiar to us from American automobile bodywork.

Shirin Aliabadi is representative of a younger generation of artists who “also enjoy ironic, kitschy interpretations of hybrids between traditional Iranian forms and those of the consumerist and globalized popular culture,” according to art historian Hamid Keshmirshekan, who works in Iran and England. “They reject the concept of a fixed, unified identity and instead propose a hybrid, unfixed and negotiable identity.” The young women in Aliabadi’s works embody this idea in an entirely concrete way – there is a reason why the artist chose the title Miss Hybrid. They present themselves as a radical counter-design to the officially propagated image of woman. The question is raised, certainly, whether these women with their obsession for the looks and lifestyle of western consumer societies are merely exchanging one form of imprisonment for another. But the way that Aliabadi’s City Girls negotiate the deeply contradictory society of Iran with such poise definitely indicates great self-confidence.


Stadt in Sicht
Works from the Deutsche Bank Collection

20.04. – 04.08. 2013
Museum Ostwall im Dortmunder U




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