Empire and Its Discontents includes the work of an international roster of contemporary artists with ties to previously colonized regions in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. The exhibition explores various notions of “Empire”—Empire as a conceptual lens through which previously distinct cultural iconographies are merged or juxtaposed, often in provocative, conceptual, or humorous ways that toy with viewers’ expectations; Empire as a historical term evoking traditional art-making practices; Empire as embodied in grandiose nationalistic events re-presented to indicate collapse; Empire in the media today, approached critically through the appropriation and recombination of pop cultural and political icons. The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color publication.
About the artists:
Kamrooz Aram’s lush, large-scale paintings are like riddles: one has to look long and think hard about the heterogeneous imagery populating his seemingly imaginary nocturnal landscapes. Carpet-size paintings combine identifiable motifs (eagles, camouflage pattern, stylized flowers, a dove, and an angel) with abstracted motifs (astral bursts, flames, and cloud swirls) over a mottled, yet flattened expanse of green hues. Aram is a native of Shiraz, Iran, born on the eve of the Islamic Revolution, in 1978, who has lived in the U.S. since he was an adolescent. Aram’s work is both politically engaged and aesthetically ambivalent about the notion of beauty. His project assumes that the act of visual interpretation–sustained looking–should raise difficult questions, not provide facile answers, and reflect the complexity and conundrums of living in the 21st century.
Kamrooz Aram,Mystical Visions Undetected by Night Vision Strengthen the Faith of the Believers and Make Their Enemies Scatter II, oil and collage on canvas, 73 x 113 in., courtesy of the Sender Collection, New York, NY
Andisheh Avini’s monoprints, découpage and marquetry sculptures explore ideas of cultural overlays and effacements. He appropriates ancient Persian source material in his monoprints and artistry techniques in his sculptures. Avini’s sculptures visualize the effects of cultural exchange by overtly combining disjunctive cultural signifiers, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Khaatam (wood inlay) marquetry technique practiced for centuries only in Isfahan, Iran. The resulting hybrid object may be an expression of pride in the artist’s bicultural identity as Persian American, or it may represent a conflicted gesture about where his sympathies should lie.
Andisheh Avini,Homesick, plaster and Khataam (marquetry), 20 x 5 x 5 in., courtesy of the I-20 Gallery, New York, NY
Lara Baladi’s photographic series The Surface of Timeruminates on what she calls the “post-apocalyptic state” of Egypt during the more than 25-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Read as a storyline, chronicling the decay and decline of Egypt since the revolution that brought Mubarak to power, Baladi’s sometimes disjunctive pairing of images in this series combines public and private spaces, exterior and interior scenes to comment quietly on the social and political stagnation symbolized by abandoned apartments, faded wallpaper, broken, dusty, tarnished, and rusted objects, and religious graffiti. These photographs foreground absence, stagnation, and ruin in an un-nostalgic way; they represent the unfulfilled promises and faded glory of Empire, and implicitly, its hoped-for imminent collapse.
Lara Baladi,Surface of Time, permanent pigment on Somerset paper, 12 diptychs-19-3/16 x 29-1/2 in. each, courtesy of the artist
Video artist Zoulikah Bouabdellah is interested in representing the transmutation of cultures in the post-post-colonial era. Her new video installation Black and White #2 layers several, disjunctive strains of imagery and sound to create a disquieting meditation on the conflation of cultures, religions, and geographies. An unveiled Arab woman languidly (or perhaps dolefully) sings the American national anthem in Arabic-accented English while making customary Muslim prayer gestures with her hands. Behind the monumentally-scaled figure flows a series of aerial maps (from Google Earth™) that, upon close looking, reveal themselves to be of Baghdad and other areas in Iraq. One wonders which cultural influence (American or Middle Eastern) is being subverted in this unlikely composite, or whether a new, uncomfortable sort of hybrid is envisioned.
Zoulikha Bouabdellah,Black and White #2, video still, 6:25, courtesy of the artist and La B.A.N.K. Gallery, Paris
Farhad moshiri / shirin aliabadi
Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Aliabadi’s series of brash photographic prints, titled Supermarket, re-brand and re-present recognizable commodities like cleaning products, brand-name chocolates, and breakfast cereal like advertisements or hyperrealist still-life paintings. The product labels have been altered to convey the not-so-subliminal message that these commodities are signifiers of the global economy, which in at least one photograph, We Are All Americans (fig. ?), is typed as U.S.-dominated. (Perhaps it is no accident that these neatly displayed products all pertain to cleaning house?) Moshiri and Aliabadi’s photographic series does not suggest a diverse world of products or ideas, but a more limited range. What does the term “supermarket” refer to, then? Perhaps the global marketplace of ideas has been so skewed by media sources that they themselves have become a new form of Empire?
Farhad Moshiri/Shirin Aliabadi, We Are All Americans, lambda print, 29.5 x 39.4 in., courtesy of the Daneyal Mahmood Gallery, New York, NY
kenneth tin-kin hung
Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung is the John Heartfield of the digital era. His biting satire takes on big issues like global warming and the hotly contested 2008 U.S. Presidential election in “pop-up” sculptures of the current political landscape. Hung’s raucously funny digital montages (whether printed on canvas, on Foamcor, or as video-game parodies) are composed entirely of imagery appropriated from Internet sources combined into provocative caricatures of America’s current role in global politics, as seen by a 20-something-year-old. The often-outrageous juxtapositions in Hung’s montages jolt viewers in to seeing familiar media images in new contexts. Whether his work is a time capsule of the early 21st century or a critique of globalization, capitalism, and democracy as the current guises of Empire is open to debate. Hung ensures that the debate will be a provocative one.
Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Ultra Donkey (Residential Erection: Pop-up Democrats), mixed media, 8' x 8' x 8', courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York
marjane satrapi (TENTATIVE)
Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi has become well known recently for her two-part coming-of-age books, Persepolis: The Story of A Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of A Return, and the animated film version of these books. Published when the artist was in her mid-30s, they are candid autobiographical memoirs that poignantly chart in graphic novel form the history of Iran during the 1970s through 1990s from an irreverent child’s perspective. The character Marjane is jaded and unbelievably precocious, believing in God and Karl Marx at the same time, whereas the author Satrapi’s political positions are unclear; neither seems pro-western nor pro-Iranian.
Marjane Satrapi,Persepolis, page from graphic novel
Seher Shah’s most recent series of giclée prints Perversions of Empire offer dense, layered “reconstructions” of pop imagery, personal travel photography, colonial imagery culled from the Royal Geographic Society Archives in London, media images, and hand-drawn imagery. In this series, Shah is particularly interested in the symbolism of monuments as “relics of colonial Eurocentric authority” that continue to function as place markers and points of reference in contemporary, post-colonial urban design. For her, monuments are central to creating grandiose, collective symbols of authority around which the masses gravitate for the spectacles that constitute the very essence of Empire. "
Seher Shah,Perversions of Empire (Cluster), archival giclée prints, 18 x 24", Courtesy of Shumita and Arani Bose Collection, New York, NY
Mark Shetabi’s installation A Persian Gardenwas conceived as a “vault” of personal and historical memory. The paintings and sculpture contained inside the 14 x 20-foot room all relate to the cusp between the end of the reign of the last Shah of Iran and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, upon which the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded—the end of one empire and the beginning of a new regime. The nondescript, anonymous feel of the space reflects the ubiquitous modernist architectural forms in Tehran in the mid-1970s (one of the artist’s most vivid memories of the city, the two homes in which he lived, and the Terhan American School). The strangely interlocking geometric forms of the courtyard’s pools were designed by the artist from memory and then fabricated as an architectural model. For Shetabi, ordinary things take on qualities of the extraordinary, when they are the locus of specific, charged memories.
Mark Shetabi,Model for A Persian Garden, 2008
Saira Wasim ingeniously subverts Mughal miniature painting, a tradition in which she was trained in Lahore, Pakistan, to depict contemporary world politics as a stage on which actors are engaged in epic struggles frozen in time. Identifiable current world leaders like George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hosni Mubarak, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, and Pervez Musharraf stand-in for their countries while symbols of American cultural imperialism like Ronald McDonald and Coca-Cola are animated alongside allegorical animals. Wasim’s gouache miniatures pay homage to her heritage while redirecting their content to a critique of the present, rather than a dialogue with history or a defense of history painting. Wasim’s paintings blend Eastern technique and contemporary content from her vantage point in the West; they are neither pro-eastern nor pro-western; neither Orientalist nor Occidentalist.
Saira Wasim,Demockery, Gouache, gold, gold leaf and tea washes on wasli paper, 10 3/4 x 18 1/16", courtesy of private collection