Since Warhol, art’s flirtations with popular imagery have often been associated with entertainment and consumerism. If political at all, they take the form of commodity critiques that accept a global capitalist system as a given. So it is bracing to encounter the work of Iranian-born Shoja Azari, which is deeply engaged with a distinct vernacular culture. Azari, a respected filmmaker and frequent collaborator with his partner, Shirin Neshat, draws on strains of popular imagery that in Iran signify political resistance to both secular and religious despotism. For this show, he blended “painting” and video in works that express solidarity with last year’s post-election uprising in Iran. These hybrids derive from two traditional sources: mass-produced posters portraying famous Shiite martyrs, and a famous Iranian “coffee house painting.”
The posters on which Azari’s “Icons” (2010) are based—they bear a certain resemblance to Catholic holy cards—have a history of political use. Portraits of legendary imams, they appeared in various forms during the 1977-79 Islamic revolution and as symbols of Shiite resistance to Sunni dominance in Lebanon and Iraq. In keeping with this tradition, Azari has altered them in a politically provocative way, projecting video portraits of female friends onto the images of the holy men. The women’s faces are slightly animated, with eyes that open and close or well up with tears. To a Western audience, the figures’ medieval garb does not signify gender, so it would be easy to miss the transgressive nature of the transformation. Azari’s alterations celebrate the role women played in the democracy protests, where a cell-phone video of the death of one female protester became a rallying point for the movement last year. Besides challenging the religious regime’s denigration of women, the “Icons” also flout, under cover of popular imagery, orthodox Islam’s iconoclasm, which forbids representations of holy figures. (This doctrine was at the heart of the Danish cartoon controversy.)
Azari’s Coffee House Painting (2009) offers a related provocation. It presents a mural-size printed reproduction of Iranian painter Mohammad Modabber’s well-known The Day of the Last Judgment (1897). At the turn of the last century, such paintings began to appear in Iranian tea- and coffeehouses as backdrops for traveling storytellers who narrated traditional Shiite myths and legends. This particular example presents an epic vision of heaven and hell, which Azari has animated with projected video clips taken from the Internet. As one watches, little sections of the “painting” start to move, presenting scenes from the Iraq war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian revolution. While for the Western viewer Azari’s “Icons” may edge a bit too close to Christian kitsch, the mix of video and painting is extremely effective in his Coffee House Painting, where a traditional representation of Judgment Day becomes a meditation on current, living versions of hell.
There is an interesting parallel between the kinds of mass-produced folk imagery that the “Icons” draw from, which spread subversive messages in a predigital era, and contemporary social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which played such an important role in the recent Iranian uprising. Azari absorbs both into works that contemplate the ongoing tragedy of his homeland.
Photo: Shoja Azari: Coffee House Painting, 2009, video projection on printed canvas, 65 by 117 inches; at Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller.