I have included three related bodies of work that complement each other conceptually and technically—Maxiatures, Moslem Teenagers, and She and He. The images in these series point to a more layered, carnivalesque reading of the two cultures. In emphasizing the delicate fiction underpinning these images, the works come closer to representing “reality” than what is seen in most news media. Through these images, I explore the tension between public and private spaces, depicting images that dismantle the Islamic stereotypes represented through the narrow focus of news media. In addition, the works challenge Muslim expectations of propriety. By using a fictive strategy and a documentary style, I have created bodies of work that hover between photographic realism and fantasy.
My Maxiatures series uses the tradition of Persian miniature painting to dialogically examine and critique the entrenched positions separating the Western and Muslim worlds. By modifying each miniature, I create new stories that depict the everyday life of Islamic people. In particular, I insert contemporary details into historical fiction, thus creating new fictions. The resulting images reveal a world that, like any other, is continuously in conflict between old and new values.
In Maxiatures, I situate contemporary photographic figures in the kinds of idealized scenes that traditional miniatures depict. The point is to interrupt these perfectly constructed settings. The interruption of tradition, then, occurs on two levels: that of the medium, where photography intervenes in the tradition of meticulously painted miniatures, and that of the narrative, where the incongruous contemporary figures create new and at times humorous narrative possibilities.
My Moslem Teenager and She and He series also confound both Eastern and Western cultural expectations. With these images, I delve into the unique experience of youth living in the Islamic world. The lives of these young kids defy broad characterization and resist reductive stereotyping.
The Maxiature series intervenes in the tradition of Persian miniature painting, incorporating contemporary issues and art practices into the centuries-old form. The series ruptures the miniature tradition on two levels: the medium (the works use photography) and the kinds of narratives depicted, which leads to incongruous and at times humorous results. As highly sophisticated pieces of visual language, Persian miniatures often explore the tension between public and private spaces. In particular, they offer the viewer idealized vignettes of daily court life behind the palace walls. The Maxiature series expands on this practice of opening up the private spaces of homes, but it does so to give the audience a privileged view of contemporary Islamic culture.
Indeed, while miniatures traditionally depict court spectacles, scenes of the hunt and battle, grand receptions, and amorous encounters between persons (who are more general types than specific individuals), the figures in Maxiatures are sourced from both staged and documentary images. By blurring the line between reality and fiction, the Maxiatures hint at a tension between traditional Islamic society and imported Western influences. In the end, a region too often depicted in black and white is revealed as colorful, complex, and carnivalesque, where old and new values, East and West can collide in dialogue. Through the mashup of contemporary culture and historical fiction, the challenges facing Islam and modernity are played out in the composition and the very medium of the miniature.
My work aims to add layers of complexity and interpretation to subjects – whether it’s Islam, modernity, or youth culture – that are often depicted as monolithic. From their preference for decoration over figuration to their modes of production, the Islamic arts challenge the basic assumptions we hold in the West about art and the artist. The tradition of miniatures exemplifies this kind of challenge particularly well. Essentially secular compositions, miniatures are rare examples of figurative work aimed exclusively at a courtly audience. The Maxiature series plays on this assumed audience, working instead to demystify ordinary contemporary life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The works not only bring the intimacy of the private sphere out into the public, but they also translate the “hidden” lives of Iranians for an international audience, situating them in the collective
experience of globalization.
By adding further layers to the existing tradition of miniature painting, I intend to draw a line between the content and crafts of the 15th century and those of the 21st. Originally, miniatures were made by a workshop of artisans whose influences were cosmopolitan, including Mughal, Persian, and Arab. In Maxiatures, I hope to introduce another line of influence into the tradition, bringing a creolized understanding of Western and Middle Eastern identity to the sophisticated practice of miniatures.
The Desert beyond the City Belongs to Me
The new series that I am currently working on is titled The Desert beyond the City Belongs to Me. Through various landscapes and cityscapes, the desert series tells the story of cultural and political life in Iran; it explores the amalgam of paradoxes and contradictions that stem from the culture, religion, and system of government in 21st-century Iran. The protest movement that followed the contested 2009 presidential elections not only helped spark the larger Arab Spring in the region but also brought to the surface an underlying tension within the very name of the country: how can a country be a republic and a democracy accountable to its citizens and, at the same time, claim to be a theocracy accountable to a higher being? By bringing elements of classical Persian iconography together with contemporary subjects, the desert series treats this complex issue with compelling staging and a collapse of time. The tension between people and their rulers is a timeless and universal theme, one shared by people from Wall Street to Tehran.
As I have done for the past decade, I continue to use photography both as a discipline in itself and as a catalyst or resource for other media – in this case collages. At times staged, at others simply spontaneous, the contemporary figures depicted in the photographs are integrated into a larger composition.