Nasim Nasr

Symbols of rebirth

Nasim Nasr is what one might call a topical artist. As a woman from Iran dealing in issues of gender, sexuality, prohibition and Islam, she fulfills a brief that makes tokenistic revisionists convulse with delight. Some artists are favoured by circumstances being in alignment with who they are and what they want to do. Many are spurred along, if not created, by the wave of political circumstances around them, including, for example, Brecht and the mass socialist movement, and Yeats and Irish revolutionary nationalism.(1) Some artists achieve their moment, others pick their moment, others have the moment thrust upon them. Contemporary art has made a particular imperative of cultural branding, so that artists now become cultural show ponies for traits of difference and curiosity. This seems a negative note to begin on, but a necessary one. For Nasim Nasr is an artist who knows the extent to which she is framed by her culture in a place like Australia. She is keenly conscious of the advantages that accrue to this position—the sympathy that comes from curiosity or compensatory guilt—which make up one face of that same coin that also limits her. In Australia Nasr is never simply an artist, she is an Iranian artist, or Iranian-Australian if she is lucky. The screen of cultural difference, globalization’s ‘veil of Maya’, is a condition of her expression. To understand Nasr’s work is therefore not to try to understand Iran per se, but to see how we understand Iran.

This is why Nasr’s work is operatively and identifiably ‘Islamic’. It is curious and alarming to trace Orientalist stereotypes that have evolved since the early nineteenth century: woman as harem strumpet, man as indolent barbarian. (Medieval and Renaissance terms for Oriental styles were indeed known as ‘barbaresque’.) Since Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism (1979), much has been made of such simplifications, how they are disconnected from reality, and the particular strategies used by Western commentators to immobilise the East through brazen cliché. Revisionists have tended to show the limitations of Said’s ideas and to try to soften the critical blow, emphasising the many overlaps and exchanges that occurred between Europe and the Ottoman East. The singular and largely suppressed variable within these equations is fear. In the age of the Ottoman threat from the 1400s to 1600s, the fear was palpable, visible and locatable. By the nineteenth century the threat was more perversely linked to decadence, which supposedly stood in contrast to Western progressiveness. The Orient was imagined as a dreamy domain where the Western male could assuage his desires and be led astray.

After 9/11 it is as if all these historical constructions, which were still present but latent, rose up and collided. To the non-Islamic ear, ‘Muslim’ is a word that is often heard with a frisson of fear and suspicion. So much so, that in 2002 Harald Nasvik, a member of the Norwegian right, recommended George W. Bush and Tony Blair for the Nobel peace Prize! And with these lunacies come other lunacies which are harder to counter, since they are rich with overtones of empathy: witness the industry since 9/11 of writers seeking to show that Muslims are just like you and me, that there is a ‘good Islam’ and a ‘bad Islam’. We are told to decry the fundamentalists and to cherish the rest, as if society exists according to simple demarcations. This is pop revisionism at its worst, which suppresses the unassailable fact that Christianity has caused more wars and deaths than any other religion in history.

The beguiling aspect of Nasr’s work is that it is partisan to neither point of view. Her relationship to her country of birth, Iran, is complex to say the least. Iran is stamped on her complexion, her accent and her memory, and yet it is also, for her, a place of suppression and humiliation. Technically speaking she has only been able to produce art since her arrival in Australia in 2009. Before that she was severely curtailed in what she was able to represent, because of the strict Iranian laws on what is admissible for representation. Proscription on representation is as old as Islam itself (which is why we must turn to its decorative arts such as carpets and weaponry for forms of visual expression), but there are increasingly more people of Islam, as with Nasr, who question the validity of these laws, and suspect them of being but one means of a more intricate system of political power. Nasr’s ‘coming out’, or what she calls her rebirth, is much of a piece with artists of other countries, China in particular, who were only able to discover their own voice outside of their country of birth. But a question that remains hanging is the extent to which this voice, which is pre-eminently a cultural voice, is ‘their own’. This is the paradox of cultural expression in art: it must in some regard be denounced, or displaced, for it to be expressed. One cannot express Iran in Iran as sharply as one can in Australia. The question of her own placement within such zones of divergence is something that Nasr’s work vigilantly addresses.

Among her earliest Australian works is Cyprus and Suppress (2009), photographs of the artist’s naked form behind a frosted screen with the only clear feature a buta shape on what appears to be a tattooed palm pressed against the glass. The image is deliberately seductive, and deliberately cryptic. After the immediacy of seduction, we are confronted with something more discrete and encoded. The screen is the Orientalist screen that hides the harem, the greatest prize and greatest curiosity to any European traveller, and the only place to which he was not allowed to go, and therefore his strongest preoccupation. For this very reason ‘harem’ assumes a much more metaphoric importance for the sanctified region of prohibition, what is kept from the gaze. So it can mean the zone beyond the understanding of Christian-Western consciousness. It is also the place where the Muslim woman can finally unclothe, free from being on show—but in Nasr’s case the only place where she had formerly been able to make art which could never be shown, since her preferred motif was the nude female form.

The buta is the original name for the paisley motif that originated in Persia and India, and which was marketed, elaborated and ‘improved’ in the Scottish town whence it gets its popular name. As a symbol, it is now very much an example of a culturally interwoven statement that the artist uses as an embodiment of the culturally hyphenated condition. On one hand it is quintessentially Oriental, its sinuous form having all the connotations of a world of sensuous pleasures—the curvilinear forms are commonly referred to as ‘arabesque’. They are also symbols in the Middle East and India of ancient traditions: an armature for all manner of decorative variation. Yet the buta is also a motif that became creatively absorbed in the high age of British imperialism, when Britain’s industrial power could outdo its colonial counterparts in production and design whilst retaining all the signifiers, now unmoored from their origin, of exotic mystique. Thus Nasr’s use of the buta is purposely ambiguous, contradictory, implying a continuously unresolved act of cultural reclamation.

Standing behind the frosted screen is both liberation and repression—which is also the most complete definition of the burqa, in which freedom and containment are the same. This is also why the burqa has now become the most concrete visualisation of the contemporary Muslim condition—the ‘Muslim problem’—to Euro-American eyes. It is the sign of difference, or violence, injustice and everything that is concealed from Western knowledge. As the sign of indignation and suspicion, it perpetuates the lasting symbology of the harem but now it is darkened, tarnished by terror; desire has been replaced by fear.

In the performance Women in Shadow, held on 24 June, 2011 at the AEAF (Australian Experimental Art Foundation) in Adelaide, a selected number of guests were ushered into a room that had been arranged to look like a fashion event. Men and women were instructed to sit divided, just as they are in Iran. Once assembled, they were the audience to a procession of eight women in full hijab, all in black. When we ask about the West’s antipathy to burqas we have to go somewhere deep into the Christian psyche and to the history of revelation. Islam’s idea of revelation has to do with prophets, but never the equivalent of Christ himself. Muhammad was the messenger of God, not his worldly scion. To a degree, burqas reignite this ancient anxiety: they emphasise the state of something hidden. The hysteria this can spawn reached a somewhat understandable but still irrational pitch after 9/11. Exacerbated by the ‘Danish cartoon controversy’ of July 2005, in the more suspicious and ignorant circles, burqas and turbans—that is the reductio ad absurdum of Middle Eastern clothing—were marked out as indicators of terrorist lawlessness.

A wider perspective on the particular nature of  today’s fraught response to the burqa may also be located in the evolution of fashions since the Second World War. Western fashion, when not wanting to be different, is by degrees akin to a uniform: suits, sneakers, jeans, T-shirts. On the other hand, it is instructive to see how technology has led us into an unconscious love affair with uniforms: airline fashions are most citable here.(2) The burqa is jarring to such principles on several levels. It communicates belonging but is not a uniform. Unlike monks’ cassocks and the habits of nuns, burqas circulate more widely and the belonging that they spell out is more diverse than monasticism. And rather than be part of a timeless present or an imprecise future it emphasises continuity with the past. Most importantly it is not fashion and is a lot more than just dress. It is a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of being. For many Muslims it completes the skin; to be divested of it is like being robbed of language and coherent thought. 

Banning the burqa has a long history. The mixed response to France’s law forbidding its public use, which came into effect in April 2011, can be traced back to France’s colonial past. During the Algerian war (1954–62) the French enforced the unveiling of women, a move which was taken by the native population to be an affront at the level of rape. And because of this the veil became a symbol of Algerian identity. Veils and the associated measures of covering the body and the face continue to have an ambivalent status in both East and West. For it is not simply a matter of faith, it has to do as much with the distinctions that Islam is at pains to make with the infidel West. Wearing burqas, chadors and veils in the West is conspicuous and they are worn as a matter of devotion and also as a passive form of cultural interference, a kind of passive aggressive terrorism on the West’s surface of appearances. When they are worn in the East, there is still a residual understanding of its irritation to Western mores. In the secular West, one does not normally wear one’s religion on one’s sleeve. Religion is a private affair about which most people remain respectfully discrete. An exception may be orthodox Jews, but they still wear the Western uniform, the suit.

The status of what Emma Tarlo calls ‘visibly Muslim’(3) becomes a problem, however, when the non-Islamic state expects a certain degree of conformity and assimilation from its citizens. The burqa is perennially the locus where the stark differences between cultural values become apparent. For assimilation may mean one thing to one country that it does not mean in another. It usually begins with learning the language, but the ideas of ‘shared’ and ‘common’ values may well be at odds with democratic values of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Again, Nasr’s Women in Shadow was purposely ambiguous. A statement of contradiction asserted as a plain statement: the non-fashion of the burqa articulated through three ciphers in a context of the fashion catwalk where change, choice, commodity and sex are legion. But while the statement was plain it was not neutral. At the end of the performance, the women produced plastic bags containing live gold fish, Persian symbols of rebirth. Nasr was using the fish, as opposed to the female form, to signify escape. In this regard, she was true to her Iranian roots in not shaming other women or showing disrespect to those who cherish hijab as central to their faith and their privacy. For, in effect, the burqa cannot be escaped, either as a cultural symbol or personally for those who have experienced it, since it is an outward sign of a deeply internalised principle.

Nasr’s Unveiling The Veil (2010) is a ten minute video showing only the eyes which, when one is wearing the burqa, are the only part of the body that remains uncovered. Slowly, the artist begins to weep. Then with wetted hands she touches the eyes to make her eye makeup run down her face, leaving a vulnerable smear.

Against the background of her other work we can see that the comment is clearly and movingly made: removing the burqa, renouncing the draconian Islamic law of Iran by coming to Australia is a reawakening that comes at a price. Like all exiles, voluntary or not, one must shoulder the task of constantly making a home as opposed to having the luxury of claiming one. Nasr’s work treads the line between resentment and respect. Art is the best medium for this, for it is the only form in which contradictions can cohabit comfortably, so long as they are articulated beautifully.

In 2009 Nasr also produced a series of photographs, Liberation, of herself in full hijab at the edge of an ocean. She looms spectrally, nearly a silhouette. There is none of the levity or ebullience that might be expected from a work of this title. Instead the images are deeply ambivalent. They seem to tell a story of a woman who has left her loved one and is now unsure of whether this was the right choice, one who finds solace in the beauty that resides in melancholy. In other words, we, the Australian audience, ought not to feel triumphant or to claim this artist as our own (as all countries are wont to do with migrants, especially sportsmen, who are successful). And this is what makes this cultural inscription so unconventional. Beneath Nasr’s resolutely crisp and compelling aesthetic lurk folds of discordant meaning and awareness that is the lot of any sensitive, reflective exile. Culturally, ideologically, her work is a room of mirrors in which personal intent is constantly trying to emerge, reborn, from the vapid web of cliché. 

Nasim Nasr, Women in Shadow 1-4, from Women from Shadow performance series, 2011. Australian Experimental Art Foundation. Photograph Rodney Magazinovic. Courtesy the artist. 

Nasim Nasr, Rebirth, 2010, from Women in Shadow. Australian Experimental Art Foundation. Photograph Rodney Magazinovic. Courtesy the artist. 

Nasim Nasr, Erasure, 2010. Video still. Courtesy the artist. 

Nasim Nasr, What To Do, 2012. Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia Project Space. Courtesy the artist. 

notes: 

1. See also Terry Eagleton: ‘Just as the theatre of Bertolt Brecht was made possible by the existence of the mass socialist movement, so Yeats’ poetic enterprise was enabled by the tide of revolutionary nationalism in Ireland.’ ‘W. B. Yeats’ in Figures of Dissent, Verso, London, 2003, p.53.

2. See also J. Pavitt, Fear and Fashion in the Cold War, V&A Publishing, London, 2008, p.49 and passim.

3. Emma Tarlo, Visibly Muslim, Berg, Oxford and New York, 2010. 

Nasim Nasr is an Adelaide based artist. Dr Adam Geczy is an artist and writer who is Senior Lecturer in Sculpture and Art Theory at Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney. His book Fashion and Orientalism (Berg/Bloomsbury) is forthcoming.