Art, Exile, and Dissent

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals

Discussant

Babak Elahi
Rochester University

Presentations

by Annie Pfeifer / Yale University

Comprising the several hundred Iranians living in Germany during the 1920s was a disproportionately influential coterie of Iranian intellectual exiles who converged around Berlin. Drawing on their publications and journals, my paper will make a case for a nascent German-Iranian modernism which was fertilized by cross-cultural and cross-linguistic interactions. Of particular interest are four Persian language journals published in Berlin between 1916 and 1928 which forged a kind of cultural and linguistic nationalism in exile. Steeped in Western culture and equally versed in current Middle Eastern intellectual trends, contributors mediated between different cultures and literary traditions. Due to censorship within Iran, these publications exerted a major influence over the exile community as well as intellectual circles inside Iran. Surveying the work and publications of two major writers, I will argue that they combined German scholarship with a distinctly Iranian national idiom to form an exilic German-Iranian modernist discourse embedded in critiques of both cultures.

In 1916 Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh, Sayyed Ḥasan Taqizadeh and a group of Iranian intellectuals founded the periodical “Kaveh,” which was circulated in Europe and Iran until 1922. A prominent Iranian modernist, Jamalzadeh feared that the adoption of western education would lead to the decline of the Persian language and to a subsequent loss of Iranian identity. Like Joyce, Döblin, and other European modernists, he experimented with language, jargon, and dialects as a means of exploring his multicultural literary inheritance as well as his anxieties about artistic originality. His unique style can be thought of as a German-Persian modernist hybrid, combining Iranian idiom with a direct, European-influenced diction.

Hossein Kazemzadeh Iranshahr, another Iranian intellectual exile, developed a more critical stance toward Western civilization and ideologies, warning his countrymen about emulating the West and espousing a modern Iranian national identity which combined Iranian moral values with Western advancements. A friend of the “Kaveh” circle, he lived in Germany between 1915 and 1936, where he published six German books and founded “Iranshahr,” a Persian language magazine which circulated between 1922 and 1926. Ironically, given his suspicion of Western ideologies, he proposed that Iranian nationalism harness the “blood and soil of the Aryan Race,” indicating he had been influenced by National Socialism. Combining German intellectual thought with Iranian literary and political tradition, writers like Jamalzadeh and Iranshahr forged a critical and not uncontroversial German-Iranian modernist discourse informed by the liminal position of exile.

by Hanieh Ziaei / Ottawa University / Université Paris-Diderot

Art and politics have had a long and complex relationship: in the middle ages artists served the Kings and the Church; later, artists often found themselves marginalized, censured or employed at the service of state propaganda (for example, during the third Reich or under socialist regimes in the former Eastern Bloc). However, Modernist vanguard (for example, Dadaism, Surrealism, Fluxus movements), always insisted on the power of art to raise political awareness, incite radical change, and advance social and individual emancipation. The recent wave of contention and upsurge that have swept the entire world, from the Arab countries (the Arab Spring) to North America (Occupy movements and the 2012 Quebec’s Maple Spring) to Iran (Iran’s Green Movement against the contested 2009 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and the overwhelming use of art in these protests force us to re-examine the intersection of art and agency in the contemporary politics (Pierre Francastel; Nathalie Heinich; Daniel Vander Gucht). In these movements, creativity manifest itself both in the tactics and actions (new media, music, or the naked body and in discursive or visual contents). The disgruntled mobilized masses expressed their dissatisfaction thought these innovative political languages. This history in the making poses a crucial question regarding art, politics and their relation: Could art be a true agent of social and political change and the harbinger of a society in transition or in revolt ? In my paper, I explore the relationship between art and activism, by focusing on different forms of creativity employed by protest and contentious movements in Iran and by Iranian artists. My interests also focus on militant art, creative challenges, as well as the aesthetic, expressive and artistic claim, the role of the artist in Iranian society and its social and political position vis-à-vis the current social, economic, political, and ethical issues. Based on 40 semi-structured interviews with Iranian artists from around the world (Tehran, Paris, Brussels and Montreal), I seek to understand and document their perception of their own creativity. My goal is to understand how they see their role, the strategies they employ and their involvement with various social issues, and their motivations to choose a specific form of "creative resistance" (Cohen-Cruz, Colleran, Biot,). There is a clear distinction between Iranian artists living in Iran, and those living in exile. The former have to deal with censorship and auto-censorship, and the latter committed (politically or socially) to domestic issues in Iran.

by Sholeh Shahrokhi / Butler University

Inspired by recent events in Iran, this paper looks at the triangulation of political protest with the appreciation of aesthetics and the body. Since the protested election of 2009, echoed in the 2013 presidential election, a new breed of artistic creativity is emerging out of Iranian public discourse that agitates political authority, while articulating a critical attention to the body. Although taking to the street and putting oneself before regimes of power and public spectators continues to be the most recognizable form of dissent, the protest art that emerged from the Iranian Green Movement has ratified the possibility of engagement with politics on local and transnational scales. While visual representations have long been deployed as propaganda in favor of particular politics, the emerging aesthetics of protest art in contemporary Iranian political stage illustrates a shift in social engagement on mass scale. What began as the production of “color-coded” campaigns of recent years in Iran (e.g. the green movement, the purple vote) has simultaneously permeated into an outpouring of artistic innovations for political mobilization, inseparable from the visceral experiences and convictions of the public, thus providing empirical evidence on “how visual forms of artistic expressions create new modes of protest.”
More than a mere banner for a political campaign, the incorporation of “taste” and “beauty”, which dominates contemporary public discourse, brings to light the centrality of human agency as creative, imaginative, and affective subjects on the sociopolitical stage in Iran. Protest art enables political engagement to permeate beyond an opposition to the State. Crossing over boundaries of streets and cyberspace, the Iranian Green art of protest evokes nuances about citizenship and artistic interrogation. The Iranian Green art, not only offers a visual outlet for questioning the legitimacy of the ruling power, it also creates a visual context for the intersection of protest, artistic intrigue and the body, thus challenging normative ideals about the protester as trespassing figure across a geography of the desire for hope and change.
Drawing from ethnographic works of the past four years, this paper sketches the imaginative repertoire of political participation across these artistic productions. Here, I argue that creative forms of political engagement have transformed Iranian cultural vernacular through articulation of body art and body as art.