Review: Reza Rezaï's Mehmoon at TRUCK Contemporary Art
By Louis Fermor
Vol. 1 Issue 02 Fall 2019
Mehmoon is exhibiting in Mohkinstsis (Calgary) on Treaty 7 Territory from 14 September - 19 October 2019
"... rather than leaning into the heroics of racialized victimhood that a white liberal audience may want to see, Mehmoon encapsulates a seemingly contradicting reality of being a second-generation person of diaspora."
Reza Rezaï. Vogue, 2017. Photo courtesy of TRUCK Contemporary Art.
3. "Fashion in the Persian-Blue Gardens of the Sun", Vogue, photographed by Henry Clearke, 1969. The models featured were Marisa Berenson, Lauren Hutton, and Cynthia Korman.
If a masculine-privileging person uses images of women and landscapes that he (and many, including myself) critique for objectification or erasure, are those images further objectified when being used for the self-narrative of his show? How does this change if that man is Iranian-Canadian and those images are of white women modelling clothing for a 1969 Vogue photoshoot3, while using places of Iranian cultural importance, such as the Gate of All Nations and the Apadana in Persepolis, as an exotic backdrop?
For his first solo show, titled Mehmoon, at TRUCK Contemporary Art, Winnipeg-based artist Reza Razaï has installed sixteen works that use a range of printing techniques over a range of materials and has installed them in almost every way a print can be. Behind glass, on the glass itself, onto fabric stretched over a frame, onto silk loose and hanging in the air. Rolled, hung high above a doorway, leaning against a wall. For Mehmoon, Rezaï has included images of his own and those created by others: figuring out which is which is often where the narrative of colonialism, race, diaspora, and history take place. A procedure of production and reproduction is at work — a system of appropriation and re-appropriation. Determining where the image lies within this procedure often indicates where it lies within Rezaï’s portrayal of the image’s agency.
If it’s been appropriated by Rezaï from somewhere else, the original iteration was most likely produced by a white man or, alternatively, has a white person or object of violence as its subject. Images that are shown in a state unaltered from their original incarnation, are those made by Rezaï himself or another Iranian artist (such as the documentary short film that is being shown in concert with Rezaï’s work in TRUCK’s adjacent Parkade space, The House is Black directed by Forough Farrokhzad).
Reza Rezaï. Boys Don't Cry, 2017. Photo courtesy of TRUCK Contemporary Art.
2. These charges were later vacated because, after an appeal, it was found by a judge that witnesses in the trial had been biased because of North’s earlier televised congressional testimony, which is considered an immunized testimony in the U.S.
For Boys Don't Cry, it is deep within this procedure of reproduction/re-appropriation that a poignancy lies. Printed onto a pink silk-stretched frame is a photo of Ronald Reagan on the back of a jumping horse, presumably on his famous idyllic and beloved ranch in Santa Barbara. Sharing the same expanse of soft, peaceful pink is the mugshot of Oliver North, the American Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who in 1989 (and during Reagan’s second term) was convicted for the sale of weapons through intermediaries to Iran, during the Iran-Iraq war2. Printed onto the top right corner of the canvas there is a photo of a rifle’s trigger, with a portrait attached to the body of the gun depicting Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and leader of the 1979 revolution. In the bottom left, an outstretched brown hand against a blue sky (is it a tanned white person’s hand or a person of colour? We can’t see any other part of the figure in the photo). None of these images were created by Rezaï, but their being placed next to one another in a pink, silk visual field prompts the viewer to consider the possibility of new contexts for them. The photos, likely originally provided to a public through American news media, are now draped within a soft pink aesthetic. The bravado of Reagan’s horse jumping, the incriminating severity of a mugshot’s portrait, the implied violence and knee-jerk Islamophobia of a gun with Khomeini’s portrait, and the assumed racial identity of the outstretched hand — all of these types of viewing that revolve around assumptions made by the viewer gained from Western media are counter-intuitively softened and aestheticized within Rezaï’s new presentation of them. Removed from their masculinist assertions by this pink halo, Rezaï has created a visual environment that invites the viewer to consider an image’s potential for multiplicity in meaning.
Reza Rezaï. Mehmoon, installation shot, 2018. Photo courtesy of TRUCK Contemporary Art.
"... if an artist uses(/takes) an image from somewhere, what process does it have to go through in order for there to be a reclamation? What people need to cited in the new iteration of the image that were perhaps left behind/erased in the first?"
The diversity of installation, texture, and systems of viewing through out Mehmoon mirrors the tangled experience of navigating a marginalized identity within the burgeoning intersectional awareness of art spaces. For any socio-political topic I’ve come into contact with, there’s always been a more complicated reality to how reclamation is actually happening than the watered-down understanding that a greater public has come to understand it by. A marginalized artist will find themselves being accepted or celebrated quicker by a general audience when they have a message, story, or context that is easy to understand and able to be streamlined into a normative media’s voice: “I am this, and this is who hurt me, and this is how they did it.” This abated narrative was(/is) popular within neoliberalism and capitalism because it still offers an opportunity for someone to easily propel their self-value forward by consuming the trauma of another and becoming better themselves for doing so. A visitor could(/can) enter a gallery space, look at the work of a marginalized artist, view the trauma of the artist and their community, and then just leave the gallery considering their interaction with the margins as something secluded to that space. However, with the introduction of intersectionality in these viewings comes the introduction of complex and sometimes conflicting descriptions of identity. And now, hopefully, the visitor to the gallery leaves with questions instead of complacency.
Something that I questioned after Mehmoon was what I had heretofore considered necessary for acts of reclamation. Is there a formula for who the artist has to be in relationship to who originally created(/took) an image, and who the image is actually of, in order for reclamation to follow through? If an artist uses(/takes) an image from somewhere, what process does it have to go through in order for there to be a reclamation? What people need to cited in the new iteration of the image that were perhaps left behind/erased in the first? For almost every work in Mehmoon, this evaluation of the realities of intersectionality can be seen. Two works in particular stood out to me as sites for this re-evaluation.
Reza Rezaï. Contra, 2019. Photo courtesy of TRUCK Contemporary Art.
The first is a 48x48” sign that takes its title after one of the glowing words spelled across it, Contra. Rezaï has used pink neon to highlight specific letters within these words, which contrast the surrounding letters in blue. Organizing the words on the sign so that, when stacked on top of each other (I Think/ You're/ A/ Contra), the middle row of letters are highlighted in pink, and spell out “Iran” vertically.
Admittedly, when I first saw the work I didn’t know the text was the name of a song from the pop/indie band Vampire Weekend. A friend that I was attending the opening of the show with pointed this out to me. And it wasn’t until I attended the artist talk that I understood the context of the word “contra”.
In the 1980’s the U.S. government was looking to fund Nicaraguan right-wing, paramilitary rebel groups that were opposing the socialist Sandinista's Junta of National Reconstruction government. These groups were referred to as “contras”. During a time of their own push for an international arms embargo against them, it was through the secret sales of weapons to Iran (the same that Oliver North was convicted for), that funding for the contra-backing was made for the U.S.. The resulting scandal, known as the Iran-Contra Affair, was the partial inspiration for Vampire Weekend’s 2010 #1 US Billboard 200 album Contra. I remember when the album came out, and enjoying the lyrical synth-pop songs that made their way through Canadian radio stations and American movie soundtracks. I do not remember ever learning of their association with the Iran-Contra affair while listening to them. In a simple visual presentation of five words and two different colours, Rezaï has brought attention to how a music album (and one produced by Vampire Weekend’s Iranian-American band member Rostam Bamanglij) was at one point the most highest consumed in America, but was simultaneously erased of its political nature after distribution among the channels of popular Western media. Nine years after the album’s initial release, Rezaï reminds us of its political origins.
Reza Rezaï. Bibi, 2016. Photo courtesy of TRUCK Contemporary Art.
3. These stickers were a collaboration between Supreme and Italian designer and architect Alessandro Medini (another white man). Medini passed in February of this year.
BiBi, is a framed inkjet print reproduction of a photograph taken by the white, male French photographer Jean Gaumy in 1986 for Magnum Photos, an international photography cooperative. Magnum was originally founded in 1947 Paris by Robert Capa, David “Chim” Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, William Vandivert, Rita Vandivert, and Maria Eisner. With a focus on photo-journalism, Magnum was one of the first photograph cooperatives owned by its photographers who retain copyright of their work. At the beginning, the founding photographers were assigned general areas of the world to cover: Africa and the Middle East, South and East Asia, Europe and the United States. The cooperative has turned into an international juggernaut; primarily male, white photographers document images of violence, revolution, landscape, and celebrity all over the world. Chances are if you’ve seen a photo of an Afghan girl named Sharbat Gula on the cover of National Geographic (Steve McCurry), a photo of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (Stuart Franklin), the 17-year old flower child Jan Rose Kasmir holding a chrysanthemum before a rifle, or Marilyn Monroe lying undressed in white bed sheets (Eve Arnold) — then you’ve seen a Magnum photo.
In 1986 Gaumy travelled to Iran to cover the Iran-Iraq War and photographed a gun training. In his photograph, eight Iranian women wearing burkas stand in a row, eyes partially closed against the sun, with their arms raised to aim guns at whatever is in front of them (and out of the visual field of the photograph). Rezaï, for his re-appropriation, has framed the photograph and placed Supreme gun stickers3 on the glass surface, obscuring the view of each of the guns held by the women. Supreme, an American skateboarding and hip hop clothing brand, was once a small company started in 1994 by James Jebbia but is now one of the most influential and highest-grossing brands in the fashion industry (and has been accused by many to have stolen the style of its iconic red and white logo from the artist Barbara Krueger). Placing these, if genuine, expensive stickers profited off of by a white man over a photograph taken by another white man and of a group of nameless Iranian women creates a tone of evaluation: evaluating the ownership, appropriation, and agency of an image. By placing the Supreme gun sticker over the photograph, Rezaï has made the point that the two are not unlike: both are images of implied violence created by white men that profit white, American visual culture. From my own place within Western society I was able to easily see and agree with this summation. But I questioned: is Rezaï’s re-appropriation of this image (himself a man) a reclamation for the women in the photograph? As a second-generation Iranian-Canadian Rezai has more contextual awareness of this photograph and its significance for Iranian people than a second generation English-Scottish-Canadian person like myself (or similarly Euro-Western identity) would ever have. So there’s every possibility that a man re-using a photograph depicting anonymous women without naming or centralizing them has a different significance to someone like him than it does to someone like me when the racial and cultural identity of those women is a factor. I can imagine the impossibility of even finding information such as their names (I wasn’t able to find anything while researching the photo myself), and perhaps this speaks to the lack of access that a racialized Canadian person has to their background, beyond the scope of white Western media.
I don’t believe that I’m in a position to critique Bibi for lacking an argument against the anonymizing white gaze that has been laid upon the women in the photo. The white photographer who clicked the shutter button in 1986 deemed it wasn’t necessary to integrate their names or biographies into the work before distribution, and I doubt it’s possible to centralize the women’s individuality and personhood with finding their names, by an artist now in 2019. But I will say that the complicated and, to me, contradicting layers of identity politics in Mehmoon left me wondering what conflict an artist of a diasporic population may feel when having to use images of their parent country or land when those images were created by a white person or media. And whether, because of the circumstances that they are living in now and the limited resources that Western media offers them, reclamation can look the same as more privileged people have come to expect it to.
Rather than leaning into the heroics of racialized victimhood that a white liberal audience may want to see, Mehmoon encapsulates a seemingly contradicting reality of being a second-generation person of diaspora. Someone who feels the trauma of Iranian experiences/identity/family history but who is also willingly or unwillingly shaped by the pop culture and gaze of white Canada.