Navab catalogue piece / 18 June 2009
« Exile is predicated
on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with
ones native place
Culture and Imperialism
Aphrodite Désirée Navab veils, unveils,
re-veils and de-veils history, memory, identity, home.
Empty space, filled. Occupied space, suddenly
abandoned. Navab explores the landscape of homesickness. It
is the homesickness of nomads (willing or unwilling), who cannot
locate the exact place of longing. A fragrance, a color, or
a sound invite waves of nameless nostalgia. It is feral homesickness,
cravings sometimes tamed (embraced by meticulous, ancient civilizations),
sometimes chaotic (surrounded by fear and flight).
Navab is at home and not at home in Iran, Greece,
and the United States. She spent her childhood in Esfahan, Iran,
where she was born to a Greek mother and an Iranian father (take
that, Herodotus!) and fled with her family during the Islamic
Revolution in 1978 (when she was eight), first to Greece and
then to the U.S. The Greek and Farsi calligraphy that collides
on Navabs belly in She Speaks Greek Farsi might be visas
tattooed on the skin, permitting entry, yet always vulnerable
to revocation. And they are a kind of boustrophedon, the expressions
of multiple cultures ploughing back and forth stirring into
life that which is half buried and can never be erased.
What does it mean to be an exile? What does it
mean to hold more than one history in the bones, in the cells?
Where has the past gone? How can it be recaptured? The exile
yearns for clues, searches and searches for traces of who she
is and how she might reinvent herself toward a future.
All exiled Iranian-born artists are not alike.
The comparisons can be too facile. Although she uses iconographies
of her (first) homeland(s), often employing her flesh as canvas,
the intent and content of Navabs work seems less akin
to that of, say, Shirin Neshat, than to the performances of
the late Ana Mendieta, who in adolescence was ripped from her
home in Cuba (also in desperate response to a revolution), and
sent to live, alien and isolated, in Iowa. Like Mendietas,
Navabs work is a manifestation of the need for roots and
the desire to belong
as well as a celebration of UNbelonging.
In her performances (captured in photographs), Mendieta, like
Navab, revisited the places of her beginnings, used her own
body as a map to direct her toward home, home hidden and disguised
by layers of time and absence. Her performances, like Navabs,
were rituals, charms against the sorrows and cruelties of displacement,
disorientation, and rootlessness. These are shamanic acts, always
veiled, for the shaman cannot reach the other side and pull
back the curtains unless she is masked.
With her latest photographic performance series,
Navab has accomplished yet another unveiling (and de-veiling)
of identity, all the while remaining necessarily veiled (we
see no face, no familiar countenance), in order to uncover (reveal)
elusive realms. Each series I Am Not a Persian Carpet,
I Am Not a Persian Painting, Tales Left Untold, or Super East-West
Woman: Living on the Axis, Fighting Evil Everywhere sheds
another stratum of Self and Place. Each is a rebirth, grasping
the past to define the present and make it new. Each offers
fresh possibilities, paradoxes, and perplexities. Navabs
rich visual narratives, these memoirs, are infinite.
They are the stories of loss and recuperation. Fables of acculturation.
Tales of transience. And Navab tells them with breathtaking
beauty and eloquence.
JENNIFER HEATH is an independent scholar, curator,
and award-winning activist, journalist, and editor, the author
of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Scimitar
and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam (Paulist Press, 2004),
Black Velvet: The Art We Love to Hate (Pomegranate Artbooks,
1994), On the Edge of Dream: The Women of Celtic Myth and Legend
(Penguin, 1998), and The Echoing Green: The Garden in Myth and
Memory (Penguin, 2000). Her anthology, The Veil: Women Writers
on Its History, Lore, and Politics was published by the University
of California Press in 2008, and Women of Afghanistan in the
Post-9/11 Era: Paths to Empowerment is forthcoming from UCPress
in 2010. She has curated numerous exhibits, including two acclaimed
touring exhibits, Black Velvet: The Art We Love to Hate and
The Veil: Visible & Invisible Spaces.
The Pink Palimpsest
By Ali Adib Soltani, 2009 NY
To speak of Desirée Navabs work is
to delve into the unfathomable ambit of human condition, the
immemorial pursuit of an extradited identity from its Cartesian
cogito in the midst of a crisis.
For if crisis is the ontological range of identity,
the existential matrix of conciliations and conflicts, where
the discrepancies between an ad hoc centrality, i.e. gender,
race, religion, etc. versus a seemingly peripheral indifference
and spontaneity of a nebulous phenomena are brought to the fore,
then by crisis with regard to the self, there is implied a situatedness
or worldliness of an estranged subject utterly dazzled at the
juncture of diverging paths, and yet the only refuge where it
can validate its existence.
This loss of orientation alongside an alienation
associated with a discordant socio-political atmosphere on the
one hand, and a sensual deficit patent in substitutions of direct
experience with transmissions and simulations and thus of action
with reaction, are indications of a widening rift between judging
and doing, thinking and being.
The slant in Desirée Navabs work therefore to restore
this paling identity as it were and its reincarnation in the
body caught in various guises and postures can be partly owed,
on a personal level, to her uprooted status as an immigrant
living in the United states with a Greco-Iranian root; and partly,
on a more general level, to the primal role of the body as a
Whether this is a question of relation or commentary
of Navabs work and thus herself, as she is also the subject
of her work, to what appears as an inaccessible, impenetrable
construct of a socio-political machine, and her presence seen
as a coacervated bootleg, montaged into an alien assemblage,
it is difficult to shrug off the ambivalence in which the very
subject that bears witness to its corporeality, in spite of
all attempts to designate itself, reveal and warrant its subjectivization,
is rendered anonymous (Navab is never fully present in her work),
thus a bas-relief by which there is evoked a mythic other, a
presence other than the literal presence of the subject. In
her own words:
I have learned that art is part
myth, part reality, part fiction, part truth. But how to explore
this rich paradox in my own art?
In her latest work dubbed, She speaks Greek-Farsi
, Navab pursues these notions with the insight of a shaman.
The ground-figure relation, the traditional domain of context
and its content is reversed, deterritorialized, reterritorialized.
In this series, the body cropped to surface as
the background, is the intermediary through which the exigencies
of identity are in turn permitted to surface as text. A double
metaphor, since the signified thing is encoded in a language
not necessarily native to the observer, something that is simultaneously
revealed and concealed, a confession and a secret collapsed
into one; hence also, an imparted sense of insecurity towards
a suspicious meaning which can only be relative. This instability
is further accentuated not only by the opposition of two distinct
types of orthography, Farsi and Greek, which may or may not
be saying the same thing, but also by the smudged bruise-like
patina of the text on the skin.
Here as in Ed Ruschas Liquid Words
series, except here, the letters do actually seem to articulate
a word, the meaning is nevertheless diffused like a defunct
ornament. In her shamanic stance, Navab seems to be revealing
a truth that exceeds the eloquence of language. The body is
not the romantic meeting place of text and texture, rather,
it is the blunt collision site where our primordial ambitions
are summoned back to the gravity of its terrestrial topos, the
walking path of an Heideggerian corpus in search of an authentic
existence, the hope to dwell poetically.
About the Author
Ali Adib Soltani lives and works in New York. He is the principal
of Soltani-Leclercq, an architecture and design firm in partnership
with Francine Leclercq since 1991. He has been a faculty member
at Parsons School of Design, New Jersey Institute of Technology
and the School of Architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
in Troy, NY. His projects and writings on art and architecture
have been published in the United States and Europe.