Aphrodite Désirée Navab


Navab catalogue piece / 18 June 2009
Jennifer Heath

« Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with
one’s native place…
” – Edward Said, 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 Navab’s 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 Navab’s 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 Mendieta’s, Navab’s 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 Navab’s, 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. Navab’s 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 Navab’s 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 Navab’s 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 social nexus.

Whether this is a question of relation or commentary of Navab’s 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 Ruscha’s ‘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.