Aphrodite Désirée Navab


Through twenty-two years of art practice I have learned that photography is part myth, part reality, part fiction, part truth. But how to explore this rich paradox within my own art? This was the dilemma that motivated me to conceive of the Tales Left Untold (2000) series. I had already investigated issues of identity in earlier work, but I was coming to see that the way the photograph makes and breaks identities within the image itself is entirely another matter. The struggle, then, is to make photographs that comment on the very nature and culture of photography.

In this paradoxical and irreverent spirit, I dressed up in a traditional Persian outfit and explored hiding places. After traveling in the West of the United States, I found the recreated Mormon Pioneer town in Salt Lake City to be an ideal setting for exploring identity, playing roles, being known and unknown, telling and withholding. I never reveal all of me, nor all of the scene. In most of this photographic series, actually, only part of a feature or scene is shown, so as to allow more space for interpretation by showing less. Just as I have had to pick up the pieces of my identity along the way, so too, must the viewers of my exhibition turn the photographs into tales which make sense to them. My aim was to invite people to come and see this real and unreal world, this theater of identities. I tore the edges of all the photographs. I tore away at the straight documentary tradition of having to keep everything straight. I tore them to look like torn memories, torn identities–bits and pieces wanting to be whole. Tattered tales defy straight paths. Not to become larger straight angles, but to take on shapes not yet identified. Ultimately the tales are ways of a new North American, a Middle Eastern-North American woman trying to write her own myths within the older myths of North America.

In my subsequent series, I Am Not A Persian Carpet (2001), I challenge the ways that cultures have been reduced to commodities. Based on my observations in Europe and North America, it is not an exaggeration to say that in the West, the only thing known about Persian culture may very well be its carpets. In the United States specifically, all products from Iran were banned, the most lucrative ones––and, therefore, the most forbidden––being Persian carpets and caviar.

I printed my body with black ink from wooden printing blocks that have many of the motifs used in Persian carpets. At times it is difficult to tell where the “real” carpet on my floor ends and the “human” carpet begins. However, the full female body or self is never shown, only fragments. At the same time that I embody the stereotype, I challenge it by being disembodied, as each photograph shows bits and pieces of a female identity that defies neat categorization. There are hints and clues to a particular identity, but they are neither definite nor complete.

Through this series I hope to facilitate an encounter that will lead viewers to think deeply about the ways the Middle East has been stereotyped, where people have been turned into objects and categories. My photographs explore these issues in and of themselves, but also provide the space for others to debate them. At the same time that I am Not a Persian Carpet is a protest, it also serves as an invitation to ask difficult but necessary questions.

In my series, I Am Not a Persian Painting, I perform in the photograph, pondering where my place is as an Iranian Greek American woman photographer in the history of the predominantly male tradition of Persian painting. In the end, I am both subject and object of my own composition, writing my own story against the backdrop of Iranian and American art.

My photographic performance series, Super East-West Woman (2002-ongoing) is motivated by a strategy of using humor and my own body for political and cultural critique. The idea started to take shape in 2002 after President George W. Bush branded Iran as one of the three nations comprising an “axis of evil.” It re-minded me of when I was nine years old and escaped with my family during the Islamic revolution in 1978-79. Iran’s new leaders labeled the United States as the country of the “Great Satan.” Growing up in the USA, I was destined to critique the two nations and cultures that inhabit my identity and who are so bent on vilifying each other. As an Iranian American, the demonization of the Other becomes a daily negation of the Self. At once you are depicted evil by the political propaganda of both ends of your identity: doubly evil, double negative, negating each other so that in the end you are good, because the evil cancels each other out.

So I took my chador (Farsi for Islamic covering) and turned it into a cape. The Superman figure of popular Western culture is transformed into a Superwoman whose chador turns into a cape of agency. She pokes fun at herself, her two cultures, and the ludicrous situations in which her life, between East and West, has placed her. Cultural displacement has not left her incapacitated; rather, it has given her the capacity to live out her healing vision. Armored with her Persian amulets and Greek anti-evil eye bracelets, Super East-West Woman hopes to chase away the evil for which each nation blames the other.

Super East-West Woman allows her audience to have a good laugh with her-- to invite and create an opening for conversation in the way that strong humor can do and take the dialogue to an inter-cultural and inter-national level.

In my series, She Speaks Greek Farsi (2009), my abdomen serves as the site of language. An expression in Greek, to speak any language in a “Farsi way”, is a comment on how fluent and well someone speaks that language. So to speak “Greek Farsi” or “English Farsi” is to speak Greek or English well. By implication and inspiration, if such a compliment exists today (despite the ancient history of war between the Greeks and the Persians), then other similar signs of respect between antagonistic nations might be possible.

From the concrete world of my embodied experience, language is abstracted. At once personal and universal, private and public, I write words on my skin from the flesh of my own tri-cultural heritage. Words whose meanings, however, hold great potency for anyone who has had to relocate and emigrate: family, place, language, love, friend, birth, land, home, person, history, life, memory, body, self, and world.

My own skin is the surface paper on which my art is born. Imagine love written on a womb like the stretch marks from giving birth. Words turn into marks of labor in the creative act. I write in what was my childhood’s handwriting on my skin, performing language. The Greek and Farsi words come from opposite directions, but meet in the middle, creating a calligraphy that travels somewhere between private graffiti and public tattoo. Against the backdrop of the political tensions between Iran and the United States, my work stands as an alternative interaction between differing cultures to the usual domination or demonization.

My next series was Super East-West Woman’s Sufi Dance: Egypt (2010). Beginning on Christmas day, December 25, 2010, Super East-West Woman performed a Sufi dance for peace in Egypt. Spinning round and round in a dance for union and love in front of mosques and churches in Cairo, on the Nile, on rooftops of expanding New Cairo and at the foot of the Sphinx and pyramids in Giza, Super East-West Woman invites others to imagine a 'third space' of working, contesting and reconstructing, allowing other positions to emerge--a space of trans-national and cross-cultural initiations. Both the revolution in Egypt and the increased sanctions by the UN against Iran’s nuclear program, make Super East-West Woman’s Sufi Dance both timely and necessary.

In my series, Super East-West Woman: Forty Pillars (2011), I performed as a pillar, marking each of my forty years of life. Like the sculpted female figures, the Caryatids, of the Acropolis’ Erechtheion in Athens (421-407 BC), Super East-West Woman is both the literal column and the metaphorical support, carrying the weight of her Greek and Iranian heritage on her head: a history of both war and peace. In each of the ten photographs of the installation, my veiled back is linked to the reflection of my face in the glass of the retired Tramway cabins of my permanent home in the United States. These cabins have been replaced by new ones that are busy taking passengers back and forth on cables suspended in air from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island in New York City. The 20 instances of Super East-West Woman in the photographs are reflected in mirrors, creating 40 representations of her. The installation re-enacts the architecture of the Chehel Sotun (Forty Columns in Farsi, 1664 AD) palace of my native city Isfahan, Iran, where 20 actual columns meet 20 reflected columns in a pool of water in front of the palace, creating 40 columns in the imagination and giving it its name. After thirty years of taking me back and forth since I relocated from Iran as a ten year-old, the Tramway has become my portable Chehel Sotun, the exiled palace of a nomad.

Super East-West Woman performs as a modern Caryatid supporting a Chehel Sotun in the air, carrying the political histories of war and peace of her three identities. Just as her chador (Islamic veil in Farsi) turned into a cape, allowing her to fly in earlier series, Super East-West Woman transcends being a stationary column into a ferry-woman who takes her passengers back and forth, between East and West. The installation invites a space for re-imagining our conceptions of passive and active, past and present, real and unreal, life and art, presentation and re-presentation, personal and public history, and relations between Iran and the USA.

In my series, I Am Not a Miniature (2013), I take on the exclusively male artistic tradition of miniature painting, by performing it and including my own story. The marks on the artist's skin form a canvas interwoven with the marks of the projected painting, where miniature becomes monumental and personal becomes political, bridging the histories of once enemy empires-- Persian, Greek and Ottoman. From the flesh of my own bicultural heritage, the photographs travel somewhere between private graffiti and public tattoo. My abdomen serves as the site of the intersections of competing cultures and politics, where Alexander the Great is depicted in Persian miniatures, or Adam and Eve are depicted in an Ottoman one, or a miniature begun in Shiraz is then completed in Istanbul.

My latest work: The Blind Owl Meets the Hunger Artist (2014-present) is an ongoing series of ink drawings where I imagine an invented encounter between the protagonist of Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat's novella The Blind Owl and the protagonist of Czech writer Franz Kafka's short story, "The Hunger Artist." Metaphors, allegories, and themes are explored of the artists in voluntary exile, the nature of performance art, the real and the ideal, rituals of insanity, the existential crises of the artists and their autobiographical narratives. Curator, Negin Sharifzadeh had been following my work for several years and invited me to participate in a group show in September 2014 in Soho. I hung the drawings on a wall in an installation partially concealed by a hospital privacy screen and a doctor’s stool, bringing the viewer and the work into an institutional relationship of clinical scrutiny.

It is in the process of my art that I dislocate and relocate my place between the Iran and the United States. Each exhibition or installation provides a material reference for me after having left my first relatives, friends, home, language and culture. Each series places a foundation stone into a new home that I am building away from home, but always in critical dialogue with the memory of that first home. To be ‘unhomed’, as cultural studies theorist Homi Bhabha puts it, does not mean that I am ‘homeless’. Nor does it mean that I can be accommodated easily. By occupying two places at once, a cultural hybrid becomes difficult to place. It is within this ‘third space’ of working, contesting and reconstructing that the hybrid cultural identity creates an opening for other positions to emerge–a space of transnational and cross-cultural initiations.

Homeling was my Greek grandmother Efigenia’s pronunciation for homeless. Neither homeless nor at home, homeling captures both the horror and the rapture, in relocating home and world.