Painting a State of Suspension

by Narges Bajoghli

“The Chronicle of Her Innocence” by Bahar Behbahani at NYU Abu Dhabi
19 Washington Square North, New York, NY 10003
September 29, 2011 – January 27, 2012

“I, and only I, am responsible for what I recall and see, not individuals in the past who could not have known what effect they might have on me.” (Edward Said)

Sitting in her airy studio in Brooklyn, hair pulled back in a loose bun, and in comfortable work clothes with paint on her sleeves, Bahar Behbahani excitedly points to this line from Edward Said’s memoir, Out of Place (2000). One of two books sitting on her spotless work desk, Out of Place becomes a natural part of our conversation as we talk about memories, home, childhood, immigration, the Middle East, war, and stereotypes. “The importance of words, symbols, and signifiers to Edward Said really resonates with me,” Behbahani says as she flips through her notebook where she’s copied her favorite passages of his text.  “The way he plays with words, his attention to their meanings, is what I try to do with my paintings.” For the Iranian-born artist, Said’s notions of immigration and memories resonate on a deeply personal level.

"Mahboob" by Bahar Behbahani

Born in Tehran in 1973, Behbahani was barely six years old when the Iranian Revolution swept through the country at a dizzying speed, deposing Mohammad Reza Shah and eventually leading to the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Just a year after the Revolution, Behbahani witnessed the beginnings of the Iran-Iraq War, the longest conventional war of the twentieth century, which claimed one million lives. Of her childhood, she writes, “Fighting, hiding, bravery, timidness and covering my femininity were what I learned in school. At the same time, my mother and father worked hard to teach me to question what I learned from the outside world.” As the granddaughter of a prominent cleric, religion pervaded her childhood. Yet Behbahani always saw a difference between the religion of her grandparents’ house and the institutionalized and politicized religion of post-revolutionary Iran.  This interplay of institutional/official truth and personal questioning drive Behbahani’s art: “Learning that the truth is fabricated has become a part of me since childhood. I think this exists for many in my generation in Iran. This constant differentiation between public and private behavior, the way that we manipulate language to reveal nuances, this sense of being a stranger in your own society. This is all a part of me.”

When she was invited to the United States in 2002 for an exhibition, Behbahani’s cousins encouraged her to stay and to make a living for herself in the U.S. as an artist. With the rest of her family in Iran, however, Behbahani visits often and continues to work on projects in Iran and with fellow Iranian artists.  “In some ways, I don’t think of myself as settled in one location. I’m always traveling, either literally or figuratively.”

Formally trained as a painter in Iran, Behbahani went on to work in video art as well. She is currently in post-production on her latest work, which she filmed in Turkey. And an exhibit of her paintings, The Chronicle of Her Innocence, is on view at New York University’s Abu Dhabi Institute through January 27, 2012.

After moving to the United States nine years ago, Behbahani began to see that the issues that preoccupied her and many from her generation in Iran, those of propaganda and “truth fabrications” in the media and from the state are not endemic to Iran. “Living in another country made me see that these issues that we thought only existed in Iran are not exclusive to any one country. Instead, I see manipulation, domination, and fabrications all around. But it took moving out of Iran and experiencing different places to see that. And now, after a few years outside of Iran, I can approach the country of my birth as an observer, a spectator.”

In The Chronicle of Her Innocence, Behbahani’s practice as an observer is on display.  In a series of six paintings, Behbahani explores memories, childhood, history, politics, and what she calls “Iran’s psychogeographic landscape.” Grounded in Iranian culture and history, the paintings pose questions about Iranian war propaganda during the 1980s.  The large 2’ x 3’ paintings demand the viewer’s attention with their tones of soft maroon and purple.  From a distance they almost seem serene, until the viewer realizes the multiple layers and quite explicit images: water lilies gradually dissolve into hand grenades; two donkeys have sex in front of a famous Iranian female poet; a man urinates on the tulips of martyrdom, while a woman looks on with a mischievous smile; and a famous war slogan encourages young men to fight: “Tulips bloom from the blood of martyrs.” In “Laleh” (Tulip: 2010: 3’ x 2’, mixed media on canvas), a woman with a chador stands in the middle of the painting staring out at the viewer with a mischievous smile on her face. She has a teapot and bird on top of her head, and paisleys surround the wall around her. The paisley’s begin to morph into penises, as you look further down the painting, where you then find a man urinating profusely on top of red tulips. Right above the red tulips is the famous slogan: “from the blood of the youth” which the Islamic Republic utilized to praise martyrs during the Iran-Iraq War. Behbahani implores us to see beneath these slogans by bringing to our attention that this now-cliched exhortation to war was actually a call to resistance during Iran’s Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), the first constitutional revolution in the Middle East, asking the youth to fight against the Qajar Dynasty.  Though not immediately evident in the paintings themselves, unless one is familiar with Iranian history, Behbahani does provide the viewer with some guidance regarding the history of symbols she plays with in the exhibition statement.

“My generation grew up singing revolutionary songs and chanting nationalistic slogans in schools. We played with those chants, learned them by heart, and saw them on murals throughout our childhood. This slogan in particular was all over the radio when I was growing up and painted on countless murals” Behbahani recalls. “But when I began to research this slogan, I found that it actually had a deep history and was used for political purposes nearly 100 years before. For me, The Chronicle of Her Innocence is about that layering: the layers of my memories coupled with historical manipulations, symbols, and their multiple signifiers.

“This all came to the fore during the time period from 2009 to 2010. It is during that two-year period that I felt deep transformations in this innocence, and hence the title of the show.”  Behbahani refers to one of the watershed moments in her generation’s history: in the summer of 2009, Iran witnessed the largest protests since the 1979 Revolution.  In the presidential elections of June 2009, many Iranians who supported reformist presidential contenders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, decried what they saw as electoral fraud upon the announcement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection. Millions took to the streets of Tehran on June 13, 14, and 15, demanding to know “where is my vote?” Shrouded in green (the color of Mousavi’s campaign), Iranians broadcast what became known as the “Green Movement” to the world via their cellphone images on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Barely one week into the protests, the state cracked down with a vengeance. In the two years since the outbreak of the Green Movement, thousands of students, activists, artists, union leaders, journalists, and scholars have been imprisoned and tortured. Over 150 have been killed, and scores have gone into exile in the last two years. Behbahani writes in the exhibition statement that this series “though saturated in ambivalence, is a diary of my quest for truth in a land of subterfuge.”

Video Stil from "Saffron Tea" by Bahar Behbahani

Behbahani also made two video pieces, Suspended and Saffron Tea, during her return to Iran. “In Iran, I saw that I and many other people like me are in a state of suspension, living in a world that seems upside down,” she says of that time. The sense of displacement and confusion permeates both her paintings and her films. The subjects of both genres of Behbahani’s work find themselves in a world they cannot understand and in which they are alienated.

These works engage directly with recent events in Iran and with Iranian history. In The Chronicle of Her Innocence, Behbahani employs symbols that have very specific meanings for Iranian audiences, such as donkeys (to represent passivity, inferiority, and idiocy), red tulips (martyrdom), and quotes from poems or political slogans that she paints in Persian, offering no translations.  “Using such deeply rooted cultural symbols may limit the audience I can speak to, and I struggle with this.  But, no matter how much I want to be universal in my work as an artist, I’ve come to learn that by working in specificities I can tell a story that many can relate to, even if they do not understand the specific symbols I use.”

Yet Behbahani aims to infuse her art with multiple layers so that viewers not familiar with Iran or the Middle East can connect: “I want more than one reading for my work,” she states. “I took care not to represent the young woman in Suspended as a tortured victim. Instead, she’s a passive performer, spinning slowly as a figure in an inverted music box. Ambiguity is key to the universal appeal in this work. From a Middle Eastern viewpoint, Suspended might describe the loss of individual power in a politically and morally restrictive environment. At the same time, the scenario could be making a statement about the psychological confinement of a media-saturated Western culture.”

Behbahani says that some viewers have asked about the message of The Chronicle of Her Innocence, confused by the multiple layers in each painting that merge past and present, and bleed imagination with reality. “In this series I’m posing questions.  I have no answers to those questions. Maybe because of the time period I made this series in, I just felt an urgency to paint these scenes. It is a series full of questions around the propaganda we faced as children and the cultural symbols we hold dear as a society.”  Behbahani’s work speaks deeply to a young generation who has experienced the mundane daily violence of living in a society like Iran.  Behbahani’s work neither essentializes nor dramatizes the struggles of living in Iran.  Instead, she shows the absurdities as they exist in everyday life, uninterrupting daily routine. In Behbahani’s work, life goes on despite the absurdities.

Narges Bajoghli is a PhD candidate in socio-cultural and linguistic Anthropology at New York University as well as a documentary filmmaker in NYU’s Center for Culture and Media.  Her research focuses on the production of media and popular culture in Iran. She is the director of the Chemical Victims Oral History Project in Tehran, as well as the co-founder of the 501c3 organization Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB, 

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