The public sphere in Iran is laden with restrictions implemented by the Islamic Republic: women must cover their hair outdoors; couples, unless married, cannot hold hands or be affectionate in the streets; no dance clubs; no live concerts with female performers... the list seems endless.
The current exhibition at Berkeley's Alphonse Berber Gallery, Tehran: Public Lives Private Spaces -- New Art and Digital Media from Iran is a series of photographs and video installations depicting these restrictions on public life -- and the defiant private lives of young people in Iran's capital city. Most of the work was created by Tehran-based artists born after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Mahboube Karamli's installation The Girls is a series of photos of young Iranian women sitting on their beds. To describe this work, Karamali wrote, "I think that most of the girls, who are the same age as me, also spend a great amount of time in their bedrooms. If we add to this... the time each girl spends sleeping, one would see that a significant amount of their lives up to this point have been spent on their beds. It is safe to say that these girls are most relaxed in their bedrooms; after all it is their own private space."
We see young Iranian women with their hair unveiled, the skin of their arms and legs defiantly bare. Each stares directly into the camera with a look that seems to say, "I have nothing to hide." The images vary: a woman lays seductively across her bed; another sits cross-legged, smoking a cigarette (an act looked down upon for women in Iranian society); a third is surrounded by a pile of shoes. Each woman is young and beautiful, with a look of confidence in her eyes.
In a back room, Neda Razavipour's video installation, Find the Lost One, shows a split-screen with identical video clips of people walking to and from the entrance to one of Tehran's subway stations. Razavipour removed one of the commuters on one side of the screen; the viewer is meant to find him or her in the half of the video left intact. The installation represents the dozens who have "dissappeared" in Iran in the aftermath of 2009's contested presidential election. Each person on the screen becomes important; any one could disappear at any moment. The sense of anxiety that arises as you try to find the one that has been erased invokes empathy for those Iranian families that must contend with the sudden disappearance of a loved one.
Taraneh Hemami, who helped bring many of the pieces to the United States in January 2010 for a separate exhibition organized by the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Intersection for the Arts, said the difference between indoor and outdoor life in Iran is very tangible. "I think the life that people experience in Iran, the life that people claim as theirs, actually happens indoors," said Hemami. "The public life is completely separated from the private life."
In Mehran Mohajer's piece, Tehran, Undated we view familiar images of Tehran's streets, which we remember from recent coverage of the unrest that followed last year's presidential election. Mohajer used a pinhole camera so that the structure of the city remained, while the people became a blur, effectively depopulating the urban landscape. "We chose artists that use the city as their muse," said Hemami. "[Mohajer's] work became representative of the days right after the election, when the streets of Tehran, a city of 17 million were in fact empty of people, except for when the demonstrations were happening. The city was paralzyed, the shops were closed, and the people stayed indoors after the election."
A collaboration between The Center for South Asia Studies, the Center for Southeast Asia Studies and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, Tehran: Public Lives Private Spaces -- New Art and Digital Media from Iran is on view May 30 - April 10, 2010 at the Alphonse Berber Gallery, 2546 Bancroft Way in Berkeley. The exhibition is part of a program called, Islam Today: New Media and Youth Culture in the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia. For more information visit alphonseberber.com.