Entering the Public: Representations of Women in the Work of Newsha Tavakolian

August 12, 2013

I attended a lecture by Nazila Noebashari, owner of Aaran Gallery in Tehran, when I first started my internship for the Art of the Middle East department here at LACMA. Aaran Gallery is a participant in Iran’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. Noebashari spoke about many artists, including Newsha Tavakolian, who began her career as a photojournalist before establishing herself as an artist.

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from The Day I Became a Woman series, 2009, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from The Day I Became a Woman series, 2009, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

Intrigued by the powerful presence of women depicted in Tavakolian’s work, I decided to focus my senior honors thesis on her series The Day I Became a Woman, from 2009. Born in the United States to Iranian émigrés, I find that exploring the work of Iranian artists, particularly women, provides me with a glimpse of what my life could have been like had my parents remained in Iran. My investigations satisfy my curiosities for a life I never lived.

I was elated when I discovered that LACMA acquired a total of four photographs from The Day I Became a Woman and Listen, from 2011. The former series documents a mandatory modern puberty ritual in Iran known as jashn-e taklif, which acknowledges the beginning of a young girl’s transition into adulthood, much like Judaism’s Bat Mitzvah or confirmation in Christianity. It is important to note that this ceremony, however, was first introduced after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and is not necessarily a longstanding Islamic tradition, nor is it deeply rooted in Iranian culture.

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from The Day I Became a Woman series, 2009, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from The Day I Became a Woman series, 2009, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

The two images acquired by LACMA show the protagonist of the series, Romina, before and after her ceremony. Upon seeing the two works, gallery visitors see a physical change: Romina goes from holding a doll and wearing a revealing pink ballerina outfit to wearing modest clothing, which includes a mandatory hijab. In the Listen series, Tavakolian photographed six professional Iranian women singers and created fictional album covers. In postrevolutionary Iran, many talented artists are rendered voiceless as women are banned from solo performances in public. Unlike other images in this series, which show women singing, the photographs on view in the Islamic galleries feature a young woman standing in the middle of an empty road as well as in the sea.

At first glance, the two sets of photographs seem unrelated. I find that they are in dialogue with each other. Both of these women must be mindful of their actions in public. They also have to protect their reputation because it not only affects them, but also their families. Before knowing that curator Linda Komaroff was interested in these specific photographs, I asked Tavakolian in an interview whether she saw a connection between Romina and the young woman in the Listen series. Tavakolian explained that Romina is “the childhood of the woman with boxing gloves” (of course, not literally). The post-ceremony Romina and the young woman in Listen are incredibly similar in that they both appear defiant, confident, and confrontational, with a hint of vulnerability and melancholy in their expressions.

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from the Listen series, 2011, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from the Listen series, 2011, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

The modest Romina faces the camera with her arms crossed, a departure from the relaxed, innocent Romina we see pre-ceremony. The bright-red boxing gloves worn by the woman in Listen tell us that she’s ready to fight. In the next photograph, she stands with her back against the crashing waves of the sea. Rather than fall over from the force of the water, she is strong and unaffected—Mother Nature herself cannot disturb her.

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from the Listen series, 2011, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian, Untitled from the Listen series, 2011, purchased with funds provided by the Farhang Foundation, Fine Arts Council, and an anonymous donor, © Newsha Tavakolian

The West has a tendency to see Middle Eastern women as oppressed, uneducated, and in dire need of liberation. Representations of strong, fearless Iranian women, as seen in Tavakolian’s work, break down these false stereotypes. (If only these images could reach a greater audience outside of the museum’s walls!) Despite the numerous setbacks women in Iran face, they still remain fierce warriors. Women are a majority in universities, are commonly the heads of their households, are active in political demonstrations, and are leaders in many industries, particularly the arts, which is a highly venerated field in Iran. Newsha Tavakolian herself, who is rapidly becoming one of the most significant artists to come out of Iran, is a testament to the fact that Iranian women have agency and a certain level of autonomy. The Day I Became a Woman and Listen showcase the tenacity and resilience that often characterizes Iranian women at home and abroad.

Tina Barouti, intern, Art of the Middle East


Architecture, Displaced

August 7, 2013

Can omitting the context of location from a photograph of architecture remove its identity? Is a building defined by its country of origin? Is a photograph?

These are some of the questions that come to mind when looking at the works in the exhibition Construction/Deconstruction: Defining Architectural Photography.

Stéphane Couturier, Rue Chateaudun, Paris (1996), Cibachrome print, 40x 50 in., Ralph M. Parsons Fund, AC1997.166.1. © S. Couturier

Stéphane Couturier, Rue Chateaudun, Paris, 1996, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © S. Couturier

Stéphane Couturier’s photograph of a building site (or is it a demolition zone?) embraces the historical layers that are part of the DNA of a city such as Paris. It’s intriguing because the subtle hues of the image seem to embody the tonal light that is characteristic of the City of Light. What if the identifying title, Rue Chateadun, Paris, was stripped from this image? Would the light read as Parisian? Would this photograph have less of an impact?

In many ways, gallery spaces can be seen as abstracted forms of architecture. The galleries at LACMA, for instance, are constantly in flux with the mounting of each exhibition. The gallery spaces that were created specifically for the exhibition Stanley Kubrick will soon be home to Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel FigueroaArt and Film. Where there is now open space will soon be outfitted with walls and structure, in which both still and moving images will be placed.

LACMA galleries in construction.

A gallery at LACMA during construction. Like Couturier’s photograph, the context is removed, and the viewer is left to absorb the vocabulary of the forms within to place the space.

In an image (below) from the 1960s, Manuel Carrillo depicts stonework found in Mexico. It hints of an ancient structure, but is it? By focusing on a detail of a larger structure, Carrillo strips the building down to parts. We can, however, still read the building blocks, the strong light creating deep shadows, and the malevolent bird perching (perhaps a nod Mexican symbolism?).

Manuel Carrillo, Untitled (5022), c. 1960, the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, M.2008.40.441

Manuel Carrillo, Untitled (5022), c. 1960, the Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

Below, this “pop-up” gallery at LACMAshown before emerging from constructionnow houses 17th-century European metals, bronzes, and terracotta. Almost overnight, it transformed from anonymous space to a named gallery.

A gallery in transition.

A LACMA gallery in transition.

The work of Richard Barnes also comes to mind, specifically a suite of images depicting the crime scene that was the Unabomber’s cabin, a site that changed our definition of the term “cabin” forever.  Questions arise with such a consideration: which came first, the location/context or composition/concept?

Richard Barnes, Unabomber Cabin Exhibit B, 1998, gelatin silver print, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, AC199.163.2. © Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes, Unabomber Cabin Exhibit B, 1998, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Richard Barnes

Similarly, Simon Norfolk’s work reference paintings made during the height of the British Empire, in the 19th century. These vast paintings enabled the citizens of the Empire to bring into their homes images of the lands they colonized. Norfolk’s contemporary depiction of the Gates of Baghdad subtly skews this history, as the same edifices that were once celebrated as stakes to a colonial land are depicted in stages of destruction.

Simon Norfollk, The North Gate of Baghdad, 2003, Cibachrome print, 40 x 50 in., Ralph M. Parsons Fund, M.2004.246.  © Simon Norfolk.

Simon Norfollk, The North Gate of Baghdad, 2003, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Simon Norfolk

James Welling’s work from 2003 seems to hint at an future-past L.A., in twilight and not quite in ruins, but a dim glow of its former self.  But what would we infer if it wasn’t labeled West Los Angeles?

 James Welling, West Los Angeles Apartments, 2003, 5 ¼ x 9 in., Gift of the artist, M.2011.173.13. © James Welling

James Welling, West Los Angeles Apartments, 2003, gift of the artist, © James Welling

Even after the many exhibitions throughout L.A. this summer as part of the Pacific Standard Time Presents initiative, the topic of Los Angeles and architecture, and specifically the subgenre of “architectural photography” remains elusive.  Come see this exhibition—and the other PSTP shows—before they close to be part of the discussion.

Eve Schillo
Curatorial Assistant, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


New Acquisition: Robert Rauschenberg, Currents

April 24, 2012

One of the most important artists of the past century, Robert Rauschenberg famously declared himself to be working “in the gap between art and life.” Currents is a superlative example of this radical approach. Hijacking the immersive scale of abstract expressionism, Rauschenberg channeled the energy and anxiety of the world around him. The Cold War, the civil rights movement, the conflict in Vietnam, and the rarefication of high culture: these and other divisive forces had opened the chasm he resolved to occupy.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

Rauschenberg undertook to bring “serious journalism” into the fine-art realm with Currents, which expresses his intention literally, insofar as it comprises screenprinted extracts from the January and February 1970 issues of major metropolitan newspapers. This fusion of high and low culture refers back to Picasso’s incorporation of newspaper in his cubist collages, and to Rauschenberg’s own renowned Combine paintings and sculptures of the mid-1950s. Currents deploys the material and meaning of newsprint, and the work’s brash activism aligns it with the contemporaneous New Journalism. “Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism,” according to Hunter S. Thompson, but for Rauschenberg, truth-telling was worth the risk:

I want to shake people awake. I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of individual responsibility, both for themselves and for the rest of the human race. It has become easy to be complacent about the world…. I made [Currents] as realistically as I could, as austerely as possible, in the most direct way I knew how, because, knowing that it was art, people had to take a second look, at least, at the facts they were wrapping their garbage in.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents (detail), 1970, gift of the 2012 Collectors Committee, with additional funds provided by Gail and Tony Ganz, © Robert Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, photo courtesy Peter Freeman Inc., New York, photo by Jerry Mathiason

The dense messiness of the clippings, strewn across a sixty-foot expanse, creates a disorienting effect. “The world condition permitted me no choice of subject or color and method/composition,” the artist wrote emphatically. The first themes to emerge from the welter of headlines are grim: murders and riots offer stark evidence of social upheaval. More sustained observation reveals an art-world subtext, with articles documenting Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, and a new work by Richard Serra. Art, Rauschenberg suggests, has constructive potential amid general disintegration.

In keeping with his political convictions and experimental ethos, Rauschenberg participated in LACMA’s Art & Technology project simultaneously with his work on Currents. His three-year A&T collaboration with Teledyne resulted in the sound sculpture Mud Muse, a huge tank of sludgy volcanic ash that bubbles audibly as electrical signals pass through it. Deliberately atavistic, Mud Muse is an astute counterpart to Currents, which manifests the equally haphazard signals of so-called civilization.

Rauschenberg had been making large-scale prints for several years, and the commission to fill a long wall at Dayton’s Gallery 12 in Minneapolis gave him the opportunity to exceed all previous efforts by any artist to date. First, he made thirty-six collages, 30 x 30 inches each, which were then photomechanically transferred to screens for printing at Styria Studios in Glendale. Since its display at the Pasadena Art Museum shortly after its completion, Currents has not been seen in Los Angeles. Of the original six editioned prints and two artist’s proofs, one proof was destroyed by the artist, four impressions remain with his estate, and only two are in museum collections (the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts). Rauschenberg’s Currents is a critical work of art in every sense. As a tactical and technical achievement, it is as timely now as ever.

Britt Salvesen, curator and department head, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department and Prints & Drawings Department


Weston’s Modernism

August 16, 2011

Nestled in an intimate room in the Art of the Americas Buildings is a small installation of twenty-five images by Edward Weston that explore tensions between subject/form and light/shadow. The organic spontaneity of the different connections and comparisons in the show encourage engagement beyond the four walls of the exhibition space.

Edward Weston, Legs, 1934, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

Edward Weston, Shells, 1927, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

Indeed, Weston’s articulation of the painterly, the sculptural, and the architectural through the camera points to both the uniqueness of the photographic medium and the infinite possibilities contained in vacant shells, eroded boulders, and smooth expanses of uncovered skin. Weston’s Modernism stands out as an exhibition that is as much about the artist’s personal connection to his work as it is about the viewer’s experience. Not unlike Tim Burton, Weston’s intense focus, immersion into his practice, and aesthetic ethics make for work that is sensitive, personal, and inspiring.

Edward Weston, Eroded Rock – Monterey Coast, 1931, anonymous gift

While helping to finish the installation of the show, several pieces especially exemplified modernist perspectives. In particular, I was drawn to Eroded Rock. The weary lines on the surface, merging, crossing, and diverging evokes the passage of time, the endurance of nature, and most compellingly, the beautiful quietude of pure form. Eroded Rock and many more like it in the show are a must-see in their undefinable capacity for contemplation and appreciation. Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass and Eroded Rock, though different in their dimensionality, share a perfect timelessness through their stolid yet fluid presentation.

The 340-ton boulder which will be a part of Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass

With many new projects coming up on LACMA’s campus, such as Levitated Mass’ arrival this fall, there will be many new things to see.  But to see what has always been around us in new ways continually revives and enriches Los Angeles’ diverse and vibrant art scene.

Kelly C. Tang, Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


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