Art review: 'My Super Hero: New Contemporary Art from Iran' at Morono Kiang
“Abuse of power comes as no surprise,” wrote Jenny Holzer in the late 1970s. It’s a sentiment borne out by the work of the 31 artists featured in “My Super Hero: New Contemporary Art from Iran.” On view simultaneously at Morono Kiang Gallery in L.A. and Aaran Gallery in Tehran, the ambitious exhibition could hardly be more timely. As the ongoing tumult in the Middle East has made painfully clear, the whole question of heroism and leadership — who should lead and how — is fraught with the specters of corruption, oppression and abuse. Aaran Gallery director Nazila Noebashari has assembled a wide range of works notable not only for their debunking of superhero mythology, but also for the often veiled and clever ways in which they get their message across.
Noebashari asked the artists — most of whom live in Iran — to respond to the superhero theme, and each artist created two works, one for each gallery. In some cases, the works are duplicates; in others, they are totally different, reflecting not only the irreproducibility of certain pieces, but the differences in cultural context between Los Angeles and Tehran. For example, the gallery attendant noted that although it seems relatively benign in L.A., Behdad Lahooti’s bronze sculpture of a turban would be problematic in Iran because it could be seen as a disrespectful take on a symbol of religious devotion. Siamak Filizadeh’s image of an inflatable Spiderman whose air valve is in a sexually suggestive location would also be unacceptable. And Maryam Amini’s painting of severed male genitalia — with a pair of scissors stored tidily in a Plexiglas box behind it — is similarly beyond the pale.
Other artists take a more oblique approach to social and political issues. Nasim Davari’s painting of Tlazolteotl giving birth is at once a visceral image of an Aztec goddess and an implicit critique of fundamentalism and sexism. Tlazolteotl presides over filth and midwives, but also purification and forgiveness; she unites rather than polarizes. Arash Fayez also triangulates other points in history to shed light on current events; he has stapled brief, critical comments to archival photographs of erstwhile “heroes” Hitler and Mao.
Still other artists are inspired by Iran’s storied past. In Nazanin Pouyandeh’s delicate painting, a man wearing a golden crown sits atop a mountain of garbage. The armored figures in Ala Ebtekar’s drawings look like Japanese anime characters but are outfitted with ancient Persian headgear and weapons. Ebtekar created them in response to an antique book he bought in Iran featuring some of the earliest known drawings of robot-like machines.
By contrast, some works suggest that real superheroes are everyday people. Newsha Tavakolian’s striking photograph of a young woman wearing a black hijab and bright red boxing gloves suggests untapped potency. And Sahand Hesamyan’s self-portrait, “Me as a Lion, As a Hero,” is a Transformers-esque mirrored mask that is half armor, half disco ball.
Not all of the works are as striking or as eloquent, but that’s to be expected in any show of this size and range. What is remarkable is that these artists continue to have faith in aesthetic strategies as an undercover mode of dissent and critique. It will be interesting to see, if the Middle East’s “superheroes” continue to fall, whether they will always have to be so stealthy.
-- Sharon Mizota
Morono Kiang Gallery, 218 W. 3rd St., L.A., (213) 628-8208, through April 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.moronokiang.com
Photos: (top) Newsha Tavakolian, "My Superhero," 2011, and (bottom) Nazanin Pouyandeh, "Le vent mauvais (The ill wind)," 2011. Credit: Courtesy of Morono Kiang Gallery.