Reversing The Gaze

by Abigail Han

“From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work.” 
― Edward Said, Orientalism

Some of the loudest voices about Iran surround US accusations of Iranian ballistic missiles used by Houthi, a rebel group in Yemen; Tehran’s violation of international obligations; and President Hassan Rouhani’s claims that Iran is ready to restore ties with Saudi Arabia if it stops bombing Yemen and cuts its alleged ties with Israel. To a watching world, the battle for Iranians lie in the liminal space between criticising the West for over-islamicised perceptions of Iranian identity that emerged from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and in fighting the ruling regime that has committed every crime just to stay in power. It is no wonder that on that same front, the art emerging from that region reflects upon similar struggles.

In a TEDx talk, Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat said, “every Iranian artist, in one form or another, is political. Politics has defined our lives.” With some similarities to Neshat’s work, Hoda Afshar’s photographic series, Under Western Eyes, also contains within its imagery, a visual language that addresses the identity of Iranian women while at the same time criticising the representation of Islamic women as veiled and hence distanced, repressed, and unknowable.

However, Afshar vocally expresses in her artist statement that the desire of this work is to also raise awareness of how “(self-)representations often depend on, and thus reproduce, familiar signs of ‘otherness’ that cater to Western viewers’ and the art markets’ demand for ‘Islamic’ artworks that highlight their cultural difference in safe and predictable ways”. It suggests that the work is not only a criticism of Western representations of Islamic women but also questions the act of self-representation by Iranian artists towards an art world with a ravenous appetite for Islamic stereotypes that emphasise otherness. Celebrating difference as a way to reinforce the Orientalist’s power and voyeuristic gaze, the art world over-exoticises the Orient as an object that can be controlled.

Untitled, Shirin Neshat
Under Western Eyes, Hoda Afshar

Afshar references some notable western visual tropes while employing a pop-art style, a genre of art dominated by male artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Claes Oldenburg, who perpetuated the myth of the (male) artist-as-genius. She follows the footsteps of other women artists like Sturtevant, Evelyne Axell, and Marjorie Strider who have in their own artistic practice reclaimed room in that genre for women artists.

In the series, when our gaze is met by the female subjects, they command a position of fortitude as we are addressed unapologetically. The work simultaneously questions the dominant stereotypes of these veiled women and yet unveils their unique identities that communicate a subversive, sexually-liberated, and fashion-forward persona. These images help us to raise questions surrounding our own views and preconceived notions of the Middle East, particularly Iran, and help us to understand the more nuanced representations of women from that region.

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Selected pieces from the series, Under Western Eyes, are displayed at 1880. This exhibition has been made possible through a collaboration with Sansa Art and 1880 member, Trevor Healy.

Sansa Art is an art advisory firm that works with art collectors, art investors, tech entrepreneurs, and high net-worth individuals to choose the best art for enjoyment and financial appreciation. Unlike traditional auction houses, art dealers, and art funds, Sansa Art uses human know-how and artificial intelligence to bring unique art and financial expertise to the art market. Their AI platform analyses global art data to recommend and pick future internationally-acclaimed artists for their clients.

Abigail Han is the Arts & Events Manager at 1880.