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How do we productively map the historical and contemporary relationships that exist between North Africa, the Middle East and the Global South?

Daria Kirsanova
6 November 2014

In the years that followed the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which triggered the rise of post-colonial studies, the definition of the term 'the Global South' has changed dramatically. At present, whilst the post-colonial discourse itself becomes increasingly outdated, the situation in the south of the world is undergoing dramatic transformations in both the political and economic senses. We can observe the emergence of a number of local power centres that emphasize the cultural, historical and political diversity and complexity in this part of the world. Possibly the most basic common denominator that brings these countries together is their shared cultural space and historical relations: the focal points that I tried to investigate in the two exhibitions that I would like to speak about.


The starting point for the project What? Whose? Why? – a solo exhibition by Taus Makhacheva at Raf Projects in Tehran – was the artist's unorthodox view of the gender question in the region. Unlike many other female artists, she has an avid curiosity in the notion of masculinity and strictly male subcultures in Dagestan. In both her works, The Fast and The Furious (2011) and Let me be Part of a Narrative (2012), Makhacheva dissects the masculine social rituals using the methodical approach of an ethnographer and exposes their true function – performative plays used to deal with underlying social issues and frustrations of everyday life. 




As the project developed, the geo-political context of the Caspian Sea became one of the subjects that Taus Makhacheva and I as a curator became increasingly interested in. The artist suggested reinterpreting her earlier performance, Untitled (2010); originally, this work investigated issues of the social class divide in Moscow. However, now its focus shifted. The work was performed as a two-day road trip in a car along the shores of the Caspian Sea, through Dagestan (the Russian Republic of the North Caucasus), Azerbaijan and the northern parts of Iran to Tehran. The artist travelled with a transparent plastic bag containing her personal belongings. This unusual object was intended to attract the attention of the general public, as well as officials working at the border checkpoints. It raised a question about the value of the border, in both a symbolic and actual sense, in a territory that is undoubtedly a shared cultural space.  


When I was invited by YAY gallery in Baku to take the solo exhibition TalkCloud, by Mahmoud Bakhshi, to Azerbaijan, I thought it was an interesting opportunity to show the work in a context where it would have a multitude of historical references, and see how a project that touches upon the issues which have resonance in the country's history would interact with local audiences.


Bakhshi's practice is focused on the uneasy and intertwined relationships between power holders such as leaders in religion, politics and capital, and the position and responsibility of the artist within this negotiation. TalkCloud (2013) is his most recent body of work, and in it he is looking into the very origins of the notion of so-called 'political engagement' in art. Its lightbox sculptures formally recall traditional Persian calligraphy, but, instead of famous verses of poetry, they reference well-known phrases that comment on the social role of art. The quotes include expressions by the leaders of the Iranian Islamic and Russian Bolshevik revolutions – Khomeini and Lenin – alongside those by the ideologue of 'artistic engagement' and Socialist Realism, Anatoliy Lunacharsky, as well as by Andy Warhol.


In Azerbaijan, where the art education system, although rapidly changing, is still to a large extent based on an old Soviet model, the question about the formative role of art within a society sounds exceedingly timely.


The notion of the transformative power contained within artistic practice is brought about in the series of drawings entitled Hard Copy.  It is an ongoing project that the artist started in 2012. These digital drawings, made using coloured ink, reference familiar propaganda iconography that glorifies martyrs in the Iran-Iraq war. Bakhshi transmutes them into simple, childlike drawings, using formal alterations to trigger conceptual metamorphoses. He takes these images out of their charged context – the detached realm of 'heroic propaganda' – and turns them into schematic, nearly abstract graphic symbols. When stripped of their heavy subjectivity these works become an inquiry into formal possibilities of drawing as a medium.

Daria Kirsanova

is an art historian and art theorist based in London. She has worked on a number of exhibitions and publication projects by well-known international artists. Since 2010, Daria has been working on the research built around the relationship between political situations and artistic practice in contemporary Iranian art. Her most recent projects include catalogue essay for the exhibition Elephant in the Dark at Devi Art Foundation, and article 'Postcard from Tehran', for Frieze online. Daria has curated the exhibition The Flag: Instruction Manual # 2 and a series of collateral events at Sazmanab Platform for Contemporary Arts, Tehran, Iran (2013). She worked on a solo exhibition by Taus Makhacheva (2013) at Raf Gallery, Tehran, Iran. She was also one of the organizers of a seminal exhibition of Iranian Contemporary art Recalling the Future: Iranian Contemporary Art after the Revolution of 1979 at Brunei Gallery at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London that opened in January 2014.

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