Most Wanted - A Solo Exhibition by Taraneh Hemami
May 9 - June 20, 2007
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
When Taraneh Hemami left Iran in 1978 to attend the University of Oregon, she had little idea of what the future held. Within a year of her arrival in this country, the Iranian Revolution had changed her homeland forever and prevented her from visiting for more than a decade. "As an Iranian living in the U.S., it's not surprising that Hemami's art would explore her complex relationship with the concept of home and her struggle to secure a sense of belonging from both her country of residence and the country and culture of her youth. In many ways, Hemami's art is her home (quote from KQED's Spark)." Influenced by Persian art, architecture, and poetry, her paintings, sculptures, and installations all explore the complex cultural politics of exile through personal and community projects. In recent years, Hemami led an interdisciplinary project with other Iranian American artists that portrayed experiences of the Iranian immigrant population in California. Her work put a tangible face to a community and culture not entirely understood in the larger culture of America, and through sculpture, mixed media work, and installation, she has been able to give the stories and experiences vivid life and immediate accessibility.
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, people of Middle Eastern descent were vilified across the nation because of their names or physical characteristics such as headscarves or facial hair. Around the same time, Hemami came across a comically blurry, low-resolution image online produced by the U.S. government that pictured over 70 of the "Most Wanted" international terrorists, with each man and woman pictured from the neck up. Although individual features cannot be made out because of the extreme pixelation of the image, general characteristics can be seen on the majority of people pictured – darkish skin, men with dark facial hair, women wearing head coverings. Even with such minimal visual information, there is an overbearing sense that these physical traits define terrorism as we know it and characterize the image of the “New Enemy” in the 21st Century. This is the primary basis for the commissioned works in this new exhibition (generously supported by The San Francisco Foundation's Fund for Artists Matching Commission program), where Hemami addresses stereotypical misrepresentations of an entire group of people through this project, and challenges the Islamophobia and xenophobia that have given rise to the distorted images of people of Middle Eastern descent living in the U.S.
Hemami plays around with ideas of portraiture and language (the Arabic script on the walls contain the same names as those on the stairwell carpet), and the widely differing contexts in which they can be seen. In the specific context of the U.S. government "Most Wanted" terrorist list, the faces with darkish skin, beards, and head coverings are positioned as individuals who need to be apprehended and brought to justice – the faces of the enemy and the proponents of global terrorism. Yet, without either signifiers of names, gender, or even cultural background, the blurry abstract faces are simply visual representations of unknown people. The absolute reduction of concrete facial information makes them completely unrecognizable, and brings forth the question of where the danger actually lies. Are we conflating and equating people with nations? Drawing upon her Iranian cultural heritage, Hemami disrupts our tendency to generalize by placing these same abstracted faces into very different contexts, referencing common beaded wall-hangings available at any bazaar in Iran as well as re-imagining shrines for those considered to be religious leaders and martyrs. She brings forth the question of context, and challenges assumptions that we, as a viewing audience in the U.S., may unconsciously or implicitly bring to these abstracted images of people who could be anyone. The project questions our potential to fall into easy stereotyping and misunderstanding of cultures that are not our own.
- Kevin B. Chen