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Iranian Female Artists Unveiled: Robert Adanto's Pearls on the Ocean Floor Screening at the Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles

04/12/2011 01:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011

Afsoon, "Shirin"

Sixteen "pearls" are featured in this groundbreaking documentary by Robert Adanto that will be screened at PDC's SilverScreen Theater in LA on April 26. I encourage everyone to go see it, especially if you need a morale boost. Come early if you like surprises, and plan to stay for the post-screening panel discussion; the director will be on hand along with the celebrated performer Sussan Deyhim and noted scholars Farzin Vahdat and Nasrin Rahimieh.

Adanto, who earned his MFA at NYU's Graduate Acting Program, began making documentaries in 2006 with an eye-opening look at China's explosive contemporary art scene, in The Rising Tide (2008).

He taped his first interview with a female Iranian artist only a week after the sham election in 2009 and completed the film that same dazing year. In the process, he produced sixteen illuminating self-portraits and unveiled a collective personality as well. For Pearls on the Ocean Floor gives us a glimpse into the character not only of the artists but by extension of the masses of women protesters in Iran who spilled into YouTube channels and our hearts in the spring and summer of 2009; it is easy to recognize the same spectacular honesty, courage and clarity of mind in both communities.

Pearls -- a reference to a poem by Hafez -- isn't as much about the art of the artists interviewed as it is about why they make art. Three commentators, including Baroness Haleh Afshar, thread historical and social perspectives into the feature-length film as it unfolds. If you're like me, you will not tire of watching and will want to know even more. For that, you can consult the film's website for succinct and informative doses of biographical and art-critical profiles on the artists.

Most of the artists in Pearls say they make art to express themselves. One experience they express in common is 'identity theft': being robbed of Iran and their past, of their rights, of their womanhood, of modernity, of personal security, of individuality, of color, of music. The sense of loss is found in their work and in the irresistible naturalness of their words. "When I was born, the lion and the sun were still part of the Iranian flag," says Mona Hakimi-Schüler, a German-based artist who was born in Iran in 1979, the year revolution happened. "That's why the lion started appearing in my art and I continue using it. It stands for the nation, the people, and the spirit of Iran."

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Mona Hakimi-Schüler, "Untitled," The Memory Trace Series

Another artist, Malekeh Nayini, drags Iran home to Paris by colorizing old family photos -- and less cheerfully, by superimposing icons of the past onto the image of a demolition site in Paris, e.g., the cover of the Tehran Mosavar weekly featuring a popular singer, and of Towfiq, a satirical journal.

Malekeh Nayini, Updating a Family Album Series, "Aunty Iran and Aunty Touran"

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Malekeh Nayini, Past Residue Series

In all, there is a running commentary of the pain of being cut off from one's roots. The experience is intensely personal, but what the artists tell us is that the expression is ultimately political. Afsoon, who lives in London, cherishes her freedom, feels guilty that it is denied others, and stresses that her work is non-political and autobiographical. "But I am a woman and I am Iranian," which by default renders her work political. That is because by exercising her freedom of expression, she's challenging the religious ideology that governs, targets and limits women's lives in Iran today. In that light, her innocent rendering of a smiling, tiara-clad Googoosh, whose fêted singing career started at age three but who is now prohibited from performing in public because of her gender, becomes a political statement.

Afsoon, "Fairytale Icons"

Personally, I never thought of the absence of freedom as something violent. That changed as I watched and listened to Parastou Forouhar, the daughter of the intellectual couple Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar who were savagely stabbed to death by elements of the regime in 1998 during the Chain Murders.

Calm, articulate, and strong, yet hurting more deeply than we can imagine, she is more imaginative than can be conveyed in a few words. "There's a vacuum where one cannot have a healthy relationship with one's home country," she says, "it's like the memory of an abuse that one feels." Her "Freitag" (Friday) is a terrifying commentary on the violent experience of abuse -- the shroud that robs women of their identity and buries them alive in its funereal bleakness.

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Parastou Forouhar, "Freitag"

Another nightmarish iteration, Forouhar's Swanrider series, was on exhibit in New York earlier this year.

Parastou Forouhar, "Swanrider III"

In fact, we owe Frorouhar's appearance in Pearls to Rebecca Heidenberg who originally introduced Adanto to her and hosted her debut solo exhibition at the RH Gallery in NY, Nov. 2010-Jan. 2011. "Her commitment to justice and her incredible strength of character are perhaps the foundation for the power emanating from her work," Heidenberg wrote of Forouhar in the exhibit's press release. Agreed.

"I feel like choking. I can't speak. I can't express my existence as a woman. Everything is censored, visually and mentally." That's Bahar Sabzevari speaking of life in Iran. Born in 1980, a year after the Islamic revolution, and living in Paris, Bahar says her work is about "all that has been taken away from me and my generation as human beings and as the second sex, including basic freedoms." Then comes the attitude that I so love and admire about these young women: "My generation has lived with danger under the flag of a religious regime without being terrified by it." Undefeated, she challenges "what religious fundamentalism has done to us" in the distortions she records for history.

Bahar Sabzevari

Shirin Neshat, whose parents shipped her off to LA at 17 to protect her from political activism, was perhaps the first to shock the world with her take on the imprint of Islam on the feminine body, psyche, and environment. A photo and video artist, she says of her experience going back to Iran in 1996 that "it felt like visiting a communist country; everything was controlled... as if the color was lifted out of this country." She wore green at the Venice Film Festival in September 2009. Haleh Anvari who grew up in a chadori family in Isfahan allows for the veil but qualifies it by outfitting her subjects in vivid colors to convey the lie in the black. "Iranian women are by law required to... render themselves invisible... I wanted to show how colorful Iranian women are, well groomed, and sexy!"

Haleh Anvari, "Chadornama"

And as if to underscore the point, Shadi Ghadirian's "CTRL+ALT+DEL" totally blacks out a woman except for her hands, feet, and face -- parts of her body that are officially allowed to be exposed. "A woman in Iran is a rebel, doing something which is not officially allowed," says Leila Pazooki, a young artist living in Germany, who speaks of "fashion" in Iran as a limitation, a form of censorship. Looking daring and determined, her Persian model illustrates a woman's response to that limitation.

Leila Pazooki, "Tehran Fashion"

Which brings us to the question of how women negotiate the many and varied tensions that they face daily. Gohar Dashti lives in Ahvaz, in southern Iran. She experienced the Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988, firsthand. It left a mark. Her photographs capture couples who, even on joyous occasions such as their honeymoons, are marked by grief. Life goes on, she says, we cope, but there is always the grief. There is no sense of defeat in what she says, or self-pity, only a hopeful search for staying in the game, perchance to reform the rules. An artist's mission, she says, is to raise public awareness and to make history. "We don't have clear red lines [in Iran]. You can play on both sides of the line. It's very important to know how to play this game... and Iranian artists are good at it."

Afshan Ketabchi is not as hopeful. "The problem lies in the roots of our society. We have to completely dismantle the structure and rebuild it." Elsewhere she makes a very poignant remark that focuses the problem not on Islam or the regime as most critics do, but on the actors themselves. "The problem is that men still don't respect women." The reason, to cite Baroness Haleh Afshar when speaking of Khomeini and religious leaders, is that women "by their very nature, can be revolutionaries." It may be obvious to enlightened souls that a society where women enjoy freedom and full respect is a more successful and sustainable society. But try to explain that to a raging bigot.

Diaspora artists who live in freedom grapple with issues of their own as well. Take Sara Rahbar, for instance, who, on the one hand, strikes a difficult pose with her Iranian heritage: woman dolled up, significantly alive yet fixed in time and place, with a guard who, though a tiny toy, is a man nevertheless, armed and official.

Sara Rahbar, "#3 After You"

On the other hand, she grapples with her dual identity and America's role in the Islamic revolution.

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Sara Rahbar, "Hossein and I," Oppression Series

But she has bigger aspirations. "I really want to do something great... like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., not K-Mart or Walmart. We're here for a short period of time." And yes, she wants to be known for her work as an artist who happens to be Iranian, not as an "Iranian" artist.

In Pearls on the Ocean Floor, Adanto has managed to lift the veil off Iranian female artists and let us discover these genuine, creative, fearless, self-assured, good-humored, honest, independent, and colorful spirits who believe in themselves and in the future. Pearls is a precious record.

The documentary captures a broader trajectory in Iran's history as well, namely, the transition from a traditional to a modern platform among artists that began in the 1970s. Until then, contemporary Iranian artists continued to resort to the traditional language of miniature paintings, calligraphy, and abstract geometric patterns to express themselves; they explored novel forms, but little of the content was contemporary in essence. Art remained by and large ornamental, spiritual, and idealistic; its purpose was to please rather than to provoke or tease. It was rarely realistic, urban, socio-political, or, heaven forbid, personal, autobiographical, or sensual. All that has now changed. The ocean has yielded pearls. If you don't believe me, go take a plunge, see for yourself.