A Media Artist's Response To Failing Diplomacy

When BriAnna Olson's pacifist views were confronted by an adamant American couple, she decided to heed their challenge and head to Tehran-- the epicenter of the Axis of Evil nation.

Amongst a landscape of failed diplomacy and media smear campaigns, she and fellow artist Michael Pope found a society far more alive and hospitable than they'd ever been led to believe.

Like jesters of a modern-day Magellan, they've returned with stories and insights to a culture few American's have seen first hand.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pariyoush Ganji

Pariyoush Ganji is a internationally renowned painter, lecturer and instructor at Tehran University.

Meeting her was the highlight of the trip, and this moment, even more so than holding up "Unconditional Love is Global Security" at Azadi Monument, represented the fulfillment of the hopes I had for this project.

She welcomed us into her home and studio and I told her the story of my path to her house-- from "Sign at Ground Zero" to landing in Tehran two years later. She lauded me and the concept enough to make me blush. "Guts" she says, "You've got real guts" and goes on to discuss her concern that my generation and the generations after me have no philosophy and as a result, no spark behind their actions or art. It's clear that I've made an impression on her and she gave me temporary license to sing my own praises, which felt cathartic-- all the while with Michael at my side. He gushes when he tells the story and describes the whole experience as the passing of a torch.

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Prohibited information, connections

This must be one of the more frustrating consequences of the Iranian government. 
No Facebook. 
No MySpace. 
No Craigslist.
No YouTube.
(New York Times is available, Huffington Post is not)

Blogger is definitely allowed and utilized by Iranians. 
Apparently, they have a super high number of bloggers. 

I was able to update my facebook status and post blogs via email. I love technology.  

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Vahid Sharifian = Persian Andy Warhol


Vahid is a legacy in his own mind and all the curators are catching on.
Michael and I had a chance to hang with him at his show (see Day 5) and at his studio (with Ali Ettehad, see Day 8).

Google him for his 'Waiting for Jeff Koons' and 'Bush Distance Family' pieces.

On our last day, Michael shot a video portrait of him, which I can't wait to see.

The background on his PC's desktop was an amazing reminder of the power of the image and the internet. Americans!

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Hijab, scarves, modesty, oppression

"Hijab" is the name for modest dress-- I've been using the term to mean 'headscarf' but thats incorrect. Because a few verses of the Quran calls for it, and Iran is an Islamic Republic, a woman must cover her head and hide her figure in Iran. Only her hands, feet, and face can be seen. (Score one for foot fetishists). Standard is the manteau (jacket) very similar to any H&M, Anne Taylor, or whathaveyou spring jacket. It is usual to see muted colors-- tan, black, navy. There is also the chador-- (literally: tent) a giant piece of fabric, usually black, which is sort of like a cape. Women will wear either a manteau, a chador, or both.

Variation is found in head coverings-- but never once did I see a woman with her face covered.

There is a clear narrative in the covering of my head over the course of the trip. I had already purchased my robe and headpiece in the Islamic part of Brooklyn. The (muslim) guy who worked there clearly knew nothing about Iran- he told Michael that he needed to buy a long robe (long robes are a Sunni Muslim thing, Iran is a Shiite country).

When I first got there, the whole thing was a novelty, but over the course of the first day I began to feel terribly unhappy. It was only a few women that made me the most uncomfortable-- the ones in all black, looking me up and down, not even cracking a smile. I had posed as a Muslim but not acted like one. My body language was slightly open, my camera was in my hands, I was casually strolling through the bazaar. This was my first experience of how a society polices itself- if I were Iranian and had to deal with this daily, my spirit would be bruised a bit and I would likely start avoiding eye contact and keep my gaze down... eventually I'd be so bitter that I'd start scowling at anyone I thought was enjoying life more than me. And the cycle continues...

Fortunately, I understand that the key to letting the world know that I'm not Iranian (therefore shouldn't be judged by the same rules) is a different outfit. I start with a shiny scarf. Continue with a lush, pearl one. And finish with a new manteau and pashmina. My outlook shifted with every change in attire.

My penultimate experience with hijab was at a "cultural center" where chadors are required. This 'chador' was little more than a bed sheet that I was to hold closed with one arm. I was quite tired from running around all day, but this was our chance to have tea with a Mullah so I stuck with it. As we were leaving we posed for group photos-- after the first two photos, the Mullah's assistant asked me (very politely) to close my chador as my manteau was showing. I almost started laughing/crying at the display of clownishness. My respect for the whole thing was lost in that instant.

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Life Goes on in Tehran (.com)

On Day 4, we spent the night out with Azad who publishes lifegoesonintehran.com , a super-sweet photoblog about (you guessed it) life in Tehran. To add to the awesomeness, all photos are from his cameraphone.

If you visit his site, you definitely won't be disappointed. 

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Unconditional Love is Global

It is official.

'Unconditional Love is Global Security', as a concept, has gone from New York to Tehran and back again. 

Let me tell you, because I was asked, there is an abundance of love over there. Everyone we met was hospitable enough to make us blush. As a general rule, the instant someone found out we were Americans they wanted us to know that they love Americans-- and that they think our Presidents (Bush and Ahmadinejad) are cut from the same cloth.  

... more to come. 

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Day 8: Tehran - Artmaking

Our last day was spent making a little art and tending to a few last visits.
The last gallery was Aaran Art Gallery, where we met with Nazila Noebashari (whose run her gallery for over 20 years now) and saw the current show (and featured photographer Kamran Adle). We also got to see work from Ali Ettehad, a fella we met the night before when we had a visit with Vahid Sharifian.
We already excited for our show and tell whence we return.

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Day 7: Tehran - Mohsen II and a secular world

Our new translator/guide is Mohsen, not to be confused with our last guide Mohsen [I refer you to Avatar the Last Airbender: City of Walls and Secrets' character 'Joo Dee'] New Mohsen is very (very) excited to help us out. He's been jailed for years (and lashed x20... possession of alcohol) and still stands. He immediately gives us the inside scoop the political history that he was very much a part of (a Fine Arts student at Tehran University-- demonstrating against the shah) and he explains that the world is full of 3 kinds of people. 1) Fanactics 2) Super Fanatics and 3) Extreme Super Fanatics. Like many we've met around here-- he doesn't believe in religion (though he later admits, while his friend laughs, to feeling a metaphysical connection between him and a "higher" power).
After showing us his bookstore, Mohsen took us to have lunch with Pariyoush Ganji, a painter / lecturer / professor (and former classmate of Mohsen) that was also witness to the Revolution. Her place and her studio were amazing. She spoke of generations of artists, was totally into this trip/project, and offered to help in anyway she could. She even quoted Jesus (and made a point to mention that she was secular) when she encouraged me to continue 'striving through narrow doors'.
After a day of satellite television, jokes about creationists and Sunni v. Shiites, it was another day of reinforcing that Iran has many many many faces.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Day 6: Tehran - Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini

Khomeini was the guy exiled by the Shah/King of Iran that returned after the US coup (that turned into the Revolution). He's the guy that has made Iran an Islamic Republic and turned Iran into the voice of opposition to Israel's domestic policies and the US's international policies. It's pretty safe to consider him the founder of contemporary Iran.
We went to his shrine and got the diplomatic treatment. We were one of this first to get to go up into the 'call to prayer' towers. (Defintely the first tourists). They were all very nice to us and underscored their love for the American people (Though many of the mourners were taken aback to hear that we are American.)

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Day 5: Tehran - Silk Road and Vahid

Later in the day we went to Silk Road Gallery to meet with one of the curators there. They specialize in photography, which isn't always my bag, but they have some great great shows (go ahead, google them). The curator introduced us to Vahid, an artist that we had seen just the night before at an opening. Vahid, who is starting to get attention from international collectors, took us to Ave Gallery, where he has a show up. There he showed us the few pieces that he wasn't allowed to hang (too much lady neck) and invited us to his studio. He also explained that because he refused to serve in the military, they won't allow him to leave the country (despite having upcoming shows in Hollywood and Istanbul).
(Photo: Vahid's show at Ave Gallery)

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Day 4: Tehran - MOCA and Iranian Artist's Forum

We had our meeting with the International Director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a resounding success and I met my modest goal of charming the pants off him and being able to count on a continued relationship. He was great.
Later, we went to an opening at the Iranian Artist's Forum. This place was sort of like Williamsburg with its head covered. It's also home to one of the cities only vegetarian restaurants.

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Day 3: Tehran - Golestan & Galleries (continued)

Worthy of its own post was our experience at Homa Gallery for a solo exhibit by Sharam Karimi.
In two hours, he'd sold 4 pieces for a total of $20,000.
We spoke with him a bit, definitely a great guy.

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Day 3: Tehran - Golestan & Galleries

We went to the Golestan Palace, a place worthy of its tourist trappings.
The entire place is the shiniest thing I have ever seen, and boy do I like shiny things.
Afterwards, we went to a couple small gallery openings.
Rest assured that the art scene here is no better or worse than the one in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
[Photos: Golestan Palace, piece by Bita Fayazi, piece by Farideh Lashai, piece by Koroosh Shishegaran]

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Michael is an Iranian TV star

Picture now. Story later.

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Shiner Hejabs

I'm finally understanding the nuances here between what is said and what is done... what are the rules and what are the practices.
When I first showed up, I came with black form-fitting hejab. When I realized that I was sending the wrong signals and that I wouldn't be harassed for wearing something lighter and shinier, I was gung-ho for swapping it out.
Here are some pictures for you anonymous blog comment maker.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Day 2 in Tehran

Last night we had our first experience in being babysat Americans.
Michael and I were invited to a private screening of a Sigur Ros documentary and even though our guide had set us up with a car to go alone, he showed up as we were leaving so he could chaperone. The implicit threat made by our guide to the gallery owner made us all nervous. ("These are Americans, you do not know them, they do not know you... what is this gallery, what are you screening, they can stay but I must see inside....") AWKWARD and suck. After we got there, I decided we had to leave so we didn't ruin their night. It could have been very cool if not for the mild paranoia injected into all of us by someone with absolutely no authority.
In other news, our ride back with a secular cabby proved for some interesting conversation about his life, his views on the US and this country since the revolution.
love love
[photos: scarved betties waiting outside a restaurant, Iranian beer (tastes just like Budweiser, but with 0.0% alcohol)]

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

First morning in Tehran

I am still not dreaming.
Today, I'll go with a shiner hejab. =)

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tehran: Day 1

After landing this morning and being met by Mohsen (kinda rhymes with Olson) we were taken to our Hotel. (Worth mentioning again, traffic is insane) After some debate, we decided to go straight into the heart of beast-- the Tehran Bazaar. When I have a bit more time, I'll give you the details, for now I leave you with: fingerprints, customs, traffic, prayer rooms, US Den of Espionage, Michael Pope being interviewed for the local news, fist fights, PressTV, Barack Obama, gold, shiny, shiny, SHINY.
P.S. People here are happy we are Americans... they like Americans.
P.P.S. After a day of a straight up black hejab, I've made a move toward a rainbow shiny one. The black one is making me look like a pious Muslim and causing more attention (me hanging with two men who don't look Iranian...), plus the shiny one leaves a few sparkles in my wake.

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We have landed in Tehran

We have made it to Tehran-- checked into the hotel and soon we are off to explore. The traffic is insane. The news on the television is respectable. Our hotel is quite nice and our tour guide/translator has so far been very accomodating. More, more soonly. 
 {Pictures: Michael and I in Dubai, Me jumping on our Tehran hotel bed, Me cold chillin' waiting to head to the airport this morning}

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Monday, October 6, 2008

We've made it through Security

We're at JFK now and I'm delighted to say everything has so far been seamless. We were sent through secondary security due to "our destination" and even that was a breeze.

It's quiet. I'm watching CNN and catching up on emails. Michael is fiddling with his new digital camera- a kodak point and shoot that we picked up at b&h yesterday.

I'm hoping I didn't forget anything...

The nice man just announced that we are boarding in 10 minutes-- and it looks as if I have a window seat.

Oh, squee.

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It's sort of like Christmas Eve

Michael and I had a day of last-minute errands-- blank books, cameras, clothes, plane snacks... laundry at the 24-hour laundromat.
Our flight to Dubai tomorrow is 13 hours long. When we arrive it will be 8AM in the U.A.E., but near Midnight Eastern Standard Time.
My body will be completely confused, I'm sure.
We have a day to spend there before our short (2 hour) flight to Tehran.
Hopefully it'll give us a chance to ease into Islamic society.

Bags are packed. Batteries are charging.
I'm feeling more sublime that anything else right now.

Watch out Tehran, here comes Super Awesome Adventure Club.

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