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By Donald Brackett

 “Longing on a large scale is what makes history” Don DeLillo

“Blood is in the ink of human history” Robert Duncan

There are two kinds of war threatening our survival on the planet earth. The first is obvious and involves physical threats to well being as a result of actual occupation or military conflicts based on a variety of real or imagined threats between nations. The second is far more subtle however, and indeed far more insidious, as it involves the difficult to control invasion of harmful misogynistic and so-called sacred ideologies from within.

This second kind of psychological war also often involves the assault on the present and future by antiquated thought forms which thrived in the distant past but have escaped the evolutionary sweep of natural reformation. Sometimes they seem like the past itself, crystallized into an intolerant attitude, as thought forms which have largely become fossilized and yet have forced themselves fiercely upon the present, with enough psychic violence to even threaten the future.

Both of these varieties of oppression, physical and psychic, as well as both of these approaches to understanding and surviving our history, are the integral core of a new collaborative work by Iranian-Canadian artist Massoumeh Jian. “At War Within” features her dramatic visual poems in the figurative context of a mixed media installation. With this new project, she has taken an interdisciplinary approach and has collaborated with two creative partners: Cliff Caines, who contributes the video projection component and Darren Copeland, who has contributed the audio component. The whole is a seamless production that operates as a kind of unified field, within which a compelling, challenging and thought provoking series of ideas is explored. One could almost call it a phenomenology of intolerance.

The sad irony of the way the history of Iran has devolved is made all the more poignant when one realizes that over 5000 years ago, Ancient Mesopotamia was the veritable cradle of our own civilization. The Sumerians, the Babylonians, the ancient Persians: they gave us cities, agriculture, numbers, books, astronomy, and the concept of a single universal God-figure, a then brand new notion borrowed to great effect by Abraham of Ur, who would go on to both create and inspire the Semites.

But it is the sad contemporary legacy of living inequity which is the primary subject matter being explored with such emotive impact through Massoumeh Jian’s theatrical tableau presentation of her socio-political commentary. In the artist’s words, “Having lived with and seen, firsthand, women struggling within unfair boundaries, mothers and wives who daily carry the burden of a heritage of inequity, I have created life-sized portraits filled with the light and rhythms of life, and representing the flow of blood as it travels through our veins. Just as the lights in the darkened room, and figures themselves, are turned on and off, the life of the portraits is both shattered and resurrected through manipulated video images of demolished landscapes which act as a metaphor for rebirth. They can be considered emblems of redemption.”

As an empathic exile, one of the crucial roles for artists such as Jian is to provide a startling kind of evidence, proof of witness for something which might pass unnoticed if not for a prolonged reverie state: evidence of the melting of time and with it our definitions and distinctions, the dislocation of space and with it our sense of a secure safe place, the dissonance of mind and with it the ironic threat which results when your homeland turns against you from within.

Massoumeh Jian views the past and present history of Iran, especially it’s treatment of women, as an ominous warning of what can happen when personal privacy is invaded from the inside out, by the very state which should in fact be tasked with protecting you. In fact, the war against privacy is the inherent subject of much of her artwork, this installation included. The message is here amplified by a haunting new music score and an ever-shifting dimension of slow video movements.

In the artist’s words: “A sense of melancholia and nostalgia, reminiscent of one’s past, gender, culture and religion have always been common elements of my visual art. Often transmitted through a magnified celluloid frame of self-portraits, and usually in an emotionally poetic atmosphere, I hope to create a moment of reflective pausing within oneself. This moment of silence can also be a moment of personal pondering and sincere inquiry.”

It was over eighty years ago that the surrealist philosopher Andre Breton made his melancholy but brilliant observation: “Painting, photography and sculpture are lamentable expedients, but they will have to do until something better comes along.” He was referring to their use for expressing the ineffable aspects of life: birth, love, longing, loss, exile, freedom, oppression, death, and the revolution of reason itself.

But something better has come along. In the visual arts, the interdisciplinary and collaborative approach of an environmental art installation format in mixed media, as well as being live in the temporal dimension of present time, is inherently more likely to produce significantly more seductive and salient results.

Massoumeh Jian’s private lamentation on a public tragedy is perhaps one of the most effective means of making a private and personal statement about a shared cultural challenge: the obvious need for simple fairness in all of our relationships.

Certain artists are always inviting us, it appears, both through their work and their personal example, to consider much wider and less restrictive horizons than our meager political or religious maps usually permit us. Especially perhaps the worst maps of all, those hyper-specific metaphysical maps that tend to proscribe and prohibit personal behaviour and gender conduct. Her collaborative work with Caines and Copeland has opened new creative territory for important and much needed discussions on these demanding issues.

I have previously addressed some of the incisive investigations of human interaction which Massoumeh Jian channels through her provocative and evocative works, and have called the aesthetic place in which she dwells the “empire of exiles”. She continues to explore what it means to be displaced, in a rigorous and commanding manner, however now with this new body of work she has also embarked on an equally daring and compelling venture: to speak on behalf of those left behind, still living in her country yet condemned to a singular kind of internal exile. It is this invisible internal exile, especially given the treatment of women in her homeland, the condition of being at war within, that her new collaborative work approaches with such singular sensitivity and far reaching impact.

For the artist, “These works can be considered as open ended narratives that can be read from both sides: a kind of visual novel with no beginning or end but simply the continuum of an ongoing battle for survival.” Sometimes human dignity itself is at stake when a country and culture is at war within. Sometimes we have no choice but to pay attention to what artists are telling us.


Empire of Exile

Observations on the Art of Massoumeh Jian

By Donald Brackett

  “I shall survive, by cunning, stealth and exile..."  

James Joyce – “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”


Portrait of the artist as a middle-aged Iranian woman: there are some artists amongst us who practice metaphysical mnemonics and Jian is one of them.  This is not quite as exotic as it sounds at first, though the exotic is by its very nature the inherent quality most recognized in the work produced by this kind of artist.  The word mnemonics refers to any method or technique used to enhance memory, and the functions of remembering, especially as exemplified by the actual memorization of vast quantities of oral knowledge, such as that done in the middle Ages. 

 Her work also reminds us, hauntingly in face, that we still in many ways occupy a territory together which has yet to move that far away from the middle ages, or to evade the far-reaching grasp of its superstitions.  What is she memorizing in her work?  In what way is it a mnemonic?

A recent exhibition organized by the artist-run centre YYZ deftly explored artistic and activist practices, though in a more conventional format than the one I am observing here.  Arts as activism and activism as art finds its way into the everyday life of the street, the media, our institutions, politics, galleries and the market.  As that show demonstrated, “these interventions exemplify the fact that culture is a process and not a product, that art reflects and defines the social , economic, political and cultural conditions of its making”.  While certainly true, such a statement is also rather patently obvious, akin to saying that when it rains we get wet.

What about the indigenous art activities of those who practice far from the streets of everyday life and its conventional activism?  They can be found quietly brewing within the zone of an artist such as Massoumeh Jian’s highly personal yet somehow universal portraits and figures, each struggling with the very same existential contest that eventually spills out into the street, but must first be pondered, explored and fought in the arena of the human heart.

One must look closely.  For as the French author Antoine Saint-Exupéry once remarked :

what is essential is invisible to the eye and can only be seen with the heart….” And what can be seen with the heart while contemplating the occasionally painful images that Jian’s idiosyncratic style creates?  The heart sees itself, as if reflected in a painted or drawn mirror.

 Indeed, as the writer Lisa Mathews has pointed out. “ her cropped self portraits focus on hand gestures and facial expressions, but they reveal a deeper spiritual and philosophical struggle unfolding in an artist who is trying to come to terms with her past, her memories, her culture, and her religion…Jian’s portraits incorporate both religious and cultural symbols, like prayer beads and the chador, in a non-traditional manner.  She is shown praying without the chador and with the Islamic beads on her wrist…”

What has occurred to me while studying the deeply moving faces which Jian depicts is precisely the fact that like the unveiling required by removal of the traditional female robes, her art work involves a similar unveiling of the heart, an opening-up gesture that we all need.

Her often tender works, sometimes on canvas, but usually on large scale mylar in luscious monochrome earth tones, are emblems of an enigma.  They are visual passports and emotional records of the state of Exile, whether freely chosen or otherwise imposed from without. As such, they are often as gentle as a diary and sometimes as gritty as a photo-journalist’s political commentary.

The question of politically engaged or socially committed art is a complex one.  In this case it is not so much a case of an activist artist producing overt political art devoted to awakening change, but rather a diagram of the ever changing elements of our lives, a diagram of emotion and the energies it contains, a veritable diagram of change itself.

Thus she is making a political gesture merely by producing paintings and drawing in an age where popular art is more commonly associated with mixed media, photo-based constructions, or outright technologically inspired digital images.  The second outright rebellion which is codified in her striking works is that of her insistence on maintaining a fidelity of the human image, the human face, and the ancient art of portraiture.  In the 21st century, the act of making a recognizable portrait is already a subversive act.

Even though she also utilizes photography and video in the production process of her final images drawn and painted on mylar, her allegiance to depicting the “landscape of the face” is what makes her so experimental in these days of art with extension cords.  In the end, what she explores so vividly is really what the critic Guy Davenport once called a “geography of the imagination”.  This psychological geography is the result of living in the perennial state of exile associated with individuals(but especially visual artist) whose characters are personalities are larger than those permitted by so many of the countries in our world.

These countries, many of which are still embedded in an earlier part of living history, are too small for the minds and hearts of those people who must seek more psychic space: The Exiles.

It is this unique presentation that reveals her drawings, paintings, photographs and videos to be more than mere political activism:  while they appear to portray the face, they invite us to see the face as a mirror of the heart.  And her paintings polish that mirror, but they do not seek an impossible resolution to the paradoxes and contradictions of life on earth in our conflicted societies.

In fact, her entire art practices is not founded on the unearthing of answers but rather on isolation of key questions and their potential directions, in what she has described as an “open-ended narrative that can be read from both ends….”.  this phrase sums up most accurately what it feels like to “walk” through the world of her works.

The artist carries her history in her heart and allows it to superimposed over the shared history of us all.  In the faces of her portraits and the forms of her figures we can be witnesses.  What we witness is the effects of exile, the means of survival, and the appropriate degree of cunning and stealth in order to navigate the rough waters of acceptance and rejection.

In their passage past our eyes, striding by with softness yet strength, we can see her poetic and artistic activity in its clearest light: as her method for memorizing her history, of memorizing our present, and of memorizing the future.  That is her special gift, memorizing the future.  That, and the ability to communicate so very clearly with a unique nation, on that is not three dimensional but is perhaps four dimensional: The empire of exiles.  She speaks on their behalf.

She speaks of exile……and the beauty of perpetual return.

DONALD BRACKETT  Art Critic / Executive Director, Scarborough Arts Council



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