Fascinating discussion with Soody Sharifi on Tuesday evening, moderated by Curator of Contemporary Art, David Rubin. Sharifi is an Iranian-born, Houston-based artist, and her work is part of the exhibition The Jameel Prize: Art Inspired by Islamic Tradition, at the museum through August 11. Her magnificent digitally composed photographs were among the nearly 200 submissions competing for the coveted £25,000 prize awarded by an international panel of independent jurists and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The exhibition has been on tour internationally since 2011, and SAMA is the last of only 3 stops made in the US. This discussion covered not only the work featured in the exhibit, but her journey and exploration as an artist over the past 30 or more years.
Soody Sharifi first came to the USA from Iran as a girl of 17, part of the AFS student exchange program. She had a wonderful experience. This was the mid 70’s, pre-revolution, of course. When she returned to the US, it was with her husband and as a student at University of Texas where she received a BS in Engineering. She is very animated and has a great sense of humor, joking that “as an immigrant child, of course I had no choice. You could only be a doctor or an engineer.” The opening group of slides showed family pictures from the 1930’s – pretty women in Western dress that could be any American mother, sister, or daughter of the period. The next showed a group of attractive young people in the Superfly garb of the 70’s that so many of us are far too familiar with. This is the world Soody came from. Secular, well educated, living a life that most of us can understand and relate to. This is the real underlying theme that her work has taken over the years – an effort to understand.
As you may have guessed, engineering wasn’t Soody’s thing. She returned to school after the birth of her first child to study photography. It became her voice and her sounding board. Returning to Iran after 21 years, she was very struck by the reality of “being covered.” She makes an interesting observation that patriarchal societies always seem to make women the subject of change – but not men. For example, Reza Shah did it when he made women remove the hijab in the 1920’s in his push to modernize the country. Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini did it again when brought to power in 1979, returning women to the hijab. The act of “dressing and undressing” women became thematic in her work.
Sharifi creates in series. Most of the works over the years are posed tableaux in which she explores the realities and ironies in the lives of contemporary Moslems. She works in color mostly because she simply prefers it. Color is also a symbolic choice for her, because the view of the Moslem world is so “black and white.” When she began her life as a photographer, of course she worked in film. Today, the digital camera (Canon) is her friend and savior. As the artist points out, the film cartridges would never leave Iran, and the technology of today makes it very easy for her to do her documentarian art in relative obscurity. It is interesting that despite her recognition in the art world, she can very anonymously go about her business when visiting Iran – with a guide, of course. She is, after all, only a woman with a camera…
Threads of the work depict life in Iran – the oppressive aspects, as well as the personal freedom pursued in private spaces. In the “Teenager” series, she captured the interior life of what goes on behind closed doors. In the artist’s experience, the private spaces of Iran are bastions of personal freedom – smoking, watching Western movies like “Grease,” playing with makeup and fashion – all things that would never be done on the street before the prying eyes of the social police. The advent of 9-11 created yet another opportunity for exploration and commentary. The experience created a questioning that continues to this day – who is the Moslem in America and what does it mean? There is also a series of self-portrait work that explores her interior thoughts as a woman, wondering what her life might have been had she not left Iran as a young adult before the revolution. Throughout, there is a certain humor and playfulness. And a pointed irony. She is questioning self, identity, and how we deal with media propaganda.
Her most current work, and that which garnered her inclusion in this prestigious exhibition, are her “Maxiatures.” She has coined this term to describe the work that digitally juxtaposes the exquisite miniature paintings of 14th and 15th century artists and Sharifi’s photography into large scale artworks examining the contemporary social mores of the Iran of today. The myriad ironies that exist. “What is suggested is often more important than what is shown.” They are large and vibrant with so much to discover and absorb. They must be seen in the gallery to be fully appreciated. Do not miss this opportunity!
When we attended the opening of the exhibit in May, we had the honor of a tour through the show with Tim Stanley, Senior Curator of the V&A Middle Eastern Collection. The “SAMA Contemporaries” is a group of very savvy, educated, and curious people. The type that are the backbone of any museum program. And this is the group that was there again to hear the talk with David and Soody. Hungry to understand. Mr. Stanley, at the opening, attempted to steer us away from looking at the exhibition as “political art,” minimizing the significance of that aspect in favor of concentrating on the artistry and mastery of design and technique. And I completely disagree with this tack. In my opinion, you cannot separate the sociopolitical realities of the Islamic world from this art. To do so is a disservice to the artists. So, I encourage you to see this exhibit while you can. And really pay attention. If you can, plan to attend a guided tour with one of the museum’s great docents. There is much to be learned. You will see beautiful contemporary works of art utilizing ancient method and philosophy, as well as contemporary high tech approaches, such as that of Ms. Sharifi. And you will also see artists working to understand and interpret what it is to be Moslem in this world through their media. Yes, these are purely beautiful examples of art and technique. Fortunately, that is not all they are.
This is a compelling exhibition and I salute SAMA for taking it on. It is no secret that there has been some pushback from sectors of our community due to the supposed subject matter of the show. Director Katie Luber has very eloquently countered this criticism with intelligence and grit. I wish more people had the intellectual discipline and curiosity to come and actually see this show, rather than just rattle their cages. Because really, this is what art is at the very core. A pursuit of understanding.
Thank you to SAMA and David Rubin for providing this opportunity to get to know Soody Sharifi a bit better.