SOAS University of London

Centre for Iranian Studies

Reviving Identity: An Investigation of Identity in Iranian Artworks in the period 1958-1966 in relation to a Contemporary Fine Art Practice

Fatemeh Takht Keshian

Date: 24 January 2018Time: 6:00 PM

Finishes: 24 January 2018Time: 8:00 PM

Venue: MBI Al Jaber Building, 21 Russell Square Room: MBI Al Jaber Seminar Room

Type of Event: Seminar

This practice-based research explores the notion of Iranian cultural identity as reflected in artworks exhibited in the Tehran Biennials (1958- 1966) and in a particular individual practice. This research uses the five Tehran Biennales and their national and international context as a tool to reveal the development of their influence on the construction of new images of Iranian identity.

The research frames these national exhibitions within the influence of Western modernism and Western critique of orientalism. It frames its enquiry in historical and theoretical research and my studio practice as a contemporary Iranian artist. It constructs a methodology appropriate for visual analysis across the five events and for examination and comparison of individual artists and artworks. A core aim of the enquiry is gaining better understanding of the tensions between Iranian-Islamic and pre-Islamic traditions and of the changing national sentiment and the influence of Western modernism in the arts. My method includes ‘action research’ that juxtaposes the theoretic, historic, and artistic aspects based on a ‘self-observer’ and ‘observer of others’. By its cycling of studio production and reflection through critical and visual analysis, this method has enabled me to explore theoretical and historical contexts in my works.

The research also examines the motivations and influence of Iranian state ideology on the formation and discontinuation of the biennales as instruments for cultural innovation and internationalisation. As all biennales by their nature seek to survey a field of activity, the research has remained sensitive to a wide range of artists engaged across a spectrum of practices between 1958 and 1966. For some, the period marked a return to their traditions and heritage to recognise and distinguish their national identity from Western art.  For others, the new challenges enabled new representations relevant to Iran in the twentieth century.  Between these poles, there were many types of ‘return’ and re-emergence, some to Iranian and Islamic heritage, others to an earlier hospitality for international influence. This ten-year period holds the key to my own understanding of my studio practice and the emergence of collage as a technique central to my work. Collage and mixing media have become powerfully associated with the challenges I face in negotiating between East and West, old and new values, and my changing perceptions of myself. The different layers in collage and its variety of media metaphorically suggest the concept of Iranian identity as a layered and collective identity.

While my practice comprises autobiographical elements, it is nonetheless analytical in that it draws on the history of the Biennial period. The Tehran Biennials and their attempts to form a new Iranian art provide the background against which I project my conceptions of identity and memory. They are part of the legacy that enables me, a contemporary Iranian woman artist, to explore the various perspectives regarding Iranian identity and the means by which artists visualise it. Moreover, the practice-based method adapted in this research has enabled me to combine historical overview, visual analysis of modern art in Iran, and contemporary insights to offer new an understanding of how art reflects changing identities. This study defines identity, in a personal level, as a multi-layered identity, including fragmented and fragile layers that form within socio-cultural and individual values.

Fatemeh Takht Keshian is originally from Iran. She holds a practice-based PhD in Art from Lancaster University, and a BA and a MA in Painting from Iran. Her work introduces a cultural understanding of the Iranian identity in the middle of the twentieth century. Emphasis is put on the way the Tehran Biennials (1958- 1966) refracted the changing dynamics in Iranian international relations, and the way the Iranian state used this cultural event to change the image of Iran outside the country. To do so, she introduces an original constellation of art practice, archival research on Tehran Biennials and the concept of Iranian identity within Persian culture, tradition and history. She also brings together the normally separate methodologies used in historical, theoretical, archival and art practice. In her art practice, she explores the theme of identity by looking deeply at the subtle dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘Eye’; how identity is constructed by self-perception and others’ conceptions. Her practice is a mixture of an academic and artistic treatment of the notion of self-observation that challenged her perception of her own personal identity. Personal and academic experience have allowed her to construct a sense of identity through a collection of socially-situated layers, by which she means a layering of perceptions, experiences, and responses to a variety of transitions from the geographic to the conceptual. These layers of experience have produced tensions from the day she left the comfort of her local community in Iran to venture into the challenging new culture of the UK. In her practice, she explores the notion of identity through different media: collage, painting, drawing and video. While thoughts of selfhood, nationality and gender have long informed her practice, issues of identity have become prominent since she has moved to the UK.

Chair: Seyed Ali Alavi, SOAS

Organised by: Department of Near and Middle East Studies and the Department of Politics and International Studies in collaboration with the Centre for Iranian Studies, SOAS.

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