b. 1984, Tehran, Iran
Lives and works in Sydney, Australia.
Through her photographic practice, Iranian-born Nasim Nasr explores and comments on both specific and universal cultural concerns in contemporary society. Her work has dealt with notions of self-censorship, the transience of identity, and issues that face the global community in the context of civil and social unrest. Nasr completed a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design at the Art University of Tehran, Iran in 2006, and a Master of Visual Arts (Research) at the SA School of Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia, in 2011.
Nasim Nasr’s most recent solo exhibition was Only For My Shadow, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney 2015; she has also participated in Sixth Sense, National Art School Sydney 2016, Spring 1883, Melbourne 2016 and Spring 1883, Sydney Contemporary 2015, (both Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide), Sydney; Blake Prize, Casula Powerhouse, Sydney 2016, Redlands Art Prize, National Art School, Sydney 2015; CACSA Contemporary 2015, Kerry Packer Civic Gallery University of South Australia, Adelaide; Blinc, 2015 Adelaide Festival and PP/VT (Performance Presence/Video Time), Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide; and presented by GAGPROJECTS ADELAIDE/BERLIN, at Art Dubai, 2015, and Art Stage Singapore, 2013; and Video Stage: Art Stage Singapore 2015.
Nasr has also participated in the TarraWarra Biennial: Whisper in My Mask, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Melbourne 2014; Video Contemporary, Sydney Contemporary, Artspace/Carriageworks, Sydney and Video Arte Australia y Nueva Zelanda, M100, Santiago, Chile 2013; Landlocked, Casula Powerhouse, Sydney 2013; CACSA Contemporary 2012: New South Australian Art and CACSA Contemporary 2010: The New New, Adelaide.
Her work has featured significantly in numerous publications, especially two books by Melbourne scholar Anne Marsh—Video Void, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014 and Performance_ritual_document, Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2013; also Anne Marsh, ‘Nasim Nasr: The Language Behind the Veil’, Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet 44-1, 2015; Jane O’Sullivan, ‘Contemporary video is in the frame at Art Stage Singapore’, Art Collector 2015 Special Edition, Art Stage Singapore, and The Huffington Post by James Scarborough, ‘An Interview with Djon Mundine and Judith Blackall, Co-Curators, and Nasim Nasr, Participating Artist, in “Sixth Sense,” National Art School Gallery, NSW, Australia’ (2016), ‘Nasim Nasr's Zaeefeh (The Wretchedness) and Shadi (Happiness), GAGPROJECTS Adelaide/Berlin at the 2015 Art Dubai’, (2015) and ‘Interview: Nasim Nasr on her exhibition at Australian’s Greenaway Art Gallery’ (2013).
Her work has been collected by the Parliament House Collection, Canberra; Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney and private collections in Australia, Singapore, Qatar and the UAE.
|SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS|
ART STAGE SINGAPORE catalogue, Singapore, 2013
|Parliament House, Canberra|
Tehran University of Art
by Anne Marsh [first published in Contemporary Visual Art+Culture Broadsheet volume 44-1, March 2015]
Nasim Nasr was born in Iran but now lives and works in Australia, where she completed her MA in Fine Arts as an international student in 2011. Since then she has exhibited widely and represented South Australia, her home state, in numerous national and international exhibitions.
Nasr’s artwork deals primarily with female identity and often draws from her own experience. This made it difficult for her to operate as an artist in Iran. Her father supported her move to Australia so that she could develop her career without fear of persecution. Nasr’s art is not radical by Western standards, but in Iran she may have been questioned for her representations of women. Talking about her performance Women in Shadow (2011) she says: “my practice seeks to represent not only the socio-cultural invisibility of women in Iran but also their disempowerment”.
Nasr’s performative, photographic, and screen-based practice is compelling and complex. It addresses gender issues but it does not present easy configurations, as the artist has depicted women as complicit in their own oppression both in the East and West. In Iran and elsewhere mothers, and other familial women, constrain their daughters in traditional roles thus perpetuating the cycle of oppression. In the West this process is less widespread, but women are still oppressed and abused by men and gender stereotypes are prevalent in popular culture and fashion. This opens up difficult questions about whom is to blame and how patriarchy works. Western women rebelled against their mothers and fathers, the church and the state, from the 1950s onwards and gained some equality with men, but in Iran the situation is dire for women. Of her own situation, Nasr says: “I’ve been frequently asked why I make this art and the answer is because I am in Australia, and this is something I can’t do inside my country. Now I’ve got all my freedom… but there is displacement between my past and present. It naturally comes to my mind always to think about what I was experiencing, my past… the difficulties women are experiencing… I’m really not free from these things, they are always with me, like a shadow.”
The French feminist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, famously argued in her groundbreaking book The Second Sex (1949), “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” in a society constructed around patriarchal values. In short, gender identity is learned and acquired as a result of social conditioning. Pondering the continued oppression of women across societies de Beauvoir wrote: “It is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations posed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.”
The compliance of women in their own oppression is a result of the subject being written and spoken by a language that is already entrenched. In Louis Althusser’s terms, we are “interpellated” subjects and we are spoken by society and speak of ourselves through a language that oppresses us. We are not born as a blank slate, we are not free: we are born into predetermined gender codes designated by our society through its language. Language speaks the subject and it constitutes the law. It is also the vehicle for the interpretation of history, the teachings of the gods, and, as all artists, activists and advertising designers know, this language can also be used against itself. Indeed this is the role of the radical artist and thinker who struggles to become free.
Language is both conservative and radical. It is used by hegemonies to make the majority compliant and silent. Those who defy the law, the language of the father in psychoanalytic terms, are punished. Nasim Nasr fled her oppression in Iran so that she could speak freely in the West, but she does not believe that Western women are entirely free.
The performance Woman in Shadow was presented as a fashion parade that critiqued the image of the veiled woman in a bid to destabilise the stereotype. As the audience entered the art space each was segregated into their respective genders. Men on the left hand side, women on the right, as they would have been in Iran. The soundtrack by Tom Harrer included excerpts of ancient Persian music from Shirin Neshat’s dual screen video performance Turbulence (1998) that likewise represented the gender division of audiences in Iran. The internationally acclaimed, Iranian-born Neshat is an obvious mentor for the younger Nasim Nasr.
Women in Shadow was performed by professional models from the Tania Powell Model Agency in Adelaide with Powell herself acting as the compere for the show. Eight tall women in full-length chadors, with heavy eye make up and wearing designer high-heeled shoes, paraded before the audience several times. They entered and exited the runway, each time gesturing in a different way to the audience as the compere described the designer outfits that each model wore underneath her chador. The models appeared with their elegant eye make up smudged until it ran like black tears down their faces. They performed to either side of the audience with four models staring across the female constituency and four facing off the males. They then swapped sides so that they each looked at both the genders segregated in the room.
In one sequence, a video performance by Nasim Nasr was projected at the rear of the space. Titled Unveiling the Veil (2010) it showed a close-up of the artist’s eyes staring directly into the camera and thus out to the audience. As Nasr strained to stare unblinkingly, her eyes started to water, and she shed a single tear. She then washed away her eye make-up with her wet hands reproducing the black tears originally seen on the models.
In their next turn on the runway, the models appeared with clear faces and each held a small goldfish in a plastic bag full of water. Again they stood gazing intently at the audience. In Iran these small fish are symbols of rebirth and as each woman exited the space they brought the bags up behind their backs and simultaneously raised the skirt of their chador to reveal glimpses of the outfits worn beneath. In the final scene the women paraded in provocative designer outfits that allowed each to show off her sexuality.
The message of Women in Shadow is double-sided. On one hand we could view it as a criticism of the chador, but the verbal patter of the fashion compere, who objectifies the women as objects of desire, points to another interpretation where the commodification of women, through clothes designed to accentuate sexuality, is also seen as oppressive. Once again, women are described by a language that underlines gender stereotypes and the would-be sexual liberation of Western women is neatly questioned by the artist.
In Erasure (2010)—a live performance re-mediated for dual channel video—Nasr dressed in a chador and wrote on an identical garment that had been stretched across the wall. She recounted her memories as a young woman living in Iran which she wrote in white chalk from right to left in Farsi and from left to right in English. In English she interspersed the words of the notorious Iranian feminist poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, whose 1959 poem, Another Birth, was banned in Iran after the revolution of 1979. Nasr partially translated Farrokhzad’s poem into English as she wrote on the chador:
Life is perhaps
a long street through which a woman holding
a basket passes every day
Life is perhaps
a rope with which a man hangs himself from a branch
life is perhaps a child returning home from school
Life is perhaps
lighting up a darkness
Once the whole text was written it was crossed through and then erased leaving a residue of white markings that became indecipherable: a kind of cultural palimpsest where the erased words ghost the present. In the video version, made in 2012, the figure of Nasr was doubled so that the writing in Farsi and English occurred concurrently. On the second screen there was a close up sequence of a woman’s hand erasing the Farsi text as it was being written.
Erasure is concerned with writing the voice of woman on the shrouded body. But she erases what she writes and in the video version this self who writes is split and she appears to be another woman, a mother figure who cancels out the young woman’s words, thus silencing her. This points to women in Iran erasing themselves, their memories and histories, and participating in their own oppression.
In 2011 Nasim Nasr turned her attention to men with the video performance What To Do (exhibited in 2012). Here ten men of different ages are shown using Muslim prayer (tasbih) or worry beads. They are of different nationalities (Lebanese, Persian, Greek and Arab), but each emanates from a zone of conflict. The installation presented ten small flat screens hung at different levels indicating the height or position of each man. The eldest is isolated at the bottom of an adjacent wall to the left, the placement suggests he is kneeling as he chants “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). The other men are younger and it is unclear whether they are praying, worrying or mindlessly passing the time. The soft clicking of the beads together with the old man’s prayer create a meditative sound installed in the pristine white gallery, another sanctuary where nothing much happens.
This work is drawn from Nasr’s experience of watching her grandfather praying with his beads for hours on end. As a young child and later a woman she found it difficult to understand this passive behaviour. All around her she saw conflict and a society receding into its past. Whilst the performance of men praying is a visual and audible spectacle in Iran, women must pray in private, unseen and unclean: the invisible Other. The work points to passive inaction and the inability or unwillingness of men to do anything.
In a recent work about the kings and shahs of Persia/Iran titled Zaeefeh (The Wretchedness), 2015, Nasr creates museum-size portraits of the patriarchal rulers dating back six hundred years. Across their faces the artist writes quotes in Farsi from Farrokhzad’s poem Another Birth and Sadegh Hedayat’s story The Blind Owl (1937), which has also been banned in Iran. In this way the writings are etched onto the skin of history but the scale of the photographs creates pixilation, which blurs the image, making it unrecognisable.8 Nasr prefers this poetic aesthetic, one that pulls back from a didactic message but it may also be insurance for the artist, who still fears persecution in her homeland. Zaeefeh is the name that the kings used for their wives; it means a weak woman without the ability to do things. It is the name many men call their wives at home. Nasr uses this derogatory description of women to indicate that it is the kings and shahs who are weak and useless.
The silencing of women recurs in Muteness (2011-13) where Nasr utilises the ancient Daf drum, an instrument made by village women and played by them to signal conflict and war. This was a time when women had a role to play outside the confines of the domestic arena, but after 1979 women were banned from playing this instrument. Muteness is a series of four lightboxes that show a translucent Daf drum ringed in light and being held and played by a woman behind the drum. The work has been shown in galleries and as a public art projection in the city of Adelaide.
Beshkan (Breakdown), 2013, is a single-channel video loop that will be shown in Dubai. Here three females and two males perform the ‘Persian snap’ which uses both hands to create a cracking or clicking sound. It is traditionally employed throughout the Middle East to signify good news but in Nasr’s representation there is a touch of the sinister lurking at the edges of the video. If one looks carefully one sees that the hands of the males, on the extreme left and right, are fashioned in the pose of a gun and they take symbolic aim at the females trapped between them.
Nasim Nasr specialises in making aesthetically pleasing works of art that bite back at the viewer. Underneath the veil, behind the drum, written across the faces of kings and the posing of figures we find a powerful socio-political critique that creeps up on us and punches home its message. This is one Iranian woman who will not be silenced.
1 As quoted in the invitation to Women in Shadow distributed by the Australian Experimental Art Foundation
2 Nasim Nasr, Artist’s Statement, supplied to the author, 11 August 2013 (my punctuation)
3 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1953 : 267
5 Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, in Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971: 127-86
6 The music used by Neshat was ‘Daramad, Dad Khavaran Tasnif’ by Shahram Nazeri. In Neshat’s performance a male and female singer share the song. He sings with his back to an all male audience, she sings to an empty auditorium. Available on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2DNMG2s_O0, accessed 14 January 2015
7 Nasim Nasr in conversation with the author in Adelaide, 10 August 2012
8 Nasim Nasr in conversation with the author in Adelaide, 24 December 2014
Professor Anne Marsh is Senior Research Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts, The University of Melbourne. Her latest book is Performance_Ritual_Document, Macmillan, 2014.
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