Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

A Hybrid State: Art by seven Iranian-American women

Report from… Boston

Echo, a group exhibition curated by Azita Moradkhani, at Gallery Kayafas
May 26 to July 8, 2017
450 Harrison Ave, Boston, MA

Samira Abbassy, Mythological Creature (Lioness), oil on panel, 18 x 24 inches. Image courtesy of the gallery.
Samira Abbassy, Mythological Creature (Lioness), oil on panel, 18 x 24 inches. Image courtesy of the gallery.

With the recent surge of identity-driven art, exhibitions featuring work grounded in the particular identities are becoming commonplace. An example of this would be the various “Nasty Women” shows of female-identified artists that sprung up following last year’s presidential election, or any number of shows that unite artists from one marginalized group or another based on a singular commonality. Echo, on view at Gallery Kayafas in Boston, would appear at first to check two such identity boxes, as the seven artists featured in the show — along with its curator Azita Moradkhani and composer Bahar Royaee, who wrote the music performed at the opening and closing receptions — are all women of Iranian extraction. Rather than adhering to trendy clichés, however, Echo takes the sex and heritage of its participants as coincidental and explores themes of hybridity, with each artist combining multiple sources of imagery, materiality, and identity.

Hybridity is literal in the paintings and sculptures of Samira Abbassy which merge human and animal attributes, as found in mythologies from throughout history and across the world: the Sphinx, the Minotaur, and the Lamassu, to name a few. Mythological Creature (Lioness) (2013) depicts a being with the body of a lion and a human head that, in turn, sprouts fourteen smaller heads as its mane. The human heads resemble Persian miniature paintings, while the body could have been appropriated from a cave painting, petroglyph, or Grecian urn. These familiar yet monstrous creatures are echoed in Roya Farassat’s “Menagerie” series. Each of these nineteen pieces was created using mutually exclusive processes. Farassat bleached toned paper with a unique pattern resembling a Rorschach inkblot, and then, expanding on the dissolved areas, added ornamentation in white acrylic paint to create a hybrid of negative and positive processes and space. The resulting figures resemble chimeric combinations of insects and human beings: The King (2013) could be a moth wearing royal robes, and Tribal Dancer (2013) seems to have the features of a mantis along with a bra, tutu, and tiara.

Armita Raafat, Untited, 2016, 49 x 23 inches, mixedd media. Image courtesy of the gallery.
Armita Raafat, Untited, 2016, 49 x 23 inches, mixed media. Image courtesy of the gallery.

On the wall facing Farassat’s work is an installation of biomorphic sculptures by Anahita Vossoughi. Ranging in size from tiny polyps on shelves to the almost human-scale of Reclining Figure (2014) in the gallery’s window, Vossoughi embraces a pluralistic materiality that merges clay, plaster, wax, wood, pins, fabric, resin, found objects, paint, and other substances to create a variety of forms that could be organs, living beings, or something in between: organs without bodies. Armita Raafat’s wall-mounted sculptures are less biological and more architectural. Similarly crafted from a variety of media, including clay, fabric, and fragments of mirrors, her work is informed by modular forms of Islamic architecture, particularly Murqamas, “honeycomb” or “stalactite” structures that adorn the domed ceilings of such masterpieces as the Alhambra. Reduced from public spectacle to a more intimate scale, her three sculptures are installed here in such a way that each can be seen in the shattered reflection of another. Her pieces create an “echo” throughout the entire space, allowing the viewer’s gaze to bounce from one piece to the next.

Maryam Hoseini’s paintings depict abstracted female figures — rendered in flat monochrome — interacting with each other in geometrically nonsensical spaces. In the diptych Princess And Princess In Garden (Horizon) (2017) plants grow into, or out from, the figures’ orifices, either violating the autonomy of their bodies or expanding their limits and boundaries. This sense of expansion informs the installation of several paintings, such as Sisters In Crime (Horizon) (2017), which features a field of ultramarine that spills out of the frame and onto the wall, creating a geometric expansion of the picture outside of its conventional borders. Elnaz Javani also uses figurative imagery, albeit fragmented limbs rather than coherent bodies. Embroidered on slightly sheer, unstretched fabric, she depicts hands and arms that elongate, break, and flail, emerging from pools and geysers of bloody crimson thread. While Hoseini’s work expands to engulf its environment, Javani’s modest tapestries hold their secrets within themselves. The viewer can see glimpses of excess thread hanging on their reverse sides, the hidden drawings that make the visible imagery possible.

The oil paintings of Sepideh Behrouzian have been executed on pages torn from an Iranian decorating catalog. In Double Cup (2017), a hint of the page’s original picture — the titular pair of metal cups — emerges from a lifeless mountainscape against a cloudless blue sky. The landscape is surrounded by the glossy white of the magazine page and the original image’s title and caption. With an odd number of artists in the show, there is no other work to “echo” these pieces. This seems appropriate, as the world they depict on top of slick images of consumer goods is a silent one devoid of life, with nobody around to hear them.

Of course, no human being has a singular identity, as each of us represents the confluence of any number of threads of history, politics, and culture. While some people seem willing to see themselves distilled to a cherished label or two, others embrace the freedom provided by a hybrid state, much like the work on view in Echo, not fully one thing nor totally another, that can shift through the unstable spaces between borders, identities, and worlds.

Sepideh Behrouian, Double Cup, 2016, oil on magazine page, 8.2 x 11.4 inches. Image courtesy of the gallery.
Sepideh Behrouian, Double Cup, 2016, oil on magazine page, 8.2 x 11.4 inches. Image courtesy of the gallery.