How do you project oppression? by Reza Rezaï
a written response to Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant, a solo exhibition by Zahra Baseri
How do you project oppression?
By projecting I don’t mean the (cumbersome) act of calculating, nor directing something forward (with force) but rather the act of bringing a visual element onto a simple (or not so simple) surface.
Or rather a multitude of visual elements onto a multitude of simple (or not so simple) surfaces.
But within this simplicity (or multiplicity) of projection(s) in play, what does this construct (of oppression) even look like?
Or sound like?
Or smell like?
Or even feel like?
How do you illustrate it?
Is there a specific hue, a shade, or tint?
Does it have a shape, a form, a pattern?
Is it jagged?
Is it stretched?
Is it never-ending?
Is there a commencement?
Where is the end?
Where is that line, I mean is there one (should I even be asking for one)?
That line of oppression.
That oppressive line.
That straight but potentially slanted line.
At a certain point in this feverish pursuit of “projecting oppression” to light, the incessant self-questioning (see doubting) of whether one can truly, artistically capture the totality of it will begin to set in.
And with it, an unfortunate realization that however well intentioned, well informed one can be regarding this unwavering uninhabitable state (of oppression) there is only so much of it that can be shown.
As one is not solely dealing with their own lived experience + by extension their Doxa but is simultaneously working within the confines of a prescribed framework, institution or simply stated: space.
This combination of inner knowns (+ unknowns) + external obstructions will in part begin to define the aesthetics of the art, or more aptly put, the artistic interpretation.
And here (and potentially elsewhere) interpretation becomes the groundwork for projection.
Which in this particular case is rooted, isolated to a singular compound.
An already expanding permeable (insatiable) compound.
A formulaic construct which the artist (this artist) reflects upon, projects upon both in the figurative + literal of senses.
In Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant, Zahra Baseri uses oil as the symbolic personification for the Iranian regime’s oppression.
One massive “O” which defines another more massive more problematic “O”.
Now I don’t say that to slight the inherent truth at play nor the bodies of work (4, each distinct from the other) that make up this multi-media, multi-dimensional exhibition.
There is merit, truth (however slanted it may be) + a sense of profound reflection on what has kept oppression alive + well in Iran to this day.
Since (and even before) the revolution in 1979 that saw the end of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy (a man as reprehensible as the ayatollah(s) that succeeded him, i.e. SAVAK) the export of oil + natural gas has been paramount to the preservation of this oppressive system.
Without these two revenue streams, this despotic, theocratic + anachronistic regime would have not had the endless means to exert an unprecedented level of violence, censorship + suppression within Iran + even (to some extent) abroad over the course of the past 40 (or so) years.
Thus, the thematic premise is sound.
The “O”s are intertwined + have a causal relationship that cannot be denied.
But where things become a bit more intricate (say complicated) is in that material + conceptual relationship that exists within these bodies of work.
Which is what prompted the opening question – How do you project oppression?
Especially when the projection of oppression begins and ends with Oil?
Of the 4 bodies of work, only 1 digresses from being completely, framed, enclosed + contained by oil itself. It separates itself in both the material sense as well as the conceptual by illustrating how censorship manifests through the power that the revenue (export) of oil provides without projecting explicitly that causal relationship.
It is much more subtle.
There is a lightness to it.
A breathability that the others (other bodies of work) (in some respect) are lacking.
But that “lackingness” isn’t so much a criticism but rather a byproduct of the frankness of bringing together the “O”s with another inescapable vowel – “I”.
Which this breathable piece seems to not be as defined by.
Well not so explicitly.
That “I” that I speak of came with the revolution in 1979, it landed with the very man who would go on to change the landscape of Iran + to a great extent the Middle East – a regressive, fundamentalist (mis)interpretation of “Islam”.
Now Zahra doesn’t delve into Islamic fundamentalism as the aesthetic fundamentals of Islam are enough for her to clearly establish the interplay between the “I” + the “O”s.
Or rather between the eyes + the Ohs.
How the seen + unseen together frame the dilution of Islam from a once purely religious thought in Iran to that of a systemic oppressive one.
Persian Oilatures, captures the directness (+ subtleness) of this regression through 8 ink and gouache drawings (drawing heavy inspiration from Persian miniatures). Each drawing examines a multitude of varying scenarios (an imam bathing in oil, a bound body hanging upside down, a woman with her severed arm being projected upon by barrels of oil). This directness is complemented by the subtlety of the laser cut acrylic frames in the shape of Mihrab which house each drawing.
Mihrab being the niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca, which is the direction that Muslims pray to.
Or at least ought to pray to.
Here the Mihrab(ian) frames no longer point to the sacred site of Islam but on the contrary to where it has been taken by the Ayatollahs.
The piston pump pumpjacks that have come to supersede even Allah.
As divinity is now seemingly synonymous with profits, not god nor god appointed prophets.
This enjeu between the divine “I” + complicated “O”s is further solidified with the installation of Petrocubical, an acrylic box stenciled with the chemical formulas of methane, ethane and propane + are surrounded by Islamic symbols typically found within the architecture + design of Iranian mosques. The ever-expanding C-H formula + various appropriated geometric (Islamic) forms found on the 4 equal sides of the cube are projected onto the walls with a fine LED double headed light source in both ochre + Persian turquoise. The former representing earth or khaak (the literal soil that these byproducts come from) with the latter denoting aseman or sky (not only where these byproducts ascend to but more importantly where divine rule of law descends from – both of which, as unfortunate as the other). The dichotomy between grounding + ascension that is defined clearly within Petrocubical is further examined, refined + expanded upon with the positional relationship of the last two bodies of work: Sacred Oil + A Bad-ass Dictionary (the breathable piece that I allude to above). Here there is no escaping or misinterpreting the incestuous unforgiving relationship between the “I” and the “O”s as 64 ceramic Persian turquoise eight point Islamic stars (Rub el Hizb) cover the middle of the gallery floor in 8 rows of 8. Each star partially filled with used engine oil that emits a familiar musk of mechanical pursuits all the while reaffirming the harmonious co-existence that the two together shape, form + define. It is here that A Bad-ass Dictionary becomes somewhat more understandable + relatable to the overall scope of the exhibition. Because if taken at face value, the censorship of “ass” in an online dictionary is trivial in the grand scheme of censorship + oppression in Iran. There is far worse to be said + shown in what true oppression or censorship looks like, feels like + even smells like. But in the reflection of these glazed green-ware stars, the thought that this regime would go out of its way to censor such an insignificant word speaks to the extent of censorship + oppression itself.
That there are no limitations to how far it can reach as it continues to seek the most egregious of places.
Thus, can the projection of oppression begin with oil + end with ass?
Well I guess in some sort of slanted truthful way, it can.