What art can do:
gently, provocatively, and in its own way reverently — recreate the sacred.
The image on the right is a devotional poster of Imam Hussein, Muhammad’s grandson, whose death in Iraq in the year 680 became the crystallizing point of the Shia-Sunni split. While Islam formally frowns on figurative art, popular Islam throughout the Middle East revels in it. Markets, kiosks, pavement stores, homes are full of such brightly colored posters. They show everything from popular shrines to the revered Shia Imams to the horse Muhammad rode on his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem.
The deliberate mirror image on the left is of a contemporary Iranian woman. What you see here is just a still: the actual piece is a video portrait, and the woman moves slightly and breathes as the camera runs. The five-foot high portrait, called “Icon #3.” is part of an exhibit by Iranian-born filmmaker Shoja Azari, running in New York through Friday (details and more info here).
In making this particular image, Azari — the partner of Shirin Neshat, director of the movie “Women Without Men” — was thinking of Neda Soltan, the student killed last June in Tehran during the protests following Iran’s disputed election. Her image as she lay dying, blood streaming from one eye, from her nose, and from the corner of her mouth, became an instant icon in itself.
I am stunned by Icon #3. I love the traditional posters and would have included them in “After the Prophet” if Doubleday hadn’t gasped at the expense (you can see a few here), but what Azari has done is give them fresh meaning and relevance. He honors the iconic images even as he adapts them.
And no, there’s no question of sacrilege. In fact Azari is solidly in the tradition of Islamic protest. Iconic images were similarly adapted during the 1979-80 Iranian Revolution, and are still being used in posters of such contemporary political figures as Muqtada al-Sadr, head of Iraq’s Mahdi Army, and Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese head of Hizbollah.
If you can make it to the “Icons” exhibit, which for some reason is only up through this coming Friday, I am incredibly envious — for once I wish I was in New York! And if you go, do please report back here to this envious Accidental Theologist.