In a stirring voice, "Focus Iran 3" pushes back against homophobia and patriarchy in many of the 43 photo and video installations that line the second-story walls at Craft Contemporary (as the Craft & Folk Art Museum has recently rebranded itself). With a subtler voice, the Farhang Foundation–presented exhibit challenges xenophobia, current U.S.-Iran relations and the ways in which Iranians are stereotyped by Westerners, and even by one another.
"There are a lot of messages in each image," Farhang Foundation executive director Alireza Ardekani tells L.A. Weekly, from the "homoerotic" to "a kind of uprising against the hijab." The theme selected by the L.A.-based foundation is Iranian youth culture — the secondary themes, the "messages" as Ardekani calls them, come from the artists themselves.
Winning top prize at the exhibition, collaborators Hushidar Mortezaie and Jiyan Zandi, both from L.A., offer a message of unity in The Brotherhood. The photo presents a "new, progressive narrative" of Iran and the region, Zandi says, one that embraces multiculturalism, gender fluidity and the LGBTQ community. The image shows two men wearing matching shirts with collages created by Mortezaie from 1970s news, sports and pop culture media clippings. They pose — one man with his arm proudly draped over the other's shoulder — in contradiction to 1970s machismo, the floral backdrop and rose crowns resting on the men's heads augmenting the juxtaposition. "This work," she says, "is a chance to tell an untold story about marginalized identities and portray a brighter, more inclusive future."
Judged by a multinational jury composed of art curators and photographers, the "Focus Iran" series looks to create a level playing field where artists from around the world can share their work with the international community. "We wanted to make something that is very democratic, especially for artists inside Iran," Ardekani says. The exhibit showcases digital mediums so that anyone with access to the Internet, or even a smartphone, would be able to participate.
Now in its third edition, "Focus Iran" began in 2015 and takes place every other year. While the exhibition is open to all photographers regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality, roughly 80 percent of this year's approximately 300 submissions came from inside Iran, according to Ardekani, providing those artists with unique opportunities.
For example, third-prize winner The Kiss would not be allowed to be displayed in Iran where artist Milad Karamooz lives, Ardekani says.
The image depicts a man wearing a bondage-style black lace harness; he's lovingly clutching the arms of a man who stands shirtless behind him, donning black leather gloves and holding battered shears to the first man's lips. While the photo may initially appear gratuitously provocative, its noteworthiness becomes apparent with the realization that it is likely a stinging indictment of Iran's draconian anti-LGBTQ policies.
Ardekani says "Focus Iran 3" not only provided Karamooz an international platform but also gave him a sense of hope for his significance as an artist.
Ardekani acknowledges that politics on this side of the globe have had their own effects on "Focus Iran 3" as well. Karamooz and all other exhibiting artists from Iran who planned to attend were denied visas due to "what they call the Muslim ban," he says. Despite this, Ardekani sees the exhibition as a community-building platform. Beyond opening a conversation between artist and audience on an international level, it also allows Iranian expatriates and those in the second generation an unfiltered, new look at Iran and its views, views so insubordinate that many Iranian-Americans are surprised, he says.
Additionally, "Focus Iran" builds community by connecting local artists, he says, pointing to the collaboration by L.A. artists Labkhand Olfatmanesh and Gazelle Samizay, who won this year's second prize. The two met as exhibiting artists during "Focus Iran 2" and created a video together for this year's submission.
A haunting six-minute film, their Bepar examines the effects of male dominance on society in terms of war and female subjugation, Samizay explains. In the video, a young woman plays hopscotch while encountering bombings and familial control. Samizay, who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, says she and Tehran-born Olfatmanesh related to each other's upbringing on many levels and used their collective stories as inspiration. The film is soaked with symbolism: The central figure wears wedding shoes far too large for her — an implication of societal pressures upon women and girls in some communities.
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Yet, Samizay points out, far from media reports that depict these cultures as one-dimensional, the reality is much more complex. "I think it's very easy for people to think in that part of the world that's just the way it is — that women are oppressed, period," she says. "We tried to show it's more complicated — that war has an effect on families, that interpersonal relationships have an effect, there are all these different things.
"And, as human beings, no matter what culture you're in, you kind of have to find your own path and navigate all of that."
Craft Contemporary, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile; (323) 937-4230, cafam.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions. "Focus Iran 3" runs through May 12; $9; open Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; open until 9:30 p.m. every first Thursday.