The current state of affairs – locally, nationally, globally – has sharpened our awareness of separation that appears to spring from an outdated order belonging to the 19th-century, encompassing divisions between men and women, neighbors, and entire cultures. Western culture habitually seeks to corner women into ideals formed by society and categorize East and West as entirely separate spheres, frequently asserting that the West on its own became the great source of creativity, that the Renaissance grew out of the minds of Europeans alone, and that the East is inherently exotic and disconnected.
New York-based artists Negin Sharifzadeh and Qinza Najm challenge these ideas in their current solo exhibitions at A.I.R. gallery, a non-profit artist-run space that shows work by female artists to expand the platform available to women in the arts. Sharifzadeh, an Iranian-American woman, and Najm, a Pakistani-American woman, place themselves within their own work to not just share their perspectives and experiences but to allow other women to consider their role in such a context.
Appearance Stripped Bare – Negin Sharifzadeh
Appearance Stripped Bare, curated by Giulio Verago, features a series of photographs and videos created by Negin Sharifzadeh during her recent residency at Viafarini-in-residence program in Milan. The videos created during her time in Milan animate historic paintings from Italy and Persia, conveying how even though the works are different, they have much more in common than textbooks would lead us to believe. The clip below, titled “Same, But Different Worlds“, illustrates just how similar 15th-century paintings could be in their fundamental elements, thereby suggesting that the people and cultures were more intertwined and inter-influenced that what we usually think.
Negin Sharifzadeh, Same, But Different Worlds, 2019, single channel -2D GIF animation, video courtesy of the artist
The artist utilizes photography to insert herself, as an Iranian woman, into popular Renaissance scenes, sometimes taking the position of Christ or the Virgin Mary. The images of Sharifzadeh playing the role of Christ, for example, present an unexpected departure from societal expectations, compelling the viewer to consider the subject and its contradictions in a new context. Speaking about the exhibition, Sharifzadeh says that the show explores “…art and ideas that helped spark and inform Europe’s rebirth juxtaposed against the present-day collisions of culture, by placing my own body as a contemporary woman from the Middle East within the imagery, iconography, and physical geography of the Italian Renaissance.”
The intention of these photographic recreations is not necessarily to reminisce but to posit that the Renaissance was a moment in the evolution of entire humanity rather than an isolated moment in time. With the progression of trade, this rebirth was unquestionably influenced by preceding Eastern cultures and vice versa—one difference is that in the West Renaissance paintings established expectations of the ideal woman that clashed with those of the East. The self-portraits of Sharifzadeh are juxtaposed with photos of similar scenes that focus on model Bryn Gast, as in “The Weaving Angel of Annunciation” (below), who represents an iconic European beauty, prompting the viewer to compare and contrast the Renaissance ideals of femininity against Persian ones, and to contemplate how these standards affect modern-day perceptions.
Still I Rise – Qinza Najm
Interdisciplinary artist Qinza Najm brings together a selection from four bodies of work in Still I Rise, a show curated by Tami Katz-Freiman that takes its name from Maya Angelou’s poem of the same name, stating “…you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise.” The overt component that ties the works together is the female form, mostly represented by the artist’s own body, situated in constraining space. The artist’s figure repeated throughout the exhibition as the silhouette is extracted from the central piece of “Veil of Bullets,” a single image made up of 16 photographs inspired by a performance piece executed in 2017 that addressed issues of violence and school shootings.
This concept is epitomized in layers of vertical stripes and Pakistani carpet patterns over classic representations of women, outlined in the artist’s form that appears throughout the show. While discussing the exhibitions, Najm told me that “…I treat the carpets used in the exhibition as a multilayered ‘metaphoric material,’ pertaining not only to a specific cultural and historical heritage. It attends to what was silenced over the generations and ‘swept under the carpet’ – to the metaphorical dirt related to traumas originating in oppressive norms.” The female figure is used in these works as a way to limit the image, keeping in line with the theme of constraint while urging the viewer to question how each element – the traditional and the modern – play a part in the perception of the feminine/human.
Another essential component in Najm’s exhibition was a performance piece executed and recorded at A.I.R. gallery called “Tabdeeli”, the Urdu word for Transformation. The piece had been performed in 2017 and recreated for a special demonstration at the artist’s solo exhibition. Following themes of feminine forms and worldly constraints, the performance begins with multiple women seemingly “trapped” in a sheer mesh cocoon. As the piece progresses, the women break free of their bonds and move together in a dance-like harmony. The performance is symbolic of transcending barriers and taboos imposed upon the feminine, operating in tandem with the visual pieces to convey an awareness of the sociopolitical obstacles and traumas placed before women in their daily lives.
Within their exhibitions, both artists deal with themes of perception, expectation, globalism, and the interrelation of past and present. Sharifzadeh presents a new form of iconography with Persian elements, which are incorporated into the context of the Italian Renaissance, challenging our understanding of the Rebirth and its impacts on Western and Eastern conceptions of the female. Likewise, Najm’s art brings awareness to the constraints put on women of all backgrounds, while also proposing a possibility of healing through artistic transformation and confronting trauma in the face of adversity. Najm grew up in Pakistan with a Westernized father and a very traditional mother, experiencing divisions of East and West from a young age. Sharifzadeh grew up in Iran and was shocked to learn the stereotypes applied to her upon moving to the U.S. The idea of “otherness” is vanquished in their work, by showing that societal expectations of women are as outdated as the concepts that separate the East and West. These works suggest that it is time to learn from our past and approach life with a humble mind and accepting spirit.
You can see Najm and Sharifzadeh’s exhibitions at A.I.R. through October 6 from Wednesday to Sunday, 12-6 pm, at 155 Plymouth Street, Brooklyn, NY.