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Electra's Wedding and the Glorification of Patriarchy


02 Mar 2011 18:59Comments
36668_L.jpegSymbolic matricide at the heart of a disturbing artistic vision.

[ art ] In her new exhibition, In Praise of Father, which opened at Tehran's Mohsen Gallery on February 11, visual artist Shadi Noyani presents her latest works, comprising a series of family portraits. The catalog includes a text by Noyani in which she describes what she calls the new patriarchy. According to her, nothing essential has changed in Iran and patriarchy is stronger than ever. While she describes a new manifestation of it that combines modernity and traditional roots, she believes that the traditional forms of patriarchy are perverted and distorted. This new form has the appearance of modernity she says, while its "internal forces" are still archaic and powerful.

This is an anthropological concept that has been widely debated by Iranian scholars in recent years. Filicide -- the murder of one's own child -- is a common theme in Iranian national stories, traceable back over a thousand years, as far as Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (Book of Kings). In the tale of Rostam and his son Sohrab, the force of the youth represents a danger to the father that must be eliminated.

"Why don't we ever come to a story in which a son or a daughter, in an obverse manner, rebels against the father?" Noyani asks. She observes that Western mythology often takes this other path, with the son eliminating the father -- as in the famous example of Oedipus, who killed his father, Laius, and married his mother, Jocasta. Noyani, however, chooses yet another, surprising route: rather than symbolically kill the father and herald the undoing of masculine authority, she chooses instead to suppress the mother. Indeed, rather than rebelling against patriarchy, she appears to glorify it via a symbolic matricide.

In her paintings, Noyani links herself with the feminine version of the Freudian Oedipus complex, which is the Electra complex. Freud used this classical narrative to analyze the ambivalent relationship between father and daughter. In Sophocles' version of the drama, Electra is the daughter of the King Agamemnon. Her sister Iphigenia is sacrificed to the goddess Artemis in order to win the Trojan War. When he comes back from the war 20 years later, Agamemnon is killed by Queen Clytemnestra, his wife and Iphigenia's mother. Electra, who deeply loves her father, helps her twin brother, Orestes, to take revenge and they conspire to murder their mother.

In these new works, which represent her own nuclear family, Noyani has eliminated and replaced her mother. The wedding is of great thematic importance in these compositions. Mostly based on old family photographs, she reinterprets the images according to the Electra complex. One painting, showing her father in a white wedding dress and a baby lying on the veil beside him, is titled Surname: Noyani; Father's Name: Ali; Mother's Name: Need Not.

In Electra's Wedding, her father poses between mother and daughter, both in wedding dresses. While the maternal figure's face disappears behind heavy drops of paint and her yellow dress and flowers make her look like an image from an antique, fading photograph, Noyani's white dress is lavish and immaculate. Her proud gaze fixed on the spectator, the artist loudly announces that she is the wife of her own father.

These family portraits are very disturbing. The artist's father had come to the opening. I took a glance at him: silently examining the paintings, his eyes expressed a tremendous sadness mixed with incomprehension -- an unforgettable look.

While in a recent article, I contemplated the end of patriarchy in Iranian society and women's central role in the future of the country, Noyani is proclaiming the exact opposite.

Though I disagree, I respect her point of view and admire her artistic vision. Her expressionist style, whose agitated brushstrokes express the severity of her murderous act, and her drip technique are compelling. And the way she reproduces old-fashioned black-and-white photography intrigues. Those pictures from the past reflect the Westernized, carefree life of her parent's generation. But in Noyani's vision, their joy looks hypocritical and their smiles sarcastic, as if she had unveiled the dark truth of that generation, still rooted in tradition and conservatism.

Why did this young woman, full of talent, have to symbolically eliminate her mother and glorify her father? Why couldn't the erasure of the maternal figure allow her to become a free individual, divorced from patriarchal society? In other words, why did she renounce her spiritual accomplishment to become her father's wife?

It is very difficult for women to fight for their rights in Iran. And it is only through hard work that they maintain their humanity in this male-dominated society. Clearly, Noyani can not handle it and the symbolic murder of her mother seems to be the only means she has to find her place. And what is this place? Nothing but a no-man's-land, over which the shadow of a ghostly father figure looms.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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