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500 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird 

The punishment for taking photographs in Iran without official permission can be as severe as imprisonment and torture. But the organizer of "Hejab Exposition"--Iranian-American Amir Normandi--was perhaps more at risk than the Iranian students he asked to take the pictures: Normandi was the one who smuggled some 500 images out of the country. Occasionally hiding negatives in bookbindings, he was taken aside at the Tehran airport for a search of his carry-on bags but left the one containing prints for the show outside the interrogation room, then picked it up later. Normandi has also come under fire from many in Chicago's Iranian community for putting this exhibit together, and the students in Iran could still face repercussions.

Normandi says that exposing the oppression women experience in theocratic Islamist societies makes the risks worth taking. But it's fortunate that this committed, knowledgeable man tends to be around during gallery hours: few English texts are posted, and though attractive books in Persian about women's issues are on view in the gallery, they're not translated. The photo collages Normandi has devised are rather clunky and didactic, but the show still offers an interesting if voyeuristic look into the world of Iranian women, through artifacts as well as snapshots. Dress dummies sport different versions of the usually black hejab, which covers everything but the hands and some portion of the face, and visitors can try on samples of the garment. There are also drawers to look through, full of items such as scarves and newspapers, and a few hand mirrors covered in black cloth with a slit for the eyes, so you can envision yourself in hejab. As scattered as the show feels, its physical interactivity and lack of political overdetermination give it formal strength, hinting at the inviting clutter of installations by Dan Peterman, Thomas Hirschhorn, and David Wilson in his Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Still, at the center of "Hejab Exposition" are its black-and-white photographs, shown in projections and prints on the walls and in albums on a table. Though some of the photographers were certainly trying for blunt poignancy--one shows Iranian women shopping for sunglasses, another a well-covered woman helping a blind man cross the street--taken as a whole they evoke Wallace Stevens: they're like 500 ways of looking at a blackbird. Nearly all the women are just going about their business, some walking in front of propaganda murals (Normandi identified them for me), some looking delighted or irritated at being photographed. Because of the dark hejab, it almost appears as if each woman has been blacked out of an otherwise quotidian scene. Knowing whatever one knows (or thinks one knows) of a woman's social position adds a cultural dimension to that void. But does an Iranian woman's clothing alone mean that she is less present as a person than a Western woman would be? The press release quotes Ezzat Goushegir, a Chicago dramatist born in Iran, as saying, "While hejab by force is an act of oppression, hejab by choice is an act of democracy." (Of course that oversimplified statement ignores the ban on Muslim head scarves in French schools.) Goushegir goes on to say that the show "explores both sides of the tradition." But Normandi actually just puts the tradition in a photo album in your lap and leaves you not knowing what kind of face you ought to be making as you turn the pages.

Photographer and video artist Shirin Neshat may be the best-known producer of contemporary images of Muslim women. Though sometimes overly slick, her photo series "Women of Allah" and video installations Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000) do clearly criticize the restrictions imposed on Muslim women and make statements about the strength and power they manage to obtain through devotion, desire, or violence. What "Hejab Exposition" offers, by contrast, is not so much a coherent or moving social critique as a rough-edged, disjointed space for cross-cultural contemplation.

There's a great deal to be learned about repression, even under the seemingly transparent regime of secular humanism, by seeing how explicit it is in other societies. And in the context of the recent presidential election, I can't help but see these women as the targets of some future U.S. preemptive effort. These women in black seem mothers and wives in mourning--or women like women anywhere, held hostage by their appearance. As cheesy as it is, a mirror wrapped in black cloth does evoke both the show's inscrutability and the denial involved in trying to reconcile humanist and fundamentalist values.

Hejab Exposition

d'Last Studio and Gallery

1714 S. Ashland

through Fri 11/26

312-942-1200

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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