The Idea of Freedom by Gita Hashemi

The Idea of Freedom by Gita Hashemi. MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels), November 14 – December 14, 2013

Gita Hashemi’s The Idea of Freedom analyzes principal historic events in Iran (the 1953 coup, the resistance, and then revolution in 1979), and channels them into insights that are as personal as they are political. Engaging the audience in an inclusive experience, The Idea of Freedom consists of three substantial artworks that put current political dynamics in and around Iran in the context of colonial intervention, violence, trauma and their cascading effects on individual and collective psyches.

A site-specific transmedia project, Headquarters; Pathology of an Ouster, begins with declassified CIA documents, which chronicle its collaboration with the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service in masterminding Iran’s 1953 coup d’état and the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq’s populist government. In a massive immersive installation (60’ x 5’), on 60 sheets of paper Hashemi has debossed the CIA post-op report by hand, and revealed it through the application of dry media. Her painstakingly laborious embodiment of the bureaucratic text gestures to the violence of the original event, while she facilitates a new reading of the colonial narrative through selective application of red and black in revealing the text. Hashemi writes about her process: “It is the very labour of writing by hand that makes it possible to attune to the imperial language, to recognize in its “sanitized” and bureaucratic banality its hidden impulses and violent deployment, to embody and reclaim the history it has marked.”

This piece also included a live reading performance of the original plan of the coup interwoven with post-colonial historical analyses and eyewitness accounts by a volunteer cast whose own personal histories were tarnished by the traumas of colonialism. Entitled Ouster Remixed, the performance took place on the opening night of the exhibition, was webcast live and then later incorporated into the installation as single channel video. Thus, while the intensely lit installation invites visitors to become immersed in reading the shimmering text, the presence of recorded voices in the same space disturbs the reading and urges the viewer to reflect on the realities that the colonial narrative attempts to hide. The work puts recent WikiLeaks’ and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the function and discourse of US embassies around the world in a wider historical perspective. Ouster Remixed innovates a decolonial history by contesting the validity and singularity of the CIA account, by interjecting the emotional dimensions rarely felt through historical analysis, and by bringing together a pluralrity of voices and histories from different colonial experiences. In revealing their own scars, the diverse and locally-recruited cast of performers pave the way for the audience to engage as witnesses and participants in the dual processes of decolonizing and healing. With nuanced attention to historical revelations, Headquarters examines past events with retrospective reflections. The project also includes a website that documents the artist’s ongoing research as well as various iterations of the installation and performance at different locations,providing a continued accessibility, public significance and ongoing life to the work.

Also a complex multidisciplinary work, Ephemeral Monument combines a site-specific performance with single channel video and installation. It focuses on the Iranian literature of resistance that emerged in the years after the 1953 coup d’état and prepared the ground for the 1979 Revolution. In Ephemeral Monument, Hashemi ritualistically writes with chalk on two adjoining walls, erases and rewrites excerpts from selected poetic and polemical texts that both originated in and inspired her generation’s revolt against the Pahlavi regime. This performance is created on site, recorded and the video projected on a large screen in the space. Written 60 to 30 years ago, inspired by and in dialogue with other anti-colonial and emancipatory literature of their time – including Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis and Aimé Cesaire amongst others – these texts which are barely known outside Iran were ideologically influential and remain emotionally resonant.

The lowbrow medium of chalk allows the artist to informally introduce weighty philosophical implications and carries a plethora of psychological associations with authority and subversion. These associations begin with our youth, where chalk on blackboard delivered indoctrination through education, and simultaneously gave the young a public voice as vehicle of mischief and self-assertion. Referring to it as “embodied writing,” Hashemi’s ritual of writing and erasing (sometimes the two are collapsed together as her writing with water is simultaneously erasing previous layers of text), is a performative and epistemological intervention in how we remember emancipatory gestures and moments and an homage to the collective uprising: “Writing in chalk is a return to my first public medium as a writer, a calligrapher and an agitator; a high school student who stole rare unobserved moments to write provocative messages on her classroom’s chalkboard and who took her writing to the city walls during the protests of 1978-79.”

Dimly lit and colorless, the monumentally scaled chalkboard shows as the last layer of writing names of many dissidents who were killed in Iran after the revolution for their acts of dissent, and it stands open for the visitors to write on. Through a dedicated website, Hashemi has been collecting contributions of text excerpts and names of victims of the post-revolution oppression in English and Farsi, which she incorporates in her performance. The website continues collecting and expanding, thus becoming a living oral history archive. Ephemeral Monument’s immersive presence is enhanced by the sounds of writing and erasing on the chalkboard, pointing to the physicality of the writing gesture and text as signpost of embodied knowledge. Recording the performance on video, a medium of documentation and evidence, spotlights the important texts in dynamic new contexts. Ephemeral Monument’s invitation to the visitors to write on the walls resulted in contributions from many parts of the world and many generations, highlighting the continuity of oppression and dissent and the need to remember. Ephemeral Monument is therefore not a mere tribute to once-influential writings and instead, embodies a space for reflecting on the ideals of generations and histories of turmoil.

Of Shifting Shadows: returning to the 1979 Iranian Revolution through an exilic journey in memory and history (2000) is a multi-channel interactive narrative on CD-R that interweaves animated text, video, audio, graphic frames as well as archival and reconstructed stills. Of Shifting Shadows narrates the story of the Iranian Revolution through the voices of four fictional female characters, connecting the actual events with their subjective, psychological and sensory impressions. The semi-private viewing arrangement of this work creates a relationship between the observer and the characters where the viewer becomes a listener and a witness to their experiences and trauma. Thanks to this intimacy, the observer is provided the opportunity to understand the events of the Iranian Revolution, a movement for democracy and independence, through the perspective of secular women whose account of the events have been largely silenced. Of Shifting Shadows also highlights the singularity and diversity of its characters’ coping strategies and the varying lives they create in exile. The complexity and non-linearity of the narrative creates a performative space where readings can emerge that are contrary to the West’s stereotypical rendition of that revolution as an Islamist uprising. As a work of art, Of Shifting Shadows emphasizes the subservience of technology to content, the marriage of intellectual awareness with emotional imprints, and innovates a novel way of storytelling by defying the masculine linear process that has dominated the narration of history and the history of narration.

Each of Gita Hashemi’s artworks are coherent in themselves. Together they not only reflect upon oppressions and resistances in Iran, but also tie these events to other lives similarly injured around the world, and create a venue for collective remembrance, understanding and solidarity. They chart new, inclusive, mindful and empowering territories in (hi)story telling, revealing the shared humanity that connects anti-colonial struggles, transcending limits of locality, national identity and geopolitical boundaries.

Haleh Niazmand is an artist and curator who has exhibited widely in venues such as San Diego Museum of Art, Center for Contemporary Art, Santa Fe, NM, Des Moines Art Center, IA, and has published in Art Papers, US Art, X-Tra, Radical History Review, Fuse Magazine, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle. During a 1998-2000 residency at Des Moines Art Center, Niazmand designed and implemented numerous collaborative projects and workshops with marginalized communities, including state mental hospital and children’s homes residents. In 2003 she founded Gallery Subversive and directed Modesto Junior College’s art gallery from 2005-2011.