At the far end of Gallery M.I.A. a video plays of a woman playing with a Skip-It throughout Tehran—in the square of Azadi Tower, near a bulldozer at a construction site, along a pedestrian walkway. Intent on her play, she stumbles at times but persists in earnest. Those who pass hardly seem to notice her, but one gets the sense that they are more than a little confused why a grown woman is entertaining herself in such a way. Aren’t there better things to do?
The woman is artist Negar Farajiani, whose diverse media over time included a series of portraits composed as jigsaws. Those portraits fused forms (her own face, toys, unidentifiable objects) into colorful, sharp, glossy designs that brimmed with questions about identity—its multiplicity, its ambiguity. In the current show, Vivacity, sharp gloss has given way to material softness, but other aspects persist—smart composition, recombination and the use of familiar, simple objects to evoke powerful ideas. Instead of jigsaw puzzles, Farajiani has used another sort of composite object: quilts.
Seattle is a good town for surface design, but the textile work I see often feels a bit arbitrary. I am therefore quite glad that Seattle gets to see Farajiani’s work, as it may help others to reconsider what is possible with the quilt form. Each quilt is unique, with digital prints that the artist created then embellished with stitching, patchwork and novel materials, including netting to create a literal net for a woman playing volleyball. In some cases, the quilt becomes and analog for digital imagery with small patches mimicking pixelation. The pixelation of images in the quilts is in turn a form of abstraction that makes gender and the nature of the action indeterminate. Is it a fight or a dance? And what are they wearing?
That last question is not asked flippantly. Indeed, dress is an immediate identifier of nationality, gender, and therefore of power—or a lack thereof. But while Western eyes may immediately identify the hijab or other headwear as a sign of oppression, the complexity of the culture as experienced by artists like Farajiani does not allow for such reductive reactions. It is therefore significant that many of the women pictured are wearing hijab, becoming symbols of female empowerment in a society of limited opportunities for women. Ideally, the women on Farajianis quilts will inspire all who view them, regardless of gender or race or nationality, but certainly young women in her own country will experience a particular pride. Sports have provided rare and vital opportunities for confidence, strength-building and even international travel for women. (And before we start taking for granted that westerners are more permissive about women practicing sports, I should remind us that this wasn’t true not that long ago and people still scoff and jest about women’s leagues.)
It is also significant that these quilts are child-sized. Disney princesses and other cartoon and fantasy characters are often blazoned on blankets, quilts and linens, and though these characters might fuel the imagination to some degree they are mostly marketing for escapism, materialism and narratives that (as countless essays on the subject of Disney in particular have said in so many words) don’t really provide desirable role models for girls. These are objects that could be used. (Well, the one with the net is a bit iffy.) They are also aesthetic objects loaded with meaning. They are unique objects of art, but I would love if I saw more of them in nurseries. They are objects of comfort and shelter. Even if you can’t wrap yourself in one, they offer a sort of comfort—a hopeful view of what is possible in the present and the future, for young girls and women who dare to dream of being more than a princess.
Beyond all of this, the playfulness and the awareness of the body in Vivacity is a universal message. It seems sometimes that in the popular dialog, sports are put at odds with intellectual and artistic pursuits. Jocks vs Nerds…another reductive and often inaccurate division in the culture has made it difficult for American artists to address sports and activity without coming across as a little cheesy. Sports can be the health of the nation, and it is obvious that sedentary lifestyles in the states are taking a major toll on our overall health (mental and physical, I would argue) while at the same time creating Major League spectacles that distract from so many pressing issues—even creates bitter and ugly rivalries out of thin air. The lack of awareness of the body and the focus on competition with others rather than challenging oneself is a bad brew. (Isn’t it also interesting that the bodily division between the sexes has done little to actually make us culturally more appreciative or aware of our physical being?) Farajiani’s quilts and her video ask many questions and potentially heal many things, ultimately compelling us to be at play, to be earnest in our play, regardless of what others may say. Whether you are creating art, playing on a team sport or skipping along beneath a towering national symbol, be grateful…and keep going.
Vivacity is on display at Gallery M.I.A. through May 17.