South Africa-based Iranian artist Sepideh Mehraban recently curated “Cape to Tehran” at Gallery MOMO (Cape Town/Johannesburg), an expertly realised exhibition dedicated to the traumatic legacies of post-Apartheid South Africa and post-Revolutionary Iran, as felt on a personal level.
Born in Tehran, Sepideh obtained her BA (2009) and MA (2011) from Alzahra University in her hometown. In 2012, she was awarded a postgraduate diploma at the Michaelis School of Fine Art (Cape Town) after which she completed a second master’s degree with distinction there. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Stellenbosch and has also worked as a lecturer and set designer.
As an artist, Sepideh deals with memory and landscape. In her academic work, as well as personal projects, there is a sensitivity towards recent history in Iran, which she incorporates and explores through text, figurative works and abstraction, often drawing on the grid format of the newspaper as a source of inspiration. Her works are part of different private and public collections including: Alzahra University, the University of Cape Town, Spier Arts Trust (Cape Town) and Thulamela Chambers (Johannesburg).
You come from Iran and have been in Cape Town for a while. What is your relationship with South Africa? What drew you to it? Were you somehow an observer of both countries and cultures while growing up?
I grew up in Tehran and only moved to Cape Town in 2012. That year I visited the city and fell in love with it. I was thinking of doing a master’s at that time so applied to the University of Cape Town after my return to Iran. Two months later, I was accepted and moved to South Africa. I had known about the country only through books and through my interest, as an artist, in the South African artists who were receiving international recognition. Living in South Africa over the past six years has made me conscious of the many similarities between the current political turmoil in this country and that of my homeland Iran.
Cape to Tehran is a reference to Cecil Rhodes’ uncompleted railway project titled Cape to Cairo. This vision of unification was intended for the realisation of imperialist goals. I like how you turn it upside down. In your exhibition, you also unite people across different national identities but you do so to allow them to give voice to shared experiences of oppression. Rhodes is a difficult figure. On the one hand, internationally—in the Commonwealth especially—the “Rhodes Scholarship” has created this aura of great sophistication and respect around his personality; the recipients include heads of state and Nobel laureates. On the other hand, he is clearly identified as a white supremacist, something that was highlighted during the protest movement #RhodesMustFall. How is the man in general received and assessed in South Africa today?
Yes, the title of the exhibition references Cecil Rhodes’ uncompleted Cape to Cairo Railway that was embarked upon during colonial rule in South Africa. The project was an attempt to connect African colonies of the British Empire from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. Rhodes’ ambitious railway was intended to enable trade and military movement to facilitate war. He played a key part in expanding the British Empire in South Africa, based on the belief that the British were “the finest race in the world”.
Rhodes’ supporters saw him as having brought political and physical infrastructure to South Africa and admired his desire for a united South Africa. Many have benefited from the Rhodes scholarship. However, his colonial project displaced Africans from their lands. In fact, Rhodes is considered to be the father of the Apartheid by many. The Rhodes Must Fall movement in 2015, which sought to take down his statue at the University of Cape Town, spread to Oxford University. Oxford also had a statue of the colonial businessman on their campus which they wished to remove. Rhodes is a difficult figure, as you said, and that is where my interest grows. History is complicated. There are so many layers to it that cannot just be erased or forgotten. The Rhodes Must Fall campaigners were not calling for Rhodes to be eliminated from the past. Instead, they were questioning whether he should be so overtly celebrated.
How did you choose the 19 artists for your exhibition? What qualities were you looking for? The selection is amazing! You have put together various media–painting, photography, sculpture, video, fabric, street art, etc.
Curating this exhibition was a way to relate (re-image or re-imagine) the personal experiences of people who live through political turmoil. The exhibition focusses on the process of creating art as a medium and means of reflecting on, rather than merely representing, these experiences of conflict and change. I intended to provide a platform for diverse voices.
I invited artists from both Iran and South Africa to participate and make an attempt to reveal what we have inherited from the transformation that has allegedly occurred in our countries. I wanted these artists from different geographies to be of different generations as well. I wanted to present unique stories rather than adhere to a single exhibition narrative.
As you were conducting research on the legacies of post-Apartheid South Africa and post-Revolutionary Iran, what points of convergence did you find? And what were the major points of divergence?
The nature of these two revolutions is very different but the after-effects and the betrayal that the young people feel is similar. In both the countries, a generation has emerged that is deeply disillusioned. They find that the noble ideal of equality that their parents had fought for so hard and which had warranted the formation of a new government has still not been achieved.
In 1948, the National Party was elected to power in South Africa, which saw a strengthening of the racial segregation initiated under the Dutch and British colonial rule. This resulted in the legally-institutionalised, racial segregation that defined the Apartheid system. Despite the legal fall of Apartheid in 1994, the repercussions of these discriminatory laws are still very much present.
Unlike South Africa, Iran has never been colonised by Western powers and has been ruled by a monarchy since the 6th century BC. However, this has not lessened the effects of Western interference in the governance of the country due to its rich natural resources and geopolitics. While the country has a 3000-year history of upheavals, my focus for this project is on the more recent 1979 revolution.
This was a populist and nationalist movement that consisted of many different opposition groups—the Marxists, Islamic socialists, secularists and Shi’a Islamic groups. The diverse groups united to overthrow the monarchy and bring about democracy; however, the revolution resulted in Islamic fundamentalists taking power. Instead of a democracy, a theocracy was created under the leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini. The social and economic upheaval caused by the collapse of the old political system reached a crisis with the seizure of power by Khomeini and his supporters in 1982. The eight-year war with Iraq and the Iranian Hostage Crisis had dramatic effects on Iran’s international standing and politics for decades to follow, resulting in a weakened economy and disarray in military and security forces.
South Africa is ahead of Iran in terms of freedom of speech. It also allows its critics to scrutinise the fundamental structures of the system, which is not the case in Iran. The realm of a democratic conversation has taken shape in post-Apartheid South Africa and the realisation that these ideas are taking longer to achieve than what was expected. This includes the idea of social and economical equality for all citizens that is not achieved and only remained as a manifesto.
Both these countries have complex histories marked by trauma. The recent student movements such as Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall and Open Stellenbosch of 2015 influenced governmental action. University fees were allegedly frozen after Fees Must Fall. However, at this moment in time, there are still protests occurring where students are demanding for a long-term resolution from the RSA government.
There were also student uprisings on the other side of the hemisphere in Iran after the 2009 presidential election, which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad come into power. It was controlled and its outcome pre-determined by the state, a situation that led to violent protests. In both countries, the movements brought to light the suffering of ordinary lives and were indicative of a need for political change.
Your own art was part of the project. You created large palimpsests featuring blocks of paint, fragments of carpets, newspaper clippings, etc., enquiring into the nature of truth. How does your work relate to or depict the issue of censorship in Iran?
In my paintings, I use different references from both personal (family photographs) and public histories (media photographs) to create new narratives through and by means of painting. Painting, then, provides a space to recall and witness veiled and fragmented histories. To reflect this I emphasise materiality in my paintings. I use paint, glue and canvas to cover and uncover the surface. While sometimes I use glue to suggest the smooth texture and reflective emulsion of a photograph’s surface, I also use it to obscure the image as a veil would. I use glue to fix and stick photographs, papers, canvas and fabric on the surface of my paintings to create a cohesive relation between them. The materials themselves create meaning as well as depict images. The use of glue refers to sticking and fixing matters that are essentially unfixable.
For instance, in Erased I, an amount of thick, dark paint covers the images on the surface of the canvas so that only parts of the images can be seen where it is scratched or the paint is rubbed away. The process of overlaying these materials onto the surface of my paintings replicates the process of searching, scratching, and digging for the information controlled and buried by the Iranian government.
All the artists that you have selected are incredibly talented. I was impressed by every single biography and it’s difficult to pick a favourite. But I think my readers must get a chance to learn about one or two. So the Black Hand collective and Francois Knoetze. Tell me a bit about them…
Black Hand is an Iranian street art and graffiti collective. They are an anonymous group who began working eight years ago. They have maintained their anonymity because street art is illegal in Iran and because their subject matter often broaches controversial topics. Black Hand’s murals challenge viewers on issues of the environment, sociopolitics, women’s rights, LGBT rights and other regional and international issues. Their works are not confined to certain groups but reach people from all social strata. Before expanding their works to gallery spaces, they created a pop-up gallery in an old building in one of Tehran’s poorer neighborhoods in order to emphasise their independent nature, as well as the crucial importance of having an audience that is not confined to a specific class or background. The forms and content of Black Hand’s street art empower many Iranians to become aware of, understand and start conversations with their peers and public officials about pertinent social issues.
Francois Knoetze is a Cape Town-based performance artist, sculptor and filmmaker. His work explores junctures between material and social histories, examining ways in which ‘human’ and ‘thing’ co-constitute each other. He uses waste as a medium, exploring the plethora of combinatory possibilities garbage presents for questioning systems of value and the myths that underpin them. In his Mongo sculptural suits, the synthetic is welded to the human, bringing focus to the objectification of persons through the personification of objects. The shell-like sculptural suits act as a type of protective layer, creating distance between his body and the spaces in which he performs. In his work, costumed performance speaks to a split between the fantasy and the everyday, between the desire to take on a hidden, costumed identity, and the desire to reveal and confront the largely invisible ways in which white male identity continues to suggest normativity.
“The Big Hole Counter Narrative Project” that was part of Cape to Tehran exhibition is a collaborative piece between Amandla Danca Teatro (under Mkhululi Mabija), Sol Plaatje University’s Anthropology department (under Carina Truyts) and Francois Knoetze. In partnership with the Goethe Institut Johannesburg as part of the Goethe Institut Project Space. The project aims to disrupt odious colonial narratives that romanticise Kimberley’s history of diamond extraction.
What kind of response did the exhibition get from the audience?
The audience was very engaged and participated in walkabouts. It was really nice to have a variety of visitors, from school/university students groups to the general public. I was happy to achieve the aim of the exhibition which was to create conversations around the subject matter and hear personal histories of the audience in response to the art. The viewers were interested as the narratives from both the countries resonated with them.
If you had a chance to curate a similar project uniting other territories of conflict, what places would you opt for and why?
There are many places in the Middle East and Africa that carry traumatic histories marked by social and political turmoil. There are many stories that need to be heard. At the moment, my PhD research is focused on Iran and South Africa and I would love to travel with Cape To Tehran to more cities all around world.
We are living in an era in which fascism and fundamentalism seems to be in peak. Those in power don’t bother to hear the personal histories of those who suffer from their narcissist and opportunistic actions. I am always open to new projects, to the possibility of creating new platforms that can generate conversations and support those who are either minorities or whose voices have not yet been heard.
Any concluding thoughts?
I would like to state that art and artists have the power to challenge systems, institutions and focal instructions of oppression. We need hope and art brings hope.
Find Sepideh on her website (www.sepideh-mehraban.com).