When a country is in crisis, turmoil, or unaligned with the west, more often than not, culture ceases to exist. What the media produces and people too often consume becomes fixated around the present conflict and crisis. It generally becomes the first thing that people imagine when they think of that culture. And in turn, humanity is ignored and lost.
I am by no means saying that crisis and conflict should be ignored and we should solely focus on culture, because that is by no means going to produce a solution to the problem. However, we need to honor the art, artists, culture, and life that continues to exist even though all you see in the media are images of conflicts and statistics. We need to honor the contributions of the artists that go ignored and unnoticed.
I started to ruminate on this more and more after the passage of Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslim majority countries. I meandered into McNally Jackson’s bookstore in SoHo in a daze that so many of us were in following President Trump’s inauguration. I was shuffling through books when I noticed a normal table of staff favorites that had been converted into a table of books from Muslim majority countries. My family is from Iran so being that I am from one of these Muslim majority countries that has been “banned,” I was immediately transfixed. That week I devoured books by Sinan Antoon and Sadegh Hedayat. Coincidentally, that week I also started a Middle Eastern literature course where these same authors became the focus of class discussion.
These books were so different than the ones I had become conditioned to read and enjoy. There was no Nora Ephron and James Patterson, but rather books that highlighted the conflict, strife, and daily life in the Middle East with a very different approach than our traditional media has.
The characters in these books had lives beyond turmoil and religious violence. They exist with families, friends, love, sex, and drugs. They are human beings. While these books have their dark and light moments, some are difficult to read and even made me uncomfortable whilst reading them. They were important in cultivating my understanding of these other cultures and how subjective and skewed a “factual” portrayal may be.
I went on to encounter Middle Eastern painters, photographers, dancers, and artists – ones that I grew to love and admire, ones I had never heard mentioned previously. I was determined not to be fed the narrative the mainstream media feeds us.
This is why each month, as part of The Fullest’s new artist series, I will highlight a contemporary or artist from the past that has made an impression or impact, but who has been largely unrecognized or under-appreciated. This artist will not necessarily be from the Middle East, but will be from countries that are portrayed with a singular perception and are so often misunderstood.
I’ll kick it off with the Iranian photographer, Abbas. The first time I came across his work, his pictures produced a profoundly visceral response and moved me to tears. He provided glimpses into Iran that are unfound of. Known as the father of Iranian photography, he is one of those people with a mononym — Madonna, Bono, Cher, and Abbas. Ask any Iranian photographer and they know Abbas.
Born in Iran and raised in Algeria during the country’s war for independence, Abbas was exposed to social and political upheaval at a young age. He began his work as a journalist, but felt more comfortable behind the lens. His early work focused on revolutions and uprisings as he traveled to South Africa to photograph apartheid in the early 70’s, the place where he began to develop his distinct photography style in black and white.
Upon his return to native Iran, Abbas interest in people’s relationships with religion grew. In a Vice interview titled, “The Bullshit People Do in the Name of Religion,” Abbas explained, “By the time the revolution came, I’d started to feel a lot more involved in the country. When I took to the streets, it was to photograph my people. It was my revolution — well, at least until the Mullahs hijacked it.” The images Abbas took captured the darkness of this shifting time in Iranian history.
His photography projects have spanned decades and have included photographing everyday Iranians for his Iran Diary, capturing the daily lives of Mexicans in the 80’s, and providing an insider’s look at legendary French newspapers.
His last works largely focused on the relationship people have with religion. In an interview with Terry Gross he said, “What I’m interested in is not only the personal belief, it’s what people do in the name of God — sometimes the great things, and sometimes the stupid and violent things they do in his name — that’s more interesting to me,” he explains. He was working on this project when he passed away earlier this year.
When I look at Abbas images, I am confronted with something new and unknown, something that I don’t always understand, and something that makes me a bit uncomfortable. This is what makes art so moving — it forces us to confront humanity.
Stay tuned as I highlight another artist next month!