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Reading Rämistrasse #107: Juan Barcia Mas on Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran at gta Ausstellungen

Following the murder of Zhina (Mahsa) Amini the 16th September of last year by the so-called morality police in Tehran due to her allegedly improper wearing of the hijab, a series of demonstrations under the Kurdish slogan ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ have taken place against the government.

“I feel like I’m missing the most important thing that could have happened in my life”, says Niloofar Rasooli, an architecture doctoral student and one of the curators of Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran.

Together with Helia Jamshid, architecture student, and Alexander Cyrus Poulikakos, a practicing architect, she has curated an exhibition supporting and aiming to contribute to the Iranian upheavals from the perspective of a distant diaspora.

As such, the exhibition follows a clear goal: to bring the experience of the uprising to the gta exhibition space and to make it tangible to the students, staff and teaching body. To do so, it acts on two different levels. First, it works with spatial and scenographic elements to convey the heightened experience of finding oneself immersed within a revolutionary landscape. Secondly, it builds up an archive of images and videos, collected mostly from social media, which give a direct account of the protests. These two forms of presentation within the exhibition give a good account of the two spaces in which the uprisings are unfolding: the online space of social media and physical urban space.(1)

“You are receiving videos from people you love, you cannot wait, you have to be quick, you cannot be sitting and thinking”, says Niloofar, as she tours me through the show.

Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran, Zürich, December 2022

Courtesy Helia Jamshidi, Niloofar Rasooli and Alexander Cyrus Poulikakos

The urgency of the situation required immediate action. The exhibition is, as the upheavals are, promptly done and improvised and partially triggered as well by the inaction of the architecture faculty. The exhibition had to find its own space, almost squeezing itself between the two main exhibition spaces at gta exhibitions, which were already in use, in a hallway connecting several spaces, a sort of crossroads. By carefully activating and placing a few walls, the exhibition demands and occupies a space by adapting and reconfiguring its architecture.

Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran, Zürich, December 2022

Courtesy Helia Jamshidi, Niloofar Rasooli and Alexander Cyrus Poulikakos

A screening wall.

On one side of the hallway, a projector has been installed in the dark space underneath the staircase. An intense flow of videos, gathered from social media, is screened in an endless loop that resembles the 24h CNN channel; a couple of chairs invite you to sit.

Women cutting their hair in front of the camera as a sign of protest, holding sheets of paper in front of their faces, spraying slogans, women throwing their veils to the fires and classrooms singing revolutionary songs, such as the Farsi version of Bella Ciao.

The white wall becomes a screen, showing videos many of us have been viewing on Instagram and TikTok, yet augmented, translated and contextualised by the curators. Loud and violent screams inundate the otherwise silent halls of the architecture faculty, bringing the revolution right into the otherwise unpolitical space of a Swiss higher education institution. As political as it can get and yet very effective. These videos constitute the primary source of information on the uprising for anyone outside Iran, including the diaspora.

In fact, the scenography that the curators have imagined on the other side of the hallway is taken from these videos, as they themselves have not directly witnessed recent events.

Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran, Zürich, December 2022

Courtesy Helia Jamshidi, Niloofar Rasooli and Alexander Cyrus Poulikakos

Two red walls and a grave.

On the other side of the hallway, you encounter two red walls.

One of the most frequently recurring acts seen in the videos is the nocturnal spraying of facades by anonymous protesters. In fact, in a country in which internet access itself has been highly restricted since the start of the upheavals (2), the facades of the city have become important mediating devices for political protest.

Walls give visibility to both the regime’s propaganda and the political demands of the protesters.​​ Some building facades in Tehran display triumphant portraits of the Supreme Leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, and others showcase sprayed messages by anonymous dissidents. These get painted over every morning by government workers, thus creating thick layers of paint that materially record the struggle between free speech and censorship, between upheaval and repression.

These walls are, as the curators point out in the exhibition’s handout, the same walls that shore up the rule of gender binarism and sexism in Iran.

“The walls, the walls, the walls.” (3)

These are the physical walls that define domestic spaces, as well as the ones that segregate men and women in the metro and girls and boys in schools. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, they have been re-built again. The veil, described by Afsaneh Najmabadi (4) as a device that silences and obstructs the voice, was imposed again on women.

Thus, it seems as if the curators needed to build up a wall that they could subsequently reappropriate:

A large piece of thick textile hangs in the middle of the hallway, a sort of red banner that interrupts the flow of inattentive students as they navigate the hallway and delineates the space for the scenography. It’s a simple, yet powerful move. However, there is something uncanny about it. The banner has been sprayed with revolutionary slogans, ones that circulate through social media via hashtags as well. It has been made to look as if it could be an ‘objet trouvé’, a relic taken directly out of Iran’s physical revolutionary context. Yet it has been done just outside the exhibition space and for the exhibition space. Like this, the curators have reified an object taken out of the images and videos they have seen virtually, solely for its scenographic quality. It is exhibited in a white cube-like gallery space, a place which won't offer any resistance to it as most of the visitors won't even be able to understand its messages, since they are written in Farsi. Still, the smeared black spray has a scent of anger. Anger towards the events and towards the inactivity of the institution.

Another, existing, wall configures the backdrop of the exhibition. It has been activated by painting it red.

Wall writing over erased writings, anonymous, Teheran, in Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran, Zürich, December 2022

Courtesy Helia Jamshidi, Niloofar Rasooli and Alexander Cyrus Poulikakos

It serves as a backdrop for 44 screenshots taken again from social media, overlaid on historical paintings and ornaments. They are laid out in a postcard format and carefully ordered, which somewhat cute-ifes their violent content. The feeling of urgency and improvisation gets partially lost here. Postcards from a Revolution. However, the content is rendered palatable for the institutional space of gta exhibitions. I ask myself how much brutality a space like this could afford.

A large piece of reflective glass with proportions that resemble a gravestone lies on the ground between the walls. All around it, books on gender history are laid out on the floor, protected by glass vitrines and inevitably looking like offerings to the dead. On top of the mirrored gravestone, fresh red roses. The victims’ graves have become symbols of the revolution, as many protesters have gathered around them. Again, such a symbol becomes reified in the context of the architecture faculty, with a kind of odd selfie mirror quality to it, which enmeshes it again into the digital. By reproducing these physical spaces, it almost seems as if the curators want to overcome their own feeling of guilt for not being there, or a sense of helplessness due to the impossibility of being on site. In fact, by curating this exhibition, they close off their options of returning to Iran even more, as they would face the risk of detention.

Together, the walls delineate a fire-red space. Fire red like the flames into which women have thrown their veils after Zhina’s death. Fire red like the first light at dawn, the time of the first prayer, the time when the regime’s executions take place. The time when Niloofar wakes up and anxiously grabs her phone:

“Here, normal life is happening with its shallowness. My timing is the timing of Iran. I wake up early every morning to see the names of the executed.”

Lights of a dawn that renews the spirit of the uprising too. As I walk through the space going for a snack at the cafeteria, it prompts me to ask myself about the degree of responsibility I might bear.

(1) Iran’s Internet Blackouts Are Sabotaging Its Own Economy, accessed 22 January 2023, www.wired.com/story/iran-internet-blackout-economy
(2) Iran blocks capital’s internet access as Amini protests grow, accessed 22 January 2023, www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/22/iran-blocks-capitals-internet-access-as-amini-protests-grow
(3) Exhibition Text for Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran, curated by Helia Jamshidi, Alexander Cyrus Poulikakos and Niloofar Rasooli, ausstellungen.gta.arch.ethz.ch/events/feminist-lessons-from-a-feminist-uprising-in-iran
(4) Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California 2005, p. 152.

Feminist Lessons from a Feminist Uprising in Iran, HIL Foyer, gta Exhibitions​, 13 December 2022–27 January 2023

Reading Rämistrasse

Geht der Raum für Kunstkritik verloren, müssen wir handeln. Deswegen schaffen wir diesen Ort für Kritik – Reading Rämistrasse – auf der Webseite der Kunsthalle Zürich und veröffentlichen Rezensionen zu aktuellen Ausstellungen. Diese geben nicht die Meinung der Kunsthalle Zürich wieder, denn Kritik muss unabhängig sein.

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