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Artist’s Notebook: Morehshin Allahyari

12.08.14 Rhett Jones

ANIMAL’s feature Artist’s Notebook asks artists to show us their original “idea sketch” next to a finished artwork or project. This week, artist Morehshin Allahyari discusses her web-based project Like Pearls. You can see more of her work here and read an interview with the artist here.

October 6, 2013

Looking through my spam folder, I find one in Farsi that says: “Have you ever bought underwear for your spouse?” I pause and think to myself: “Wow. Women in Iran are now buying sexy underwear for their husbands?!” When I click and look at the pictures, I only see images of female underwear and bras (not exactly surprising). But what strikes me the most is a phenomenon called “Gol-Shorti” (English for: Rose/Flower Underwear). I continue to click on the links that the spam email takes me to. I surf from one online store to another and I am in awe of the passive-aggressive language, the visuals, cheesy GIFs/images and the “creative package” that comes as a “romantic” red underwear wrapped around a rose flower. That’s what “Gol-Shorti” is about. A gift a man can buy for his lover/wife to surprise her… or as I read it, eventually surprise and please himself.

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I put my parents’ house address in the “check out” section just to see if the online stores are really delivering to locations in Iran, and the answer is “yes”. This is even more interesting, because that means many of them must be operating from Iran. I remember just before I moved out in 2007, there were some new fancy/expensive lingerie stores in Tehran that had just opened. But before that, advertising for sexy lingerie was never a common thing; especially online.

I share a screenshot on Facebook to hear my Iranian friends’ thoughts/responses. From there on, I just keep an eye on the next spam emails in my inbox and continue to gather images and GIFs for the next 5-6 months. I am fascinated by their (unconsciously) ironic advertisement methods; much wiser than those coming from Africa, but still equally silly and nonsensical. Explicitly regional in a way; much of it would only make sense to an Iranian or Muslim or Middle- Eastern person. That’s where it always gets complicated for me. The translation of something so specific to a universal audience.

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I notice that all the model’s bodies are censored, but in a way, nicely censored, not with black colors or bars/starts, like it’s common in national television or foreign magazines that are imported to Iran, but with white or nice textured patterns. I think about how equally f*cked up and ridiculous (to the point of surreal/funny) these images are. In my work I like to bring humor and satire; and to critique these power structures and cultural issues by addressing/reproducing them in a completely different context that is equally surreal/ridiculous.

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April 2014

I have ended up with more than 250 images of censored bodies from these online stores, still images from “gol-shorti” product, text from the advertisements and GIFs that I’ve collected from different Iranian “romantic” blogs that I think have the similar passive/aggressive love language.

So many of the ads use hearts, candles, flowers, and birds to create a nice looking and romantic atmosphere/website… but then (like so much of contemporary Iranian music), there is this aggressive language that is like: “If you leave me, I will come after you.” It’s a love that is threatening if it’s not done the way the men want it. The result can be situations like “acid attacks” or other violence against women… men who love you so much that they can’t live without you, but also love you “enough” to hurt you so that they can take you back or ruin your life forever by throwing acid on your face.

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May 20, 2014

I’ve never done this much coding by hand. It’s so much work. Takes forever. But also, I love the process. So much of the collages and ideas just come in the process. I only have a loose structure to start from. Then everything else happens based on what visually and conceptually feels right at the moment. It takes 3 weeks to finish the website.

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May 28, 2014

Trying to think of a relevant audio piece to use, I remember how cool I thought Backstreet Boys were when I was 12-13 in Iran… and how disappointed I was when, later in my life, I actually started to “listen” and understand the lyrics in English. I wanted to make a point of how similar -in a way- the “I want it that way” lyrics are to the aggressive love in these advertisements.

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For two weeks, I show my in-progress project to every single friend that I hang out with. Both Iranian and non-Iranian friends. I want to know how much of what I have so far makes sense to them. What each of them, with different cultural understandings and knowledge will take from it. I always do this; in all of my work. A price I am happy to pay for being stuck between the two worlds of Middle-East/West : )

Then I choose the best advertisement text that I’ve collected and translate them from Farsi to English to make hyperlink images that will be on the Like Pearls website as pop-out messages.

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May 5, 2014

I think for days about a name. “Like Pearls” starts to make the most sense. Because it says so much about the binary of the objectification of the female body in Western and Eastern cultures. In Islam for example, women are encouraged to cover their bodies. Their bodies are “like pearls” as it’s said in different Islamic text… and Hijab is like a shell. The more they cover their body and hair, the more valuable they become (like natural pearls inside a living shelled mollusk; hidden; the most valuable pearl one can find). This also makes so much sense for the advertisements in online stores that were mostly for men. Because women in Islam are asked to always and only beautify themselves for their husbands, so that their husbands are not bored with them and won’t cheat on them. It’s a woman’s job to be available and open for sex anytime her husband asks. In Western culture, the objectification of female body is the complete opposite. A woman’s body is a tool for advertisement (like a pretty/shiny pearl that has now been taken out of the shell to be used to make money off of or to put on display for men’s pleasure). It all comes down to a similar misogyny, but in opposing ways…

“Like Pearls” is a mash-up of all these ideas and concepts. Like much of my other work, it starts from personal and political struggles or daily life events and experiences, and uses the most relevant digital tools (in this case a website) to question, highlight, and bring together so many invisible cultural, political, and social issues familiar and unfamiliar to a universal audience.

MOREHSHIN ALLAHYARI, LIKE PEARLS (2014)

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