Iranian artist tackles taboo gender topics

Maral Bolouri's (left) works a woman should be
Maral Bolouri's (left) works a woman should be decent (right) and a man must be possessive. PHOTOS | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

Maral Bolouri, whose one-woman exhibition “Sarnesvesht Destiny” opened Thursday night at Kuona Trust, comes from a land where it’s mandatory for women to wear chadors or hijabs (meaning a ‘covering’) in public. Failing to do so can have serious consequences.

But her homeland of Iran is also a country with a rich, long history and culture that’s produced many lovely long-standing traditions such as its finely woven carpets covered in intricate, ornate and highly detailed designs.

Court paintings

Another classic feature of Iranian culture is the style of miniature court paintings that date back centuries to when that civilisation spanned many countries.

Both of those iconic elements as well as the chador are integral to Maral’s solo show of multimedia art.

She uses them like a visual language of symbols to articulate what she has to say about her culture, particularly in relation to issues of gender and hierarchies of power.

Tackling topics that are taboo back home in Tehran where she studied and practiced fine art from youth up through university, Maral’s first solo show since she came to Kenya in 2012 is less about aesthetics and more about meaning and what those iconic symbols represent.

Not that the design elements in each of her monochromatic works aren’t elegant, especially as she used a technique called ‘photocopy transfer’ to lift portions of those classical images off the printed page and place them strategically onto snow-white art paper.

The images and their placement are meant more to convey the hierarchical relations between women and men than to reflect the beauty of Iranian or even Western Renaissance culture which she also draws from in her show.

Maral admits that the underlying intention of her work is to interrogate fundamental elements of power, social hierarchies and especially the constraints that frequently confine women not only in Iran but worldwide.


“This exhibition is not simply about ‘women’s issues’,” she told BDLife a few days before it opened. “It is about gender issues which affect everyone, both men and women.”

It’s also about the gender stereotypes that tend to be embedded in every society and normally imbibed from birth and implicitly meant to keep women and girls on the bottom and men on top.

Maral herself never explicitly uses a term like patriarchy, but her art work makes subtle, subliminal reference to it.


And while her critique of patriarchy may not be easily deciphered, the concept is rather like a key that can help one understand why, for instance, in much of her work, she juxtaposes phallic symbols and female images including classical sculptures of nudes, women covered from head-to-foot in chadors and even Western Renaissance image of Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus and a headless statue of Venus de Milo.

“I’m also concerned with issues of equality and inequality, justice and injustice,” says Maral whose short (two-minute) video also speaks volumes about gender stereotypes.

In her view, women stereotypically are not meant to be rebellious, ill-tempered or bad mothers while men are not meant to show emotions or be dreamers. Instead, they are meant to be fiercely possessive of their women, so much so that if women violate the stereotype, something like “honour killing” can be justified.

The one curious thing about both the video and her set of smaller pieces is that each person appearing has a gendered idiom written across their forehead, either in Arabic or Farsi. Each line is an adage meant to instruct boys and girls on what they are meant to do and not do gender-wise.

The key to understanding the significance of the handwriting relates back to the show’s title ‘Sarnevesht’ which loosely translated in Farsi means ‘destiny’ but literally means “written on head.”

Maral claims the goal of her show is not so much to create pleasing works of art, but rather to get people thinking and talking about how these hierarchical relations and gender stereotypes are not just about the personal problems of women; they are also about the way they serve to cement a status quo that is grounded on inequality and on one gender’s privilege and absolute power.

Maral’s exhibition runs until mid-September.

Mourning loss

Meanwhile, the Nairobi arts community is again in mourning over the loss of another one of their own outstanding Kenyan artist Eric Omondi, fondly known as Omosh Kindeh, who passed on suddenly on Thursday, August 27, at the Coptic Hospital where he had been diagnosed with pneumonia.