“Family Tree” consists of 12 episodes made from ‘family stories’; all enacted by Ghazel with her Me series persona: herself in a black chador. The artist re-incarnates all of the characters by herself as her great aunt, her dog, her mom, her brother, her dad, and her nanny…an approach that amplifies her humor. It not only changes and challenges the aesthetics of her work and its representation, but also multiplies her narrations by adding other characters. With this new direction and mutation, the series can be renamed even as "Me and the Others series".
The 12 stories/scenes are conceived as a new project for Carbon 12. The works consist of 5 single-scene videos and 7 photographs, as opposed to the usual three-channel video installations so far exhibited in various institutions. They are deliberately “scattered” and "deconstructed" into different video installations and framed storyboard-like photographs, with a significantly more intense aesthetics of fragmentation and "tranches de vie" which is familiar to Ghazel’s style of work.
As in all of her Me series scenes, the captions placed in her C-prints are as important as the images itself since they create a narration critical to the work. The captions carry the 'Ghazelian' sense of humor and act as a voice-over for the narrative, creating a contrast with the silence of the photograph.
The Me series has been shown extensively around the world since 2000, with exhibitions in prestigious institutions and Biennials such as the 50th Venice Biennial, Venice, the 8th Havana Biennial, Cuba, Hannover Museum, Germany, The Hayward Gallery, UK, Centre Pompidou, Paris, MAC, Chile, and is currently installed in "Le Pont" at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Marseille.
The work has been the subject of many writings, debates, discussions, and conferences by many writers and art historians.
Ghazel's Me series are as well in the permanent collections of prestigious museums such as: Centre Pompidou, Paris (Me 1997-2000), MUMOK, Vienna (Me 2000-2003) and Cité nationale d'histoire de l'immigration, Paris (Me 2003-2008).
Ghazel was born in Tehran, Iran in 1966.
That is both the beginning and the end of Ghazel’s categorical boundaries.
Ghazel deals with identity and displacement.
Her dedication is obsessive… 730+ scenes obsessive, and ongoing. Stemming from a deep first-hand acquaintance with displacement, her oeuvres “talk about the outsider I am in the West and the outsider I am in Iran”, whether from her seminal Me series (1997 – present), Geopolitics of Roots- No Man’s Land (2011) or now, her most recent, Family Tree (2013), a reformatted extension of the almost two-decades long Me series. Her artistic manifestation of boundaries-transgressed (gender, culture, location) derives from the arbitrary transgression of boundaries she experienced as a youth: the re-implementation of the veil. 1 It is a culturally specific occurrence, first-hand experience limited to three generations, starting with Ghazel’s grandmother, one of the first women to remove her chador, and ending with Ghazel herself, who at 15 had to re-adopt the veil. The dissonance of the two realities created by the sharp cultural shift is engrained into her singular being, and thus her works, since 1997. While the homage to her grandmother is indicated formally in her aesthetic, Ghazel is not talking about the chador; she is talking about displacement via the chador. It is culturally specific, but she is using the tools she knows best, herself and her history, to talk about a worldwide thematic; it is a means to an end to express a universal understanding of a timeless issue… the human and their place.
Ghazel does this with humor.
But not mockery. The embodiment of different characters (her great-aunt, her dog, her father, her nanny, and more) from her life-lived is humorous, with its appropriation of silent-film gesticulations and childlike reiteration of “factual histories”, but do not mistake its genuineness. Ghazel is not imitating youth with basic-captions and candidly awkward snapshots to garner a laugh; she is reliving her childhood version of truth. It is simplified, but not simplistic, merely a nod to both her own and her Iranian-born self-described, “black humor.” In the way that her character presents a juxtaposition of physical freedom and constraint, it addresses tradition vs modernity, East vs West, preconceptions vs realities. The absurdity of the immediate implications (Karate in a chador?) is unavoidable, but not reducible to. None of Family Tree can or should be reduced to its formal characteristics, rather, the lack of colour, sound, taste, smell, allows the viewer to fill-in-the-blank, to activate it with their own lives-lived.
Ghazel presents to you a history, but it is not cut-paste-go, this is not Edward W. Said’s 1978 Orientalism 2 world where the presence of one image or symbol (chador) “logically leads to” assumptions of a social, political and economic reality, one outsiders view on another. Family Tree has more layers than that; Ghazel’s images are merely the foundation from which the real discourse begins. This visually fragmented installation of videos and photographs starts a social, economic, political, even aesthetic discourse that we cannot simply walk away and leave… this is happening right now, right here, inside us. The serious tone present in her earlier works remain, but now with a light-hearted visage and voice, speaking to the viewer with an almost primal “terminology.” Her colour palette is non-existent, her chosen English narratives, purist, and her depicted actions, universally slapstick. The message is deceptive, read by your intellect, heard by your “lizard brain” 3, and understood by everyone.
Ghazel forges a space where those who once had one and now have none, meet those who know one and will never have none.
Ghazel embodies outsiderness. Family Tree likewise expresses this, made clear by simply adjusting your focus from the figure-in-chador to the figure-in-space: the depicted locale becomes generally domestic, the exhibition location, irrelevant, and the exact mentality of the performed characters, ambiguous. Beyond the subjects being displaced, the works themselves become displaced, floating neither here nor there. But herein lays the paradox: Ghazel surpasses boundaries of gender, culture and location by clinging tightly to one, the cultural boundary, with her aesthetic choice to use the chador. In perhaps the most somberly humorous aspect of Family Tree, there is the realization that displacement is the separation from the constraints placed on gender, culture and location, or in another view, “freedom from.” But if to be free means freedom from belonging, but how can one be free without having that belonging (the constraints) to be free of? Ghazel cannot avoid the necessity of using a foundation (her cultural history) to discuss what displacement, personal or not, is.
The “floating” images of Family Tree need viewers to ground them; Ghazel offers you her history so that you can recognize your own (earning chocolate for a task well done, Episode 2 – Mommy), enforcing the universality of her theme. By bringing us into her personalized parallel “outsider space” through personifications of her family, we observe characters in a state of flux (between tradition/modernity, East/West, preconceptions/realities). But they are not the only ones in limbo: by looking at Family Tree and its culturally-specific formal aesthetic, we the viewers become an outsider by the mere act of looking into Ghazel’s world; Ghazel-as-outsider becomes us-as-outsider. However, this is short-lived as due to the self-recognition, artist, viewer and artworks become equalized, displaced together in a space where no one, yet everyone, is the “outsider.”
The initially quick allocation of who the “outsider” is, is replaced quietly by the understanding that, in one way or another, we are all subject to outsiderness, and our expectations of what we thought we came to see are challenged by what we will leave having experienced. Otherness loses its ostracizing distance and reveals that globalization encourages a more pluralistic consciousness, with more individuals like Ghazel. Otherness, perhaps a lack of belonging, perhaps a new multicultural dialogue, is a collectively recognizable symptom of society now, especially in this room, surrounded by Ghazel’s Family Tree and its silent message.
And for a playful snapshot of a woman kicking her leg in the air (Episode 9 - Amoo A), that is a lot being said without saying anything at all.
1 Iran’s long history with the chador (dating back to Mesopotamia) was initially for women considered respectable, independent of additional societal categorizations. In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi banned, amongst various traditional Islamic elements, the chador in favor of “modernizing” Iran. The forcible removal of the chador left the female population divided. Between 1941-79 the ban experienced a degree of leniency, but became a marker, or implication, of “lower” and more religious classes. The backlash to the “Westernization” of Iran lead to Ayatollah Khomeini overthrowing the Shah in 1979 and instating an Islamic Republic, where the strict enforcement of covering of the hair became legally required as of March 1982 for females aged nine upwards.
2 A seminal text by literary theorist and cultural critic Edward W. Said (1935-2003) analyzing the cultural representation of “Orientalism”, redefined by Said as the Western study and inaccurate perception of Eastern cultures in relation to post-colonialist/imperial thought. The heavily debated text transformed academic discourse on how the Middle East is described/defined by an “outsider” perspective, suggesting that “Orientalism” is a prejudiced Eurocentric romanticized cultural representation of the East.
3 Amygdala, groups of nuclei in the medial temporal lobes responsible for involuntary (oft considered “primitive” or emotionally reactive) processes.