Art review: ‘Document: Iranian Americans in L.A.’ at the Fowler Museum
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The exhibition “Document: Iranian–Americans in L.A.” is straightforward photojournalism that raises some tangled issues.
On view at UCLA’s Fowler Museum through Aug. 22, it’s a collaboration between Amy Malek, a UCLA doctoral student in anthropology and four Iranian American photographers: Farhad Parsa, Arash Saedinia, Parisa Taghizadeh and Ramin Talaie. Together, they collected images and stories of 39 second-generation Iranian Americans living in L.A.—or “Tehrangeles,” as some of them affectionately call it—home to the world’s largest population of Iranian expatriates. (“Second-generation” refers to those born in the U.S. to immigrant parents or who arrived here as children.)
The result is an educational project that brings the faces and voices of an under-recognized group to light, but falls a bit short of its broader ambition, stated in the exhibition brochure, “to emphasize the process of documentation by incorporating the multiple voices, expressions and subject positions of those who have worked to create it.”
There is certainly no lack of diversity in the portraits, whose subjects range in age from 4 to 48 and represent a variety of occupations—plastic surgeon, comedian, poet, police officer—as well as religious affiliations, including Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Each person is pictured at their home or place of work, worship or recreation, accompanied by a biographical text and quotes. They are arranged not by age, occupation or theme, but by photographer, a decision that allows the artists’ voices to come through as well.
It’s a lot of information to absorb, although to Malek’s credit the texts are well written and tightly focused on each individual; viewers are allowed to draw their own connections between the stories.
The 1979 revolution that prompted many families to flee Iran comes up repeatedly, as does an evolving sense of cultural dislocation and invisibility. We learn that Reza Aslan, now a prominent author and scholar on the Middle East, spent a few years in the early ‘80s pretending to be Mexican. A generation later, Shahab Sharifian refused to check the box for “White” on his college applications, preferring to write in “Iranian.”
“Document” marks the emergence of a sense of Iranian American identity, even as it threatens to explode any attempt to actually define it. This tension between the desire for unity and the inherent diversity of any community is something every marginalized group confronts as it seeks recognition in the mainstream. That Iranian Americans are coming into their own in an environment in which multiplicity is a given reveals how ideas about ethnicity have expanded since the emergence of identity politics in the 1960s. While it’s still politically important for minorities to find ways of defining and representing themselves, adherence to a monolithic cultural essence is thankfully no longer required.
This shift stems in part from our increasing awareness of how media is constructed. It’s harder to accept reductive portrayals of ethnic groups when we know that any media account is just one version of the story. With its multiple voices, “Document” not only attests to the complexity of Iranian American identity, but suggests that there are many ways to communicate it. For example, grouping the works by photographer allows subtle variations in style and tone to emerge. Talaie’s and Taghizadeh’s photos have the crispness of magazine portraits, while Saedinia takes a more intimate, moody approach and Parsa uses triptychs as a way of creating multifaceted if somewhat distant portraits of his own family.
Still, the show doesn’t go far enough in this direction. It relies too much on text, which is sometimes dry and overwhelms the photos.
In the exhibition brochure, Malek notes that she videotaped the interactions between the photographers and their subjects—some of that footage might have livened things up a bit. Did the subjects have a say in how they were portrayed? How did the photographers decide where to shoot and how the sitters should pose? Sometimes you can learn more about a person by simply observing his or her behavior than by reading what they say about themselves. Such behind-the-scenes information might have opened up the dialog about shared identity and individuality even more, raising questions about authenticity and self-presentation.
While the exhibition is titled “Document,” its strength is not the light it sheds on the process of documentation but rather the glimpses it provides into individual lives. For a people whose collective identity is still emerging, perhaps that’s enough—for now.
Fowler Museum at UCLA, Westwood Plaza at Sunset Boulevard, L.A., (310) 825-4361, through Aug. 22. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.fowler.ucla.edu Admission is free.