Punk Orientalism punches regressive nostalgia in the nose

Art | by Gregory Beatty

Punk Orientalism
MacKenzie Gallery
Until Feb. 17

When New York-based curator Sara Raza gave an opening weekend tour of Punk Orientalism, she started by explaining the title. “It’s a combination of two ideas,” she said. “The first is non-conformity as represented by punk, which is quite a Western idea related to revolution and resistance. In addition, I was interested in orientalism, which is a term made popular by [Palestinian-American] intellectual Edward Said.”

While Raza certainly borrows from those ideas in this exhibition, which features work by 15 international artists, she gives them a twist. Her “punk”, for instance, doesn’t reference the music and fashion typically associated with the movement. Instead, she channels punk’s spirit.

Orientalism, as described by Said in a 1978 book of the same title, has its roots in the colonial era, and the exotic perception Europe had of “the East”.

Harem, a 2009 video by Turkish artist Inci Eviner, definitely falls into that category. The video “reworks” an early 19th century engraving by German artist Antoine Ignace Melling who served as an architect in the court of Ottoman sultan Selim III. While Melling presented a highly eroticized and voyeuristic view of the women, Eviner’s video animates them and gives them agency so they are no longer passive sex objects.

With most of Punk Orientalism, though, Raza has a more contemporary focus.

“I wanted to look at the latter half of the 20th century and expand those ideas around imperialism and colonialism and how central Asia and the Caucasus regarded Russia,” she says.

“During the Cold War it’s important to remember that that part of the world did not look to Europe and North America to find itself,” she says. “It looked to Russia. Many people, including artists, studied and practiced there. So it’s an interesting relationship.”


Bottom line with this exhibition is that it involves an area of the world most Canadians probably don’t know much about. Essentially, it sits at the intersection of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. In recent centuries, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), Persian Empire (Iran) and Soviet Union have all held power there.

It’s a complicated linguistic/religious/cultural stew made even more complex by the overarching presence of Europe and the United States which, for strategic and economic reasons, have long sought influence in the region.

When it comes to the Cold War, one area Raza is especially interested in is the Space Race. Here, she pairs works by Lebanese artist Ali Cherri and Iranian artist Shahpour Pouyan.

Cherri has a video installation that references Syrian cosmonaut Muhammed Faris’ 1987 voyage to the Russian space station Mir, where he spoke via video-link with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. With a father who was an engineer in the Iranian air force, Pouyan presents a shuttle-style rocket made from a helmet and chainmail styled like medieval Persian armour with inlaid gold/silver and decorative etchings.

Like today under Assad’s son Bashar, Syria was a client state of Russia in 1987. And while Iran and the U.S. are bitter enemies now, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (who reigned from 1941-79) Iran was firmly in the American orbit. So whenever a space mission succeeded, the USSR/U.S. (and their allies) scored a propaganda win.

Other works evoke thoughts of the Socialist Realist style of art and architecture that the Soviet Union used to transmit communist ideology and promote loyalty to the Motherland.

One that leaps out is Uzbek artist Vyacheslav Aknunov’s Breathe Quietly (1976–2013), which consists of large wooden letters that spell out the work’s title in Russian Cyrillic text.

The West, of course, has its own “Capitalist Realist” tricks to transmit ideology. But Aknunov’s letters do embody the monumental scale we associate with Soviet political messaging.

Another work in that vein is Erbossyn Meldibekov’s 2007 photo series Family Album. Of Kazakh descent, he’s grouped Soviet era photos of family standing in front of communist monuments to Lenin and Stalin with post-Soviet photos of the same sites with the statues removed and new Kazakh-friendly monuments in their place.

The effect, with the same people, now decades older, striking similar poses, is quite comical. And certainly, the Kazakh desire to erase the taint of Soviet imperialism is understandable. But during her tour, Raza did admit to a degree of unease. “After 75 years of Soviet domination these countries were left to their own devices. Instead of moving forward, most went centuries backward because they were trying to create a sense of patriotism and pride.

“What it really was was one ideology replacing another, which wasn’t really productive. It was a non-progressive nostalgia. That’s something I critique in the exhibition.”

Again, the region’s history is incredibly complex. But during the Cold War there was a trend toward secularism and vibrant engagement with the outside world. Between 1966-77, for instance, the Iranian city of Shiraz hosted an international arts festival which attracted many famous artists including John Cage, Ravi Shankar, Max Roach Quintet, Shūji Terayama, Yehudi Menuhin and the Staple Sisters.

Yes, all that took place under a U.S.-backed dictatorship. But whether Iranians have been better served by the fundamentalist theocracy that overthrew the Shah in 1979 is an open question. It’s not my question to ask, either. But several artists do grapple with its complexities.

Take Taus Makhacheva’s 2015 video Tightrope. Born in Moscow, but with roots in Dagestan, a Russian territory on the Caspian Sea, he demonstrates the delicate balancing act of trying to honour a heritage without retreating to an anachronistic ideal of the past in a dramatic way.

Having assembled 61 paintings by Dagestan artists that span the Soviet/post-Soviet eras, he methodically strings them in groups of two or three on a balance pole and carries them across a mountain gorge on a tightrope!

A similar sentiment is expressed in three “Kebab” sculptures by the Berlin collective Slavs and Tartars. The group’s name, says Raza, pretty much covers the territory from the Great Wall of China to the Berlin Wall. What they’ve done is take books from various countries/cultures that  exercised influence in those regions in recent centuries and skewered them to create kebabs.

On one hand, the sculptures could be regarded as satirizing the notion of canonical works that definitively explain complex subjects. But like real kebabs, they also offer the potential for a tasty (and nutritious) mix of morsels.

For the average Saskatchewan viewer, I suspect, Punk Orientalism will have plenty of exotic appeal. But the issues raised by Raza aren’t region-specific. From Trump’s clarion call to Make America Great Again to Putin’s ruthless powerplay to restore Russia to superpower status, regressive nostalgia is all the rage these days. So there are lessons here for everyone.