Rozita Sharafjahan | Mojgun Bakhtiari | Samira Eskandarfar | Mina Ghaziani


Female Painters, Male Beauties
Helia Darabi
The history of art is full of female images made by men. Female nude has long been an object for male’s voyeuristic pleasure. This may seem so “natural” to us today that we can hardly imagine the situation conversely. However, this being “natural” does not necessarily originate from something inherent in the female body, rather, it is rooted in long-lasting conventions dominating the visual culture of the societies in which both makers and consumers of art-men- have turned female body to an object of their gaze1.
Looking is a powerful weapon. To look is to exert power, control and authority. Psychological situation made by female’s being caught by male’s gaze pushes her to a passive state. She is there not to look, but to be looked at. Woman is the object, seducer, engaged, performer; while man is the viewer, seduced, detached and audience.2 In such a discourse, a female viewer is never thought of, let alone a female painter. However, under this prevailing background, there have always been both woman painters and viewers.
Then came the “Postmodern”; and women, leading other minorities, left the margins in many fields, including painting. But, surprisingly, these women were not painting men, nor making them the object of their gaze. Rather, like heterosexual men, they represented women. One reason could be that centuries of submission to the authority of the male’s gaze had forced them to develop a man inside from whose eyes they would look at themselves. Or maybe the visual tradition that had long kept women’s image on canvases, was still too authoritative. In any case, women found men neither appropriate nor attractive enough to be pictured.
whereas this background is not fully applicable to the artistic practice in Iran, some aspects are still quite valid, considering that, at least two other major factors must be added: in our visual culture, in addition to the authority of male power, illustration of the human body, as well as the expression of the earthly love, has long been considered as a taboo. These two facts have effectively limited the creation of the images in which the representation of the body is joined with sexual visual pleasure. For us, also, traditionally, it is unlikely to perceive a female painter, and our modern and contemporary female painters have again represented women rather men. However, there are also some other reasons for Iranian woman’s inclination with female picture.
Iranian painting today is mostly viewed by West. The artist is supposed - and she accepts- to address her local issues, and do not enter the global realm of ideas. Thus picturing the Iranian woman and the oppression and injustice she experiences is always favoured by western viewer. Again, in an atmosphere which sets various limitations for women and their images, the representation of the female body is in itself a courageous act.
In such a background, the idea of painting the male body by the Iranian female painter is significant in quite a few aspects. The female gaze at men is an attempt to converse the power structures and gain control, standing as the subject and impose the gaze to men, to which they are very reluctant, as they cannot bear the burden of objectification3. Again, such an open expression of attention and affection to men is remarkable per se, as there are still anxieties and taboos around the subject. There are records of women’s expression of sexual desire in Persian literature. Mahasti, Rabe’a and Tahereh Ghorat’al’Ain are some of Iranian poetesses who have composed the most passionate verses apparently for men, and Forough Farokhzad, the Modern Poetess, is internationally known by the bravery she entered into the Iranian feminine poetry. However, in pictorial realm, such an expression is quite exceptional, especially as perceived for a female audience.
The four female painters presenting in the exhibition “EXPOSED” have each approached the idea from a different point of view. They have tried to develop a bold rendering of manly charm, without its associating with heroic attitude.
Samira Eskandarfar speaks of the initiation of an equal status. She seeks to freely express her sexual desire and appreciate male’s physical attractions. Her nudes are different in attitude from traditionally depicted male nudes. Here, the habitual heroic mode is replaced by a manneristic seduction. The paintings maintain her familiar makeup: large, mainly facing portraits occupy the frame almost entirely. Comparing previous paintings, they are not clothed, the colors are more vivid and the background is monochromic. Eskandarfar’s method in concealing the models’ psychological character which obstructs the viewer from getting into their inner world has got extra power in these pieces, facilitating the objectification of the male models. These men face the painter’s gaze in a cold, clichéd manner, bringing the deadpan faces of fashion models to mind.

The flowers devised in the composition, together with the statement: “Beauty Number …” refers to the traditional depiction of women, thus reveals the artist’s point of departure and turns her statement from desire to humor and criticism.
In Massoumeh Bakhtiari’s paintings, the same impetus takes more aggressive tone, using a harsh mixed-media technique, partial representation of the figures in the composition combining with other elements. Bakhtiari depicts the male figures from diverse angles and emphasizes the role of clothing in highlighting erotic characteristics. Here, bold angels are introduced to previous multi-sectioned compositions with symbolic herbal elements. In opposition to the prevailing, omnipresent image of woman in media which changes voyeurism into a money-making device, her female gaze at men turns to be a personal, inner matter.
Rozita Sharaf Jahan chooses a cultural icon to approach the subject. Behrooz Vosooghi, Iranian famous actor of 1970s, was the favorite star of one or two generations of Iranian women, mostly because of his sexual attraction rather than his art. Despite his violent or careless attitude towards the female stars, he was still much favoured by most women. Sharaf Jahan also points to the fact that even this tendency to famous icons is associated with shame and embarrassment, as their pictures are kept in the most covert places.
Mina Ghaziani goes back to mythical time to investigate the relation between man and woman. She seeks a primal situation, as Adam and Eve, untouched by the intricate cultural pre-judgments, looked at each other. She looks for a “natural” feeling, a collective memory existing before this cultural dominant status. However, while executed, it ends up in the concept of violence in her drawings. In searching her visual heritage for images of men, what is most revived is the hostility they once enforced to the women.
The artists in “EXPOSED” came with a fresh idea, daringly directing their gaze to men, each reaching a different arena in their works. In resistance to the prevailing image making which leads to the objectification of women, and the local traditional setting which tends to marginalize them, they seek to create an image by and for women.