Saturday, 3 October 2009

Belly Dance Congress, September 2009

Middle Eastern dance, popularly known as ‘bellydancing’ suffers from all manner of image problems in the West. Firstly, ‘Middle Eastern dance,’ as such, doesn’t exist. There are hundreds of different kinds of dance and, although you will hear people speak of ‘Turkish’ dance, ‘Egyptian’ dance and so forth, it should be understood that these various ways of dancing are really more associated with regions than national borders and even more strongly associated with culture - culture shaped by communities – by their language, religions, occupation, history and relative mobility.

Dance Migration
The extent to which various population groups have migrated and also the extent to which they themselves have acquired new populations and influences has had as great an impact on dance as it has had on language, religion, cooking and all other forms of social and political discourse. Thus the traditional, folkloric dance of the Egyptian Camel herders of the Nile region, ‘Saidi,’ for example, will be categorically different from the ‘Mwahashat,’ an Arab/Andalucian court dance. Technically though, they’re both Middle Eastern dances or ‘bellydancing.’ To add to the confusion, they may share some characteristics depending upon exactly which Arab population it was which colonised the Andalucian region of Spain and when.

From Hollywood to Hip Hop
In the 20th Century, Cinema, especially Hollywood had a huge influence on the Urban dancers of Cairo and Cairo duly returned the favour to Hollywood and particularly to 1970s American pop. Ballet seems to creep in all over the place and I have no doubt that Hip Hop is mixing it up a storm with Saidi and a tinge of Flamenco somewhere – London probably – or Surrey – that beating pulse of the Bellydance Universe - Oh yes! For it was in deepest, darkest Surry that we convened in sequinned apparel to shimmy, camel and undulate our way through three glorious days of sunshine and dancing.

Restaurants and Cabaret
Getting back to image problems, bellydancing, in the West, is considered, at best, to be an embarrassing episode in dodgy restaurant and at worst a form of strip tease. It certainly counts as ‘cavorting in an unseemly manner in public,’ whichever way you look at it and it’s almost always considered to be amateur. So professional dancers in this discipline have their work cut out. Not only do they have to dance better than anyone else if they’re going to have a ghost of chance of being taken seriously and getting paid for what they do, they also have to ward off the prurient interest, entice those with a genuine interest in dance and then, after all that, remember to perform.

Orientalism and Authenticity
Further complications are added by those who consider the whole business to be an exercise in post imperial Orientalism of the most insidious kind. True this would have to come from someone largely ignorant of the history and culture of the dance and somewhat naïve politically but it shows what serious exponents of this dance are dealing with. Oh yes, and if it's 'authenticity' you're looking for, you may need to look elsewhere - if not, check out the last video on this post featuring Fifi Abdo dancing at a wedding surrounded by christmas decorations in Egypt. If that doesn't disrupt every last vestige of concern with the 'A' word, nothing will. That bellydance has never, to my knowledge, received any public funding, also speaks volumes, especially when compared with other kinds contemporary dance.

What Happens at a Belly Dance Congress
Bellydance Congress sets aside all these anxieties, raises the calibre to the heavens, and summons the assembled deities of the dance to come and show us the real thing in all its variety and complexity. Congress brings in the megastars from all over the world and devoted fans and students who came from as far afield as the USA and Russia to attend master classes, workshops, and take a once in a lifetime opportunity to see some of these people perform.

Classes and Stars: Leyla Jouvana
I attended two three-hour classes with Leyla Jouvana, one on layering of techniques and moves and the other on dancing with two or more veils to a mixed ability class. I did a technique class, also three hours, with Caroline Affifi, a tabla solos class – that’s dancing to a solo drum - with Kay Taylor and I had the exceptionally good fortune to be facilitating a class with Randa Kamel. In principle I was facilitating one of Leyla Jouvana’s classes as well, but she did not teach in a way that required it so I was able to do the class in full. Jouvana (Germany) and Kamel (Egypt), are major stars and rarely in this country so the opportunity to do their classes is a rare, extraordinary and invaluable privilege. Jouvana’s rigour and attention to detail accompanied by careful, precise explanations make her an exceptional teacher. She is accompanied by her husband, Roland, on the drum, so the music is always exactly as she needs it.

Randa Kamel
Kamel’s class, the one that I facilitated, was for dancers in grades 3 and 4 and I know from experience that these grades at international level are much higher than is appropriate for my experience. ‘Facilitating’ in this instance means that I had to ensure that the rows of dancers in her class were rotated regularly so that everyone had a chance to be at the front. Even now, remembering being at the front of her class, so close to her that I could see clearly every move that she made and how she did it, brings tears to my eyes, it’s a chance I don’t really expect to be repeated and I shall not forget it soon, if ever. Hers was not an easy class to follow and many of the students clearly struggled in spite of my best endeavours to ensure they could all see, but the truth is, many were just not up to the level she expected of them.

The Mighty Fifi Abdo
This year’s Bellydance Congress was dominated by the legendry presence of her Imperial Highness, (massive drum roll), her Royal Magnificence, the Astounding FIFI ABDOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Gasp. Now I get it. Now I understand why everyone talks of this woman. I talked at length in this post about the problems that Bellydance faces in the West. One of the results of this is that we now have a collection of dancers, excellent dancers, who produce highly polished performances, virtuoso displays of technical perfection. And, yes, they make you gasp, but after a while of seeing one after another after another of these displays, one can start to lose the will to live. The intense focus on technique really can be a bit soulless and where you have a dance whose exponents often rely on cabaret to build up experience, it seems we lack a demanding dramatic repetoire that might serve as a training ground for evolving performance dancers.

The Horse, The Hurricane and a Touch of the Divine
Fifi Abdou whirls through all this like a hurricane. Her dance has a kind of roughness and raw edge to it which is wholly unexpected. She struts about on stage like she owns not only the stage but the audience too. She tosses her mane like some demented dervish horse and twirls and shimmies simultaneously punctuated by deep bowing twirly things – we call them ‘breaks.’ No one dances like this without close attention to detail and careful learning in the early years, but technique, practice and training alone will not bring it either. She’s an immensely expressive, intimate dancer, bold and brash in her gestures, there’s almost a touch of aggression, but combined with her own unique equine grace it all results in an electrifying stage presence and performance.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Part 2, The Conference: East &West: Cross-Cultural Encounters

St Andrews

View of ST. Andrew's looking out over the harbour

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of Art History. When I was still at school and also when I went to Art School and the early 1980s, Art History was about the lives of painters and about ‘brush strokes.’ ‘The Renaissance,’ meaning the one that took place in Western Europe, was deemed to be centred in Italy, specifically Florence; this Renaissance was the back-bone of the subject. All other parts of the History of Art were somehow attached to or related to this time, place and collection of work. I still love Florence and I love what I learned of that time, but I’m very happy indeed that History of Art has become something else entirely, as East &West: Cross-Cultural Encounters eloquently demonstrated.

Orientalist Painting In Poland
The papers in this conference took me into corners of the history of the art that I didn’t know existed. I had no idea, for example, that Polish artists in the 19th Century were producing Orientalism in paintings every bit as rhetorical and absurd as anywhere in France or Britain. However, the underlying narrative, according to Ana Chruscinska, was predicated on Poland’s political situation, particularly its loss of independence, which prompted artists at that time to deploy the Orientalist imagery as a metaphor to describe Poland’s own subjugation.

Ana Chruscinska: Myths about the inhabitants of the Arab World as depticted in 19th Century Polish Oriental paintings

Hungarian Ottoman Woodcuts And Mock Battles

Also examining a nuanced relationship to imperialism and its imagery, AnnMarie Perl discussed the relationship between Hungarian and Ottoman artists during the Ottoman period when Hungary formed part of that vast empire. Far from being divided along cultural and ethnic lines, she argued that there was a well developed cross-cultural transfer which substantially unsettled the idea of an ‘authentic’ Ottoman aesthetic and genre. All this was discussed through book illustrations – wood cuts - and mock battles – yes Mock Battles –the Reenactment Society is not, after all, one of the more outré and eccentric inventions of Middle England, but was a major source of entertainment in the Ottoman Empire and documented in woodcut illustrations. Marvellous!

This, I discovered, was what I loved about Art History. It’s the weird little details which seep through and which tell you so much about the period. I was envisaging Hungarian and Turkish or Armenian or Greek artists dining together in each others houses and swapping tabards and swords before gadding off the local tea house to get uproariously drunk and party it up a storm in the street staging a mock battles till dawn when they’d be rounded up by the district gendarme for being drunk and disorderly and sent home to sober up.


Dr. Seung Jung Kim: The Beginnings of the East-West Dialogue: An Examination of Dionysiac Representations in Gahdhara and Kushan-Mathuran Art

Original Copies

Authenticity, as you might expect, was a dominant theme of the conference and it waltzed into view with Princess Akiko’s paper on the gentle art of reproduction. Her focus was on the repros of Japanese artefacts in the British Museum. Konstanze Knittler talked about ‘Famille Noire’ - a very weird-looking kind of porcelain that I’d never heard of – with a very intriguing story attached. It seems that hundreds of wealthy collectors have collected thousands of pieces of black porcelain believing them to belong to a much appreciated part of Chinese porcelain history – the Kanxi period, (1622-1722), and that this ‘famille’ turns out to be the bastard progeny of another period entirely – late 19th Century – Perish the thought!! This, along with Princess Akiko’s paper, neatly encapsulates much of what the conference discussed, namely, who’s to say what’s authentic and what if the reproduction is really more interesting than the ‘original’ ?


Dr. Claudia Clare: The Artist and the Coup D'Etat: A User's Guide to Exhibiting Ceramics in Politically Unstable Situations

Seen Through The Lens
The lens – the fiendish camera – popped up every so often. It began the conference and ended it – in a way – and it appeared in the middle cleverly disguised as paintings by Jackson Pollock. This was about a group of Japanese artists - the Gutai group, based in Osaka in the 1950s. They are widely thought to be influenced - almost formed really – by Jackson Pollock and that their work sprang out of and responded to his as an homage. However Natalie Roncone’s paper showed that what they were responding to was not Pollock’s painting or his writing but to a collection of photographs by Hans Namuth of Pollock ‘in action,’ published in a 1951 issue of ‘Art News.’ In other words their ‘homage’ was predicated on someone else’s interpretation and mediation of Pollock’s work.

Dr. Luke Gartlan: Portraying China's 'Character': Baron von Stillfried's Portfolio of Shanghai Photographs

Confusing The Image
This first appearance of the camera was in the Keynote speech by Dr. Luke Gartlan, about a collection of 19th Century photographs of ‘life’ in China which failed to attract buyers and was quickly abandoned. Gartlan argued that the main reason for this was that this album of, let us say, ‘images of China’ did not meet or in any way match the image of that country that the Western consumer expected. He compared it to similar albums made by the same photographer, Baron von Stills, of Japan which sold in their thousands. They look remarkably similar. And that’s the rub. They weren’t supposed to. China was considered an, ‘unpaved, dirty, stinking,’ place, quite different from the elegant, stylish exotic Japan. The Western Consumer duly turned up its western nose and refused the offering.

Shirly 2

Shirley Bahar: A War Within: The Westernized Performance of Israeli Artists

Had We But World Enough And Time…
This is such a tiny bite of what was really a feast of careful, passionate research and lovingly honed knowledge. There were papers on consumers of Manga, on queer masculinity and nationalism, (possibly), in Japanese / (American?) photography, on masculine self reflexivity in Israeli film, on 18th Century Chinese court paintings, on Graeco-Roman representations in Kushan Buddhist art, on contemporary Chinese calligraphy, on Orientalist bookcovers in contemporary Western publishing, and on a kiln maker and designer of production methods in the Leach pottery, by name of Matsubayashi Tsurunosuke, who’s immense contribution to that pottery and, by implication, to British studio pottery, has been largely written out of the history. All of this was served up with delicious food, sunshine and a fabulous beach in one of the most beautiful towns I’ve seen in years. My thanks to the organisers, to my fellow participants, and to Ana Chruscinska and Dr. Luke Gartlan, who made the final lens-based contributions by providing all of the photographs on this post.

Dr. Shinya Maezaki: A Legacy of Matsubayashi Tsurunosuke in St. Ives: Introduction of the Art of Japanese Ceramic Making to British Studio Pottery

Thursday, 17 September 2009

East & West: Cross-Cultural Encounters, Part 1: Diversion - St. Andrews - An East West Cross Cutlural Encounter In Itself


School of Art History, St. Andrews University, 11th and 12th September, 2009.

On the East cost of Scotland, sort of southernish by Scottish standards, there’s platform in the middle of a field with a metal bridge slung a bit carelessly over the top of it. That’s how you get from the train, which just about remembers to stop for a minute or two by the platform, to the road. Otherwise you’d just tumble straight into the field. This windswept, lonesome, soulful looking place, something between Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, is Leuchars. It’s where you get off to go to St. Andrews.

St. Andrews, just five miles or so down the road couldn’t be more different. Home to one of the oldest universities in the world, - founded in 1413 – it is busy, thriving, wealthy beyond its modest size, and astounding beautiful. The town is the university and the university is the town. Shops, restaurants and hotels rely on the busy-ness of academia and on the achingly beautiful coastal landscape for their incomes - its other industry is tourism, especially tourism related to golf.

So, imagine my surprise, when stepping carefully off the train in Leuchars, and looking around at my fellow travellers, I spot a woman who, I decide, must also be coming to the conference, and accordingly invite her to share a taxi. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Forough’ she says. ‘Crikey,’ I’m thinking, ‘what are the chances of that?’ I spend all summer in London in the company of Iranians, I come to a very very small town in the east coast of Scotland, whose railway station is 10 miles away in the middle of a field, and the first person I meet is Iranian.

Later that same day, I venture into town to the beating heart of the university, and find the New Arts Building where I plan to register for the conference. Almost every name on the conference list is Iranian. ‘What the hell’s going on? Is there anyone left in Iran?’ Then I read the title to the conference programme, ‘Historiography and Iran in Comparative Perspective.’ Ok, so I’m about to gate crash someone else’s conference. But seriously, is there anyone left in Iran? – they all seem to be in Scotland.

Market Street

But you see, it’s not so surprising. St. Andrews and its quaint medieval Scottish streets is also home to the Institute for Iranian Studies. It’s cunningly hidden in the History department, not, as I thought, in The School of International Relations – although there you will find the intriguing Centre for Syrian Studies. I have to say, a bit of Syria and a bit of Iran, a chunk of unusually interesting Art History mixed up with bits of Armenia, Georgia, The Caucasus – all based in Scotland, near Edinburgh, but in St. Andrews, sounds like my idea of Heaven. Surely I could squeeze myself in somewhere…


Saturday, 1 August 2009

Dinner With Svetlana

These Plates together make one work, 'Dinner with Svetlana,' which is my response to a situation I so often encountered when I was in Iran. (See post below for more on this.)

This is what I wrote in the catalogue for the planned exhibition:

Svetlana is another version of me. She is the Russian woman I am often thought to be when I stay in hotels on my own in Tehran and Shiraz. ‘Ruusiii?’ (Are you Russian?), asks the man before me, adjusting his shades and leather jacket, ‘Tanhaayi?’ (Are you alone?) I couldn’t escape her. I didn’t want Russian women to become my enemy so I decided to accept her. I gave her a name, Svetlana, which French people translate to Claire or Clare (English), which is my surname. It means ‘light’ as in ‘claire de la lune,’ moonlight, 'mahtaab,' - a Persian name meaning moonlight. I grew to like her. She was bolder than me, much less anxious in many situations. She plucked her eyebrows, wore nice clothes and argued with people.

At that time, a great many Russian women were being trafficked to Iran to supply the sex industry which was booming particularly in the Gulf area, in Tehran and in Shiraz - and from which, I assume, the revolutionary guard have become immensely rich.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Creative Translation

Whenever I’m in Iran, people ask me:
What do you think of Iran?

The work featured on this blog, here and in the next four posts, (scrolling down), explores the answers to that question. They are the foreigner’s story. The focus is on intimate domestic narrative and detail because these are the substance of my connection with Iran and they acquire enormous importance when I’m there. These posts show the collection of work for the exhibition I was invited to do in Iran, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Esfahan. At the last minute, the Foreign Ministry got cold feet and refused to provide an entry visa either to me or to the exhibition. I hope to show it somewhere in the UK but, until then, you can see pictures of it here.

Here's what I wrote for the catalogue about the plate above:

Creative Translation

This is what we all do when we’re not quite sure. Bluffing. We just fill in the gaps. It makes for some very fine misunderstandings. Some are not so accidental though. I suspect some are sibling mischief. Many young men ask me about migration. I tell them it’s not a soft option. You have to be very sure. It’s not easy being ‘the foreigner’ in England.
I also spend a lot of time explaining the situation regarding heating in England. The gas and electricity are too expensive to use, so you get used to being cold and wearing vests instead. When I come to Iran, I have to open the windows, even in winter. My friends shiver and put on extra clothes.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Look Of The Eyes

The camera is the dominant motif of this work and the look its guiding concern. In the plate above, two enormous eyes stare out of an oval plate, just big enough to accommodate them and their carefully sculpted eyebrows. The face may be framed by a chador, by a loosely worn scarf, or only by hair, we don’t know because the rim does the framing and my point is that it’s of no consequence in this image because, although the law in Iran currently insists on women being ‘modestly’ dressed in public, covered and not ‘made up,’ the other kind of law, the law of social mores, insists, with equal force, that Iranian Women Are Glamorous And Are The Most Beautiful In The World… and woe betide anyone who doesn’t believe it. In other words, social mores insist upon a woman being, by English standards at least, very dressed up indeed.
I don’t know any Iranian woman who would willingly step foot outside the house without wearing full ‘party’ make-up, even when she’s just popping out to buy bread.

The social glamour laws do not, on the face of it, require enforcement by a special police force, which the modesty laws enshrined in statute certainly do. However, if the statute were removed, and women were allowed to dress as they pleased, it would be interesting to witness the result over the long term. Three years ago, I would have said that glamour as a social norm would not change. It seemed fixed forever. Now I do detect, among my own friends at least, a certain ambivalence, a questioning even of the social laws. Some have told me, in a quiet moment, that they do find the necessity to ‘dress up’ (as I see it) as a bit time consuming and oppressive. It’s a complicated process, though, to navigate this kind of social pressure, when set alongside the laws of government, which are vastly more oppressive: young women in particular are often rounded up by the religious police and taken to the police station and sometimes beaten. This plate is my response to the necessity of resisting oppressive legal demands, which dictate what women can and cant wear, while also observing and feeling the gendered social oppression inherent in the form that the resistance takes.

Here's what I wrote in the catalogue -


Why don’t you ‘do’ your eyebrows? Most women demanded to know this within five minutes of meeting me. I didn’t think about eyebrows normally. They were just there. Apparently I was wrong. Eyebrows were there to be sculpted, along with the rest of my face, which could be entirely rearranged if necessary. I began to develop a much closer relationship with mirrors.


I had worried intensely about wearing the right things outside, in the street. This is where I would be seen. But as soon as I arrived in Iran, I was being invited to peoples’ houses. I carefully said no twice but didn’t want them to withdraw the invitation, so hastily changed no to yes, in case they changed their minds. This is when I realised that I needed clothes to wear in people’s houses. My English clothes were not good enough. Iranians are ‘posh’. English people are not. I had to bring make up learn how to use it. I needed a hair dryer. I was creating a new version of myself but it meant that my suitcase was getting heavier.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Forming The Perfect 1

From the eyes looking and the look of the eyes, we move on to the presence, the omni presence, of the camera. There are certain images which recur throughout this body of work. As well as the camera, recurring images include the lens, frame, photograph, mirror, us, (me and my friends), pomegranate, knife, and snow.

Forming The Perfect, whose title is taken from a chapter heading one of my Farsi grammar books, is applied to the construction of wedding pictures. These celebrate and freeze frame a moment, the perfect moment when life, briefly, becomes a fairy tale. Forming the perfect uses the oval shape as an elliptical lens, mirror frame and picture frame and hints at the eye shape in the first plate. I, the photographer, observer, guest, temporary family member, and artist am perched inside and outside the lens. I am both part of the proceedings and the observer of them. Wedding pictures are photo-shopped into a world or their own. Stage makeup is worn for the wedding ceremony and the entire wedding is performed to camera. There is no pretence at creating some kind of parallel norm, no attempt by the women concerned to delude themselves, or each other or me or any other viewer in believing this is the everyday. It most emphatically is not. The pictures are superimposed on to fairytale backgrounds as if to emphasise the point. I added a bit of my own emphasis: a white horse. I felt it was missing from Haddis’s photos. You can see it in the next post down, Forming The Perfect 2.

As a British artist, product of modernism and post modernism in equal measure, I feel some weight of expectation that this work must be in some way satirical. I must satirise the wedding pictures, make knowing jokes of some sort. There are some jokes, but they are unlikely to be discernible to anyone outside the families concerned. I have tried to tell the story of the pictures and show what they mean to me. There is no satire. It is simply a part of my answer to ‘what do you think of Iran?’

Friday, 22 May 2009

Forming The Perfect 2

This is what I wrote in the catalogue about this pot:

I have been learning about wedding pictures: the construction of the perfect moment freeze framed as the perfect image. If it is only once in a lifetime, then they become quite forlorn, lonely images, but if you drift into the fairy tale, the snowy woodland, the star spangled night in a Bollywood movie, the rich, dark interiors of a distant, northern castle, you can create more and more scenes, your own secret garden with which to adorn the ordinariness of your life. Ordinariness, after all, is what most of us hope for at a time of economic crisis, global warming and bombs.

If you look in the right hand column, you can see the photos I took of the wedding photos.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

How to Eat a Pomegranate

This post shows five views of the same pot. It's about 90 cms high. It depicts, in flat-on-the-surface, frieze-like, decorative form, the ritual of pomegranate eating. This what I wrote for the catalogue - which assumes an Iranian audience by the way. If you click on the pictures they should enlarge.

How to Eat a Pomegranate

I think it was on my second visit to Iran that I learnt how to eat a pomegranate. The first visit was spent learning how to cross roads. On the second visit I stayed most of my time in Yazd, and young woman taught me ‘ab lambu.’ English people have no idea what to do with a pomegranate. Some people eat them one seed at a time, using a pin, but most people just don’t bother. I made a film of my Iranian friends eating pomegranates so that my English friends could learn how to do it.

This is how I explain ‘aab lambu’ to my English friends:

You hold the pomegranate in both hands and slowly, but firmly, begin to squeeze it. Gradually it softens as the fruit inside is crushed by the pressure of your fingers and the juice released. The skin, however, must remain unharmed. When it is completely soft and squashy you take a sharp fruit-knife and pierce the skin, carefully. A large drop of red juice will appear on the surface. Put this ‘bleeding’ part to your mouth and squeeze, drinking the juice until the fruit is spent and only the crushed pith is left inside. The pomegranate now resembles a deflated rubber ball – which is what ‘lambu’ refers to.

Catalogue text ends here. This is one of the most in-yer-face decorative pieces I've made in a long time. I didn't really intend to use decoration as rhetoric, although it does have a slightly rhetorical feel to it, nor is any irony or parody intended and I dont think any suggests itself. It is related to the film I made, of the same name, which is about the vexed question of virginity. This peice is an 'iran proof' version of that and should, ideally, be shown with a large group of pomegranate bowls, see above, a sort of homage to Hannah Wilke's ‘159 One-Fold Gestural Sculptures,’ a collection of virginal foldings in painted, fired clay.


I started working on the very big one in January 2009. I had orignally intended that it should go to Esfahan with 'How To Eat A Pomegranate,' (see next few posts above and the pot in the foreground immediately above this text), but when it became clear that there would be visa problems, I decided to put it aside and continue work on it next year. Like the pots in Shattered, this one is now broken into many small pieces. It will be put back together as a fragile, skeletal memory of its former self. I'm expecting it to be a good deal more frail than the pots in Shattered.

Welcome to the Open Studio

Welcome to the Lab. This is the cyber studio, shed, top of the bus or sunny corner, where new ideas ferment and become pots, drawings, blogs, short films or long stories. The C Word, my other blog, is the ideas lab and this one is more like the studio or shed. Here you can see work in progress, as it is being made and before it goes on show. I expect more pictures than words on this blog but we'll see how it goes.