Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian-born new media artist, activist, teacher, and curator. She lived most of her life in Iran until she moved to the University of Denver for a full scholarship in their graduate program for digital media art. Now, after seven years of living in the United States, she is squarely situated between two worlds, a place she tells me she loves to inhabit.
Completed in June, “Like Pearls” in as an animated and interactive web-based collage inspired by Farsi spam from Allahyari’s inbox. She’s collected these awkward advertisements, added gaudy animated GIFs of roses and hearts, and overlaid a digital rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ 1999 hit “I Want it That Way.” The site is a surreal head-on collision between the World Wide Web and Iran’s Islamic customs, the kind of weirdness only possible in an internationally networked space.
While the awkwardly censored female bodies featured in “Like Pearls” adhere — in some strict sense — to the customs of Islamic Iran, I was surprised by how blatantly sensuous the images are. In the mixing of Islam and sex appeal, “Like Pearls” is a novel window into contemporary Iranian society, where, as in the US, the objectification and sexualization of women sadly remains pervasive, even as they may superficially take different forms. Browsing a few of the sites advertised in “Like Pearls” is hardly different from looking through Victoria Secret online, despite aesthetic variations.
Allahyari wrote to Hyperallergic over email:
I remember buying magazines like Time or National Geographic when I was a teenager in Iran, and always being amazed by the amount of work that has been put into censoring the bodies of women by the cultural ministry staff or the sellers of these magazines … or looking through different art books at the public library and seeing so many censored/blacked out nude paintings. Also, in a way the whole female body and even the government’s agenda in Iran to encourage women to wear full hijab/chador is all about censoring the female body. Your body as a woman is always objectified and then censored politically … and culturally.
As the viewer explores the clashing landscape of “Like Pearls,” clicking reveals pop-up windows mimicking spam, with aggressively masculine marketing language: “Cover her with your love,” “Let her wear your love,” or “Make her yours with the gift of rose panties.” Sexism and misogyny for marketing copy is hardly rare or unique to Iran, but the censored bodies as backdrop give the words a more menacing tone.
In the About section of the “Like Pearls” site, Allahyari writes:
… because these online stores are run directly from Iran and under Islamic laws are not allowed to show nudity or un-covered bodies. The result is a strange combination of censored, yet sexualized bodies. The female body in this case remains the object and product of a “modern love/gaze.”
Just as the most exciting artworks show us who we are and our time and place in history better than we could see ourselves, “Like Pearls” is an uncomfortable but important look at a clash of customs going on around the planet as predominantly Western technologies creep into non-Western societies. Straddling two cultures herself, Allahyari has become an ambassador to Iran, as well as to the relationship between digital networked culture and her heritage. “For me as a teenager the internet became a tool for access to so many amazing information/articles/people,” she says.
“Like Pearls” and other works by Allahyari, such as “Dark Matter” (2014), revel in the tension between internationally networked spaces, where files (radical texts, sexually illicit images, etc.) can be downloaded and shared, and the streets, where specific Islamic traditions still hold sway.
In her TEDx talk describing what she was taught about the US while growing up in Iran, Allahyari begins:
We had to memorize and sing songs about the cruel American government; the country that in the media repeatedly got called ‘the enemy,’ a country full of alcoholics, sexual addicts … empty of any moral value.
After coming to the US, she was constantly surprised learn that her new peers had their own prejudices and misconceptions about her home country. Allahyari learned quickly how to balance the role of “cultural ambassador,” which was forced upon her in many ways, with art. After seven years, she’s still doing that — connecting, engaging, and pushing our preconceived notions of “the other,” which “Like Pearls” does exceptionally well.