Islamic Erotica

Representation of the female body is forbidden in strict Islamic tradition, and is therefore taboo in today's Muslim cultures. To imagine Western art without the nude is, in contrast, impossible. These paintings revisit the Western tradition of pin-up art and its "celebration " of the female form while "lovingly" objectifying it through overexposure and unnatural posing of the model. The Middle East's version of sexism, in contrast, takes the form of control through mandated repressive female clothing, or "Hejab," in the name of protecting and honoring women.

I have avoided referring to my heritage in my work until now. After all, I have lived in Los Angeles most of my life, not Iran, and expressing "pride in cultural diversity" has been too fashionable a movement for me. However, in recent years, as in 1979, when my family immigrated to the United States, I have been confronted by my "otherness" on a more regular basis. As the battles between fundamentalists on both sides of the globe rage on, so do my bicultural conflicts.

In my new series of paintings, "Islamic Erotica," I have portrayed Muslim women in a style that references American pin-up art, modern advertising, and photographs of tribal women in National Geographic-type publications.

When these seemingly contradictory traditions are combined, we can envision an absurd future where the ever-expanding arm of globalization and the growing influence of American-style democracy in the Middle East will continue to manifest into stranger and more outlandish hybrids.

The “Islamic Erotica” series was begun in 2002, following the infamous events of September 11th. In the following weeks and months, I started to feel my “otherness” once again, recalling my feelings from 1979 when my family immigrated to the United States from Iran. The familiar sting reminded me of how I felt as a fourteen- year old entering high school in California without a mastery of the English language, and only days after my countrymen had found it necessary to take a number of hostages from my newly-adopted land’s U. S. embassy. These periods in history, I suspect, made many Iranians feel similarly complicated emotions in our new “western” homes. I was almost ready to address my cultural conflicts through my art then, but it was not until Bush declared war on Iraq that my feelings actually boiled over!

As an atheist, I had always been critical of the state of my home country and the other theocracies of the world. However, I was not entirely a western convert either. Just because I hated the Iranian government more, I was not blind to the hypocrisies and travesties carried out by imperialists in the name of democracy.

In this series, I wanted to examine gender issues from both sides of the aisle. By combining the seemingly contradictory images of Islamic dress and American pinup art, we see a nightmarish vision of a possible future in the Middle East, as globalization and American and European democracy attempt to dominate while fundamentalist traditions hold fast in the region.

Sexism exists in all societies. The sexism of the East is direct. It is most apparent in its mandated repressive female clothing and legal and cultural restrictions on women’s freedom. Here, the double-standard between men and women cannot be denied. Perhaps the West objectifies women more “lovingly”. The traditional art of this culture exalts the “weaker sex,” though with a constant emphasis on her sexuality and little else. Overexposure and the unnatural poses of the female models are most clearly evident in modern advertising, entertainment media, and in the traditional pinup art of the 1940s and 50s. My work juxtaposes these two very different, but related, representations of the female.

I have been criticized by feminists and Muslims alike, but I believe my work supports the positions of both of them! After all, isn’t it true that erotic art, as a tool of sexism in a culture that objectifies women sexually, should really empower women who live in a culture that strips them of their sexuality and the power it brings? A type of image that, in secular societies, has been reduced to a pedestrian tool of commerce, titillation, and subjugation, is anything but that in a theocratic region. It may very well be a tool of revolution!

Max Emadi

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