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On Housewives, Rugs, and Other Items of Consequence
By Sidewalk
January 2010
به فارسی بخوانيم
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There is cool in the way {Neda Razavipour} carries herself around the gallery; she is, after all, the host -- the master of the ceremony about to start. Inside, though, she must be seething with a surplus of nervous energy, judging by the content of her many exhibits in the past, notwithstanding the current one, prominent among them Notes of a Housewife. In that summer 2005 exhibit, Neda successfully transformed her manifest nonchalance into wifely boredom, or visa versa. You entered the dimly lit Tajrobeh ("Experiment") Hall of the Artists Forum in Tehran to find yourself penetrated by bright rays coming off of several lightboxes showing mundane household objects: an old faucet, a board-full of chopped onions, and lasciviously cut melons that revealed innards of seeds. In one corner of the hall a hoodless washing machine spun noisily, fluffy dolls and children's clothes inside. There too, next to the washing machine, was a worn out rug, the most ubiquitous item in an Iranian household, before a TV set. What {Benedict Anderson} had to say about the link between nationality and print media could have a counterpart in the Iranian handicraft. A rug, in its endlessly familiar motifs is so common to us that we take its presence in our houses for granted. That is a TABRIZ on the floor, with a knot count of 300 per square inches (way advance of digital imaging). That ESFAHAN has a silk foundation with over 500 knots per square inches, colors aglow, straight into your face. There you see a KERMAN, earthen tones dominating the landscape of the rug, bringing you down to the ground, to the floor, no furniture necessary, the colors lifting you groundlessness like a magic carpet. I don't remember what Neda the housewife had thrown on the floor but she also had scant seating, so you had to sit your ass down on the rug, cross-legged, two-legged, and just let boredom seep into you to the sound of the wash…sh…sh!

"I like to know what you think," she asked me outside the hall, on the roof of the Forum. I was, in fact, thinking nothing, and it was impossible to bring myself to say I liked the show. What's there to like about an exhibition that tries to tease out feminine boredom out of you, as if it were a delicacy. And now that we are on the subject, how may times do we have to hear that wifely duties and boredom are identical twins, born out of marriage. I do remember, however, how those few minutes on the rug was a yogic moment, in between breathes, those you are supposed to hold for not too long but that contains in it the seeds of the moment.

Fast forward 4 years and I am sitting on a Neda Razavipour rug again, this time at AZAD Art Gallery, and not out of a yogic experience of grounded groundlessness but out of devastation. Bored housewives can be nettlesome. They come up with sickening ideas that make you say, as an ex-husband, "why do the most mundane things in the world become points for philosophical cogitations." Back to the rug, which won't hurt me stressing again that it is one of the most common items in an Iranian household, our bored housewife has come up with an idea to entertain herself and to drive a point.

You enter the gallery and what you see are 10 pieces of rug spread on the floor, some large (6x4 feet) and others smaller (3x2 ft). These are hand-woven rugs, mind you, and it is hart-wrenching when Neda answers my friend Sima's question, "No, they were even less expensive than the special neon lights that we purchased for lighting." The neons are smaller in diameter than usual and they are lining the edges where the walls meet the floor. Their soft emission is in contrast to the white of regular neon tubes, so un-neon-like, that leaves the upper section of the gallery white in its coldness or cold in its whiteness. All focus is drawn to the floor, where the ten pieces of rug cling to the floor sheepishly, suspecting perhaps, the tragedy about to befall them, the sacrificial ritual that shocks in its unexpected inevitability. Neda has invited a war photographer ({Aslon Arfa}, whose photographs you see here) to document the event. Two film cameras are also recording the proceedings. Having had yoga practices for two years now, and adding meditation to the routine in the past several months, I am sitting majestically on the ground, on one of the rugs.

The woman sitting next to me is beside herself. "I have bad knees in need of an operation," she says to Neda but for everyone to hear; she nevertheless proceeds to sit herself down clumsily on the floor for the task at hand. She does charity work. She has come to the gallery, first, to see people and to perhaps find potential contributors to her NGO, which works with street children (in Iran they are called "children of work"), and in fact she has come from a "practice of laughter" session with the children of work at a nearby park and, second, because she "loves" rugs. When she says this to Sima, my friend, for a second time, the latter can't keep her titanic sarcasm to herself: "I guess we must congratulate you. You've got a fine piece carved out for yourself." Yes, she answers, detecting annoyance in the comment but unwilling to let go of her debonair.

Rugs are generally divided into three categories. Those that are hugging the gallery floor at Azad are generally regarded as village rugs, made in smaller knot counts, around 370 per square inches, thick, wooly, and comfortable to sit on. City rugs are a wholly different species. Like all things urban, they are made to show off their resolute beauty, their tight knot counts, made to last but also to dazzle, to awe-strike their viewers into asking, "how could they do knots so tiny?" Well, for one thing, children (of work) do it. They have smaller fingers and are better suited to twist their fingers around the usually silk warp. Good thing, then, that children are doing the work, otherwise, we wouldn't have such fine rugs, and most of rug weavers do go cross-eyed in a few years.

But they do create wonders of design and craftsmanship, small gardens, as {Gholamali Malool}, author of the well-documented Baharestan: A Doorway to Persian Carpets puts it, brought to the house of every Iranian, a piece of heaven on earth, a gift from allegorical nature, with animals (dragons and phoenixes) roaming among trees, flowers and palmettes. This aesthetic form has been seared onto the psyche of Iranians. Our gaudy sense of color and beauty is informed (at least in those days that people used to sit on the floor) by this socio-cultural colossus. Forget about heritage, rugs are what make this land what it is.

Neda, on the other hand, says that her exhibit is about violence (domestic or not). She wants to highlight the way violence is perpetuated, in collective blindness, like in the Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery", when in an absolutely ordinary weekend day, people gather in the town square for what seems to be a picnic but ends up being the execution of a town person chosen by lottery.

I am sure each and every one of us have been witness to similar scenes, say at a banquet with hundreds of guest salivating over the cadaver of a lamb roasting over fire. Any all-you-can-eat place, any rodeo show, any bullfight, may elicit the same reaction. I honestly don't the violence things, though. The problem, I think is with bored housewives who may design complicated games just to keep themselves entertained but will blurt out the most ready-at-hand answers with asked for the reasons.

Shirley Jackson, too, wanted to highlight violence. Here's what she has to say in San Francisco Chronicle in July 1948 after her story was published in the New Yorker magazine: "Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."

See the similarities? Well, Neda, why pick a rug to come across? When did you think of this? How? What do you want to do in your middle class tidiness, a good host to your own likes, artists or artist-wannabes or artist-must-bes or artists freebies. As for me, I sat in a corner, the NGO lady diligently trying to cut out the medallion she had singled out at the very beginning, and watched the ritual unfold at Azad Gallery for almost two hours. To me, though, these rugs were not being sacrificed because they once again proved that violence is closer and more intimate to us than we think, which is a good reminder. The story that we read in secondary school and keep hearing for a few years after that is the story of Baharestan, the rug, which was cut into pieces by the conquering Muslim soldiers once they marched victoriously into the Khosrau Parviz, the last Zoroastrian king, Palace at Madaen. They cut the jewel-studded carpet because they believed in equality, because Muslim justice required it and because all war bounties had to be distributed evenly among the conquerors.

Neda's exhibit offers paper bags, on each side of which is written a text (in two languages) culled from The Republic, literally advising those who abhor something to sit and chow it down, on all fours. I did that and it was unsettling as it was effective, something that housewives try not to be and this one is successful in not being. This time, Neda did what she was after, too; she lodged her venom deep within us, be us those who participated in the ritual sacrifice or not, a sense of guilt as to how we stand witness or otherwise actively participate in acts of perdition, those that sooner or later will catch up with our ignorance of the set consequences. It could be that not even Neda herself could escape the fate she had dealt to others despite her nonchalant comportment -- guilt.

Several hours later, I heard later, there were nothing left of rugs except several meaningless pieces of rags.


Photographs by Aslon Arfa for Neda Razavipour.