Art That Matters: Sarah Rahbar

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I maintained a fairly strong presence on Myspace. One of my favorite things to do there was search for other artists who might be inhabiting that maddening crowd with me. Despite the sometimes overwhelming flood of crap, Myspace is actually pretty fertile territory for artists of all stripes. Every so often, I would stumble across work that seemed out of place within the confines of the social media neighborhood, if only because it seemed too good. It’s not that Myspace isn’t home to plenty of talented and professional artists. It’s just that the ratio of spectacular to trite is pretty low. Luckily, that’s not the case with Iranian-born artist, Sarah Rahbar.

Copyright 2008-2010 Sarah Rahbar

Oppression I

As soon as I saw her profile picture, I knew that I would have to see what else she was up to. As it turns out, the additional photos she displayed on her page struck me in the same way. The simplicity of these early pieces belie the power and punch of their presence. Her eyes stare out in the photos, defiant, from behind a traditional Muslim veil and headscarf made from the Iranian and American flags. In some, her face is completely covered, metaphysically erased by competing cultures and oppressed by their symbols. Rahbar deftly excavates the layers of signification inherent in nationalism and exploits them to illustrate varied types of oppression: of women in Muslim society, of immigrants in American society, of the clash between East and West, of truth lost in the sea of information that purports to give us meaning but actually only buries our sense of understanding. As a bonus, these interpretations are complimented by a vibrant mix of colors that make the photos formally gorgeous as well as conceptually intriguing.

Copyright 2008-2010 Sarah Rahbar

From the "Flags" Series

The work for which she is most well known, the Flags series, has a similarly multi-layered depth and design. Traditional Persian fabric, objects, and imagery is cut apart and re-sewn into hybrid American flags that seem tattered and frail, as if they might just fall apart at any moment. Even as it hearkens back to semi-romantic and discarded notions of “women’s work”, it also speaks to empowerment vs. disenfranchisement, a freedom of expression filtered through the prism of international politics, national identity, and personal frustration. As an Iranian living and working in the US, Rahbar brings to bear all the challenges inherent in her situation while asserting a place for herself in the midst of cultural flux. Her flags speak a language that comes not only from her but from her country, her heritage, and her appointment with ours. They contain codes and symbolism that need not be translated to elucidate. Patchwork color and texture become a tangible voice that embodies the experience of being caught between worlds without needing to shout to be heard.

It is tempting to compare her work with another well-known Iranian artist, Shirin Neshat. Both deal with Iranian society and all the misconceptions that the West holds about it. But whereas Neshat’s work is sprawling and dream-like in its scope, Rahbar’s is more personal, more direct. Not content to deal solely with the surreal, she reconfigures the symbols of culture into concrete statements that feel as though they should have been made before, even if they weren’t. The work has a familiarity that seduces and draws you into its world. Even if we do not grasp the details of the narrative she creates, we understand that there is a complexity here that goes beyond formal beauty. Rahbar accomplishes a rare feat in that she balances the formal and conceptual in a way that enhances both and creates work that is as intoxicating to look at as it is to interpret.

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