We begin at what appears to be another abstraction. Gobs of paint and elegant strokes, lush and formless. But take a closer look, and curious details appear: a glue spill, a newspaper column, and beneath all that, the worn, faded threads of a Persian carpet. These are the palimpsestuous works that make up Sepideh Mehraban’s latest solo show at Smith, ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.
In the past, Mehraban has used carpet as an accessory, stitching offcuts in between strokes on the canvas. In this solo, she takes it to the next level, using the carpet itself as canvas. Visually, it invites moments of intrigue and surprise. A brushstroke resembles a spill, black ink a burn mark. The fabric warps where the enamel has been laid on thick. Spaces where the glue did not stick on properly become matted, cloudy, almost watercolour-y. Frayed ends offer a tactility which tight-stretched canvases traditionally border off.
But it’s the poetics of this material that really impresses. The carpet, after all, is a multi-layered object. On one level, it’s domestic, intimate, deeply personal. One wonders where these carpets came from before they ended up in Mehraban’s hands. Who has tread there, lay there, spilled there, cried there? Was it used to decorate, to comfort, to cover something up? On the other hand, it’s an object of great cultural significance. In South Africa, a Persian carpet might not be seen as anything more than a luxurious commodity. But in Mehraban’s home Iran, it’s a historical, intergenerational object, representing a long and intricate tradition of craftsmanship.
The carpet, then, lays the perfect foundation for Mehraban’s inquiry into the 1979 revolution, which operates at the intersection of personal and historical. Or, rather, at the limits of history, where memory takes over. It’s a tension Mehraban negotiates well. Best evidenced, I think, in works like Prime minister (III), where she experiments with screenprinting on glue. Newspaper spreads serve as archive, evidence, documentation of events. Whereas glue functions more like memory. Its unpredictable hues and movements have an alchemical effect. The text becomes distorted, muddled, censored. Mehraban asks not, What happened? but, What was remembered? What was lost?
It seems, in the end, the textual elements of this show are not meant to be read. In 40 years, several articles are superimposed over one another. In 36 hours, the text is totally illegible. Still, these works raise the issue of translation. How will the average Capetonian gallery-goer – who lacks an intimate knowledge of Iranian history and probably can’t read Farsi – interpret the work? How will they respond?
Translation involves manipulation, distortion, subversion, and omission, which makes it a messy and sometimes violent affair. Translation is perhaps too often a Western impulse, a tool for making the language of the ‘other’ consumable, and therefore, controllable. Kamyar Bineshtarigh’s mural at the AVA – which can be seen from Mehraban’s show – undercuts this problem by translating in the other direction. Bineshtarigh has taken Edward Said’s Orientalism and transliterated its original roman characters into the Arabic alphabet. The result is a passage that confounds the Western gaze, but neither is it immediately coherent for readers of Arabic script. Translation, especially as it relates to power, can widen the space between us, rather than make things more accessible.
What, then, do we make of Mehraban’s work, when an integral aspect of it is intentionally obfuscated? We might think of the script as visual rather than text, as having aesthetic rather than semantic meaning. We might think of a newspaper, like a carpet, as a domestic as well as a political object. In that vein, we might think of Mehraban using these pages in the same way Bronwyn Katz uses a disassembled mattress, or Stephané Conradie a porcelain figurine. What language can we excavate from the things people keep, and what they leave behind? What gets imprinted on memory, and what gets lost?
We might think of memory as a kind of translation. Memory is an act of repression, augmentation, exaggeration, and reinterpretation. Memory is a distortion of verifiable facts. In the corner of 40 years, a pool of black – thick as the censor’s pen – is being chipped away. The undercanvas seeps through like overexposure on a film roll. For Mehraban, memory is the space where hidden truths are uncovered, intimate details revealed. Perhaps this is where generative conversation starts. Not, Tell me what this means, but, Tell me what this was like for you.
Thread of stories, the focal piece of the show, is big enough to cover up the big glass window overlooking the gallery’s garden. The four metre-long textile creases on the floor; it casts a shadow over the room. The carpet has worn thin over time, and inklings of light, like stars, fight their way through. The glue gleams. There are moments where the thread snags, and an opening appears. Is translation a snag, or an opening? On the carpet, the fissure is where the light gets in.