Already apparent in the 1990s when Iranian cinema began to receive international attention, the turn of the century saw an expansion in the visibility and movement of Iranian creators and creative works across borders. As in the case of developments in the realms of Iranian politics and society more broadly, artistic productions and practices in this period were deeply shaped by rapid technological changes unfolding in a geopolitical context of global tensions. Yet attempts to make sense of the arenas of Iranian politics, society, and art–either individually or in relation to one another– have largely operated within a rigid framework of authority versus resistance. Mazyar Lotfalian’s What People Do with Images: Aesthetics, Politics and the Production of Iranian Visual Culture in Transnational Circuits explicitly rejects this insufficient framing and the fixation on finding set meanings, instead taking a critical anthropological approach that highlights the material practices and relations undergirding the new “aesthetic regimes” (p. 119) that emerged in the first fifteen years of the new millennium.
In his introductory chapter, Lotfalian draws on Rancière’s notion of dissensus and Fischer’s concept of worlding to lay out the how and why of his focus away from textual meaning. Rancière holds that aesthetic practices can be disruptive of what is considered sensible in society, thus “shifting boundaries of what is acceptable, rather than engaging in opposition or consensus building” (p. 12). Using this concept of dissensus allows Lotfalian to explore the ways that art may act to destabilize meanings and open spaces for new meanings and practices to emerge. Similarly, the concept of “worlding” as has been used by Fischer and other anthropologists allows Lotfalian to “look into the set of technological, institutional and political spheres” in which people make and interact with images. Building on Rancière’s claims about the disruptions of the sensible, Lotfalian introduces the term “meta-politics'' to examine how aesthetic practices can avoid being “stifled by pre-ordained or stereotypical signs, symbols, or forms.” (p.30) Lotfalian also uses his introduction to make two key assertions that are foundational to this book: namely, he identifies the rise of political Islam and digital technology as the two most important political and technological forces that have shaped cultural productions since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Lotfalian’s second chapter provides an overview of these two forces over the last thirty years and their consequences for cultural productions. Pointing out that these changes have impacted the terrains of both diasporic and Iranian production, the chapter focuses on four main case studies to explore the thornier-by-day question of who speaks for whom when it comes to Iranians in Iran and in diaspora. These four cases are the widely different Jon Stewart film Rosewater (2014), Ana Lily Amripour’s genre-mixing A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Sepideh Farsi’s Red Rose (2014), and Hamid Rahmanian’s illustrations for a new translation of the Shahnameh epic as well as a 2016 shadow-play that Rahmanian created for a love story from the epic. Lotfalian contends that with the exception of Rosewater–which attempted a direct political effort–all of these other works operated within a “meta-political space rather than via polarized political antagonism.” (p. 26) Lotfalian attributes Rosewater’s failures to its inability to move beyond this familiar framing and contrasts it with the generative possibilities of the other works under consideration. These other works, Lotfalian contends, also draw attention to the continuum that makes up the connections between the Iranian diaspora and those living in Iran as well as the intergenerational dialogue at play. While this implicitly addresses some of the questions of who speaks for whom, the chapter would have benefited from a more direct and extensive discussion, especially given the contentiousness and the material consequences of the issue in the contemporary moment. On any given day, for example, Iranian social media platforms from Twitter to Clubhouse are filled with virulent debates about who has the right to represent Iranians. Offline, those claiming to be the authentic voice of Iranians have secured notable amounts of foreign funding for their political projects and/or have successfully argued for policies such as “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran.
The third chapter takes an ethnographic approach to a number of case studies of curatorial practices including those in museum exhibitions and gallery spaces in Iran and elsewhere. The broader context for these examinations is the political conflict between Iran and the United States, where increasing tensions happen to coincide with a rapid rise in the interest for buying and displaying Iranian art in international markets. Once again, Lotfalian’s case studies are far-reaching, ranging from Shirin Neshat’s 2001 experimental multimedia piece The Logic of the Birds (in which Lotfalian was an actor) to a discussion of global art markets including those in the UAE. This latter discussion is particularly important given that–as Lotfalian himself notes–”[t]he politics of curatorial practice does not only derive from the curators, but also from an emergent market for art from the Middle East” (p. 38). As in the case of his discussion of films in Chapter Two, what Lotfalian finds promising is the emergence of an aesthetics that functions on the level of meta-politics.
Chapter four applies the notion of autoethnography to understand the works of Shirin Neshat, Marjane Satrapi, and Reza Bahraminejad. While not internationally celebrated like Neshat and Satrapi, Bahraminejad’s work has received critical acclaim, including winning the best documentary prize for Flying Misters (2003) at the 22nd Fajr Film Festival in Iran. Lotfalian argues that as a genre of self-exploration, autoethnography both allows one to tell a personal story but also “explores the ambiguity of storytelling and the difficulty of giving voice both to one’s own self and to those of others.” (p. 68). Here again, Lotfalian does not impose readings framed in terms of resistance but looks at how autobiographical forms can offer “meta-political rearrangements [that] are more important than ordinary political contestations” (p. 50) Because it stays focused largely on just three case studies, this chapter offers a more granular sense of the works under consideration as well as Lotfalian’s points about meta-political spaces.
Chapters five and six consider images and themes that are important in Shia Islam, with a focus on the transnational mediation of the Karbala Paradigm and the taziyeh, or passion play, that is affiliated with it. While much has been written about the importance of the symbolism of Karbala in Iranian art and politics, Lotfalian’s exploration of transnational mediations, avant-garde experimentations, and creative digital engagements with this religious story provide a convincing case for how these newer forms “expand the conditions of possibility for Shi’ite-Islamic visibility” (p. 86) and can play a transformative role in the public sphere. He best illustrates this latter point in Chapter 6, where he considers how religious imagery was remobilized during Iran’s 2009 presidential election and its aftermath.
Lotfalian’s last chapter is on the Iranian underground. Given its Cold War connotations of stealth and counter-culture, a reader looking at the book’s table of contents could reasonably have thought that this chapter would contain stories of defiance and resistance. But having read the previous chapters, one knows better than to expect easy classifications. Lotfalian remains convincingly consistent in his rejection of the opposition/authority binary, citing a number of different examples from music and visual culture to argue that the post-revolutionary Iranian Underground has been a “grey area…in which creativity contests both state and neo-liberal appropriations” (p. 108). The array of cases Lotfalian draws from are numerous and traverse across genres and formats, including Azadeh Akhlaghi’s fascinating staged photographs, Mohsen Namjoo’s music and lyrics, Shahriar Mandanipour’s 2010 novel, Censorship: an Iranian Love Story, as well as the work of several filmmakers such as Panahi, Ghobadi, and Rasoulof.
That Lotfalian covers so much ground in the number and type of artistic work he discusses is a strength of this book, but at times it leaves the reader hoping for a more in-depth analysis of the material under consideration. Lotfalian is attuned to the many factors–sometimes contradictory–that shape Iranian cultural productions. For example, in the chapter on curatorial practices he cites the rising interest in Iranian works but also notes the concomitant pressures to produce art geared toward that market. Similar pressures press on knowledge and cultural producers to create content that easily fits the authority-resistance binary. Given that Lotfalian makes an important argument against this tired framework, a more explicit discussion of the institutions, funding networks, and discourses that constrain Iranian cultural productions would have made the work even stronger.
Old habits of reading are hard to break, and at various points in this manuscript, this reviewer found herself wishing that Lotfalian had offered a stinging rebuke here or laudatory praise there for some of the works under consideration. That he did not do so is a testament to the consistency of his approach, one that dwells in rich contexts, ambiguities, and possibilities. This theoretically robust book will be of great interest to scholars and general readers who follow Iranian art, culture, and politics, and is particularly recommended to those who may have tired of the repetitious and inadequate frames for understanding contemporary Iranian society.