It’s hard for us in the West not to have misconceptions of what life is like in countries where our perceptions are shaped entirely by what we read in the media. This is especially true of those countries which have attempted to isolate themselves and their populace from what they consider our corrupting influence. I have to admit I have my own prejudices when it comes to Iran. Having seen and read first hand accounts from those who have managed to either escape or smuggle out footage of things which have happened in the country over the last few years hasn’t helped. (If you’ve not seen the documentary The Green Wave about how the unrest in Iran during the Arab Spring was shut down so brutally you should) Then there’s the fact I’m also against any kind of theocracy, no matter what form it comes in.
All of which probably makes me as guilty as the next person at being surprised to find out individuals within Iranian society share many of the same concerns we do about the state of the world. With all that we read about the country’s political and religious systems it’s hard to believe we can have anything in common with those who live and work in such a society. At least that’s what we tell ourselves. But why should we be surprised to read that Iran has set aside over 10% of its land for wilderness preservation and species conservation? Did you even know there was an non government organization known as the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation? I didn’t.
Like any modern industrial state with a growing population, the major environmental concerns facing Iran are those caused by humans – habitat loss due to human encroachment and pollution and over hunting leading to extinction. It’s these concerns which compelled Iranian artist Naeemeh Naeemaei to create the works gathered in the new book, Dreams Before Extinction, just published by Perceval Press. The works were first displayed at the Henna Art Gallery in Tehran, Iran in 2011.
In his forward to the book, “A Call To Conscience” Kavous Seyed-Emami, Executive Director of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, writes about the important role artists have in raising the public’s awareness regarding the issues facing wildlife. “Artists have the ability to connect to a general audience on an emotional level and thereby promote awareness of the need for nature conservation”. In her comments on her work and what she hopes to accomplish with it Naeemaei is even more specific, “I want to make some changes at least in my own people about their behaviour with regard to nature and the environment. Even for just a bit.”
Even a cursory glance at the images in Dreams Before Extinction bear out Seyed-Emami’s statement and impress upon the viewer the sincerity of Naeemaei’s intent. For while each of the images features either an endangered or extinct species from the region, it’s how they are presented which makes the work so powerful. Instead of merely showing them isolated from humans, Naeemaei has created work which forces the viewers to consider the animals as part and parcel of their own world.
She has also made sure the works have social and cultural links to the people they are intended to reach. Many of the pictures have features in them which would be instantly recognizable to an Iranian, and maybe even an Islamic, viewer. While this might be a little bit of a barrier for those of us who aren’t familiar with Islamic iconography or Iranian/Persian folk tales, not only has the artist included explanatory notes with for each painting, the publishers have provided us with a comprehensive introduction to the work, “Silence of the Leopards” by co-editor Paul Semonin.
In his introduction Semonin not only provides us with information about the significance of certain details Naeemaei has included in her works, he places her work in a familiar context by comparing it to that of the late Mexican artist, Frida Khalo. Those who are aware of Khalo’s work will know the majority of them were highly personal statements about the painter’s life and her relationship to the world. By pointing this out to us, and comparing Naeemaei’s inclusion of herself in these works to Khalo’s self portraits, Semonin reinforces the personal nature of the art in this collection. Khalo would occasionally turn herself inside out on canvass, showing us her internal physical damage. Naeemaei, by including herself or a family member in all these pieces creates the same sort of intimate connection, but with the body of the world instead of her own.
By making no distinction between herself and the creatures she represents, by giving them the cultural and social characteristics most of her audience would recognize as those belonging to humans, she says these are my family. One of the most powerful pieces in the work in my opinion exemplifies this perfectly. “Caspian Tiger” is an image of this extinct species (last one died in 1959) surrounded by what are obviously women in mourning. The tiger bears bleeding wounds just under his ear and on his visible rear haunch. Two women are huddled together in the foreground, prostrate and holding each other, one leans on the tiger’s back hiding her face in the palm of one hand and the last kneels in front of the tiger, head bowed as if in supplication and holding his face in her hands.
While the artist’s note about the painting is heartfelt and beautiful (“The last one was killed in 1959, but there was no funeral and no one cried. I don’t know where his tomb is to put flowers on it. I can only wail and mourn his passing in my own way”) it’s only by reading Semonin’s introduction we’ll understand the real significance of what we’re looking at. For Naeemaei has drawn upon a famous painting depicting the martyrdom of the Third Imam of the Shi’a faith for her work. The original painting shows a group of mourning women gathered around the Imam’s white horse who bears wounds identical to those seen on the tiger. In Iran there is a national day of mourning for this figure from their religious history. By depicting the Caspian Tiger in this manor Naeemaei, equating his loss with that of such a revered figure, she is telling her audience there should be no difference between the grief they feel for the Imam and the tiger.
Each of the paintings in this book are of equal potency. They make bold statements about how there should be no separation of the species and stress the artist’s personal connections with the world around her. One of my favourites, “Silence of the Leopards”, shows her in a stand off with a shepherd and his flock while she acts as a shepherd for a flock of leopards. In her comments she says how on the surface it would appear the sheep would be the ones who are in trouble, but the reality is the leopards are in the most danger. Over grazing by ranchers is destroying leopard’s habitat, and the more sheep encroach into the wilderness the more their chances of survival are eroded. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition which plays on people’s perceptions of what is harmless and what is dangerous.
In the West we see Iran as a country of oppressed people whose lives are defined by the very narrow interpretation of a religious code. While there is some truth to this, it does not prevent people from having the same concerns about the world as we do, nor from finding ways to express what they are feeling. In the paintings collected in Dreams Before Extinction Naeemen Naeemaei expresses some of the most strongly “worded” and passionate pleas for the preservation of animal life you’ll ever see. These aren’t just depictions of endangered creatures, these are images which confirm the intrinsic bond between humans and the species we share the world with. When an animal species dies out it should be as great a calamity as the death of a human, that it’s not how far we have fallen.