Briefly "There are No Non-Believers in Hell" by Shoja Azari
My trip to Paris this spring coincided with the opening of Shoja Azari’s multimedia exhibition, “There Are No Non-Believers in Hell” on Friday April 1st at Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont in the city's eighth arrondissement. The show consisted of a series of video installations taking various forms but each with a strong socio-political message that was hard to miss for any of the Iranians in the crowd. Azari’s juxtaposition in each video of centuries-old Iranian male chauvinism and contemporary female empowerment offered a representation simultaneously disparaging and inventive of centuries of oppression in the name of religion and nationalism alike -- in Iran, of course, and perhaps also throughout the Near East. This juxtaposition was at its starkest in a series of digitized murals of Shi’a Muslim saints such as Imam Ali and Imam Hossein, where the artist had replaced the faces of the Imams with modern female faces, their trimmed eyebrows and light make-up highlighting their sad eyes, eyes that blinked and shed tears at times. The contemporary resonance of the exhibition is clear, referring not only to the latest series of uprisings in the Middle East for the more diverse content of the second video installation entitled "The Day of the Last Judgement" (Coffee House Painting, 2009), but also to the long history of women’s involvement in attaining their rights as equal members of predominantly Muslim societies.
Meditating on the title of the exhibition, I’m still puzzled by the ‘narrative’, if indeed it is possible to find a single one for all the work contained in it. Through his work, the artist may be criticizing religious institutions for their crimes in the name of God, and suggesting that all ‘believers’ of God end up in hell, or alternatively he may be suggesting that ‘non-believers’ do not go to hell, and indeed may go to heaven after all. In any case, I very much enjoyed Azari’s wry, parodic, post-modern take on old and yet still popular murals. Despite my dilemma on the narrative, which comes in secondary to the imagery, I believe Azari has created an original multimedia series with a powerful socially conscious theme that is hard not to move those who have lived through Iran's chauvinistic culture. I hope very much that this show will travel around the US, and beyond.