Review by Grete Simkuté for H ART Magazine , 12 May 2015
In one fell, sensual swoop, Sanam Khatibi refutes the idea that orientalism is a monopoly of men (and, moreover, something of a bygone age). In her first solo exhibition at trampoline Gallery, the Iranian-born artist taps into a range of well known visual motifs from universal art history to create enigmatic, archetypal worlds in her paintings. Her canvasses destabilize the power balance between the sexes and naturally associate desire and fear. At a cursory glance, Khatibi’s oil-painted, collage-like landscapes appear magical and naïve: nude female figures bathing in densely overgrown ponds, or mindlessly walking against a background of castles or a field of mid-summer flowers. The female protagonists are not alone, however, and their passive attitudes turn out to be illusory against the shadow of danger: violent battles against eight-tentacled octopuses swarming in swampy lakes, and women riding three-eyed monsters drifting through the medieval wilderness. Are the bathers the victims of the wild beasts or active perpetrators of sensual violence? With facial expressions that sometimes appear to be an utterance of acute pain or sometimes of ecstatic pleasure, Khatibi accesses the ambivalence that gives Romanticism its raison d’être: that which most terrifies you is sometimes the thing you most desire. In addition to paintings, the exhibition also presents a collection of ethnographic-looking objects that lends the whole show an aura of modern eclecticism: embroidery framed in brass, African wooden phalluses, wood engravings, little cypress trees moulded in polyurethane, snakes baked in clay. Besides the male/female duality, Khatibi instinctively juxtaposes many other extremes or, better yet, thoughtfully blends them together: animal versus human, primitive versus developed, eros versus thanatos, danger versus desire, western versus eastern, old versus new, authenticity versus consumption. The pointed, caustic titles (‘Whenever I dance for you I get into trouble’, ‘I didn’t feel a thing!’) couch the show in a provocative, subversive sort of femininity, which scornfully appears to say: what you see is rarely what you get.
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Cruelle Candeur by Simon Delobel
Ce qui l’avait le plus frappé lors de la découverte de son travail, c’était sa propre incapacité à distinguer l’origine géographique des sources iconographiques. Sur les murs blancs de l’espace d’exposition se côtoyaient des tapisseries de tailles diverses, des broderies encadrées de laiton, un grand dessin sur papier encadré et des objets sculptés aux dimensions aussi modestes que celles des peintures. Il as- sociait instinctivement les motifs des tapisseries à l’Iran, (sans doute en raison du patronyme de l’artiste), les dessins des broderies aux marécages des Everglades, les figures naïves des peintures et du dessin aux miniatures médiévales occidentales et les sculptures à des fragments d’objets antiques retrouvés lors de fouilles archéologiques sur le sous-continent indien. La confusion immense qui jaillissait dans son esprit n’était pas pour lui déplaire. Il percevait dans la multiplicité des influences le reflet d’une société ultra-cosmopolite à prétention universaliste… Amusé par la violente domination des figures féminines sur leur contreparties masculines, il se demanda s’il n’était pas en face d’une expression inédite du sentiment féministe. La lecture des titres des œuvres le força à réviser ce jugement hâtif. Un goût prononcé de l’ambiguïté y transperçait et il lui paraissait au final bien difficile de savoir si, lors de joutes érotiques, l’auteure se placerait plus volontiers du côté du bourreau que de celui de la victime consentante. Il en savoura davantage encore l’ambiance humide des scènes figuratives et la lascivité de la luxuriante végétation. Son subconscient l’invitait à interpréter l’ensemble comme une version contemporaine et subversive des scènes les plus exquises du répertoire occidentale, les vieillards lubriques espions de Suzanne semblant avoir été happés par des poulpes géants. À la cruauté de l’humanité s’opposait la candeur de l’animalité. La visite consécutive de l’atelier de l’artiste avait réservé d’autres surprises. Aucune distinction n’était réellement effectuée entre le lieu de vie et de production. Comme dans une caverne de voleurs illuminée du scintillement des rayons du soleil sur les trésors entreposés, s’entassaient pêle-mêle dinosaures en plastiques, phalli en terre cuite, livres d’art à la couverture décolorée par la lumière et œuvres en cours d’exécution. Il y ressentait un fascinant mélange de pulsions aussi contradictoires que celles qui animaient les tableaux. Les feuillets accrochés aux murs révélaient des poèmes en plusieurs langues. La douceur des mots qui les composaient éveillait en lui un désir de paresse et de contemplation. Rêveur, il ne put s’empêcher de songer à la langueur des odalisques protégées de la chaleur et des regards par des moucharabiés. S’interrogeant sur la réinterprétation par l’artiste des motifs classiques de l’univers orientaliste, il conclut à l’éternel futur de ce dernier.
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Savage Innocence by Simon Delobel
What impressed him most when he discovered her work was the fact that he could not place the geographical origin of her iconographic sources. The white walls of the exhibition space were covered by tapestries of different sizes together with embroideries framed in brass; small, sculpted objects, paintings of modest sizes; and a large drawing on paper. He instinctively associated the motifs on the tapestries with Iran: the artist’s surname inclined him to presume this assumption. Even though, the compositions of the embroideries reminded him of the swamps of the Everglades, the naïve figures in the paintings and drawings to that of Western medieval miniatures, and the sculptures, to fragments of antique South Indian archaeological discoveries. He rather liked this immense mental confusion. He considered the many influences to be a reflection of an ultra-cosmopolitan and universal society…The powerful dominance of female figures over that of their male counterparts made him wonder whether this was not a veiled expression of a feminist sense. But the titles of the works soon made him reject this first impression, as they conveyed an explicit ambiguity. It made it rather difficult to determine whether the artist would not support the perpetrator rather than the willing victim in the erotic game. This led him to enjoy the wet environment in the figurative scenes and the playfulness of the abundant vegetation all the more. He subconsciously perceived the whole setting as a contemporary, subversive rendition of the best scenes in Western art history: the aroused old men ogling Suzanne appearing to be devoured by giant octopi. The savagery of humanity juxtaposed with the innocence of animality.The subsequent visit to the artist’s studio reserved other surprises. There was no clear distinction between her living space and working area. Like in a bandit’s cave where the rays of sunshine glitter on the stored treasures, he discovered plastic dinosaurs, phalluses made of baked earth, art books whose covers had faded in the light, and half finished paintings and sculptures. A fascinating jumble of emotions came over him: as conflicted as those in her paintings. The pages on the wall contained poems in different languages. Their sweet words aroused a sense of lethargy and contemplation. In his daydreams, he could not help but think of the languorous odalisques seeking shelter from the heat and of the glances through mashrabiyas. In the reinterpretation of classical eastern patterns, he saw the eternal future of orientalism.
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