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Do clothes make the woman? An Iranian artist's search for identity

The works of Mona Hakimi-Schueler, an Iranian artist based in Berlin, depicts Iranian women not as victims but strong individuals whether in a hijab, summer dress or armor.

"Which of these faces is the real me as an Iranian woman?"

That is the question the Berlin-based artist Mona Hakimi-Schueler posed more than a decade ago with a series of self-portraits depicting her in 20 different outfits ranging from a sundress to a chador. The paintings were inspired by debates in Germany over whether female teachers should be allowed to wear headscarves in classrooms.

"I used to wear a headscarf, back in Iran," Hakimi told Al-Monitor. "I thought and wondered which of my faces was the manifestation of my real identity as an Iranian woman." The self-portraits of the veiled and unveiled and variously attired artist, painted from photographs, served as Hakimi's introduction to the German art scene.

The Tehran-born Hakimi had studied physics before moving to Germany in 2001 to study art and art education, earning a master's degree from Osnabrueck University in 2006. Hakimi's artistic style has changed and developed over the years, but one constant has been her preoccupation with the question of identity in general and as an Iranian woman in particular.

Born in 1977, Hakimi was barely two when the Iranian Revolution took place. Her mother, in an act of bravery, had separated from her father before Hakimi was born. Coming from a religious family, her mother's decision was one typically frowned upon in her circles.

Hakimi therefore came to be raised by a single mother, a family structure unpopular in conservative Iran even before it became a hotbed of religious revolution waging a societal war for strict Islamic values. Hakimi's experience as part of an unconventional family perhaps explains the dominating presence of women in her art.

"There were few people in my immediate environment who shared that family structure," the artist told Al-Monitor. "As a child, I had to explain to everyone around me that my father is not living with us, my mother has to work and all that."

Her focus on female identity and clothing stem from spending time at her mother's dressmaking workshop as an early teen.

"I had to be at her workplace because I couldn't stay at home alone," Hakimi explained. "I saw a lot there, of religious, affluent women who entered in chadors, but they would exhibit another identity when they removed the chador and presented themselves in different clothing beneath it." 

Hakimi's trilogy titled "Multi-bodies" (2012-13) borrows from her memory of that period. The series portrays women in forbidden dresses and wearing men's clothing. "Installation I – going to the lucky house in white dress, leaving it with white shroud" represents two events common in Iranian women's lives. Various women appear dressed in variations of white to reference the clothing they wear as brides when they enter the home of their husbands and the white shroud they will be wrapped in upon their death, their only option for leaving that home given that the alternatives, such as separation and divorce, are condemned.

"Installation II — a short path between holy shrine and bazaar" features unorthodox outfits including helmets, armor and shields, some of which carry the trademark branding of well-known fashion houses, such as Chanel. In one collage, a woman in a transparent, cage-like cloak, or armor, stands in the foreground of a city scene with three chador-wearing women and members of the security forces in the background. No one appears to notice the central figure. Her armor suggests women's sense of insecurity and vulnerability to authority on the streets due to the police presence while also shielding them against threats by the state.

"The state is launching widespread propaganda [campaigns] to institutionalize projects such as the 'national chador' or the 'superior hijab,' Hakimi said, referring to attempts to portray the traditional robes as chic and bring a new interpretation to them. "At the same time, it is exercising force through morality police patrols to punish those who are found in breach of mandatory hijab."

"Installation III – not all heroes are registered" focuses on Zoorkhaneh, an indoor playing field accessible to men only where they learn ethical values alongside physical training to attain the rank of a Pahlevan, or hero. In Hakimi's piece, women wear Zoorkhaneh uniforms, but also strings of weights as well as capes, long coats and trains that appear to allow them to carry huge weights.

"Under norms and traditions, Iranian women were not let onto the Zoorkhaneh and were therefore denied the position of Pahlevans," Hakimi explained. To her, however, the real heroes are women like her mother.

"The Iranian woman is not a victim," Hakimi said. "I choose not to portray her as merely a chador-wearing, violated person. In my memory and in my view, the Iranian woman is strong. That I have seen and experienced."

One of the key challenges Hakimi faces as an artist in Germany is the politicization of her work. "The estrangement factor is more than evident in my works," she remarked. "While German artistic circles are more inclined toward a political interpretation of my pieces, my key concern is form and beauty."

Hakimi's work is obviously influenced by Iran's history, but she complained that discussions of her work in a certain gallery might go so far as to bring up the Iranian nuclear program but say nothing about her artistry. 

Hakimi was only three when the Iraq-Iran War broke out in 1980. The eight-year conflict coupled with the fundamental changes brought about by the Islamic Revolution significantly altered Iranian social and cultural life. In "Memory Trace," a series of small images in various media on wooden boards, Hakimi presents some of her memories of that time, including of demonstrators, a small veiled girl walking obediently alongside her mother, and a smiling and waving Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution and the Islamic Republic's first supreme leader. 

"That particular era of history created a sense of resilience in the people of my generation," Hakimi said. "On the one hand, we had to grapple with bombardments and on the other suffered suppression in the society and at school."

She lamented how young girls had to wear full hijab on their way to school. She further noted, "Cities were covered with propaganda about war and martyrdom, notions that the state sought to forcefully instill in us as values to follow."

In "Stories I Live By" (2010-12), Hakimi digs into her past, examining what she had seen in Iran and her departure as a young woman determined to study art and live an expat's life abroad. The works, mostly oil and collages on canvas, highlight figures typical of Persian miniatures – simorghs, horses and lions. One of the most striking paintings, aptly titled "Expectation," shows a young woman, presumably Hakimi, sitting calmly in a chair with her back turned to Quranic Arabic on a wall and with a lion sleeping behind her to her left.

"It was in the 'Memory Trace' that the lion initially found its way into my art," Hakimi explained. "The idea coincided with the 2009 disputed presidential election and the street protests."

One debate among the protesters was which flag to carry at rallies. "They held differing views over whether the flag should be the one bearing the lion and the sun, from the Pahlavi era, or the one with the word 'Allah' on it, which represents the Islamic Republic."

In exploring Iranian identity, Hakimi also made use of the lion and the sun symbols in the installations "Helden-taten" (Heroic Deeds, 2009-10) and the "Lion on News Garden" (2014). Refuting monarchists' assertions to the contrary, Hakimi contends that the two symbols are much older than the Pahlavi dynasty.

"For centuries, the lion had represented the epitome of power in ancient Persia," Hakimi said. "It was, however, abolished by the Islamic Republic for the first time in Iran's history."

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