Iranian painter's mouthless women speak volumes at Istanbul exhibition

Maryam Salahi, an Iranian artist living in Turkey, taps into her "foreignness" for an exhibition in Istanbul exploring identity and freedom in the Middle East.

al-monitor Iranian painter Maryam Salahi's new exhibition "IDs please" addresses the concepts of identity and gender in the Middle East, Istanbul, Turkey, Jan. 20, 2018. Photo by Murat Erdin.

Jan 24, 2018

In her paintings, Iranian artist Maryam Salahi usually portrays women with their mouths painted over or behind a veil made of a piece of cloth or chiffon added to the canvas. But some of the women in the works displayed in “IDs please,” her current exhibition at the F Art Gallery in Istanbul, have no faces at all.

“In our societies, women are allowed to speak little. That's the preference of a society that does not want women to be outspoken,” Salahi told Al-Monitor. “But inside those silent women, there is a volcano or a killer that could come out. That’s the real situation in the Middle East. Women live under pressure. So this is what I paint.”

Salahi moved to Turkey 11 years ago. In an interview with KulturSanat, she said she left Iran for Istanbul in search of better opportunities, feeling she had done all she could do in Tehran. Before moving permanently, Salahi earned a bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tabriz Azad University, and in Istanbul, she is currently studying for her doctorate at Yeditepe University. Her thesis concerns identity and is titled “Art Pieces Made and Evaluated on Common Values ​​— Religion, Language, Race and Identity — after the '70s.”

“The Turks and the Iranians do not feel free in their own countries,” Salahi said. “In these two countries, we have an identity problem. Iran is a desperate case. In Turkey, there are other kinds of problems. Many unhappy people [in the Middle East] want to flee to the Western countries. They are angry at the West but nevertheless want to settle in the West. No one is honest.”

Salahi would like to see Middle Eastern states develop their own identities, which would entail a significant change in the way countries are led and the societies structured.

“First, religious and state affairs must be completely separated from each other,” Salahi said. “The president or the prime minister is not a prophet but an officer [of the state]. Countries should not be governed by the laws of religion. Given the development of technology, it is no longer possible to allocate so much room to religious teachings in our daily lives. We do not live in the times of the Prophet [Muhammad] anymore. If there were no mullah regime in Iran, my country would be a very different country, even a superpower.”

Salahi applied for Turkish citizenship three years ago, but is still awaiting the government's decision. For now she carries a Turkey-issued ID for foreigners. While concluding a business deal or discussing the rent for an apartment, as soon as people realize that Salahi is a foreigner, they want to see her identity card to ensure that she is not an “illegal.”

Regarding her application for Turkish citizenship, Salahi said, “Being an artist gives you no advantage. You either have to get married or have large investments. That’s why I titled my exhibition ‘IDs please.’ People ask for my identity card everywhere, upfront, but I do not care anymore.”

Salahi's works are mostly in oil paint, on large canvases, but she also uses a mix of other techniques and collage, such as adding fabric, tulle or paper, to the canvas. In one untitled work, two women's faces are presented side by side, in gray tones, the eyes vacant and the mouth nonexistent.

Figen Bati, a painter and art consultant, likes the way Salahi expresses herself in her work. “Salahi is a powerful and dominant character,” she told Al-Monitor. “She expresses her character with her colors and brushes. The paintings reflect the difficulties she has lived through and witnessed as a woman, as a newcomer to a country. Our identities are not simply a piece of paper. It is something we question. Maryam Salahi's work, which is well liked by the audience that has visited the exhibition, reflects the Middle East identity crisis.”

According to journalist Ozgur Yuce, Salahi's paintings, with their splashes of bold colors with dark spots in the background, touch on a search for freedom. “Salahi emphasizes with the many fragments of drawings in her paintings the censorship she has seen,” Yuce said. “It is a rebellious style that highlights women, through mere silhouettes or [pale, or fading] women.”

Asked when the women of the Middle East will be able to assert their own identity, Salahi's response was far from optimistic. “I wish I could have such a hope,” she said. “Maybe [this will happen] if we reach an atmosphere where religion and politics are separated. We will have freedom when our people — educated, uneducated, peasant and urban people — can understand [that we need to separate the state and religion]. Europe made that separation 500 years ago and was liberated.”

“IDs please” is at the F Art Gallery through Feb. 5. 

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

Recommended Articles

Women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to stand trial in Saudi Arabia
Al-Monitor Staff | Women’s rights | Nov 24, 2020
Saudi Arabia’s dire rights record looms over G-20 summit
Elizabeth Hagedorn | Human rights | Nov 20, 2020
Art perseveres in Istanbul despite coronavirus
Ayla Jean Yackley | Art and entertainment | Nov 16, 2020
Why women in Egypt continue to face violence
Albaraa Abdullah | Women’s rights | Oct 26, 2020
Egypt female candidate angers feminists by glorifying the patriarchy
Amr Emam | Women’s rights | Oct 22, 2020