In her latest solo exhibition at New York’s Trotter&Sholer gallery, Iranian artist Farideh Sakhaeifar invites the viewer to reflect on the human experiences that connect us all. You are in the war zone confronts conflict, war, and social injustice head-on. Presented in partnership with the non-profit arts organization KODA, and curated by Klaudia Ofwona-Draber, the exhibition covers Sakhaeifar’s rich artistic practice, from her performance pieces to her sculptures to her hand and digitally manipulated photographs made over a seven year period. The works in the show underscore the artist’s strong critique of US foreign policy and Western portrayal of war in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as her impactful representations of shared experiences, the subjectivity of the media, and the inevitable distortion of memories and information over time.
The title of the exhibition, You are in the war zone, is taken from a series of silver gelatin prints made in 2016-2017. The powerful works depict scenes of ordinary life in New York City that the artist inscribed with drawings from the Syrian civil war. From children playing in parks to commuters going about their daily lives, the images are candid, familiar Western settings. Juxtaposed with the overexposed portrayals of bodies being carried and refugees bending under the burden of their experience, the works are direct presentations of conflict, social injustice, and the profound inequality of the human experience.
Further exploring the fragility of human life, as well as the complexities of displacement, are the photographs in the series Pending (2016). Sourced from images of Syrian refugees at the borders of Iraq and Turkey taken originally for The New York Times, Reuters, The Guardian, and Getty publications, these works examine the representation of the Middle East in Western media. Exploring the theme of erasure, Sakhaeifar digitally manipulated the photographs to remove the refugees, leaving only their belongings and the occasional soldier. At first what seems to be trash strewn across the ground, the objects are actually the backpacks, bags, pillowcases, and baskets that accompanied the refugees on their traumatic passages. By removing the people who so carefully selected and packed the most important items of their lives to make the journey with them, the artist reduces the refugees to their belongings. They could be anyone and anywhere, a powerful reminder of the tenuousness of life.
The newest work in the show, When taking down a statue, a chain works better than a rope (2021), is a digital collage depicting various public monuments around the world that have been defaced or destroyed in the name of progress and social justice. As with Sakhaeifar’s photographs that are both familiar and unsettling, the layers of images in this work are simultaneously recognizable and unidentifiable. An image of a statue with an outstretched arm, possibly a dictator, is seen amidst a sea of people whose identities have been blurred, but their activities are clear. The people portrayed could be anywhere in the world, but their shared goal is justice. Glimpses of recognizable scenes appear, such as Black Lives Matter protests, but the images are intentionally distorted, just as the memories and accounts of the events are distorted. How the scenes are remembered by those who participated and how they are interpreted by those who watched from near and far are all subjective. Sakhaeifar captures this blurring of memories and subjectivity with poignancy.
These ideas of collective experiences and subjectivity are further highlighted in the bronze sculpture “Toppled” (2015), which displays a small, dictatorial figure atop an austere, concrete pedestal. The figure stands with its arm outstretched and a rope around its neck, as if depicting the moment the statue is about to be toppled. The dictator’s face is erased of any identifying features, allowing the viewer to make their own associations. The entire piece is only about three feet tall, diminishing the authority of the presumably once-powerful figure. As with the digital collage, “Toppled” allows, even encourages, the figure’s anonymity. How the viewer relates to and interprets the work will vary, but the recognition of oppression, injustice, and the eventual vindication of taking the statue down are all clear.
Sakhaeifar’s works invite the viewer to reflect on the experiences that we have in common, as well as the profound unequal treatment of people around the world. Through erasure and distortion, You are in the war zone presents a powerful reminder of the fragility of life and the subjectivity of information and memories. In every piece in the exhibition, the viewer is presented with an opportunity to reflect on the lives of others, as well as on their own. Even the title, directly addressing “you,” the viewer, is an assertion that no one is exempt from the fundamental conditions of being alive in the modern world. What Sakhaeifar makes clear is that the details of our struggles may vary, but the overall sentiment is shared.
All photos courtesy of Trotter&Sholer and KODA
Annabel Keenan is a New York-based art advisor and freelance writer. While her art career began in the museum world, she has shifted to fine art sales, first as an assistant at Gagosian, and then as an associate at the legendary printmaking studio Gemini G.E.L.. As an advisor, Annabel specializes in prints and multiples, and aims to make the process of collecting art more accessible. She has held positions at the Broad Museum, the Morgan Library and Museum, the American Academy in Rome, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. She holds a B.A. in Art and Architectural History from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.