Essay on Nasim Makaremi | Rhea Rollman
Nasim Makaremi studies solid-state physics, but her art practice is inspired by women’s struggles against censorship and repression. “Censorship magnifies women’s oppression,” she explains in her artists’ talk. Her artwork challenges both.
Her residency offers four striking engagements with the theme. A series of sanitary pads are embroidered with traditional Persian motifs to offer gorgeous designs where we would expect blood. A series of sketches combine the forms of animals and humans, disguising women’s bodies within alternate, muted forms as a means of circumventing censorship. A series of three-layered works incorporating photos, oil, colours and drawing engage with women’s experience across generations. In her art talk she also presents a set of mirrors – pristine, then cracked, and finally scratched – in artistic simulation of an acid attack.
Juxtaposition lies at the heart of Makaremi’s work. Sanitary pads merge with age-old textile designs. Fish and crow merge on canvas, encoding symbols of women’s bodies. Fractured mirrors merge with the viewer’s own reflection. Across radically different media, Makaremi juxtaposes styles, designs, and subjects to produce potent symbols of resistance, always centred on women’s lives.
Juxtaposition is indelibly linked to the art and practice of resistance. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, deployed juxtaposition as a means to reveal the continuities of oppression, juxtaposing images of women from different eras so as to underscore their objectification across the ages. Makaremi comes at the problem differently, using juxtaposition not to reify oppression but as a means toward liberation. Her blending of traditional and modern renders historically taboo objects as beautiful. More to the point, they are liberatory.
Menstrual products hit the art world like a bomb in 1976, when British artist Cosey Fanni Tutti used her own bloody tampons in the “Tampax Romana” series, part of the larger Prostitution exhibit put off by her performance art troupe Cuom Transmissions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. The exhibit became the subject of raging debate in the British Parliament; Tories threatened to cut public funding to the arts in retaliation. Today, the tampons are proudly displayed in the Tate Gallery.
Tutti’s tampons were rendered in such a way as to shock: twisted with wire, stuffed into clock-faces, paired with maggots. And while the public display of menstrual products retains a shock value in many quarters today, Makaremi infuses her sanitary pads with a more potent vibrancy by rendering them beautiful. They are works of art to be admired, to draw us in with their beauty.
Menstrual products are tools of revolution and liberation, rendered even more potent by the taboos and mythologies that surround them. In trans culture they subvert gender norms: trans men applying them and trans women sharing them, asserting presence and space in refutation of narrow-minded binaries. On urban battlefields tampons are doused in oil and used to prime Molotov cocktails to repel the forces of occupation. On a punk rock stage at the 1992 Reading Festival they become musical artifact: L7 frontwoman Donita Sparks turns on an angry crowd and responds to their rude misogyny by removing her own tampon in full view of the audience. She throws it at them, yelling “Eat my tampon, fuckers!” Menstrual products are incendiary; subversive; punk rock.
But in Makaremi’s work they become something even more: a work of art. Their subversive, incendiary challenge is rendered not in hostile punk rock form but as beauty rooted in Persian tradition. They catch the eye, tracing out patterns in bold lines that grip the viewer’s gaze. The bright colour palette and warm angularity are comforting, not shocking.
Here again juxtaposition takes centre-stage. The patriarchy tells us menstrual blood is primal, messy, chaotic. But in Makaremi’s work, patterns emerge from the blood. Patterns of line and colour embroidered on pads. Patterns of history layered atop each other on oil and canvas. Patterns of identity and species merging in sketchwork. Patterns connecting the past with the present; patterns of recurring violence and oppression; patterns emerging on and through the detritus of found, functional objects; patterns which inspired Makaremi to make art. In Makaremi’s work patterns are alive; they’re transformative; they refuse to be pinned down. They are neither/nor and always-more; their bold colours sit atop the white canvas of a menstrual pad yet refuse to be absorbed. They assert presence and demand the viewer treat them as equal: blood and pad; artwork and canvas. The patterns of colour Makaremi depicts on sanitary pads are not absorbed by the whiteness around them and lost; they stand out defiantly on their own. The embroidery spreads its colour across the functional canvas of a sanitary pad, creating something new in the process. They refuse assimilation and absorption, countering that with a process of re-colouring the bland whiteness around them.
Lest we allow our gaze to be dominated by form and function, let us consider that the colour patterns are not incidental. The historic universality of whiteness as the stand-in for all that is good and healthy is turned upside down on these pads, their pale wings upstaged by the vibrancy of a coloured world within. Colour is infectious. Whiteness may be considered sanitary, but it is colour that heals. Nasim’s coloured patterns convey the sensation of movement; growth; fertile blood gushing across a pale and sterile whiteness and bringing with it life, colour, vibrancy.
Juxtaposition. Colour. Movement. Transformation. These are the languages of resistance in today’s world, rooted in women’s lives and emerging wherever the forms of oppression – whiteness; misogyny; subjection; stillness; uniformity – occur.
Makaremi – who studies rules of physics, yet defies rules in her art – has created a body of work that must be seen to be appreciated. But like all good art, it must be lived to be understood.
Rhea Rollmann is a journalist, writer and radio/podcast producer based in St. John’s, NL. Rhea was a founding editor of TheIndependent.ca, and a contributing editor with PopMatters.com. Her writing has appeared in a range of popular and academic publications, including Briarpatch Magazine, CCPA Monitor, rabble.ca, Canadian Theatre Review, Journal of Gender Studies, and more. She was the recipient of an Atlantic Journalism Gold Award in 2017, and finalist for a Canadian Association of Journalism Award in 2018. Rhea also has a background in labour organizing, and queer and trans activism. She’s presently Program Director at CHMR-FM, a community radio station in St. John’s, NL.
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