An Iranian building bridges in wall-obsessed America | US & Canada

A towering artist of his generation, Siah (Siavash) Armajani is a master of unsurpassed and multifaceted output and global recognition with his signature penchant for public art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently featuring a solo show of his work, the first major retrospective staging almost 100 items of his exquisite work.

“Siah Armajani: Follow This Line” brings together the spectacular achievement of a world-renowned artist who – were it up to Donald Trump and his millions of supporters – would not be even allowed to enter the United States, for he was born and raised in Muslim-majority Iran, which the Trump administration currently has in the crosshairs of its trigger-happy war machine.

Armajani’s penchant for public art is the singular gift of his American sojourn, where he has sought aesthetically to claim the land that has hosted almost the entirety of his adult life. Along with millions of other immigrants who have blessed this land, he has pursued a civilising mission in the US – teaching and uplifting his audiences to a far more beautiful and ennobling perception of themselves.

Arrival in US

Armajani was born in 1939 to an upper-middle-class Iranian family whose comfortable early life in Tehran was in equal measures enriched by Persian poetry and European philosophy. Typical of his generation and class, he had a wholesome early upbringing in which his world was at peace and beautiful harmony with the rest of the world. The serenity and confidence of the mind we see in his artwork today is rooted in those childhood experiences.

Armajani was the product of the Mossadegh era, when a momentous anticolonial nationalism liberated the Iranian oil industry from British colonial abuse. His early artwork reflects the preoccupations of a generation who had lost hope in politics after the 1953 CIA-led coup and had settled in, working much deeper roots of an aesthetic presence in the world.

After Americans staged a diabolic coup against the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and aborted the course of democracy in Iran, Armajani, like many other youngsters of his generation, came to the US – the source of misery for his homeland.

Why do we, the Iranian children of the CIA coup in our homeland, come to the US? What is this attraction to the country that delivered the coup de grace on our liberty? Why not India, Mexico, China?

Do we come here to find freedom and solace from the terror that US imperial politics perpetrated in our homeland or are we simply attracted to the epicentre, the belly of this beast, the only place in which we can come to terms with what has happened to us? Some of us have put that angst to work in our scholarship. For Armajani it has become an aesthetic fixation with building bridges.

Still in exile?

It is something of a cliche now to consider Armajani’s artwork a constellation of output marking his “exile”. In the literature accompanying the Met exhibition, we read, “The exhibition peers through Armajani’s eyes as he develops an aesthetic of exile and asks what the role of public art in America might be today.” There is a contradiction in this phrasing. How could Armajani still be in “exile” if his art in the US is so decidedly public? If his art is public, which it is, he must be at home in that public.

Armajani is now 80 years old, of which he has spent some 60 years in the US. Is he still in exile – really? When does an Iranian – or an Arab, Indian, Chinese, etc – cease to be in exile, or else among the diaspora, and become an “American”? Could white people also be in exile, or is this exilic condition chasing only after people of colour to their American graves?

What is it that is hidden in the innocent-looking and innocuous hyphen in Iranian-American (or any other hyphenated American) that destabilises any claim to being a full “American”?

The vast and widening map of bridges, gazebos, gardens, and reading rooms that Armajani has built in the US and Europe lays a claim on these lands and puts a question mark on that “exilic” condition into which he is being constantly placed. These lands would have been that much impoverished without his art.

A number of leading Iranian artists other than Armajani – like Nicky Nodjoumi, Manoucher Yektai, Ardeshir Mohassess, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Shirin Neshat, and countless others – have made a significant portion of their name and reputation right here in the US. Their work seriously compromises the very notion of “exile” or “diaspora”.

At home, at the heartless centre of empire

Armajani is relentless and impatient in his art, moving from genre to genre, from texts to images to architectonics of memories and belonging. The rhetoric and trope of “exile” systematically alienates him and other artists like him, not just from the country he has called home for the bulk of his adult life, but even more tragically, from his own works of art.

As his iconic work Bridge Over Tree (1970) demonstrates, citing the vernacular of American bridge-building science and technology to occupy a public space has brought home to Armajani’s artwork. He does not just dwell on that bridge. He makes it homely.  

Armajani’s moral and imaginative fixation with bridges – as evident in this and other works like Fibonacci Discovery Bridge (1968), Limit Bridge #2 (1973), etc – speaks more to his spatial sense of defamiliarising the person in public life. This aesthetic defamiliarisation is the most potent way an artist can make foreigners feel familiar in their adopted homeland.

Armajani’s artwork is the autobiography of an immigrant feeling at home in a country where the xenophobic impulse of white supremacy seeks to consistently alienate others in order to lay claim on a precious landscape that still actively remembers its native nations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

The photo by Sharon Mollerus was used under the CC BY 2.0 licence.

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