Music is not popular with the Iranian authorities. To be more specific, it is female singers that are the absolute no-no. They are totally prohibited, in public at least.
"Well, music is only prohibited if it 'moves you,'" clarifies curator Sara Mameni who has taken the reins of The Third Line's ambitious new group show - Snail Fever - that opened yesterday in Dubai. We debate the possible alternatives.
But we can see one segment of the reality on-screen: six unknown women in hijabs standing in front of a glittering backdrop in Newsha Tavakolian's video work, exhibited as part of Snail Fever. Though outwardly composed, their eyes flicker with feeling as their mouths form the rhythmic syllables of an underground contemporary song in Farsi. Only we don't know that it is Farsi because we can't hear a thing. We can only imagine how their songs might sound. They are each, in their own way, lawbreakers and we're only stopped from being complicit by their silence.
In recent years, music has told many different stories across the Middle East, from the bans on singing and dancing under the Taliban to the Afghan three-piece who emerged post-invasion and list their major influences as Blur and Britpop. Then there is the underground, guitar-wielding youth of Tehran, dramatised in Bahman Ghobadi's 2009 film, No One Knows About Persian Cats. Or what about Palestinian hip-hop, or the sound of the frustrated Berber in North Africa? Making music rarely unites an entire country but instead often divides along generational, ideological and, usually, commercial versus non-commercial lines.
Gone are the days when radios from Casablanca to Basra reverberated almost hourly with the oscillating tones of Fairuz. Umm Kulthum now has to spar for airtime with Egyptian techno, hour-by-hour reporting and the regular bombardment of western and Lebanese pop.
This new exhibition, which marks the Californian-based curator's first show in Dubai, explores these inescapable lines of division that traverse music today.
Snail Fever is heavy on video and instantaneous impression pieces. As a result, the show is carried by a pulse-quickening pace throughout. Video works vie for attention, as does the sultry, sugary music emitting from the Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou's video work depicting a 24-hour slow-dance marathon. Refreshingly, a number of the artists involved have been drawn from beyond the usual art epicentres of the Middle East. Rather than the familiar names of the region being rolled out under an imposed theme, there is a sense of fresher names being mixed up with heavy-hitters: brought together organically and sensitively. While some individual pieces fall a little flat, there's nonetheless a smart, coherent discussion going on between the walls. But it does take a good ear.
Snail Fever includes works by Ala Ebtekar, Abbas Akhavan, Rayanne Tabet and the photographer Tavakolian. Alongside these are excellent recent pieces by two Cypriot artists, Panayiotou and Haris Epaminonda. The NYC-based composer, artist and producer Fatima Al Qadiri collaborates on a work with Khalid Al Gharaballi, examining the gender stereotypes that are played out on the cover of Arab pop records. While, finally, the Eurasian collective Slavs and Tatars dreams up an anthem for an unrecognised nation-in-waiting. In this case, a reimagining of the Stealers Wheel karaoke-favourite; Stuck in the Middle With You. Creating a full musical score for the subversion, the collective present Stuck in Ossetia With You - a reference to the disputed enclave in Georgia - as part of their Hymns of No Resistance series.
The curious title of the show derives from a common phrase to describe the disease bilharzia, due to it being passed virally to humans by snails submerged in water. It was this illness that was responsible for the death of Abdel Halim Hafez, the legendary Egyptian musician who caught the disease in the Nile as a child. Hafez died the day after Mameni was born in Tabriz in northern Iran. There's an implication that if his passing was felt as culturally and geographically far away as Iran, then his music offered border-crossing collectivity.
"But I think there was a transition after 1977, [the year Hafez passed away]" says Mameni. "Before then you had music like Umm Kulthum, which was a top-down process of nationalising people through music, and created a sense of identity and collectivity.
"But around the late 1970s there was a reverse process in which people began talking back to that. After 1977, you have musicians working against that top-down process and creating small enclaves and scenes. There's this need to differentiate yourself from how you're being represented as a nation."
Mameni explains that this transition was equally a move away from "glorifying western tones and notes"; after the 1970s, a lot of these foreign elements were removed from popular music in the region, and a more homegrown - or "shaabi", as it was known - style of music emerged.
What connects the very divergent approaches in this show is an analysis of the way that music can transfigure us. As these enclaves and scenes have emerged, what have they offered to the individuals who are drawn to them? In each work, the sublime potential of music is explored - its power to create portals for us to gaze into more perfect worlds that fit with our idea of how the real world should work.
Akhavan's Greener Pastures, for instance, is a photograph of an unknown hand holding up an aged shot of seven famous Iranian musicians exiled to California in the 1970s. In front of the photograph, Akhavan has placed a line of bottles on the gallery floor. The seven musicians are immediately recognisable to an Iranian with even a scant knowledge of Farsi pop. We see them having a picnic and - we can imagine - playing music to remember Iran.
Akhavan reminds us that music here becomes a way of coping or a link back to a country to which they can never return. Music is a medium through which we can dream ourselves out of a situation.
Ebtekar laces up Adidas Classics with ribbons adorned in traditional Persian motifs and beads. Alongside that, he puts a boom box decorated with geometric patterns in front of a white star, akin to a breakdancer's spot. The central installation in Snail Fever, Ebtekar acknowledges hip-hop as a counter-culture icon that captures, expresses and, eventually, quells a sense of otherness in society - pertinent for the artist, who grew up in San Francisco of Iranian heritage.
But Panayiotou perhaps says it best. In his short video work, the artist documents a 24-hour slow-dance marathon he set up in which total strangers were invited to dance with each other to syrupy pop. Some shimmies are nail-bitingly awkward to watch; others are surprisingly fluid. There's a strange, moving (and slightly unnerving) moment when two people - who have never met before - become locked in an embrace as the music gathers to its melodramatic crescendo. You wonder what has pushed inhibitions out the window, and these two strangers into reminiscences of previous, heartfelt slow dances? Surely, it must be the music.
Fast-paced and full of pleasantly open-ended questions, Snail Fever has curatorial clout and a steady beat to match. It is a worthy meditation on what makes our feet tap and why.
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