Portrait of a Lady: Paintings by Makan Emadi

On my post yesterday, I touched on veil fetish art. While researching, I came upon artist Makan “Max” Emadi, whose series “Islamic Erotica” touches upon some very similar points. His paintings highlight the alternate concealment and exposure of Muslim women’s bodies and put them in different arrangements.

In an interview with myartspace>blog, interviewer Brian Sherwin looks at Emadi’s paintings and sums them up perfectly: “he [Emadi] portrays Muslim women in a style that references American pin-up art and modern advertising. The contradictory nature of this series creates an outlandish vision of how the Middle East is being changed by the ever-expanding arm of globalization and the growing influence of American-style democracy.”

Emadi’s own words about this series pit it as an Eastern sexism vs. Western sexism brawl: “Representation of the female body is forbidden in strict Islamic tradition, and is therefore taboo in today’s Muslim cultures. To imagine Western art without the nude is, in contrast, impossible. These paintings revisit the Western tradition of pin-up art and its ‘celebration’ of the female form while ‘lovingly’ objectifying it through overexposure and unnatural posing of the model. The Middle East’s version of sexism, in contrast, takes the form of control through mandated repressive female clothing, or ‘Hejab,’ in the name of protecting and honoring women.

I have avoided referring to my heritage in my work until now. After all, I have lived in Los Angeles most of my life, not Iran, and expressing ‘pride in cultural diversity’ has been too fashionable a movement for me. However, in recent years, as in 1979, when my family immigrated to the United States, I have been confronted by my ‘otherness’ on a more regular basis. As the battles between fundamentalists on both sides of the globe rage on, so do my bicultural conflicts.

In my new series of paintings, ‘Islamic Erotica,’ I have portrayed Muslim women in a style that references American pin-up art, modern advertising, and photographs of tribal women in National Geographic-type publications.

When these seemingly contradictory traditions are combined, we can envision an absurd future where the ever-expanding arm of globalization and the growing influence of American-style democracy in the Middle East will continue to manifest into stranger and more outlandish hybrids.”

I take a few issues with his statements. First, if we’re going to talk about strict Islamic tradition, representation of any living form is forbidden: that includes women, children, men, and animals. And, while the female nude is an important form in Western art, so is the male nude. Did Emadi completely forget ancient Greek and Roman sculpture? Also, I don’t see how these paintings refer to his cultural heritage. He is Iranian, and the majority of Iranian women “traditionally” wear the chador, not the niqab and abaya.

That said, what do you think about these paintings? Is his point of globalization vs. tradition conveyed? Could he have conveyed it with both male and female models?

  • orodemniades

    Hmm, so odd, I really dislike both of the examples displayed in this post. I can’t quite figure out why I find them even more offensive than the previous post, but I do…maybe it’s because they’re more (!) sexualized?I find his argument weak, very weak. As you say, there’s no reason for him to focus strictly on women – after all, there are plenty of male nudes and pinups available…and if I’m really honest, I’d just call him a terrible ‘artist’ who is trying to add meaning to ‘art’ that is nothing more than soft core.

  • Matt

    Almost right away I noticed that, in Emadi’s first painting reproduced here, the woman has her eyes close and turned away – in contrast, especially, with the very direct gaze (threatening?) of the second image from yesterday. And the first image from yesterday reminds me of Bettie Page, whose images were certainly not uncomplicated. I’m not going to go out on any limbs yet, but thanks for the thought provoking entries.

  • Shawna

    I’m just struck by how bizarre this is. It’s a bit like a Pizza Hut overseas serving beef pepperoni and non-alcoholic beer. Having lived in the US all my life, the idea of making things we can’t have day-to-day accessible is awesome, but it would still be strange to eat a pepperoni pizza. These paintings are like that, only they aren’t helping people to enjoy life in a way that complies with Islam. Instead, it’s twisting the various cultures of Islam into something outside of Islam–like if they made the pepperoni out of pork, but said the pig was ok because it was slaughtered according to Islamic guidelines.Not that this is really supposed to be religious so much as a commentary (and why not look at men too, if that’s the case?). I just get achingly tired of seeing women and Islam exoticized and eroticized the way women in the US have lost their “exotic” attributes due to over-eroticization (i.e. primetime tv, cinemax).I think women will remain the focus because they moved in the US for the right to undress and it was a big deal here and still continues to be. Breastfeeding in public is an issue, school dress codes, etc. But men don’t have these limitations. They can walk around topless on the streets without issue. Or in their boxers. It wouldn’t be “effective” to look at men. At least in the midwest, nude sculptures are perfectly ok, but nude women are not.

  • Anonymous

    what he’s trying to express in these paintings is interesting, but his technique is ghastly. looks like something from a “beginning painting” course out of a suburban middle school.

  • Nancy

    “”The Middle East’s version of sexism, in contrast, takes the form of control through mandated repressive female clothing, or ‘Hejab,’ in the name of protecting and honoring women.” I CANNOT believe how disgusting this is. So covering up (BY CHOICE) is repressive and degrading to women..but (men) using them and portraying them as sexual objects is liberating?? That i find completely disgusting and degrading to me as a woman.

  • a. brown

    There is nothing loving about objectification, and celebration is not a synonym for it.

  • a. brown

    what he’s trying to express in these paintings is interesting, but his technique is ghastly. looks like something from a “beginning painting” course out of a suburban middle school.

  • Anonymous

    While male nudes have been important historically in WEstern art history, the majority of nudes (especially in painting history) are female, so he does make a valid point.

  • Arynne.

    I just like how the ones you chose both happen to be copies of Marilyn. I couldn’t figure out what made me so drawn to these pictures, and that was why.

  • Jha

    I can read what he’s saying, but it’s not coming through at all in his “art”. I know he means to make it absurd, and it definitely is absurd-looking for certain audiences, but it feeds further into Orientalist views of the hyper-sexualized-yet-hidden Eastern woman.


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