Before the pageant of veiled Middle Eastern women turned ubiquitous on the walls of Western art galleries, before the image of the exotic female in hejab became a staple of glossy art magazines, before international news organizations were fixated over the figures of cloaked mothers and sisters grieving over their martyrs, there existed Sonia Balassanian’s Portraits, a searing photographic sequence from a single frontal shot of a woman in traditional head-cover holding fast to the onlooker’s gaze no matter how despoiled and tattered her face appeared from one print to the next.
The year was 1982. During the exhibit of the artist’s works, at the Franklin Furnace Gallery in New York City, the distorted self-portraits were separately mounted on wooden poles like weathered markers to disaster. Meanwhile, the collage work and the tinkering with the faces made them appear splintered, edging towards ruin and, perhaps, oblivion. The written words we see in the present book were not part of the work back then. The direct indictment on the page was as yet invisible, and no crossed-out declarations showed up alongside the picture of the woman whose dead-on gaze was like some unbearable vigil here to haunt us. The following year, however, the series materialized in the form of the book we see today and was part of a large group show titled Committed To Print in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
Here, we had the same fractured face page after page, the same tribunal aura of interrogation to the subject’s fixed stare regardless of how immolated the broken-up features appeared. This was the stare of someone who had witnessed the unspeakable. The suggestion, deliberately left unsubtle, was that this woman – who was all women – was not just any witness but an iconic one, as she had been a spectator and a survivor to her own devastation; hence, the repetitions of not only such words as stoning and rape, but overlays of traditional Persian legal certificates as well as multiple fingerprint-signatures. The mug-shot had suddenly become as pregnant as a museum of memory with its captions inscribed on its own surface; the mug-shot, in other words, had become historical evidence. And the weight of the words challenged the viewer to acknowledge that even though the intimated horror had already taken place, the terror itself was timeless, that it had happened yesterday and it would happen again tomorrow.
Faced with this accusatory glance, the viewer might feel the weight of innocence lost, as if one had been complicit both at the moment of the violation and at its aftermath. Furthermore, the routine of denial, in the form of lines drawn over the words, recalls to us how easy it is to make evidence disappear. Or, conversely, how impossible it is to keep the act of forgetting from becoming habitual. Yet Sonia Balassanian’s Portraits are here to force us to remember, and to remember hard. They demand that we hold this woman’s gaze, even though the proof of what befell her has been whitewashed, crossed out, put aside, and mostly forgotten.