Shadows of My Sisters

1993, SECCA Museum

By Jeff Fleming, Curator

Sonia Balassanian’s Shadow of My Sisters uses images of repressed Muslim women to make a larger statement about victims of persecution and intolerance worldwide. Shadow of My Sister thus represents both Balassanian’s coming to terms with her own past as a native Iranian woman self-exiled in the United States since 1979, and an attempt to use art as a catalyst for altering universal attitudes and behavior.
When I first saw Shadow of My Sisters, the work was set up in Balassanian’s New York studio. As I visited the constant5 ring of the telephone forced Balassanian to abandon me for short periods of time. Surrounded by shrouded figures of shadow of My Sisters, I contemplated her stories. She told me of a once wooded town in Armenia that is now denuded of trees—the inhabitants cut them down to burn the wood for warmth. Numerous young people there have prosthetic legs and arms, their bodies shattered by the civil war between Christians and Muslims. She spoke of a time prior to the Iranian revolution in 1979 when women were able to walk the streets of Tehran in Western dress; today, mandatory dress for women is the chador, a black veil that covers the female body. This account speaks to fundamental changes in Iranian society and the lack of choice now available to its citizens. Balassanian, a recognized port, painter, and teacher, could not live in such a society and chose exile instead.
Balassanian’s experiences empower Shadow of My Sisters. Eleven female figures draped in black fabric lie, stand, or kneel in states of reflection, distress, and submission. Though mute and devoid of personal identity, the forms are defiant. They seem to possess an insolence obtained through years of suppression. The light of strings of light bulbs that intertwine the figures momentarily blinds the viewer and sets the stage for an interrogation. This mood is reinforced by the parallel between the black fabric that shrouds the figures and black robes worn by judges. Thus, the installation becomes a theater of interrogation and catalyst for the contemplation of man’s propensity for oppressive behavior—toward Muslim woman, toward women generally, and toward the oppressed worldwide.
By providing participants with an avenue to experience feelings of despair and alienation, Shadow of My Sisters draws on the viewer’s ability to feel compassion. The lights and silent figures disorient participants and coerce them into joining the arena. This effectively redefines viewers as victims, which, Balassanian believes, develops an understanding of and a tolerance for multiple points of view and personal identity.
Shadow of My Sisters addresses broad issues of intolerance and oppression—Muslim, feminist, and universal. Through the work, Balassanian refers to her past, but more importantly, she speaks with a compelling empathy for all humankind.

Reprinted from catalog of the exhibition
at Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1993