Kim Kardashian is huge in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, she’s so huge that the Iranian government publically condemned the reality star and those who follow her. Taravat Talepasand, an Iranian-American artist famous for drug-themed art, plays into this culture-crossing affection with Selfish for Muslims, an authentic Persian rug made with Crying Kim emojis. The piece is part of Talepasand’s Los Angeles art exhibit, Westoxicated, at Zevitas Marcus (through March 18). PRØHBTD spoke with Talepasand about the piece as part of our five-instalment interview series with the artist.
Kim Kardashian stepped out with Paris Hilton in the tabloids as a new pop-culture icon back in 2000. At first, I assumed she was Persian given that her features were the exact opposite of her gal pal Paris. The exoticism made many curious in that you couldn’t pinpoint exactly where she was from. Iranians at first were duped in believing that Kim could pass as an Iranian. Of course, we soon learned that this hourglass bombshell was of Armenian descent, but the obsession of beauty by Iranians is so potent that Kim become idolized and turned into an object of desire right away. Since Kim was often described as Persian, it didn’t take long for women in Iran to want to look like her and trying to emulate her features: the boobs, lips, eyebrows, ass and hips.
The title Selfish for Muslims is based on Kim Kardashian’s coffee table book published by Rizzoli in 2015 titled Selfish that features a collection of her selfies during the last decade. I ordered the book on Amazon months before it was published. Once the book arrived, I gathered my Sharpies and went through every page censoring everything that would allow the book to be viewed by a Muslim. Every single page needed censoring, but that was expected. This project was to recreate the book for a Muslim audience, to be taken into Iran by following the Islamic codes, hence the new title Selfish for Muslims.
In 2016, Iran’s revolutionary guard accused Kim Kardashian of being a secret agent.Kim as an American spy? Ha! The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is an agency tasked with policing domestic culture and heading off the influence of other nations, and they pointed the blame for Kim Kardashian's popularity on social media. All of a sudden, Iranian officials came out describing their distaste for Kim, accusing her of working for Instagram as part of a complicated ploy to target young women and corrupt them with aspirational photos depicting a lifestyle that’s at odds with Islam. The Revolutionary Guard instituted an online surveillance program called Project Spider and started arresting hundreds of women living in Iran for indecent Instagram posts, mostly based on images of them without a headscarf. While the idea of Kim Kardashian as a secret agent might be absurd, the whole ordeal is no laughing matter: Women are being targeted for prosecution. Even an Iranian news station announced, “We are taking this very seriously.”
I completed my book project Selfish for Muslims right as all this came down in Iran, and I was outraged. Against the Iranian women accessing Instagram and Facebook without their headscarves, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard accused these social media accounts of “promoting a culture of promiscuity, weakening and rejecting the institution of family, ridiculing religious values and beliefs, promoting relationships outside moral rules, and publishing the private pictures of young women.” This is another example of how church and state continue exploiting women by means of oppression, and it is a topic I have used in my studio practice before.
Besides censoring Kim’s book, I was studying her latest app-based project “Kimoji,” a third-party keyboard that featured a crying Kim. To me, the comical illustration of Kim crying described women’s response to the rules created for them by men. So far my ideas have transcribed into paintings, drawings and sculptures, but the Kimoji needed to be made where it didn’t belong: Iran.
My father told me before, “You should make your paintings into rugs,” but I never had a good reason to do so until now. My family in Iran found a factory outside their city of Isfahan that produces machine-made rugs. Part of the idea was to have the piece made in Iran to then cross borders to be exhibited in America. The modern mass-produced synthetic rugs create a threaded kitsch in our time, not to be confused with the beautiful silks and wool delights of traditional Persian rugs. The small rug in Iran could be a placement of prayer, or in America a welcome mat where one wipes the dirt off their shoes before entering the home. The sizes are very similar, but the functions are very different. The crying Kimoji and having a rug made in Iran discuss how the image rebels against the normative notions of Iranian and American subjectivity. The result is a sophisticated détournement of the assumptions associated with Iranian culture and the ways in which political propaganda often lives between the ancient demands for timelessness and the modern demand for immediacy.
After a quick copy, paste and save, I had the crying Kimoji on a USB headed to Iran to be printed as a rug, which arrived a month before my scheduled exhibition in Los Angeles at Zevitas Marcus. Initially, I had planned to exhibit it in April 2017 for a show at Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco. Luckily, I had my friend and mentor Brett Reichman suggest that it must be seen in L.A. Brett helped me realize the importance of including the rug in the exhibition Westoxicated as it sums up the ambiguous terrain of female civil rights shared in Iran and America.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Talepasand photo by Aaron Hewitt.