March 18 – April 17, 2021
Images courtesy of Trotter&Sholer and KODA
With the Biden administration’s Tuesday announcement that the United States would be withdrawing from Afghanistan on September 11th, 2021, twenty years to the day from the terrorist attacks which precipitated our invasion of the country, U.S. foreign policy in the MENA region has jumped back to the forefront of news cycles. Buried in the discussions of the “withdrawal” is the fact that the U.S. will maintain a counterinsurgency presence in the country in addition to our continued presence in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and the UAE. While U.S. military operations in the MENA region and its consequences move in and out of public debate, Farideh Sakhaeifar has spent the last seven years observing, critiquing, documenting, and educating on exactly what our troops have been doing so far from home.
You are in the war zone. is a retrospective exhibition of the Iranian artist Farideh Sakhaeifar, curated by Klaudia Ofwona Draber presented by Trotter&Sholer and KODA. This tight but emotionally packed show harshly criticizes U.S. foreign policy in the MENA region and gives ample space to contemplate the suffering of its people under constant imperialist aggression. The exhibition draws its name from a series of works in which etched scenes from the Syrian Civil War are superimposed over gelatin prints of civilian life in New York. The photographs are overexposed and difficult to see in detail, while Sakhaeifar renders the etchings in a crisp and emotive line. The result is an inversion of the viewer’s expectations: the nearby and familiar scenes of the city become a dreamscape, while the hand-drawn visualizations of trauma and violence are painfully clear. While this conflict has drifted out of the news cycle and therefore the attention span of many New Yorkers, the suffering is concrete, inarguable, and triggers an empathetic response. Installed next to these works is Pending, a series of images of Syrian refugees on the border of Iraq and Turkey. Sakhaeifar has manipulated the images to erase the bodies of the refugees, leaving behind only what they are carrying. Some of these works have the “Getty Images” logo on them, suggesting that they would appear in a generic google search for “refugees.” Both of these series emphasize the invisibility of the individuals caught in these conflicts to the Western gaze, who are subsumed into a narrative of war and crisis in discussions of the MENA region.
Acquired from the above by the present owner is the most unexpected series in the show, combining found object art with documentary interviews to produce a uniquely complex set of artifacts. Sakhaeifar has conducted interviews with a number of people who have purchased U.S. Army supplies from black markets in Tehran. It is unclear how these objects arrive in Tehran, however, the devastating impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran is very clear. Ironically, under these circumstances, contraband U.S. Army gear becomes some of the highest quality apparel available in the country, something many of the interviewees state throughout the project. The objects themselves are presented within a simulacrum of an auction block, within which photo reproductions of each interviewees collection of gear lay in neatly ordered stacks. On their own, the auction blocks are strange objects with a slightly threatening aspect evoked by the military iconography. Combined with the interviews, they become surprisingly detailed windows into the lives of individuals worlds away from New York. Each of these auction blocks becomes a site of tension between the curiosity of these resourceful individuals and the literal trappings of U.S. militancy abroad.
When taking down a statue, a chain works better than a rope serves as an optimistic coda to the exhibition. The silhouette of a pedestal dominates the frame, surrounded by collaged imagery of protestors and graffiti from sites of public disobedience and disruption the world over. The title serves as an instruction, a suggestion from a place of international solidarity. Seen within the context of a gallery in New York City, where last year the NYPD cracked down on non-violent protests using military-grade weapons, gear, and tactics, it feels like a distinct call to action to oppose U.S. militancy at home as well as abroad. You are in the war zone. is a fiery and compelling show in which Sakhaeifar forces us to see exactly what all of our tax dollars are paying for.