Mirror, Mirror

Personal Reflections and Psychic Excavations with Mahsa Merci

By: Shantha Roberts

Navigating queer identity can be a daunting task in Iran, despite conditional acceptance of trans identity and the inherent gender neutrality of the farsi language. Iranian-American Harvard academic Afasaneh Najmabadi has a veritable oeuvre dedicated to the documentation of gender and sexuality in the country, both past and present, however it’s the former that caught the eye of Tehrani artist Mahsa Merci. Recently relocated to Toronto after completing an MFA at the University of Manitoba, Merci has been grappling with gender, sexual identity and the body from the earliest days of her art practice. The reasons for this were initially unknown to the artist, who revels in allowing her subconscious to lead her practice, before realizing at 28 years of age that she identified as queer. 

When you see so many paintings from that century in Iran you cannot tell which character is male or female

It’s this personal journey that is strongly reflected in Merci’s recent exhibition Silent Stars, a hypnotic celebration of her own psychic impulses and an enthusiastic embrace of the queer community at large. Academic texts are often a strong source for Merci’s inspiration; and while Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble played a role, Merci recounts Najmabadi’s seminal work on gender and sexulity in pre-modern Iran, Women with Mustaches, and Men Without Beards, as a major influence. Through literary texts and paintings from pre-modern Persia, Najmabadi notes the commonplace occurrence of same-sex intimate relationships, and the difficulty in determining the gender of the young subjects frequently featured in these historical artworks. In the artist's own words: “When you see so many paintings from that century in Iran you cannot tell which character is male or female. Little shape of the hat or clothes, but that’s it. Face, eyebrows, hair, clothes, gestures; there’s no difference between male and female in the paintings.”

Referencing the triptych near the exhibit entrance, Merci cites these pieces as the most directly inspired by Najmabadi’s text. Featuring a blend of traditional mirror craft technique, a nod to “old Islamic architecture” in shape and style, the artist also adds a playful and intriguing touch—hundreds of individual false eyelashes meticulously placed at the frames edges, creating a hirsute border surrounding this self-proclaimed memorial to their culture and other queer Iranian people. The strategically arranged mirrors in this context also act as a metaphor of censorship for Merci. “On TV when they want to censor a person, the portrait is pixelated. When you want to see your face in these mirrors you become pixelated…As a queer Iranian, our identities are denied, but that is not my culture, we always existed in the history.”

When I went to these places and tried to find my face, my whole face, I couldn’t. It was shattered into a thousand pieces

Mirrors are abundant in Merci’s work, and while my reflexive reaction was towards disco balls (particulary as a homage to the world of nightlife as a creative bastion for alternative lifestyles, queer and otherwise), her usage is more closely connected to the time-honoured craft technique known as āʾīna-kārī. Seen in multiple religious and historical sites in Iran, this tradition became popularized during the Zand and Qajar periods for interior decor in both public and private spaces. Contemporary artists engaging with āʾīna-kārī began in the 1950s with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, whose practice spoke to the symbolic representation in Islamic geometry and Sufism, and more recently Timo Nasseri’s exploration of the aniconic nature of the aforementioned. The spiritual essence of losing oneself in fractured reflection in search of a higher plane is not lost on Merci. Recalling her childhood visiting some of these religious and historical sites, the experience was formative and intense. “When I went to these places and tried to find my face, my whole face, I couldn’t. It was shattered into a thousand pieces. I tried to play with the mirrors, move my head in different ways to find myself—I get goosebumps when I talk about that. It’s a feeling I’ve always kept, my subconscious keeps it, this feeling of ‘just find yourself’.”