Headbang: Roya Falahi by Nancy Gamboa
I think everyone should know about the nineties, and what better introduction than Natural Born Killers? I had my younger sister watch it with me one evening, and by the end I could tell my poor sister was over stimulated and completely drained. Too much too soon? After she left I decided to watch the movie again–this time without sound. I suppose I wanted to interact with the film passively, allowing it to exist as the backdrop of my evening, giving it as much or as little attention as I chose. But the silence had the opposite effect.
Time slowed and the image became paramount, drawing me closer as I searched each frame for any signal or clue that might compensate for the meaning that was withheld. Without the familiar voices and music to guide me, I had to remain physically and mentally present at all times. No matter how much visual noise came at me or how much I exerted myself in scanning each image, there was a definite space, a vacuum that made me acutely aware of my role as the viewer. Effort was then replaced with complacency as one image became another, building toward a narrative that neither I nor the creator of the work intended or could foresee.
I had the same visceral experience with Headbang, the first solo show of artist Roya Falahi at the Kellogg Gallery at Cal Poly Pomona. Roya employs a combination of gestural performance and sculpture to build complex visual tableaux. She focuses on the upper body as the primary site of compositions that reexamine identity through seemingly impenetrable photographic apparitions of the self. Each image is a documentation of diverse and sometimes layered categories of identity, where veiling is a carefully crafted act of agency that tempers each interaction. In her work the face is repeatedly covered over, the gaze always averted, so that Roya is neither entirely present nor entirely absent from each photo.
Upon entering the Kellogg Gallery I was immediately taken with the complete redness of Layers of Unrest 2009/Roya as Neda (2011). This large scale photograph presented an altar with a mannequin head at its center, a bodiless relic with roses and books that seemed to stand as offerings at either side. I would find out later that the face on the paper mask was Roya’s own and that the blood mapped onto it was that of Neda Agha-Soltan, the Iranian woman shot to death by the Basij paramilitary group at the protest against the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Videos and photos of Neda’s dead, bleeding face would captivate the world. Her name and image became synonymous with the Iranian opposition with many members of the Green Movement chanting “I am Neda.” Roya inhabits Neda’s final pose, transcending the boundaries of the living and the dead through objects that give memory to violence, visually documenting the seamlessness of past and present, of the collective and the individual.
While it might be tempting to focus on the political ramifications of Roya’s work, to do so would be to take a superficial reading. Roya revealed to me in conversation that she sees the political as an inherent part of the human condition and by extension art itself. I felt compelled to agree. I think one of the strengths of Roya’s work is its ability to challenge the viewer, bringing many characteristics of the individual into dialogue, denying any sort of hierarchical or one-dimensional valuation. Through the denial of mutual recognition between the viewer and the figures in each image, Roya’s work annihilates the ego, prompting in the viewer an urge to identify and understand the ‘presence’ of what is confronted. The viewer is denied the comforts and confines of the familiar. The familiar emerges as a kind of trickster, feigning authenticity, while preventing individuals from engaging with themselves and others more completely. In a concrete way, Roya’s work crosses boundaries that normally bind and inhibit the viewing of identity, allowing the seemingly incongruous worlds of pop culture, subculture, and high culture to coexist within the institutional setting.
Standing in front of an image of a hair-masked face (made of Roya’s own hair collected over time), or a face painted white (after the kabuki masks of Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan), I reflected on my own process of looking. I felt as though I could will the hair away; snatch the paint off, until I realized I could only surrender to an image that would never tell the whole story. What I understood was that the physicality of each piece would not reassure me, that moving away from a rational, superficial understanding required giving up control, instead allowing meaning to emerge.
A Family Line (2006), a sort of non-hierarchical totem displaying in profile twelve members of Roya’s family, reinforces the shape shifting quality of Roya’s work. The individuals pictured neither confront the viewer nor each other, but seem to inhabit their equal position in the family, morphing on into the other with little need for acknowledgement or validation. There is no context for comparative valuation as meaningfulness and value are divorced from stratified positioning. The titular “line” seems to be extended, even to the viewer, equally incorporating collective, physical, cultural and imagined identities. Set on a single plane these categories interact and intersect, eluding one dimensionality, by turns becoming more and less defined, while at all times recreating the concept of self.
Left unacknowledged time and again, the images called on me to inhabit diverse subjectivities and temporalities while reflecting on my own process of understanding and valuing markers of identity. I thought back to my first encounter with Roya’s work.
While chatting with me at an opening last summer Roya pulled out her phone to show me and few others gathered around images of her most recent work. When it was my turn to look I was unprepared for the quiet power of the faceless figure, shrouded in a metal studded black headdress. “I made that!” Roya said, breaking my concentration, and we all took a second glance. I suddenly saw flashes of Roya in her off time, attaching each stud, fueled by her favorite Puscifer song and the possibilities of creating something new. I recall thinking that Roya’s enthusiasm was as refreshing as her newest photograph was intense.
My eyes now rested on the same ‘armored’ figure in Headbang/Holding Space (2011), a haunting image that at once stands still and retreats into a void, beckoning and giving pause. The figure seems to levitate, in a peaceful meditative stance. Metal studs, each individually applied to create an armor-like headdress reinforce the denial of recognition. Metal references, abundant in Roya’s work, again signal unrest, but are balanced by a detachment and lightness that reflect reconciliation with being. Lost in the blackness I felt a measured calm come over me. A calm that stemmed from allowing myself to follow the rhythm, form, and sense of a body of work that seemed to provide a portrait not of the individual but of personhood in all of its multiplicity and singularity.