A Land with No Name

Having already moved from Iran to Texas, in 2016 I moved once again to a place with a different culture: New Orleans. It made me think more and more about the identity of a land, what its borders mean, and how we migrate across them. Then in 2017, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and the deteriorating relations also meant that my family could no longer visit me in the US. It was a moment when these notions of land, migration, and belonging became a central concern for me and my work. To relieve the stress, I started imagining a free land, one with no name, borders, or flags. The land which I imagined took the shape of a woman’s body – my body becoming my homeland. I imagined myself saying: I am from my own body, it is called “A Land with No Name.” 

My new series, “A Land with No Name,” takes its inspiration from Persian history – in particular, the complex notions of gender and national identity during the 19th century Qajar dynasty. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s book “Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards” shows us how ambiguous gender identities changed as the idea of a masculine modern nation became dominant – even the lioness in the country’s flag became a lion. “A Land with No Name” uses paintings and video installation to break down and reconfigure how we think of a place, nation, identity, and gender. 


n “A Land with no Name” canvas once again takes center stage. Here the canvas is burned and etched with a laser cutter, and in some paintings it is shredded and cut. To keep the canvas’ natural color, I use clear or no gesso. The first piece in the series is titled “The Past and the Future Are the Same. The verses written in Farsi around the frame are from two versions of the Iranian national anthem – both before and after the revolution. Yet the writing is mirror-reversed, left to right instead of the right to left of Farsi. There are some textual changes, removing words like Shah (pre-revolutionary king), Allah, or the Islamic Republic, changes that reveal the text is similar when you remove the names of the rulers. The color pallet is from the Lion and Sun, the central symbol of the pre-revolutionary flag. This symbol (I will bring some lines to reference from the book and explain this sign later). The shape of the canvas is derived from the royal cloak of the Safavid kings, which contained verses from the Koran meant to protect the king in battle. The two national items, along with the torn canvas in the center, show a divided national identity as well as the difference and similarities of two sets of national rulers.

Another piece emblematic of this collection is titled “Through the Roots.” In it, I sought to alter the structure of the canvas by different methods like unraveling, tearing, and laser burning/etching. In it, the laser sketches dozens of small bodies, which are outlines of images of my own body. In some ways, it is meant to echo a large stone engraving in Persepolis, the ancient city in Iran, where the profiles of men walk up a ramp to offer tribute to the king. It evokes a feeling of moving through life. But in the painting, my nude bodies are not following each other. They pass through each other, going in opposite directions and overlapping – it is the story of our daily lives with our disagreements, following and failing, stopping, and moving. Where the feet from the top and bottom row meet, the lines form roots that ground their identity and nurture life.

©2020 by Sara Madandar