I Know Why the Rebel Sings, by Newsha Tavakolian

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 23, 2016

So there's a lot to unpack about the opening of this exhibition. I was originally going to do a fun little article talking about finger food and lah-di-dah-ness, but that doesn't feel appropriate right now.

First off, the show really is powerful. There's a reason the Everyone's a Criticpeople didn't say anything about the censorship: what's gone is only a very specific portion of the exhibition, and what's left still packs a mighty punch.

You enter 72-13 and the inside's pitch-black and cavernous. The only light sources are the huge suspended photographs—no, they're slow-mo videos—of Tavakolian's friends standing against a Teheran hillside, and the long foldout albums of their everyday lives below them.

This is her Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album, a project that looks at the strange gaps in the family photo albums of her friends. She's trying to fill in the absences between the birthdays and anniversaries with images of their everyday, sometimes gritty, sometimes melancholic existence. Audiences were drawn in, gazing at individual snapshots, trying to piece together the lives of the six people portrayed (the original Amsterdam display showed eight).

It's a theme that continues upstairs with Look, which turns her bedroom into a studio: capturing her friends sitting, dispirited, against the backdrop of the capital city's tower blocks. These are self-portraits of her community: youngish middle-class Iranians, beautiful, disaffected, lost.


They're really pretty much like Singaporeans, in fact. If you told me that shot above had been taken on rainy day at Duxton, I'd be like, sure.

But at the same time, we've got all of Tavakolian's photojournalistic works—I Know Why the Rebel Sings is in fact the first exhibition of Tavakolian's oeuvre to combine her artistic and journalistic bodies of work. 

There's On the War Trail, her documentation of wartime life in Iraq and Syria. The images here aren't just of the Kurdish women soldiers: there are also American tanks rolling in during the invasion of 2003, sex workers in safe homes preparing to serve Saddam Hussein's loyalists, a morgue full of Kurds killed in friendly fire...

And projects in more far-flung regions. There are images from her photo essay Freefalling in Samburu, commissioned by the Kenyan NGO The Girls Generation. It documents girls who've fled home, escaping female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Also images from Accra, another NGO-commissioned work, where she photographed children going through literacy classes from Ghana.

There's even a wall of news cuttings showing her photojournalism at work—her photos of current events in magazines and newspapers in English, German, French, Arabic, Farsi, all with her name printed below. It's rather wonderfully textured—it's a collage in the midst of all these ethereal photographs, these writings in light.

But then there are the in-between things. The exhibits that are both everyday and journalistic. There’s random shots of street scenes during what could be protests or government-sponsored celebrations or random nights on the town. There’s Maria, images of an Iranian transwoman who left his life as a male truck driver named Ashgar but has descended into depression and occasional sex work after her secret was exposed by the tabloids.

And there’s an art project responding to the Iranian government’s ban on female soloists: a vertical column of videos showing women singing—without the sound on. Ordinary people. Little rebellions against the system.

Worlds not so different from our own.

The effect of collapsing the newsworthy and the artistic in this exhibition is that we’re reminded that *everything* here is everyday—everything is ordinary, even rebel soldiers and FGM victims are individuals as undistinguished as you and me.

The warzone sex worker is as human as the weeping middle-class man in the nice apartment. That’s what Malhouji meant when he talked about individual figures leaping out at us in the exhibition. No first world versus third world problems here. Everyone grieves. Everyone counts.

Portrait with Red Chairs
(Darbandikhan, Iraq, 20030

At one point, a friend pointed to a war photo and said, “We use the same plastic chairs for parties and concerts.”

“And funerals,” I said.

“Small world,” he said.

And it’s a world made even smaller by the MDA’s decision. Why on earth censor an image of a Kurdish soldier?

One rationale is that she doesn’t represent a national military force, but a terrorist organisation. But who sees Kurdish freedom fighters like that? Maybe Turkey does. But should we care what Turkey thinks? We don’t even have a significant Turkish population in Singapore. Or is it their policy not to risk offending anyone on Earth—anyone except people who believe in art?

But there’s also the weird adage that those who ban art give it the highest praise. And I suppose what might disturb censors is that these photographs humanize the freedom fighters.

We see ourselves in their faces. These are ordinary women, doing extraordinary things.

Whatever might happen if we chose to do the same?

  • 2016