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On Persian Blues : Queer Bodies, Racial Affects

Abstract

This dissertation is a critical analysis of the blues, or melancholic aesthetics, that appears within visual cultural practices that traverse Iran's revolutionary period of 1960s to1980s. I foreground melancholia in this study for two reasons : first to argue for the materiality of feelings, such as that of the blues, and their relevance for art historical analysis; and second to highlight melancholia's potential for enacting social change through aesthetic practices. My work contributes to current art historical studies of affect in contemporary art, by offering melancholia as a site of radical sociality. In my study, melancholia is not an individual state of the mind, but a public affect that incites collective action. My study begins in Iran of the mid- 1960s in the midst of modernizing efforts of the pre- revolutionary Pahlavi state. Through an analysis of visual cultural practices--such as fashion photography, advertisements and film--I show that modernism in this period emerged in opposition to a moribund Islamic culture. In the photographs of Firooz Zahedi, or the high modernist works of the New York painter Frank Stella who travelled to Iran in 1965 for instance, aesthetic signs of Islam not only contribute to a heightened sense of loss but a desire for its preservation and revival. I show that within these art and visual cultural spheres, Iran's Islamic heritage enacted fantasies of an exotic elsewhere for those who desired to escape the limits of their normative identities. My study follows the depressive blues that hung over the Iranian social body into its manic eruption culminating in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. I read the revolutionary period as an erotic scene of queer desire that brought artists and intellectuals such as Michel Foucault and Kate Millett to Iran to witness its historic unfolding. The visual cultural practices that I bring together in this study allow me to theorize melancholia as a catalyst for artists who aim to transform their normative relationship to the world

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