|Gushtasp and the Dragon of Mount Sakila, from the Shahnama of Firdausi, AH 1014/1605, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin (MS of. fol. 4251, fol. 460r), photo courtesy Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and Courtesy LACMA/Unframed.|
by Linda Komaroff, Unframed
In spring 2014, while driving past Vali‘asr Square, one of Tehran’s busiest intersections, I was startled to see on the side of a building a huge billboard of President Barack Obama standing beside a menacing-looking man clad in armor over a red robe and a helmet festooned with red feathers. As I later understood, the towering image appropriated and recontextualized a central event from the early history of the Shi‘ite branch of Islam, the majority faith of Iran. It referenced an incident in 680 when the villainous Shimr offered refuge to and then murdered the Imam Husain at Karbala, in Iraq. Meant to convey a contemporary political message, it subtly linked Barack Obama with Shimr’s odious duplicity. Shimr’s distinctive wardrobe, with its red accents, reflects not a seventh-century context, but rather the domain of ta‘ziya, a Shi‘ite passion play performed by costumed reenactors, something that would be recognizable to most passersby in Vali‘asr, though not as yet to me. But what struck me was the assured and authentic manner in which this anachronistic pair of figures was presented, something familiar to me from my study of both historical and contemporary Iranian art.