Dreams Before Extinction: Naeemeh Naeemaei
by Paul Semonin, Editor
Perceval Press, Santa Monica, CA, 2013
In English and Farsi
35 pp. Trade, $11.99
Reviewed by George Gessert
Extinction is in the air. It’s common knowledge: The magnitude of what is happening is comparable with the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Science has been our principle guide to see and understand what is happening, but beyond the bare fact that species, like individuals, die, and that today’s tide of extinctions is overwhelmingly due to human activities, extinction remains difficult to comprehend. Few of us have actually seen an endangered species except on television, or possibly in a zoo. Furthermore, extinction is a magnified form of death, so most of us find it difficult to contemplate for long. We need something beyond facts and figures to hold extinction steadily in awareness and understand what is at stake.
With disarming directness and grace, the Iranian artist Neemeh Naemaei closes the gap between humans and endangered animals. In a series of paintings called “Dreams Before Extinction” she depicts herself, sometimes along with members of her family, in the company of endangered or extinct animals. In Imperial Eagle, for example, the artist sleeps on an eagle’s back as it soars over forested mountains. In Horseshoe Bat two chubby toddlers, the artist and her cousin, use toy telephones to attempt to communicate with the bats. Elegant composition and an ominously dark background save the painting from cuteness and make it a meditation on yearnings to reconnect with animals.
Several works show human-animal hybrids, but Naeemaei does not humanize animals or reduce them to cartoons. Nor does she treat them as symbols. In response to an art critic who asked if she paid attention to the symbolic meanings of the animals in her works, she said, “no! ... I am happy if the symbols match ... but to me all animals, even the weak or ordinary ones, are as real and powerful as any other [beings] in the real world.” She depicts animals as equal in presence, mystery, and worth to herself and her family, and by extension to any viewer. This personalizes the losses we face. Her paintings are at once warnings and elegies.
Dreams Before Extinction accommodates the possibility of human extinction, but Naeemaei’s more immediate concern is that without the continued presence of certain animals in the world, the unique experiences of reverence and awe that each species can evoke will disappear forever. The human spirit will be diminished, perhaps irreparably.
Spirituality informs these works. In Siberian Crane, which in reproduction strikes me as the most beautiful painting in the series, the artist holds a Koran above the head of a bird who is standing beside her, ready to depart on its annual migration north to Russia. We learn from the artist’s notes that “traditionally the Koran is held over the head of a person who is leaving the house for a journey, to make sure s/he will return safely.” This cultural practice is unfamiliar to most Americans, but we know what it is to hope against hope that those we love will return safely. Caspian Tiger shows the magnificent creature surrounded by mourning women. Its head droops and its body is spotted with blood. The assembly refers to a tragic event in the foundation of Shi’a Islam, but even without knowledge of Shi’a the image is profoundly moving.
Naeemaei calls her images dreams, but she paints in a realist style, often borrowing from photographs. Realism and photography originated in the West, but Naeemaei’s use of them does not make her work Western. Like environmental consciousness, realism and photography have become global phenomena, but with different histories and associations in different places. The works that comprise Dreams Before Extinction could not have been painted by a contemporary Westerner, if only because in the West realism has been largely relegated to illustration and the margins of the art world, or else is a vehicle of irony, nostalgia, or kitsch. None of these play a part in Naeemaei’s works. She is able to achieve what virtually no serious Western realist can: a straightforward appeal to the heart.
The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979. In spite of recent signs of a thaw, we should not expect to see Naeemaei’s paintings exhibited in the U.S. anytime soon. For the time being, this beautifully produced book, put together by Paul Semonin, an historian and artist, is the best introduction to her work available outside of Iran. The quality of the reproductions is excellent thanks to the skills of people at Perceval Press, and to the internet, which made electronic transmission of images from Tehran possible. Naeemaei’s notes are helpful in appreciating many details of her paintings. An introductory essay by Paul Semonin discusses aspects of Naeemaei’s work, emphasizing her solutions to the urgent problem of effectively communicating environmental realities to broad audiences.