Penetrating the Inner Gaze:  Marissa Soroudi’s “Unspoken”

By Lisa Paul Streitfeld

As we confront the global warming challenge of the 21st century, humanity remains ignorant of its underlying cause – the repression of the divine feminine and her dynamic cycle of life, death and rebirth guiding us into a new paradigm.

Today this long hidden face of the feminine arises anew in an archetype of liberation containing the strength and wisdom formerly associated with the masculine.  At the turn of the millennium, art delivered the rumor of this birth through the symbol-laden videos of the Iranian artist Sharin Neshat.

Today, Marissa Soroudi, an American of Persian ancestry, brings us into an intimate embrace with this authentic beingness preserved by the veil.  The powerful images that resulted are drawn from women the artist encountered on a three-year journey through the Middle East.  Born and raised in Long Island, artist’s unique heritage made her uncomfortable with images of female beauty in American society.

“I’ve always seen beauty in a different way,” she explains.  “Beauty is much deeper and has much more of a story.  Female beauty is more vibrant, a process, not still — it is something much deeper and more true to the feminine.  The veil covers the body and instead allows myself — and not the viewer — to look deeper into a woman, understanding a deeper beauty.”

This deeper beauty was known simply as the Goddess to an earlier generation of feminist artists.  Today, it is being reinterpreted by artists resurrecting the human figure with an increased awareness of the power of the symbol to evolve human consciousness.

There is perhaps no more powerful symbol related to the global feminine than the veil.  Paradoxically, because of the fascination and concern with this symbol, the feminine power no longer need be identified by established figures of patriarchal religions – whether it is the Christian re-visioning of Mary Magdalene, the Hindu Shakti or the biblical Lilith. Instead, this primordial energy known to yogis as the kundalini is being newly discovered as the resurrected “face of the feminine.”

With “Unspoken” this authentic face of the feminine is literal.  Veil uplifted in the young and old even as it partially covers the faces of women of childbearing age, the primordial energy in this group of portraits remains so presently engaged in the surrounding landscape that it appears as timeless and changing as nature itself.

The dynamism of this authentic face is distinguished from the immobile female face of the western media – whether it is the bound creatures of the Middle East or, in marked contrast, pop images of females worshipping at the altar of plastic surgery, Botox and designer labels.

It seems that pop culture’s slick sexualized images of women were deconstructed by feminist artists preoccupied with the “male gaze” decades ago only to be replaced by the homogenous ideals of a youth worshipping culture.  And so, the cultural damage of patriarchal images continues unabated today.

“I’ve always understood my Persian culture.  In fact, I think that when you are raised as a part of two different cultures (east and west), you become much more sensitive to the differences in each.  This project actually started from a more frustrated place. Growing up in New York, a girl is bombarded with images of women.  The “MTV” generation I was a part of seemed devaluing for me as a woman.  The exploitation and value placed on the female body naturally takes away from the value placed on a woman’s mind.”

And what of the “internal gaze” cultivated by this artist’s struggle to correct this cultural imbalance?  It was ignored not only by postmodern movement which swept over the feminist struggle on the gender battlefield.  Moreover, there was no accepted style associated with the withdrawal into the interior world where masculine and feminine were uniting into the holistic archetype due to emerge in the 21st century.

The images of “Unspoken” are titled by given name, thereby honoring her subjects with an identity apart from the veil. This paradox of naming the unspoken reinforces the reality of the veil — to serve as a vessel to contain this primordial energy and preserve the inherent power of the feminine from those who are not prepared for its full emergence.  The mystery of the interior layers gives form to the depth of emotion contained in the primordial feminine.

Emotion means energy in motion.  Whereas we formerly viewed the veiled figure as static and repressed, we now have that outer layer stripped away to reveal how much dynamism is contained in the purity of the feminine power in isolation.  The spectacular result is a window into the proactive power of the serpent integrating the opposites of masculine and feminine in its passage through the body – from the base of the spinal column to the crown of the head.

Soroudi’s images reveal how this power is connected to a love we can’t quite identify in western culture, though it appears in our hopes and fantasies, a love that integrates the opposites which divide us, an embodied passion that enigmatically draws us inward to our own primal desires.

“Unspoken” speaks to a universal purpose for art that had been lost under the superficial manipulations of post-modernism, the connection with the unconscious as a compensation for what is repressed in the culture.  The visual language of “Unspoken” permits viewers to participate in a stripping away of the veils – the layers of cultural fabric that shroud the face of the feminine.  Whether this fabric is literal or metaphorical – as with the slick packaging of western society that inhibited the artist’s upbringing — the strategy is the same: to keep the divine feminine from her full emergence and participation in a cultural rebirth.

Operating outside of the art world structure, the blossoming of this artist’s inherent talent has, in her first series, provided a reference point for the face of the feminine divine.  From the young and curious to old women whose wisdom and joy is embedded into facial lines, these engaging figures caught by Soroudi’s acute eye invite individuals of all cultures to connect with this power.  We keep returning our gaze to these figures as vessels for an energy once hidden and now gloriously celebrated in a new century holding the promise of gender equality.

Applying the magic of photography to a personal journey of self-discovery, “Unspoken” has arrived in the realm of the universal –uniting the internal gaze of the east and external gaze of the west through the essential middle path of embodiment contained by the veil, this most potent of contemporary symbols of the feminine.  With art such as this guiding us through the 21st century, a true gender equality in its most fundamental form –a dynamism within the individual — will soon be a reality rather than an impossible ideal.

2008 Lisa Paul Streitfeld. All Rights Reserved