As she walks hundreds of miles through the northern mountains of Iran, a young girl’s heavy steps sink her light boots—manufactured for dusty desert roads—deep into the snow. With the sun about to rise, a family of four makes its way across the hostile landscape, anxiously looking for shelter, a cave where they can hide during the day before setting off again at night.
It sounds like the opening sequence of yet another docudrama, but this is the true story of Sara Rahbar, her father, mother and baby brother as they fled Iran in 1982. In the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and during the early stages of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), Rahbar’s parents decided to escape. They had been forced to make a covert exit as the visas they had previously been granted were destroyed when Iranian militants took over the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Selling everything in their home, the Rahbars paid smugglers to take them to the Turkish border. The traffickers were supposed to guide them from one tiny mountain village to the next, but after a week they abandoned them.
“We were left to die,” Rahbar remembers. Luckily, however, one of the smugglers returned to help them. “His name was Ali. For the rest of the trip until we crossed the border, I rode on his back leaving hell for heaven, leaving Iran for the US.”
But the US never became the utopia her parents had promised her. Rahbar’s mother, a social worker, continued her studies in the US but eventually gave up in order to open an Iranian restaurant with Rahbar’s father. He, however, could not accustom himself to the new culture. Rahbar remembers that it felt as if her father had never really left Iran. He constantly traveled back and tried to convince the family to return with him, but Rahbar’s mother decided to stay in the US with the children. Eventually, in 2002, he decided to return to Iran permanently. “My heart was breaking into a million little pieces,” the artist recalls. “So was my family and my life.”
Rahbar studied design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and in 2004 she continued her studies at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. From there, she flew to Tehran for the first time since she had fled, arriving in the middle of the 2005 presidential elections that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Working as a photographer, she documented the event.
After six months in Iran, she returned to New York, where she began to create the emblematic flag series for which she is now well-known. For Flag #1 (2006), Rahbar tore and shredded various fabrics from Tehran’s bazaars and sewed them onto a US flag, covering the red and white stripes and revealing only the iconic stars in the top-right corner.
Rahbar created Flag #1 at the height of international discontent with the Bush administration. Hence, one could easily misinterpret her works as a statement against the occupation of Iraq. The shredding and tearing was in fact the long-needed catharsis for her disappointment with her parents’ divorce. She sewed symbols of her Iranian heritage onto the US flag, a metaphor for the way she was forced to live in a different country as a young child and the unresolved memories she harbored thereafter.
Many might also mistake the applied textiles as merely “Middle Eastern.” However, most of them are specifically Persian. Flag #37 (2008), for example, subtitled “The wind will carry us home,” shows two metal figurations of the Persian lion as it appeared on the Iranian flag and in passports until the current, post-Revolution flag was adopted. Other subtitles, such as “Use this distance to forget who I am” (Flag #16, 2008), “Memories without recollection” (Flag #19, 2008) and “Whatever we had to lose we lost and in a moonless sky we marched” (Flag #41, 2009), unmistakably allude to the artist’s autobiography. The latter has an embroidered image of the White House, an American eagle flying over it and portraits of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. Together with US military epaulettes, verses from the Quran cover the left-hand side of the flag, reading: “There is only one God and Mohammad is his prophet.” A small crucifix is attached to the top-right corner.
The juxtaposition of such iconic and highly charged symbols throughout her work invites a multitude of interpretations. Because of her biography, Rahbar’s work personifies contemporary political anxieties—the conflict between Western nations and numerous Islamic governments and extremist groups operating throughout West Asia.
Rahbar’s flags gained her recognition in the art world in very little time—a heavy burden on any young artist’s career. “I’m ready to move on,” she says. “I’m ready to grow and I hope that people are ready to grow with me.” Looking to the future, she continues: “I’m based in New York, staying here for now, and building my studio. I will never really be able sit still in one place, as that is just my nature. But I have moved on from the need to go back to my past—my questions about it have been answered. I’m at a new chapter in my life.”
Even though in her “Flag” series she was simply trying to come to terms with her personal history, the mood of the times led her audience to think of her as a politically motivated artist. Ironically, now that she has achieved closure on her past, her new work is transforming her into exactly the kind of figure her audience thought she was all along: an admonitory conscience of our times.
In “War Series” (2008–10), Rahbar attaches predominately military objects, such as holsters, whips and water canteens, to army backpacks. One work, They Take Us Wherever They Want Us to Go (2010), features a gas mask in the center of a backpack. Various gun holsters and cartridge belts surround the eerie-looking mask. Rahbar’s work records history, reflecting on the conflicts of our time. Yet, sometimes there is so much she wishes to express that she does not know how to voice it all; she explains that at those moments she feels as if she were suffocating. “That is why I started using gas masks.” The “War Series” is a poignant but troubling fusion of the artist’s background and a broader pacifist outlook on contemporary global events.
While the use of textiles has become Rahbar’s trademark, her oeuvre perfectly balances the aesthetic appeal with making viewers contemplate the global sociopolitical context of our times. Nevertheless, Rahbar remembers herself as a seven-year-old who started to paint to articulate her thoughts and emotions. “I began as a painter,” she says, “and I still feel like a painter—only now it’s with textiles.”