What happens when classic American romance comics meet the nation’s worst fear—terrorism? Iranian artist Arien Valizadeh explores the possibilities in his first solo exhibition, Suicide Bombers in Love at the RVCA/VSAF gallery in San Francisco (through May 31).
Seven black-and-white paintings that depict “terrorist romance” play out the sad inevitability of a jihadist’s love life. “What is the pulp fiction of a terrorist?” asks Valizadeh.
Click Image to View Our Gallery of "Suicide Bombers in Love"
Romance comics became a runaway success in the 1950s. The sketches imitated the trappings of real relationships but within a fantasy world of love and betrayal. The first one, Young Romance, published in 1947 had the label “Designed for the More ADULT Readers of Comics.” Written mostly by men, the comics depict young women in stereotypical roles of loving wives and happy homemakers.
Valizadeh’s large panels begin with the last passionate embrace on the night before the mission. “Remove the veil so I may gaze upon the rose garden for the last time,” the terrorist says. “Oh Ali,” his paramour sighs. In the next picture, the man leaves his woman with the words, “Give up your body and you won’t desire a shirt,” a martyr-like message of weaponizing the body to salvage the soul.
“It is an attempt to change the antagonist into the protagonist but it is not meant to humanize the terrorist,” says the 25-year-old art student at the Otis Art School in Los Angeles.
His seemingly helpless women have pouty lips, exaggerated eyebrows, and wear spotted veils, which the artist has made from black-inked potatoes. The men are all super-macho with glossy beards that pop out of their checkered scarves that were quite the fashion, only a few years ago.
One piece slides a unique narrative under a classic pop art image of Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam, which shows an aircraft exploding in a red-and-yellow sizzle. In Valizadeh’s version, a voice cries “Mohamed Mohamed” from an unattended phone in the backdrop of the blast. “It is an Islamicized-Lichtenstein,” says Valizadeh. “It is almost like a phone call from God.”
But the impact of Valizadeh’s Whaam is distinct from the clean, bold lines that Lichtenstein used for both the cause and effect. Instead, the damage from the suicide attack here is more fuzzy and blurry corresponding to its unknown consequences.
Also up for interpretation are the borrowed quotes and captions from Persian poets to contemporary satirists like Ardeshir Mohassess who famously wrote, “what is the fire of a bullet when the heart is aflame.”
While Mohassess was talking about the rising Islamic fervor against the tyrannical Shah of Iran, Valizadeh, places it in the context of the Palestinian people whose rights are being violated. “Palestinian people are already dead,” he says. “So how does death matter if one never existed?”
Valizadeh also draws parallels between today’s news coverage and the comics in terms of their linear simplicity. “They are fictionalized in the same way….there is a good versus evil, and a hero and a villain,” he says.
The work, however, is not meant to depict reality but rather an idealized and romanticized version of present-day political and social life in the Middle East. The only difference is that in the retro comics, if a woman followed the “right path,” her man would come back to her. In Valizadeh’s saga, the path usually doesn’t have the happy ending.
The last painting, for instance, shows the woman wearing Audrey Hepburn-esque sunglasses. “Solely with self,” she laughs at her own loneliness. The viewer must imagine what kind of life does the widow of a suicide bomber lead? Is she respected or hated in the community? Does she inherit her husband’s property and fade into obscurity, or does she also become a suicide bomber like the two Russian women who blew themselves up at the Moscow metro killing 40 people? Since the practice began in the Middle East in the early 1980s, there have been more than 220 women suicide bombers between 1985 and 2006, making up nearly 15 percent of the total, according to the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
Above all, as a young artist, Valizadeh worries about by whether he is espousing the same rhetoric that he wants to combat. “In an attempt to be satirical or ironic,” he says, “you don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype.”
Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India. She blogs for the Huffington Post and is also a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Time.com, The Global Post, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, Frontline, and Columbia Journalism Review.