The Wind-Up Doll – Aphrodite Navab and Salon Zürcher

Art Writing Artalk Exhibition Greek Contemporary Artist

I am writing this while cooped up in my home, with family, as so many of us are. We are currently undergoing such a surreal experience laden with a variety of strong emotions.
Having temporarily lost our freedom to see art in person, I feel even more strongly about sharing art experiences through a digital medium. The question is, however, how do you attempt to share the experience of art versus simply images.
On that note, below you will find the curatorial essay I produced for a new body of work by Aphrodite Navab titled Wind-Up Doll. This new body was exhibited at Salon Zürcher organized by Galerie Zürcher during Frieze week in New York. Below, you will also find photos of the installation process, the artist performatively presenting the work, and photos of the opening reception. I hope this provides you with the emotional, mental, and spiritual stimulus that art is so capable of generating. It is such a worthy body of work, serving a meaningful cause.

Installation of Aphrodite Navab’s Wind-Up Doll series for Salon Zürcher, ready to accommodate the artist’s performance/presentation. Photo by author.

The Wind-Up Doll: Reflections on Freedom
Stemming from the poem “The Wind-Up Doll” by the legendary Iranian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, Aphrodite Navab sets out to study the female evolution towards personal freedom through a series of captivating ink drawings. 

From the confines of a lavishly decorated box, controlled by a key attached to her spine, which she herself cannot reach, the wind-up doll is entirely reliant upon her owner. With the turn of the key, she may declare a joyful mantra in stark contrast to her seemingly void of emotion, glass eyes. As the poet notes in her own words “with every salacious squeeze of one’s hand, for no reason one can cry: Ah, how blessed, how happy I am!”[1] Thus, the doll mechanically re-acts upon the limited selection of things she has been programmed to do—a wistful reality not far from that of many women today.

Drawing from the Wind-Up Doll series by Aphrodite Navab. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Drawing from the Wind-Up Doll series by Aphrodite Navab. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Through ink drawing, Navab studies and portrays the wind-up doll as a symbol of the restrained woman who, like Farrokhzad, seeks to experience personal and emotional freedom. Navab’s subject morphs from a controlled woman to the very object that dictates her every move: the key attached to her spine. By taking possession over this oppressive key she becomes one with it. The doll, thus, turns it into the mechanism which unlocks her box and as she evolves into a new being free of restrictions. 

Navab, in these works, plays with the notion of metamorphosis, a process that once played a key role in liberating women throughout ancient mythologies. Her ink figures transform into an object leading to personal freedom, as another Daphne who turns into a fragrant tree to avoid Apollo’s unwanted advances. Transformation, metamorphosis and self-reinvention are significant strategies for survival explored throughout much of Navab’s practice as witnessed in her earlier series portraying her invented heroine Super East-West Woman who’s chador turns into a cape of agency.[2]

Installation in-progress of Wind-Up Doll series by Aphrodite Navab for Salon Zürcher, 2020. Photo by author.

The artist’s use of ink in the Wind-Up Doll series, also true to her general practice, presents direct references to her birth-country Iran and the renowned tradition of Persian ink drawing and calligraphy; a practice originally reserved for men. Her ink forms often combine abstract references to Farsi letters which continuously merge until they morph into the new. Having lived in Iran, Greece and the United States, her work explores a boundless female liberation. Far from criticizing, this latest series calls the viewer to question the limits of personal will and choice independently of their cultural background. She simultaneously raises a brow at the latest fetishization of that very object, the wind-up doll, that exemplifies female oppression like almost no other. 

The artist with the work at Salon Zürcher, New York, 2020.

Having observed a recent return to the motif of the controlled female doll, the artist questions the use of the sexualized Halloween costume of a wind-up doll or the acquisition of such toys for her children. With her Wind-Up Doll series, Navab blatantly confronts the viewer with the question of whether we are returning to this model of controlled robotic behavior and to what extent it is self-imposed. This latest group of drawings by Aphrodite Navab, is an ode to women’s rights—human rights. The artist has managed to evoke the wonderful feminist poet, Farrokhzad who transformed herself when she found freedom through poetry and love and calls her viewers to contemplate such a journey too.

– Tiffany M. Apostolou 

[1] Quote from the poem “The Wind-Up Doll,” Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, p. 27
[2] Chador is the Farsi word for veil.

Photos of the opening are all courtesy of the artist, 2020.

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