Visual Representations of Iranian-American Subjectivities: Public Contestations and the Influence of the Local

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Ms. Amy Malek is a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in Sociocultural Anthropology. She graduated with highest honors from Emory University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and International Studies, and received her M.A. from New York University's Program for Near Eastern Studies after completing her thesis work on Iranian diaspora cultural production, focusing on Iranian women's memoirs. Ms. Malek is currently working on her PhD, and is particularly interested in visual culture, media, and the negotiation of diasporic identity through cultural production in Iran and the Iranian diaspora.

Through performances of culture such as parades, festivals, and celebrations, Iranians in diaspora are re-appropriating, re-purposing, and creatively re-engaging multiple modes of local forms of presentation and performance to negotiate its hybrid cultural and historical identities in the public eye.  Through photography, video footage, interviews, and participant observation, this study aims to analyze two such public performances – the annual New York Persian Parade and Mehregan Festival in Costa Mesa, CA – in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which the Iranian diaspora community does this work.
It is my contention that existing studies of diaspora have placed primary importance on assumed similarities and failed to examine and account for internal difference and marginality within and between self-described diaspora communities.  I argue that public performances of cultural identity provide a particularly rich site for examining the representations of variation and diversity within communities or lack thereof.
According to Susan Slyomovics and Jane Kelton, over 180 annual ethnic parades currently exist in Manhattan and most “borrow from the Irish prototype” an “established ‘grammar’ of parade enactment: floats, marching bands, forward military-like march formation, related community groups, local politicians, banners, and so forth.” Since its inception in March 2004, the New York Persian Parade has marched down Madison Avenue from 40th to 27th Street annually, as close as possible to Norooz. Through the parade, New York Iranian-Americans have both adhered to and played with this established American parade grammar. In so doing, they have also displayed contested consciousness about identity and representation, as evidence by their visual representations and the use of language in the signs, semiotics, and interactions that take place during the Persian Parade.
Held annually each October since 1995 at the Orange County Fairgrounds, the Mehregan Festival includes variations on what Lisa Peñaloza has noted as key features relating to the recreation of memory and cultural meanings at American fairs: booth exhibitors, dance and musical performances, cultural artifacts, and markets. I will argue that the Mehregan Festival builds upon this Midwestern fair model and, much like the Persian Parade, is an example of the Iranian-American community's participation in a public identity-constituting and reinforcing mode of performance that results in shifting visual, spatial, and linguistic representations of cultural identity and hybrid subjectivities.  While the Mehregan Festival also re-appropriates a uniquely American mode of performance, the result differs meaningfully from the Persian Parade, revealing important distinctions between these Iranian-American communities.



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