There’s a saying in Iran when dealing with birth, death and suffering: ‘Make your mouth sweet,’ says Gita Meh. She tells us it means associating pain with sweetness, so that catharsis can be sweet.
Originally from Iran, Meh has charted out a career defined by the globetrotting transience of what she calls ‘the age of technology’. Leaving Tehran in the 80s, Meh embarked on a nomadic span across the globe, that took her, among various other places, from Florence (to ‘master Michelangelo’s “David”’), to Germany and to an elitist Los Angeles art college. She’s packed and unpacked her suitcase an astonishing 148 times in her life, she claims.
‘In my life, the further West that I went, the more I felt like I was leaving the present. Always in my imagination, the West was the place where the clothes were better, buildings were nicer, cars were shinier,’ Meh says. ‘And in a way I was right, but I found that the souls there were stuck. The more I went to the so-called future, the more I felt I was going into the past – people disconnected, not integrated. People lonely, people homeless and soulless.’
We meet in the homely chaos of Meh’s Dubai apartment, where she’s prepared a mini-feast for us to share while we talk – fitting, considering we’re here to discuss the forthcoming performance art/installation Iftar, which she will be holding at the Jam Jar during Ramadan.
Talking with Meh can be endearingly frustrating. However much Time Out tries to steer the conversation back to the matter in hand, it’s not long before the artist meanders off-topic, interspersing three or four different memories and stories into her answer.
Her upcoming exhibition, Soffreh, is derived from an old Islamic custom. Traditionally, when a woman of the community needed something from Allah (‘her child is sick, for example,’ explains Meh), two women would spend two days preparing a huge banquet of food. They’d ship the men of the house off for a day and create what she calls an ‘open house’. ‘It was a space where any woman can come into. I remember so well at my grandmother’s house in Iran, the hungry and the homeless would come and sit at this big white tablecloth and eat with us. It’s about creating the experience of home.’ Meh shows us videos of a Soffreh she held in LA. The atmosphere is clearly charged, and the artist herself regards what she’s doing as a positive, almost ritual, process of integration. ‘It’s consuming culture with this cooked food,’ she reveals. ‘The LA Soffreh had a huge response, people kept calling the gallery back saying they want more of this, that this is the most integrated art’.
‘In a traditional soffreh, you get something like what’s called psychoanalysis in America. Before the food, the women of the community talk about their most inner pain, they share the most horrifying aspects of their life. There are then prayers, people often cry. The house becomes like a temple. It is a sacrifice.’ What follows, traditionally, is the singing of specific songs or a specific prayer. ‘One woman will begin the song, another will finish it. Then there’s more talking, more crying. But they release themselves, it’s very psychoanalytical – it’s how women survived under male dominancy for centuries.’
After this, the women remove their veils and start to eat the foods from a huge white tablecloth. In Meh’s Soffreh, she creates the cloth from 300 pounds of sugar poured into a perfect rectangle. ‘It goes back to that Iranian saying about sweetening your mouth. As the women would eat the food afterwards and associate their suffering with sweetness, so do I want people at this Soffreh to associate the sharing of East and West with sweetness. But I want it to be so sweet, to erase all the difficulties. It’s a rectangle – a road of, and to, sweetness.’
Meh is confident that her Soffreh has the perfect audience here in Dubai. She’s frank in her exuberance about the place. Having originally come here on holiday, without any idea what the town was like (she claims to have not read a newspaper since 1972), she decided to settle here less than an hour after stepping through passport control. ‘As I drove down Sheikh Zayed Road, I realised – this place is so much of what I’m trying to do in my art: to integrate East and West. I’m the only artist who’s ever gotten to live and walk and drive through her canvases.’
‘In a 30-minute walk I saw so many different noses, so many different eyebrows, so many different costumes. I witnessed the contrast with LA, where multiculturalism is chanted as a slogan. In Dubai I saw it was already a way of life.’
But what then is her ideal – the pinnacle of so-called integrated art? ‘I think that as many people as there are in the world, there are just as many paths to God. You may find millions of Muslims, Christians, Jews, but individually they all pray in different ways to the same god. Integration is that we each go along our own path: accepting, learning and offering along the way.’
The Jam Jar. Soffreh performances are held on the 6th and 28th, and two START performances on the 13th and 20th. The installation runs from September 6-28. To take part in the Soffreh please contact The Jam Jar (04 341 7303), to book your free place. Men, incidentally, are welcome.