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Alphabet Wars At The Dallas Museum Of Art

by Jerome Weeks 17 Jul 2014 8:37 PM

Language is political, George Orwell told us. Actually, says Slavs and Tatars, the new show at the DMA, even individual letters are political. It’s the alphabet as a weapon.


payam1editPayam, a member of Slavs and Tatars, the art collective behind the “Love Letters” rug series at the DMA. Photo credit: Jerome Weeks

It’s hard to think of the alphabet as political, of people fighting and suffering over what letters they can use to write down their language. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says a new, small show at the Dallas Museum of Art finds even the alphabet has been a weapon.

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When the Bolshevik Revolution took over Russia in 1917, it took over Central Asia where a half-a-dozen regions — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikstan and the like — had large numbers of Muslims who wrote in Arabic. In the interests of modernization and unification, the Soviets declared everyone would now write with Latin letters – the kind we use in the West. It was actually a way to cut off people in those areas from their Arabic and Muslim histories and tie them more closely to the Soviet Union — and just to make sure they didn’t mount any kind of united front against the new empire, their alphabets were just dissimilar enough to cause confusions

But in 1939, Josef Stalin changed directions. Fearful of the same regions now allying themselves with the Westernizing influence of Kemal Attaturk in Turkey, he had everyone use Cyrillic letters – the Greek-based letters we still associate with Russian writing.

“So, imagine asking everybody to take out their books,” says Payam, “burn them, keep the same language but read it and write it with a different script. And then in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, all of these republics, essentially except one, Latinized their alphabets. Basically, they’ve had three changes in a hundred years. So what that results in is a strange situation where three generations can’t read the same book. A grandfather, a son and a grandchild, they can all speak the same language but they can’t read the same book.”

Slavs and Tatars, the new show at the DMA, was inspired by these kinds of forced, political re-writings. Slavs and Tatars is also the name of the art collective that created the works. Payam – the artist’s preferred name – says the collective actually started in Europe as a book club of about 50 people, mostly friends. Payam himself was born and raised in Texas. His Iranian parents came to UT-Austin in the early ‘70s to study petroleum engineering (“our countries have remained connected all these years through natural resources, unfortunately”). But for the past 15 years — after graduating from Columbia University  —  he’s lived in Europe.

The collective’s name comes from its interest in the area “between the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China” — in other words, Central Asia, the area on the global map, Payam says, that may seem peripheral in today’s world but where so much of human history happened — from the Silk Road and the Mongol invasions that terrified Europe to the “Great Game” between England and Russia for control of the region and the tank battles that turned the tide against the Nazis in World War II.

Slavs and Tatars_Love-Letter-carpets-No9The heart of the Slavs and Tatars show at the DMA is ten large rugs, hung on the walls — the first time the entire series has been presented. Each was inspired by a cartoon by the Russian poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky, once a favorite of the Bolsheviks.

“Most of his drawings were quite critical of aristocrats, capitalism, religion,” says Payam. “You know, he was a willing propagandist. Of course, he was a great poet as well. But what we’re doing is taking that thread that undoes the sweater and looking at him as the kind of perfect poster child of the risks and rewards of language.”

The rewards and risks of language. Mayakovsky was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th century. An ardent supporter of the revolution, he came to see he’d helped lead the country into Stalin’s purges. He shot himself at the age of 37.

Love Letters (No. 9), wool and yarn, 2014

The rugs in Slavs and Tatars look like slightly fuzzy, giant-sized political posters from the Russian Constructivist/Futurist era. Payam, and his collaborator, Polish artist Kasia Korczak, took Mayakovsky’s cartoons and added individual Cyrillic and Arabic letters. Human figures are shouting these letters or are trying to twist their tongues around them. The letters are often ones that were forgotten or forced on people because of linguistic politics.

In keeping with Slavs and Tatars’ literary origins, the collective’s artworks are often language and book-based. They’re full of puns or cross-language metaphors. A small bronze sculpture in the show has a tongue wrapped around a human heart. It embodies the expression, ‘speaking from the heart. ‘ And with most museum shows, any book involved is a catalog, something added on. Slavs and Tatars reverses that relationship.

“These sculptures, these installations, these lectures that we do, they’re all actually an effort to bring people back to the book.”

So why use rugs then? Payam says Slavs and Tatars like to get art off its pedestal. In other museums, the rugs have been displayed on the floor. But however these artworks are designed or displayed, they treat letters and languages as totems, weapons, prayers.

The name of the entire series? It’s “Love Letters.”