DATE: 8/4/2011 | BY MING LIN
Earlier this year, dozens of bright green balloons were unleashed upon the public as part of the 10th annual Sharjah Biennale in The United Arab Emirates. From one side of the balloon smiled a familiar face: the disarming countenance of beloved children's character Bert, of Sesame Street’s infamous duo, Bert and Ernie. On the opposite side, the sterner figure of a bearded man donning a Muslim Keffiyeh glowered. The thick monobrow sported by both characters was the focal point of this public art affair.
The anonymous collective behind “A Monobrow Manifesto,” Slavs and Tatars, used this epiphenomenon to highlight the hairy relationship between the west and the east. Whereas in the west the monobrow has been perceived as delinquent or simply unattractive, in the east it has traditionally implied great wisdom and virility. In the collective's own words: "if in the southern parts of Eurasia, the monobrow is hot, in the US and Europe, it’s clearly not."
Jest is central to Slavs and Tatars' work. Using playful epigrams and bold visuals they aim to tease out the multitude of narratives which make up Eurasia--an area they broadly define as everything "east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.” In their attempts at dispelling common misconceptions of the east (as most famously discussed in Edward Said's Orientalism) they are able to glean what are often very poignant lessons from its rich history. But, rather than doing away completely with the absurd and ornate tendencies of orientalism, they often employ its characteristics to both dramatic and comical effect. Using the common tropes and motifs of pop culture, they hope to reach a wide and varied audience to broaden the spectrum of the western imagination.The group first encountered copies of Molla Nasreddin, a turn-of-the-century Azeri publication, on the dusty shelves of a used bookstore in Baku. They were drawn immediately to the book’s physique: “we stared at Molla Nasreddin and it, like an improbable beauty, winked back at us.” Further inquiry proved it to be a tome whose pages included some of the very principles Slavs and Tatars operate by. The character from whom the publication takes its name, a Sufi wise man-cum-fool, can be seen as a mascot for playful non-linear enterprises. Within its colorful pages, Molla Nasreddin jabs at the Azeri elite, nods towards a forward thinking Armenia whose women’s rights were far more established, and through these various narratives demonstrates a penchant for western democratic ideals. While they might not agree with all of the opinions illustrated, Slavs and Tartars finds resonance in the use of caricature and wit to appeal to both the intelligentsia and the masses, as well as to offer an insightful commentary on socio-political climates of today. In Molla Nasreddin: The Magazine That Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve, Slavs and Tatars has compiled some of the most striking content of the original publication (which ceased print in 1930) and sorted them into prevalent themes including “women,” “east vs. west” and “colonialism.” Alongside the images are the translated captions as well as short texts to provide some historical context. Molla Nasreddin suggests that humor, while seemingly trivial, can often act as the most effective evaluation of our times.
Slavs and Tatars Presents Molla Nasreddin
JRP|RINGIERPbk, 9.5 x 11 in. / 208 pgs / 218 color.