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Gender and Exposure in Contemporary Iranian Photography

The exhibition will run until 16 June 2012 at G44 Gallery in Toronto, Canada.

Discourses about Middle Eastern art tend to be preoccupied by certain issues: femininity, the veil, gender disparity, religious tradition, and revolutionary conflict. This exhibition shifts the focus by considering the following themes: masculinity; female agency; secular activities (for example, café-culture, amateur wrestling, or extreme body building); Persian traditions; and the unique situation of Iran. The artists communicate visual messages that are by necessity subtle and ambiguous. They use strategies such as metaphor and allegory, the blurring of boundaries between fiction and documentary, and the adoption of visual styles more typical of fashion, advertising, and graphic design. Understanding of Iranian art will differ depending on one’s knowledge of the country. However, works in this show also offer audiences an opportunity to abandon old assumptions and gain new insights about the culture. Curator Andrea Fitzpatrick has conducted extensive research into Iranian culture and in 2010 traveled to Tehran to do field work. For this exhibition she has selected the works of Iranian artists Samira Eskandarfar, Amirali Ghasemi, Abbas Kowsari, Zeinab Salarvand, Arman Stepanian, and Sadegh Tirafkan, all of whom live and work in Tehran. Their images express the wit, elegance and sensitivity of the culture, and the individuality of the artists. Gallery 44 hopes that this exhibition will be a process of discovery for the viewer, and an exploration of artmaking as an increasingly important tool in international dialogues.

Interview with curator Andrea Fitzpatrick and artists Samira Eskandarfar and Amirali Ghasemi

by Barbara D. Waginski, artoronto

B.W: Where did the idea for this project come from?

A.F: The idea for this project was a response to the discovery of the history of Iranian photography which happened for me about 3 years ago. Through research I discovered that Iran has an incredible history of photography going back to 1848 and in fact it was the first Middle Eastern country that was creating, taking, and collecting photographs from a local indigenous perspective rather than colonial or imperial tourists coming to take pictures of the Iranians. This history of photography is not represented at all in the Western history of photography books, even those who call themselves global, and this was an absolute shock and revelation. In 2010, I discovered the book Iranian Photography Now by Rose Issa, which had a beautiful selection of Iranian contemporary documentary and art photography, and most people only know the name of Shirin Neshat.  I didn’t know a single artist in that book and that completely shocked and amazed me. Besides that I was reading the wonderful memoirs published by Iranian exiled artists such as Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi, Reading Lolita in Tehranby Azar Nafisi, as well as the Canadian Iranian writer Marina Nemats Prisoner of Tehran. The most exciting thing though was discovering that there was this huge scene of contemporary Iranian photographic art happening that I was not aware of as a specialist in the field. This project and the sister exhibit at the SAW gallery in Ottawa is a result from my trip to Iran in 2010 and that research. I wanted to share this with Canadian audiences because for most people here, we know the name of Shirin Ebadi and a lot of Iranian filmmakers but so far the young photographic and video artists are not known here. In Iran I saw such a vibrant art scene and the number of women artists was really impressive as was the work because it just gave a whole other view of art, culture and values that are important and this is very different unfortunately from what we know about Iran coming only through news stories.

Installing the show, Image courtesy of artoronto

The particular theme of this exhibition is a little more based on the curatorial and art historical focus on art in the Middle East that has been happening for the past 10-20 years which seems to focus strongly on issues of the veil and feminity, or issues of oppression and religious affiliation and certain clichés. That wasn’t what I was seeing in the art that was being created in Tehran. As the title of the show and the images included suggest, gender itself is a very broad issue, masculinity is a serious focus and ongoing subject that is really interesting to know about and aspects of gender involve more than just the veil. Of course the veil is always present but there is a broader perspective.

Abbas Kowsari, Masculinity 1, 2006, Image courtesy of G44 Gallery

B.W: How do you think the public will perceive your work? Are any specific communities more (or less) receptive to your work?

A.F: (Regarding how the public will perceive the gallery): There is a lot of interest because of the type of society, we are lucky in Canada because it is so multicultural. We have a little more access to alternative media channels in Canada and international perspectives than the united states perhaps. So I think people are more positively predisposed to coming to see this work. People want to know what is going on and just because of the type of open and global focus that makes up Canadian society I think that people will be enthusiastically responding. Because we are Canadians and we embrace the knowledge of other countries to the extent we are so self deprecating. What defines us as Canadians is interest and acceptance of other cultures and Toronto is the city that manifests that so well.

A.G: I think those interested in various image making and photography from the international scene and the large Iranian community in Toronto would be interested in this display. Beyond this there is a reason for me personally to take the challenge of displaying my art. There is this set of pre-imagined generalizations, stereotypes, and clichés created through the bombarded of images from the media that needs to be addressed. Every representation of a country or nationality is put in a confrontation with those images that either support those clichés or try to stand out. This is a very polarized kind of theme instead of creating a gradient of possibilities. I hope that this gallery can be an opening for more dialogues because this would be very interesting.

Arman Stepanian, The Hidden Meaning of Photography in Iran (Nazanin 1), 2010, Image courtesy of artoronto

B.W: Given the controversy surrounding gender–related issues in the Middle East, have you encountered any specific barriers (legal or other) throughout your or other artists’ careers?

A.G: Growing up in a country and developing your work creates chances and challenges and Every given context has its own limitations and opportunities. If there are no issues or barriers then there is a lot less creativity needed. For me it is more like a challenge especially when you choose social issues as your subject. It is an interesting challenge of how do you engage people with your work, how do you get inspired, and how do you try to communicate with this broader audience?

S.E: I think that there should be some sort of difficulties in order to show your work. I didn’t really face any severe kind of problems in the past 10 years when I was showing my work. The reason for this I think is that when you are working and are engaged with a concept or topic you can work freely. But when it comes to showing your work, then you can choose what to show and what not to show. You can choose what is appropriate to be shown and to which audience. Every context has its own specifications and circumstances that have to be realized.

B.W: Some of the men look very westernized with their naked upper bodies emphasizing bodybuilding. The skinny ones are almost ridiculous in their heroic poses. I feel a sense of irony in their depiction. Am I right?

A.F: (speaking in regards to the pieces by Sadegh Tirafkan): with Sadegh’s interpretation I don’t think it is so much irony as he is an artist viewing these traditional wrestlers through an artist’s slightly distanced view. The tradition and even photographic portraits of these male wrestlers goes right back to the beginning of photography in Iran. There’s a history of staged portraits of these strong men in the gyms from the mid 19thcentury so this infuses the photographic imagination of Iranian photo buffs. Sadegh updates his shooting of the wrestlers with a white backdrop that instantly puts it into the realm of contemporary international art. He is engaging in that and trying to see the image of these strong heroic males from a distance. It’s not so much ironic but instead a subtle questioning of the tradition and what this heroic masculinity means in a very patriarchal society.

Sadegh Tirafkan, from the Zoorkhane series, 2003-4, Image courtesy of G44 Gallery

B.W: You both won awards at home and are well known internationally as well. You could travel freely. Is it an opportunity for everyone or just a few like you because you are an artist? Are artists, especially women artists, privileged and respected in Iran?

A.G: I think that it is about whether more people are getting the chance to exhibit. While I think there are more opportunities right now, the issue is that with the commercialization of the scene there are more risks and obstacles that the market has created. There are certain individuals and collectives that are putting some sort of filtering and choosing what can be shown and addressed outside of Iran. Further, the artists that have the big shows are those who have bigger resumes or qualifications. Unfortunately, there is limited research being done and very little is well documented. If we don’t generate the content in English it is as if it didn’t happen at all. As an independent curator I try to open up the space. I think that it’s a lack of infrastructure and that there should be more grass rooted, bottom-up collectives and initiatives. We are trying to help that instead of going to the commercial galleries to get an exposure.

S.E: Almost everyone can travel freely as a tourist. Sometimes it is easier or harder to travel depending on what kinds of documents are required or how much funding is available. In the past few years there have been so many international projects that involve Iranian artists. I prefer that my work be the center focus of the project rather than the fact that I am a female artist. Generally I prefer that my work can be seen beyond the political, geographical, and gender specific point of views in a more open way. Unfortunately it seems that this is not avoidable and it is something that while happen anyways.

A.F: (on women artists in Iran): I was really impressed with the number of excellent and actively practicing and exhibiting women artists in Iran. Some have become incredibly famous and definitely I sensed a really strong support from the male artists.

Zeinab Salarvand, Hope for the Future: Contentment in the Islamic Republic of Iran, No. 2, 2008, Image courtesy of artoronto

B.W: Samira, you are famous for your videos, like Olive. Is photography like a video still for you or video is just a moving photo? Which one is closer to your heart?

S.E: I am a professional painter with more than 10 years of experience. I experience the image in a more professional way then as a fixed frame. I became interested in seeing these frames in movement and this is why I began to use film, video, and moving images. Video is a moving photo for me I look at it as a picture which has movement within it. Only then are the specifications of the image and the aesthetics of it important to me. There are times you can see this link between the frames of the video and some of the compositions in my paintings, photography and video stills.

B.W: I love your faceless images Amirali. The women look real and strong even with their faces erased. Do they still have to hide their strength? How is their situation in Iran now? Are there any signs for a milder attitude towards women?

A.G: I think that this should be looked at as a project in a very specific time. There was a time that the Internet phenomenon was very new. We were very careful what to put online and some artists were not really willing to put their works online. That was a time when I was documenting my surroundings and I wanted to publish them freely instead of being worried whose image this is and if they were happy with it. Having the images faceless was coming from a respect towards my friends and of the intimate moments we could only capture by knowing someone. At the same time, by adding the sound and multimedia it was giving the opportunity to create a strong graphic image where you can add your own narrative instead the instances where your title and caption could be removed. At the time when images are travelling so fast I tried to pause it so that people were invited to take a moment and look at the multimedia. Right now though there is no need to cover anyone’s faces because of social media platforms like facebook which put so many personal images in to public access and so people are more relaxed when seeing their representations. I try to make the photos mine and put my strong impact on it because images like this can be used as a type of double blade. In the hands of the reformists they say “look how open the country is” or in the hands of the conservatives they can call it “law breaking.” I try to create something in between that nobody can use for their own benefit. I think though it somehow failed because this work has been shown so many times international and every time there were new things being attached to my work or my text was being cut. My attempt to have control over the fate of this image failed so it is interesting to look at it as a case study in the digital age and the emergence of the internet phenomenon.

Amirali Ghasemi, Coffee Shop, Ladies, No 7, 2004, Image courtesy of G44 Gallery

B.W: Besides creating faceless images, Amirali, you help to shape modern Iranian art by supporting emerging artists as a curator and with your virtual gallery, Parking Gallery. How did this idea come to you and how is it going now?

A.G: It was back in 1998 and I was fresh out of university trying to do something. I went with a group of friends to various galleries to show our works but some had waiting lists for 5 years. Further there wasn’t so much space back then to show your art. Parking Gallery is a virtual gallery but it is also has a physical space in the basement of my parents house. We used this as a headquarter where many different things could be initiated – anywhere from a fashion show to a video shoot to an exhibition to a theater. Around 2002 we launched the website and back then it was one of the few that was showing independent works. There were also no commercial ads. It emerged out of a need and very naturally. We didn’t want to do something in a very fast way so we had to start documenting what we were doing, what was interesting in the scene, and we then started to contribute to that scene. Our website was in English at the beginning so it was welcomed. It was one of the places where you could see what was going on in Tehran at the time. It was and still is a very exciting challenge because there are so few independent spaces. We tried to remain as independent as possible and to have enough distance to create our own sidewalks instead of jumping from one island to another.

B.W: Creating art can be a deeply personal experience. Is there anything that affected you as an artist while you were working on these images? Is there any one moment that stands out?

A.G: I think that some of my works are not about myself but about my experience and encounters with my surroundings. My art gets the inspiration from where I live or the people I know. There is this interactive part in my work that is being created in collaboration with others. I try to reach the moment that something is happening. The last solo project I did was concerning my medical profile – my asthma and allergies – and these different confrontations actually coming from outside and how it was reacting to the outside. It was a kind of moment that I realized that there are things I have to do and that I can’t stand idle. This is the same in regards to curating. There are things that don’t allow you to remain silent or idle towards them.

S.E: Based on their character every artist has their own journey during their career. There are many things that influence an artist on their way but then there is the issue of choice. You have to choose what to work on and what has more impact on you and your life. Sometimes I realize that a topic has chosen me and has its own urgency to be done. One particular influential moment was when I was working on A Dowry for Mahrou. I was in a film workshop by Abbas Kiarostami and I was invited to a wedding. I was not aware of what I was doing but I was just filming. When I encountered the bride it was as if me and my camera were surprised by that moment. I think this is the same thing that happens with the viewer. When I came back from that small town and started editing it, it was a gift that I could present to that very young bride. I wanted to protect her fragile moments and beauty from the hands of time. I believe that is what art does. It protects the specific moment from being forgotten.

Samira Eskandarfar, Film still from Dowry for Mahrou, 2006, Image courtesy of artoronto

B.W: What do you hope to archive in presenting these pieces to the public here in Toronto, for example in a political or cultural sense?

A.G: What is interesting is to see how fragments of a society can be seen in a new context. It is an interesting journey where there are similarities and differences that people can relate to. This series has been shown international and there are so many different interpretations happening. For these kinds of projects I try to not be so protective of it and leave it a bit open to see what happens in each country it is shown in. I hope it can be inviting and engaging, though not within a political or cultural tension.

S.E: I look at it in a more cultural thing rather than political. The political view on the show coming from Iran is irresistible. I prefer though not to go in that direction, instead I hope that the works can be seen in a more relaxed way. I would like to show my interpretation of life and I think there are things all around the world that we share in common. In my opinion, human beings despite the place they are living in, are more similar to each other than different and thus these differences can be an opening for dialogue and engagement.

From left to right:  artsist, Amirali Ghasemi, curator Andrea Fitzpatrick and artist Samira Eskandarfar, Image courtesy of artoronto

Via artoronto and G44 Gallery
Thanks for reading Gender and Exposure in Contemporary Iranian Photography

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