The exhibition Present Perfect? – Contemporary Photography from Iran was recently on display at the Quad Gallery in Derby. The premise of the exhibition, which is part of the annual Format Photography Festival, is to provide a fresh perspective on Iranian culture not from the outside but from within. The photographs in the exhibition thus stood in clear contrast to an image predominantly fostered by Western media which tends to paint a very one-dimensional picture of Iran. Here, on the other hand, were photographs by young Iranian artists who represent their culture from a highly individualistic and subjective perspective.
The first project on display, ‘Beyond the Veil’ by Kiana Hayeri, depicts young women pushing against cultural taboos through their clothing, makeup, hairstyles and appearance in public life. The project underlines the fact that it is women who are predominantly observed and kept in check by the ‘morality police’. In this context, a hijab that is slightly pulled back to show a fringe is not as much a fashion statement as it becomes an act of defiance and subversion against the patriarchy. Milad Houshmandzadeh’s ‘I Was There’ similarly depicts – this time from a male point of view – a young generation intent on creating a sense of normality, while operating within and pushing against the boundaries of a repressive system.
Mohsen Yazdipour’s photography project ‘My First Name; Soldier’ alludes to the transition of young Iranian men entering mandatory military service. Regardless of their profession, education or social status, once they have entered the military their individuality is broken down: a fact that is brilliantly signified with a grid of passport style photographs depicting men whose hair has been shorn off. The project references how photography is traditionally used by the state apparatus: a way to identify, categorize and control citizens.
A similar sense of state control can be gathered in Morteza Khaki’s project ‘Purse Snatching’ which depicts the interiors of purses the artist had access to. Passport photographs on identity cards provide an insight into the public appearance of an individual, yet within the purse sometimes resides a tiny piece of individuality which is best kept away from the public eye. A case in point is a 50 US Dollar note, perhaps as form of security or as way to enter the black market, which is neatly tucked away in one purse. The Dollar note indicates a sense of duality which is explored in a whole variety of projects on display: the clear separation and also tension between the private and the public.
For his project ‘Light and Soil’, Saba Alizadeh has projected glorified propaganda images from the Iran-Iraq War onto domestic interior spaces. The project ostensibly alludes to the friction between emitting and receiving state-sponsored ideology. The banality of the living room spaces creates an eerie contrast to images that celebrate Iranian soldiers as heroes of the state. In his series The House, Mehrdad Naraghi also focuses on interior spaces photographed with a keen eye for colour, texture and light. The abandoned houses Naraghi photographed tell the story of the Iranian diaspora from an unusual angle: not focusing on why and where people have gone to, but what they have physically (and most likely also painfully) have left behind. Although The House depicts tangible spaces, Naraghi’s project equally alludes to the notion of nostalgia and a homeland as a construct of the imagination.
In his project ‘Preserved for a Better Day’, Morvarid K also uses a subtle signifier of the diaspora – a big white sheet that is commonly used to protect and preserve precious furniture in abandoned private homes. Here, the artist appropriates this sheet to cover various subjects within the confines of their personal space. The photographs appear performed in the sense that the subjects knowingly hide from the camera and the outside world. Here, the white sheet signifies that the subjects’ life has stopped still, they cannot move, quite literally, outside of their house. Poking out beneath the white sheet are elements that allude to an personal identity, hidden away from the public, and preserved under the sheet. Here too the artist explores this tension between the public and the private which must be seen as one of the leitmotifs of the exhibition.
The exhibition provides a refreshing perspective on how artists use photography to both subvert a repressive system and establish a sense of freedom beyond the state. It is notable that a lot of the works on display were taken in dark interior spaces – mirroring the etymology of the word camera. This does not seem to be a mere coincidence as it is probably in these spaces that Iranian photography has the most potential to be used as a tool for personal expression.
Originally published on photomonitor.co.uk.