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Contemporary Iranian Photography

  • Saturday, May 10, 2014

Abbas Daneshvari
Professor of Art & Art History
California State University, Los Angeles.

Every contemporaryexpression hangs in the balance until an inexplicable judgment of historyeither validates or rejects it. The contemporary arts of Iran, therefore, haveyet to live across many zones of criticism, debate, and philosophicalunderstanding on the way to more widespread and long-term notice. Nevertheless,at this crossroads, I believe that Iran’s contemporary arts––especiallyphotography, the genius of its artistic expression––bespeak a wholly differentframe of vision and production than that of any other time or place. Although agreat deal of research and work is necessary to determine the aesthetic andhistorical significance of this current display, we may be assured that theso-far-generated polemics regarding its place and meaning have laid thefoundation for its enduring significance not only in Iran but alsoworldwide.   

The phenomenon ofcontemporary  Iranian photography is quite surprising for rarely has somuch of a period’s art appeared so simple yet turned out to be so complex. MohammadGhazali’s “Where the Heads of the Renowned Rest” and Shirin Aliabadi’s “MissHybrid,” among many others presented in this exhibit, prove this point.Ghazali’s urban images appear at first to be ordinary, quotidian photography,until after some scrutiny, one enters the horizon of his profound metaphysicalsubversions. Aliabadi, who may be viewed as playful and even superficial,represents one of those interstices of play where the paradox of desire andcontrol, of simulation and dissimulation, have made transparent both themicrocosm and macrocosm of Iran’s culture. Her images are filled withremembrances of past psychologies that can be measured, albeit subtly, beneaththe façade of the work’s modern females. 

Parastou Forouhar isanother example of contemporary photography whose significance is more thansurface deep; her references to earlier historical signs are more about theinstability of such signs than their assumed values. Parastou is a master atdisplaying the paradox in theocracy and aesthetics by deftly communicating thebeauty in horror and the god in abuse and exploitation. She exemplifies aphenomenal ability to implement through subjective aesthetics the objective andconcrete matters of state and history. In fact, contemporary Iranian photography,for the most part, exhibits an anti-historical and anti-metaphysical stancethat makes it distinct from so much else occurring in the Middle East. 

It is amazing thatwithin the strictest of institutional proscriptions, the contemporary artistsof Iran have, for the most part, managed to chart new aesthetic andiconographic paths. Examples are such semiotic photographs as the “Moustache”and “Hand and Belt” series of Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, wherein the images arephenomenological acts of bracketing those signs that illuminate the variouseconomic and cultural strata of Iran through fragments and fragmentaryembodiments of value.

The complexity of Iran’scontemporary life and thus its photography is necessarily sodden with tensionsand conflicts that, given the State’s rigid proscriptions, have produced atheatre of signs, evading and avoiding official obstacles. Therefore, as in theworks of Tirafkan, Forouhar, Javadi, Kowsari, and Golshiri, though theydemonstrate a variety of methodologies, we find a radical reformulation ofsigns as theatrical symbols. In these works the epistemology of cognition isbypassed so that meaning, highly discursive, may not be easily codified. Thoughpolitical repression has vitiated freedom of expression, new tactics andstrategies of communication have both overcome the State’s demands and enrichedthe various arts and their meanings.

KPCC Interview, April 10, 2014.
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