Contemporary Iranian Photograph10 April – 1 June 2014
Somerset House, London
Daily 10.00-18.00 Terrace Rooms, South Wing Free admission
To mark the arrival of the Persian New Year, Burnt Generation will present contemporary Iranian photography – the majority of which has not previously been seen outside of Iran – by eight highly original and intellectually engaged image makers. The exhibition will offer a rare opportunity to move to a place beyond cliché; a moment to forget the stereotypical images of Iran and enter the worlds of the eight artists who have lived and worked there. They include: Azadeh Akhlaghi; Gohar Dashti; Shadi Ghadirian; Babak Kazemi; Abbas Kowsari; Ali and Ramyar; Newsha Tavakolian; Sadegh Tirafkan.
As Martin Barnes, Senior Curator at the V&A, says “some of the most exciting photography being made today is coming from Iran” and the range will reflect reality for modern Iranian society, whether it be coping with the consequences of constant conflict to civilians caught in the middle, conforming to class ideals or colourful celebrations of Shiite rituals.
Burnt Generation will be produced by Candlestar with Somerset House. A cultural consultancy based at Somerset House, Candlestar is a key contributor to the growing creative community of Somerset House.
Burnt Generation is curated by Candlestar Director, Fariba Farshad, who explains that her aim was not only to present work from as wide a perspective as possible but also to show work that takes a sideways look at both public and personal histories: “The selected artists work in various ways. Some make documentary photography, others portraiture, others still fine art, conceptual work but their subjects are caught in the web of history be it personal, historical or geopolitical.
It’s that time of year again! For Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks, Kurds, and so many others, the next two weeks will be full of celebrating and fun, observing old traditions and making new ones of our own. Share the Persian New Year with this excellent primer from Fig and Quince — it’s not just about haft-seens and fire-jumping, but a whole constellation of traditions (new and old, here and there) that make this time of year so special!
I am always glad to see Iranian artists in the diaspora getting positive attention in mainstream media. It wasn’t long ago that the only interest in them (if any) would have been the political messages, struggles, and fantasies derived from their work. So kudos to VF for giving these cultural workers some mainstream attention for the quality and range of their work regardless of whether there is any connection to politics, protest, or the like.
But my favorite thing about all the links I’ve seen to this slideshow in social media is that individuals from different parts of the Iranian-American diaspora have questioned this title, wanting to know why Vanity Fair referred to this group as Persian Americans. This issue of Iranian vs Persian may feel like the fight no longer worth fighting for some of us, but it does resonate for many people in Iranian communities and continues to be a source of contestation. So when the mainstream media shines its spotlight ever so briefly, it leaves many of us wondering who Nancy Jo talked to, and why she chose this term. Iran is mentioned in the title, so “Persian” wasn’t an avoidance tactic as it was for so many Iranians in the 1980s, seeking to avoid discrimination in a tense United States. And surely it can’t just be that she (or her editor) didn’t want to repeat “Iran” in the title? To use Persian denotes ethnicity. Did she vet the ethnicity of all 11 of these artists? Somehow I doubt it… And we’ve heard from Shirin and others in this list about their thoughts on their own identities. Shirin is Iranian. She is also American. Whether or not she is Persian, it is not how she generally identities herself. So why would VF do so for her and others? It leaves me wondering if there was even a discussion about it. Does Nancy Jo know about this particular identity thorn in our collective side?
On a semi-related note, a quote from Shirin Neshat in a Globe and Mail article from 2010, addressing one of the more annoying questions she must get from her own community, and drawing a connection between artistic practice and identity:
"I’m as much a Westerner as I am Iranian," she added. "My work shows that and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. So when an Iranian gets up and criticizes me, saying, ‘I heard some Moroccan accent among your extras’ or ‘We don’t have that kind of palm tree in Iran,’ I say, ‘Good, now you understand the struggle of creating Iran in Morocco.’ … When an artist is forced to work somewhere else, for whatever reason, you’re going to have the flavour of having other cultures infiltrating your work. And that’s okay. Because it’s honest."
"Once 9/11 happened I thought ‘Oh I have this part of me that I’ve never addressed’ and I want to go and explore and learn the language — well, learn it better," he says. "So I started a photography school in Kabul, at Kabul University 12 years ago, and in fact I went to Kabul last summer to teach a course. The project started in 2002 and lasted until 2005, when the department was established."
Though deeply vocal of his love of Kabul and its culture, he clarifies that he resolved to divide his social practice and art practice in order to avoid potentially commodifying his heritage and his experience. “I thought about becoming a war photographer at first,” he says, “I was just starting photo school when September 11th happened and I seriously considered changing my entire life to illuminate what was happening in the world and war zones.” But after visiting and photographing family members, he says he changed his hind. “I made a very conscious decision to not make work there and to actually take all the energy that I could spend there and put it toward education there.”