Contemporary photographs from Iran
by Laura Bien
Despite the continuing U.S. sanction against any cultural exchange with Iran, the U-M Museum of Art plans to open Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran on Saturday, September 29. The first major body of Iranian photography seen abroad since the 1983 book Telex Iran, Persian Visions offers sixty photos ranging from grim to whimsical.
Paralleling the exhibition's end run around the U.S. sanction, one set of photographs seems to question authority. Bahman Jalali's masterful digital photographs (right) show faint black-and-white portraits of dignified, dreamy men and women. They are veiled by the semitransparent overlay of a censor's violent painted red scrawl. The areas of red that overlie the subjects' faces, hands, and bodies intensify their faint features to a more distinct, color-saturated resolution. This effect suggests that censorship unwittingly emphasizes the subjects it seeks to occlude. The photos also suggest the abiding strength, poise, and serenity of the subjects despite violent oppression.
Shahriar Tavakoli's portraits of his family catch them in everyday moments, against an inky all-black background. The drama of his illuminated figures against darkness makes iconic the quotidian scenes of a family dinner, a dad sleeping on a couch or reading to a child, or a mom preparing a tray of what appear to be yellow desserts.
More representations are found in the gravestone portraits photographed by Arman Stepanian. Among the photographs of the deceased affixed to tombstones is one that shows a hole defacing a woman's face, revealing the pitted, blank back of the picture frame. Another gravestone photo showing a young girl in a white dress is accompanied by a fresh, dead goldfish laid carefully on the stone ledge underneath. Chalked or crayoned childish drawings of flowers, red and blue flying birds, and yellow stars appear on either side, drawn upon the gravestone.
Less melancholy photos invoking children include Shahrokh Ja'fari's Child's View series. Taken at ant level, the works contrast sharply focused foregrounds with a blurry background containing a monument or outdoor structure. The pictures suggest a mixed sense of whimsy and a focus on the here and now. Some of the photos depict interiors of Iranian homes, mirroring in miniature the exhibition's power to offer a look inside contemporary Iranian sensibilities.
The works are on display through December 30.
[Review published September 2007]