Clotheslines of Isolation

Roshanak Keyghobadi | October 2014

 

و این منم
زنی تنها
در آستانه فصلی سرد
…در ابتدای درک هستی آلوده ی زمین
فروغ فرخزاد

And here I am
a lonely woman
at the beginning  of a cold season
coming to comprehend the earth’s contaminated existence … [i]
Forough Farrokhzad

A woman is photographed inside an enclosed space of a courtyard at night and the other is painted on a rooftop in the daytime. One is standing in front of a clothesline that is covered with necessary items such as a bedsheet, a pillow case, pajamas, socks and underwear which appears that were urgently washed and hung to dry. The other is standing next to a clothesline that is covered with not necessarily essential items such as a shirt, a skirt, a pair of pants and a sundress, which seems that have been leisurely washed and hung to dry with seven matching clothespins.

Both women’s heads and bodies are covered with chador, one with a formal black chador, which is usually worn outside the house and in public spaces, and the other with an informal patterned chador that is typically used inside the house and in private spaces. The woman with black chador is looking straight at the viewer and wearing her covering in a relaxed way. The woman in patterned chador with her back to the viewer seems to be looking at the view in front of her. She is also wearing her chador casually and is barefoot.

In his essay Painting and Time (1985)[ii] John Berger explains that paintings are “prophecies received from the past” whereas photographs are “records of the past.” He also believes that a painting “stops time” and a photograph “preserves a moment.”

Tahmineh Monzavi[iii] has been recording and preserving moments as a documentary photographer and this particular image is part of her Women Addicts (2010) series that she shot at women’s shelters in Darvazeh Ghar and Maydoun-e Shoush neighborhoods in Tehran. Monzavi explains: “I took these pictures at shelters for homeless women who could stay for the night and avoid sleeping in the parks and streets. I tried to take photos of the regular moments of their lives not the times of violence and injections. Their faces were attractive and had so much to say. Their gaze could get you deep inside their lives and they would transfer joy and sorrow to you…I worked on this project for three years. Every two weeks or once or twice a month I would go and visit and take pictures. During this time people would come and go and change…The Women Addicts series was the most interesting project for me despite all of its difficulties. I was interested in taking photos of the women and being with them in their environment, to see their interactions, their different types of problems, their hygiene and their treatment, the type of care they received, their condition and struggles, and how others thought about them and the ways they coped with their situation.” (Monzavi, 2011)[iv]

Monzavi met the woman in this photograph at one of the women’s shelters. She recalls: “Her name was Javaher (Jewel) and she used to be an addict. She was in love with an offender and when I took this photo she was 27 years old and pregnant. Javaher was very beautiful and neat. She always wore makeup and made her eyes so black that it seemed black juice will drip from her eyes. She was kind and sensitive and helped and cooked for other women who lived with her…I wanted to take a photo of Javaher in front of the clothesline in the courtyard at night. She had just washed the clothes, which belonged to her and her friends. She was very scrupulous and reminded me of my grandmother who also washed clothes in her courtyard’s basin with a hose and spread them on the clothesline.” (Monzavi, 2014) [v]

In her paintings Zeynab Movahed[vi] captures the mundane and still moments of lives of the women with their faces not revealed to the viewer. She states: “The female element in my paintings is definitely related to me as a woman and the multiple, contradictory and yet sensitive positions that a woman has in our society. Not showing the women’s faces in my works is a gentle protest against the over emphasis on her body and where a woman’s domestic labor and duties as well as her sexual activities are more important than her intellect. A woman’s beauty and sexual attractiveness limits her and also marriage confines her. The women in my paintings are educated and aware of the discriminations against them and are silently in defiance… “ (Movahed, 2014)[vii]

This image is part of Movahed’s series of paintings titled Clothes Rope (2011). She explains: “For me the rooftop is a small and isolated space away from others and an extension of a woman’s loneliness and seclusion. This seclusion for me and others like me was once imposed but now is voluntary as the result of the unpleasant contemporary social and cultural climate… The clothesline confines the woman and is wrapped around all the layers of her life and she can not get rid of it…” (Movahed, 2014)[viii]

The two artists have been engaged in critical visual investigations that invite the viewers to look deeper and see beyond the surface of things. Monzavi’s photograph and Movahed’s painting not only depict personal/public and mental/physical spaces of these women but also relate their marginalized condition to their class. According to statistics, six million Iranians have addiction to drugs and at least 700,000 of addicts in Iran are women.[ix] On the other hand the number of female to male students entering universities in Iran is two to one, yet upon graduation one-third or less are likely to work as men do, and this number drops after women get married and have children.[x] 79% of all Iranian women are literate but only 21% of them are [officially] employed.[xi] Monzavi’s Javaher as a homeless addict and Movahed’s solitary woman at home belong to the exploited and subordinated class in Iranian society which their intellect, labor, voice and personhood has no value. They are neither considered good daughters, wives and mothers nor “useful” and “productive” citizens. These women are socially distanced and frequently ignored.

Tahmineh Monzavi has documented personal moments of women that the society prefers to forget and Zeynab Movahed has narrated private moments of women that prefer to forget the society.

[i] Forough Farrokhzad poem. Translation from Persian to English by Roshanak Keyghobadi.
[ii] John Berger (1985). The Sense of Sight. Vintage International.
[iii] http://tahminehmonzavi.com
[iv] http://vimeo.com/83477362 (Translated by Roshanak Keyghobadi from the Interview in Persian with Tahmineh Monzavi, SHEED Award 2011 Winner which was produced by : MAAD STUDIO)
[v] From Roshanak Keyghobadi’s e-mail correspondence with Tahmineh Monzavi, 2014.
[vi] http://www.zeynabmovahed.com
[vii] From Roshanak Keyghobadi’s e-mail correspondence with Zeynab Movahed, 2014.
[viii] From Roshanak Keyghobadi’s e-mail correspondence with Zeynab Movahed, 2014.
[ix] http://www.theguardian.com
[x] http://www.brookings.edu
[xi] http://iranlaborreport.com

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Without a Face: Six Iranian artists and six portraits

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | March 19, 2014

صورت من صورت تو نیست , لیک… 
جمله توام , صورت من چون غطا
صورت و معنی تو شوم چون رسی
…محو شود صورت من در لقا 
مولانا

Art historian Shearer West (2004) describes portraitures as “aesthetic objects,” with “pragmatic and symbolic function.” West also explains that: “self-portraiture by its very nature engages in some way with artistic identity, but how that identity is represented and perceived is heavily influenced by the status and gender of the artist at different periods in history.[i]

Historically in Iranian miniature paintings humans have been depicted as ideal figures and portraitures were two-dimensional with minimal hints of chiaroscuro.  In the Safavid era (1501–1736) Reza Abbasi created a new genre in painting by enlarging and depicting single characters, which were more realistic and with individuality; and Sadeqi Beg has apparently “painted thousands of marvelous portraits.”[ii]

According to Priscilla Soucek (2000): “as the popularity of portraiture grew, there appears to have been a parallel evolution in writing about it that explored the connection between an image’s external appearance and its inner significance…by the late sixteenth century the Safavid poet and painter Sadeqi Beg can claim that the outer form (sura) of his portraits had almost been able to portray a person’s (mani) or inner essence. He also claims that some paintings are so lifelike that all they lack is speech.”[iii]

In the Qajar era (1785–1925) when new European painting techniques and photographic imagery were introduced to Iranian artists they started to explore other ways of visual representation. Aydin Aghdashloo (2005) observes that in the Qajar period Iranian painting gradually distanced itself from the realm of spirituality and imagination and sought to depict the moments of mortal and worldly pleasure and focused more on the subject matter. Aghdashloo believes that: “technically Qajar paintings possess a magical and rich quality, intelligent composition, brilliant colors, innovative ornamentation, and skillful portrait painting (shamayel negari).”[iv]

In contemporary Iranian art practices portraiture has been a popular genre and photographs of Bahman Jalali (Image of the Imagination)[v], Maryam Zandi (The portraits)[vi] and Newsha Tavakiloian (Look)[vii] as well as paintings of Aydin Aghdashloo (Occidental)[viii] and Simin Keramati (Self Portraits)[ix]; and silkscreen prints of Khosrow Hassanzadeh (Prostitutes)[x] are few examples.

In general portraits act as signifiers and they can carry cultural and social codes which represent politics of class, gender and power. One of the most important elements of traditional portraiture is depiction of the facial features, which can provide visual clues for deciphering ones identity or can act as internal or external narratives. But what happens if a portrait lacks facial features or the face is not obvious?

In the six portraits by six contemporary Iranian artists (Reza Abedini, Sadegh Tirafkan, Shadi Ghadirian, Samira Alikhanzadeh, Samira Eskandarfar and Amirali Ghasemi) the “face” is hidden, covered or omitted. Although in all of these artworks it seems that the absence of the face makes the portraits unidentifiable yet they become loaded sites of self-identification and reflection for the artists as well as the viewers.

Reza Abedini’s poster depicts the silhouette figure of himself where the face is covered with a cluster of letters.  When asked about the reason for hiding his face in his posters Abedini explained: “It has been mentioned that I always hide my face. It is true, I never thought about it. It was entirely unconscious. I still don’t like to have a clear image of my face in my posters.” [xi] In this image Abedini has positioned his figure in the center of the format following the composition of the Qajar paintings and photographs. Although his portrait lacks clear facial features, ironically it is the essence of his visual identity and individual expression. Abedini’s portrait is a self-referential image since not only his face is covered with Rezar typeface (that he has designed) but also he has used his silhouette repeatedly to the point that it had turned into his personal mark and logo.[xii]

Sadegh Tirafkan’s self-portrait depicts him holding a sword.  His face and part of his naked body are covered with a Lo-ng, which is a red rectangular cloth that men use in Iranian bathhouses for drying and covering themselves. Tirafkan has explained that the body with the covered face and the sword do not represent aggression but honor and patriotism. He has stated: “sword and Lo-ng are among the most important icons of manhood in Iranian culture. Sword is a defensive weapon rather than an aggressive one and it is used to defend ones dignity and country. In addition to cover a man’s body, Lo-ng is also a symbol of masculinity and humanity to a real man. In ancient Islamic civilization Lo-ng was worn by warriors and it was made of gold and silk threads…I tried to convey the humanistic message embedded in these ancient symbols of manhood in my culture…”[xiii]  By not revealing his face Tirafkan has transformed his self-portrait into an image that can belong to any Iranian man. His body language and gesture of holding a sword suggests heroic pride and empowerment. This can be a figure of a ghahreman or pahlevan (hero or champion) reclaiming his honor without showing his face, as it is customary for a javan mard (righteous man) to perform a good deed or act of kindness without revealing his identity. Tirafkan’s main focus is on masculinity and he is occupied with what he considers symbols of manhood.

In contrast Shadi Ghadiraian’s portrait focuses on womanhood. In her photograph a woman in a chador (veil) with floral patterns has a face that is replaced or covered with a frying pan. Other photographs of this collection portray women wearing various patterned veils with their faces replaced with other cooking or cleaning tools such as a teapot, a colander, a grater, a broom, an iron or a plastic glove.[xiv] Ghadirian explains: “I married my friend and colleague who is a photographer and writer in 2001. As soon as I mentioned marriage my mother started buying things like bowls, plates, iron, etc… and prepared my dowry and sent me to my new home.  Family and friends came to visit and they brought gifts such as broom, ladle, glasses, etc… I thought to myself…what are these things that women have to start their new life with? I stared my married life and used all of those things. I also had new responsibilities. What should we eat? What should we wear? My dual life started from there. For instance I would stir the food and read a magazine at the same time and many more examples such as this. Although I was in better position compared to other women. Because I did photography, traveled and liked my work but I was still responsible for all the housework. I created the series of Like Every Day at that period.[xv]  The objectified woman of Ghadirian’s portrait is a “product” of her culture and society.  Her body is transformed to a decorative figure covered with a wall paper-like chador and her face is transformed to a generic cooking tool. Does any one exist behind the chador and the frying pan? Ghadirian’s woman is confined in multiple ways and addresses the issue of a woman’s social and cultural identity as well as her personal identity.

Similarly the woman in Samira Eskandarfar’s painting is concealed more than once. First she is covered by a mask, which is made to hide her entire face except her eyes and then by her hands hiding her face. Eskandarfar has created many portrait paintings[xvi] yet this portrait is among the very few of her self-portraits with an entirely covered face. She explains: “this was an accidental photo and actually I was pressing my forehead because I had a headache … but I felt that it was an image that I could expand. It is a part of my Mickey Mask series which I created two years ago and is really a self- portrait. In this work the face is not under a mask but hands are covering the face and hiding the feelings. It is related to an inner dialogue and about the human condition.[xvii] Eskandarfar’s portrait delves into more personal yet humanistic and philosophical issues and contemplations. In her portrait Eskandarfar’s face is covered by her own hand and at will. By doing this she creates a barrier between herself and the viewer.  Her fingers with short nails that are painted in black nail polish[xviii] press her forehead, which is wrinkled under pressure. The gesture conveys tension and stress and creates anxiety. This can be the portrait of any woman in contemporary time that is dealing with her own feelings as well as trying to make sense of the world around her.

Samira Alikhanzadeh’s self-portrait is not a portrait of herself. It is painting based on an old photograph of a woman. She is wearing a green blouse pinned with a golden brooch, has long flowing red hair and wearing red nail polish.[xix] Her image and presence evokes feelings of liberation and confidence even though her face is covered under mirrors. Alikhanzadeh explains: “the images I use in my work date to the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s; a period following the banishment of the veil in Iran. By applying mirrors to the surface, I create a marked though incomplete, presence of the viewers within the framework of my composition. I thus make a direct connection between the subjects in the past and the viewers in the present. They in turn become a part of the composition and possible descendants of the subjects, looking into a past, or perhaps like I, satisfying their voyeuristic urge to enter the lives and memories of generations gone by.[xx]  By omitting the original face of the photographed woman, renaming it as a self-portrait and reflecting the viewer’s face in place of the actual face Alikhanzadeh combines and creates multiple spaces of identification and realization[xxi] which travel through time.

Amirali Ghasemi’s photograph focuses on the semiotics of an actual space and social setting. His image depicts a woman in a coffee shop in Tehran. Her face and hands are blanked out except for her lips that are revealing a Cheshire smile. She is wearing  a ring on her left hand finger, holding a cigarette and is wearing a watch on her right hand. Her hair is casually covered with a scarf and her head is resting on her hand. It seems that she is relaxed and looking straight into the camera.  Ghasemi explains: “coffee Shop Ladies is a series of documentary photos I took in Tehran…The faces of the young ladies portrayed in these photos are hidden by a blank space (stickers). By reducing the level of information that each photo can offer to visitors, I wanted to prevent the media from misusing and/or manipulating the images on a mass scale. Nevertheless, the connection with the real characters isn’t lost completely. When Coffee Shop Ladies is presented as part of an interactive program, viewers are free to find out more about the characters by clicking on the blank spaces, then listening to what the ladies have to say. Ghasemi’s photograph makes the viewer aware of the location in which the woman is situated. In a sense the photograph becomes a portrait of the site (coffee shop) rather than a person.[xxii] Ghasemi states:“due to the absence of public places, cafes are a symbol of social freedom in Iran. They are the only places where young people, intellectuals and journalists can interact…” [xxiii] Also in Ghasemi’s photograph the simultaneous presence and absence of the woman in her environment may point to the status of women in contemporary Iran.

Some of the common themes in the six portraits are identity, individuality, representation, negotiation, culture, class, gender and narrative of self and the other. It should be mentioned that each of the six images that were discussed is part of series (posters, paintings, and photographs) and can be studied in relationship to other similar images within its collective to investigate other interpretations and ways of reading. Also there are more artists that have created fascinating portraits with concealed features and faces throughout Iranian art history but at this instant and as a starting point I believe these six portraits make room for imagination and provide ample space for the viewers to interact with them and explore and create their own narratives.

Images from top left to right:

­­

  • Reza Abedini, Persianalite, 2008, exhibition poster, 100×70 cm.
  • Samira Alikhanzadeh, #24 from the Self Portrait series, 2011, acrylic and mirror fragments on printed board, edition of 3 + 1 AP, 140×100 cm.
  • Shadi Ghadirian, #6 from Like Every Day series, 2000, photograph, 50×50 cm.
  • Amirali Ghasemi, from Coffee Shop Ladies series, 2004, photograph, 30×40 cm.
  • Sadegh Tirafkan, from Iranian Man series, 2000, digital photograph, 64×48 cm
  • Samira Eskandarfar, from Mickey Mask series, 2012, painting, 200×150 cm.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014. This essay cannot be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.


[i] West, S. (2004). Portraiture. Oxford University Press.

[ii] Basil Gray, Chapter 16(b) in The Cambridge History of Iran (in Seven Volumes), vol. 6, Peter Jackson and Laurence Lockhart, ed., p. 889-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

[iii] Soucek, P. (2000). The theory and practice of portraiture in the Persian tradition.

http://cmes.hmdc.harvard.edu/files/Roxburgh_Reading1.pdf

[iv] Aghdashlou, A. (2005) Moqademeh-e bar naqashi Qajari [introduction to Qajar

painting], Herfeh Honarmad, 13. In Persian.Tehran, Iran

[xi] Interview with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2012.

[xv] Correspondence with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.

[xvii] Correspondence with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.

[xviii] Wearing black nail polish can be associated with being Goth, rebellious, complex and contemporary.

[xix] Wearing red nail polish can be associated with being glamorous, passionate, courageous and bold.

Suspended state of thingness: Mehran Mohajer’s photographs of nothing

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 31, 2014

Where film lets us believe in more things,
photography lets us believe more in one thing.
Christian Metz

With no doubt Mehran Mohajer is an influential figure in the history of Iranian photography. Mohajer (b.1964, Tehran) is a photographer, lexicographer[i] and a lecturer in photography at Tehran University. He has written and translated articles in a wide range of subjects from photography, linguistics, and poetry to modern hermeneutic and analysis of debate. Mohajer’s photographs have been in several solo and group exhibitions in Iran, France, Germany, Greece, USA, and Australia.

In November of 2012 Mohajer had an exhibition of his photographs at Tarahan Azad Gallery in Tehran, titled “Nothingness/Poverty of.” I would like to focus on one photograph that belongs to this collection and in my view is a suitable point of entry to Mohajer’s complex and fascinating visual language.

This photo (above) does not have a title.  At first glance it appears to be an extreme close up of a printed matter such as a page of newspaper. Lines of bold type —one on top of the composition and the other on the bottom— frame the image and a bright ultramarine blue plastic ribbon in the center not only divides the image to right and left sections but also brings the top and bottom edges of the image together. Parallel to the blue line and on the right, the paper has been worn out and torn. The narrow tear has created a linear gap on the surface. To the left of the blue ribbon two noghteh (dots belonging to letters above and below) also create a visual line. The whole composition is subtly gridded.

The boldness of the type on top and bottom of the composition is in extreme contrast with the middle section of the photo where it seems to be offering the viewers’ eyes and minds an open white space to rest and contemplate. But upon keener observation the viewers soon discover that this white space is not truly quite and void of any marks. Reversed lines of type in shape of letters, words and sentences and another grid system made of rules and line that are printed in the back side of the paper show through the surface very lightly. Another interaction between typographic elements in the photo also happens in relationship to the two bold and macro lines of type and the two micro letters that peak through the torn gap on the surface of the newspaper.

Attention to the relationship between type and image, language and photography has been at play in several of Mohajer’s collections of images. For example in The light is off the room is dark (2003) and Image, text and money (2006) Mohajer uses newspapers as source of written ingredient for his images. In Migrant Packages (2004) handwriting, in Undistributed Packages (2005) misprinted papers, in Expired history (2006) stamped expiration dates, and in Flags (2004) printed type on fabrics make up the typographical components of his photographs.

In 2008[ii] Mohajer explained the connection between typography and photography in his works: After studying photography I have studied linguistics and since then I have got a split mind!…Therefore my interest in typography is not immanent and is not directed to its very nature. I am interested in the interplay of language and photography as two semiotic systems and the results, which can merge from this confrontation. Then typography is one of the possible manifestations of language itself, but having its own cultural significations.

But what is the relationship between this image and “nothingness”? What is the “poverty of” this image? In a brief and poem-like statement for the exhibition Mohajer (2012) stated that: Nothingness like desire, awareness and love is directed towards something. I don’t know what is this thing? Is it my eye or my mind? Or the outside world? These photos are contradictions that exist in my mind, on one hand I am passionate about photography and on the other I am fed up with all the sameness and “post” condition…so I returned to image/word and tried to reside in the materiality of the image/word and feel and sense this material.  And I touched and saw this nothingness.

Later when I asked him about the “Nothingness/Poverty of” photos he (2014) added: The nothingness series is a result of investigation in the mechanism of the camera and the mechanism of seeing and touching. In this collection I have tried to demonstrate the poverty of photography to its end. (based on Christian Metz’s logic in “Photography and Fetish”). The camera is so close to things, that in many instances the lens touches them. This closeness causes the thing to become separated from its surrounding and its status of thingness becomes suspended.  What is in front of the camera is not a thing in the usual sense (glass negative, photos, TV image, words in a book, or letters in a newspaper).  This suspension has happened twice; when the thing was selected and also when confronted by the camera. Although the subject matter of photographs are things in the material sense yet from a cultural perspective they belong to the realm of representation and they mediate between the world and us.  In fact our experiences of them are in the domain of seeing and thinking but the camera tries to touch them. Whether it is and effort in vain or successful, you can be the judge of that. 

Nothingness is commonly defined as “empty space” “utter insignificance” and also “the state of being no longer seen, heard, or felt”. Mohajer’s attempt to feel the materiality of what he calls “nothingness” and using the camera as the extension of his body to get extremely close to “things” transforms their state of utter insignificance and makes them worthy of seeing and touching. In the process of pausing and taking time to register all the details of what may be called “nothing” in Mohajer’s photographs, the viewer is pleasantly rewarded with unexpected surprises and sophisticated visual and linguistic enigmas. It maybe that Mohajer is hinting at the “poverty of” human perception and mind rather than things and opening up a vista to see something in everything even if we regard it as “nothing.”

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.  This essay cannot be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Image: Mehran Mohajer, Nothingness/Poverty of series, 2012.

Mehran Mohajer: http://www.tavoosonline.com/SelectedArtist/SpecialEn.aspx?src=133&Page=1


[i] Mohajer holds a BA in photography and MA in General Linguistics.

[ii] From Mehran Mohajer’s e-mail correspondence with Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2008.

Narrators of Silence: Two Iranian women and their telling art

Review by: Roshanak Keyghobadi | April 12, 2013

Silence is a complex dual notion. A person’s silence can evoke anxiety and discomfort in others and can be read as a sign of withdrawal and lack of awareness whereas on a transcendental level it can be interpreted as enlightenment and inner growth of an individual. The space that silence provides can reside between two points and from one state of mind or state of being to another. Although working in two different mediums, two Iranian women artists, Golnaz Fathi and Newsha Tavakolian, have captured the essence of silence in their new series of artworks that are currently on view in two Chelsea galleries in New York (Golnaz Fathi’s works are on view at Sundaram Tagore Gallery and Newsha Tavakolian’s work is on view at Thomas Erben Gallery both from April 11 to May 11, 2013). The un-written is repeated on Fathi’s canvases and un-seen is seized in Tavakolian’s photographs.

Fathi is a self-taught painter but has previous training in calligraphy and graphic design and Tavakolian also taught herself photography when started her career as a photojournalist at the age of sixteen. Both artists are internationally known and have exhibited their works in Iran and abroad extensively.

In her recent works Fathi makes her delicate marks with fine pen on large single or multi-panel canvases which are predominately variations in black and white with occasional introduction of red and yellow. She leaves her works untitled and open to interpretation. Although Fathi transforms writing to abstract forms and unreadable signs, yet her marks are rooted in Iranian calligraphic traditions and rituals such as repetition and meditation.

In Iran calligraphers such as Mir Imad Hassani (1554–1615), Muhammad Reza Kalhur (1829–1892) and Mirza Ghulam Reza Isfahani (1829–1886) produced magnificent pieces of siyah mashq (black exercise) which were calligraphic practices as well as tools for learning the properties of letter forms. In black ink, calligraphers would write and rewrite letters, words and verses of poetry continuously and on top each other, sometimes to the point that the writing surface would be covered with several layers of black inscriptions. Usually the majority of these exercises were destroyed after they served their purpose. Gradually siyah mashq evolved into an artistic independent form with its own aesthetic context and connotations and became a source of inspiration for artists such as Fathi.  Beside its functional and practical purposes siyah mashq also opened up a space for contemplation and meditation for the artist. The repetition of thousands of lines and forms which Fathi painstakingly and meticulously creates hour after hour, are contemplations of a contemporary artist who is becoming more aware of subtleties and nuances of space and silence.

Space and silence are also explored by Tavakolian in her new series of photographs titled Look.Very similar to the repetition in a siyah mashq exercise, for six months at 8 pm Tavakolian took several photograph of few people that she knew and lived in the same apartment building as her. They posed in front of her bedroom window which framed them and provided a view of another apartment complex in the background.

In Tavakolian’s photographs individual women and men drowned in their thoughts are embraced by their silence. Looking at them brings to mind a verse of poetry by 14th century Iranian poet Hafez, “I do not know who is residing inside my heartbroken body…where I am silent and it is wailing and restless.” (Dar Andarooun-e man-e khasteh del nadanam kist…ke man khamousham o ou dar faghan o dar ghoghast).  Tavakolian is the narrator of these individuals’ stories and by photographing them in this room has created a common thread which stitches all the characters to each other. Yet every photograph is coded with personal and cultural signs and symbols related to each specific character.  Cell phones, keys, series of photographs, hand bags, food leftovers, crumbled papers and tissue, towels, cosmetics, a birthday cake, a knife, a glass of water (half full or half empty), an ironing board, a clock, and a framed picture of a child are among some of these coded objects.

The viewers see two women with their headscarves and still in their mantuas as if they just arrived or maybe will be leaving the room, there is a woman in her bath robe and head towel, and another covered by a blanket resting on a sofa. There is a woman sitting in front of a cake with candles and a sharp knife placed next to it. A man in his formal attire is sitting on a bed holding his legs to his chest and another man with shaving cream on his face is sitting at a table.  The characters’ eyes look away or if looking in the camera pass through it which reveals their intense disengagement with their physical surrounding and being absorbed in their mental private spaces. It seems that Tavakolian has caught and entered these spaces and states of resting, recovering, waiting, thinking, remembering, or being heartbroken.

Visually Fathi’s paintings and Tavakolian’s photographs depict silence in a powerful manner. In Fathi’s canvases (specifically her black and white compositions) the silence is manifested by the open white spaces which are opposed to the forceful vibrating and condensed black and grey masses. These dark masses of energy create a dynamic space which intensifies the calm and stillness of the negative white spaces that are coexisting with them on the same surface.  In Tavakolian’s photographs silence is visually depicted by stillness of the human figures that lack vibrant movements or dynamism in their gestures and body language. These women and men reside in a space other than the space that they are actually and bodily occupying and offer the viewer their utter silence, which may cause us discomfort or can be a source of reflection and contemplation.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013

Photo by: Newsha Tavakolian, Look, 2012. C-print, edition of 7, 41 x 55″
http://www.newshatavakolian.com

See Golnaz Fathi’s painting, Untitled, 2011. Pen and varnish on canvas 57.5 x 50.4″
at http://www.sundaramtagore.com