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.

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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.