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.

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Ritual of Recollection: Barbad Golshiri and Mim Kaf Mim Aleph

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | November 2013

از خاک در آمدیم و…
…بر باد شدیم
عمرخیام

…We were ascended from the soil
and blown by the wind…
Omar Khayyam

It is estimated that around 146,357 people die each day in the world. Some may be buried individually or in mass graves cremated or not buried.  Most burials and mourning rituals bring closure for those who are left behind.

A computerized search on Behesht Zahra’s[i] website provides the exact location of a grave (section, row and number) as well as the information on the tombstone (first name, last name, father’s first name, date of birth and date of death). Family members of the deceased may also add poems and photos (framed or etched) to the tombstones. By marking a location and providing specific information, a tombstone not only becomes a proof for a life once existed on earth and a site for identification but also is a way that family and friends can locate and visit the deceased and become engaged in their ceremonies of respect and remembrance.

Barbad Golshiri’s portable stencil flat iron tombstone masterfully facilitates the ritual of recollection for the family of a man who was denied a tombstone. As it is explained in the catalogue of his recent exhibition at Thomas Erben Gallery[ii],

“The stenciled text narrates the labyrinthine death of a man who for political reasons could never have a tombstone on his grave. His family asked the artist to make a tombstone for him and the artist made an ephemeral tomb for their loved one. Each time the family visits the cemetery they bring along the stenciled tombstone with them, place it on the grave and stealthily pour soot powder on it. The text is thus imprinted and depending on the wind strength vanishes in a few hours or a few days. The act is repeated as a ritual.

The epitaph reads in Persian:

Here Mim Kaf Aleph does not rest. He is dead. Layer beneath layer dead. Depth beyond depth. Each time deeper. Each death deeper. Stone upon stone. Each stone a death. Mim Kaf Mim Aleph has no stone. Has never had. No trace of it [also: so be it]. Never in all deaths. December came and Mim Kaf Mim Aleph was no longer [there]. Is not.”

By denying Mim Kaf Mim Aleph a permanent tombstone in a specific location, his grave (which can now be anywhere, although he is buried in one specific place) becomes an active and mobile site of remembrance and takes on a nomadic life. If the denial of a tombstone was an act of obliteration, the stencil tombstone becomes a tool for visibility, liberation and constant renewal and recall.

The ritual of spreading the soot over the stencil tombstone is reminiscence of the ceremonies of spreading ashes of cremated bodies over land or water, when upon their release ashes disappear in the space and cannot be assembled again. Yet the act of spreading soot on the grave and over the iron stencil gives shape to letters, words and sentences which all describe and point to the fact that this particular site is not an ordinary site and a body is buried underneath. The ritual gives identity to an unidentified grave and the enigmatic narrative transforms the epitaph into a riddle to be solved. Only the family of the man knows the full answer, only they know the details of a life that is no more.

Barbad Golshiri’s The Untitled Tomb can be interpreted based on where it is located/displayed. In the hands of Mim Kaf Mim Aleph’s family it is a private and practical tool for performing their visitation rites. In a gallery space it is a public and aesthetic object standing on its own with no relationship to its original location and context yet with close connection to the other tombstones created by Golshiri in his Curriculum Mortis.
© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2013.

Image: Barbad Golshiri, The Untitled Tomb, 2012. Iron, soot. 60.5 x 135 x 0.2 cm. Edition of 3 + 1AP.

Also see: http://www.barbadgolshiri.com


[i]Behesht Zahara is the largest cemetery in Iran located in south part of Tehran which was established in 1970. It is around 540 hectares and has close to 1,400,000 graves. http://beheshtezahra.tehran.ir/Default.aspx?tabid=92

[ii] Curriculum Mortis exhibition by Barbad Golshiri was on view at Thomas Erben Gallery in New York from September 7 to October 26, 2013. http://www.thomaserben.com