Forty years after the Iranian Revolution, U.S. media coverage of Iran is still so overwhelmingly focused on the country’s fraught relationship with the United States that certain images have become tropes. Stock photographs of chador-clad women; shown in profile, their faces almost invisible as they walk past anti-American street murals, are published with ludicrous frequency.
A new exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, “My Iran: Six Women Photographers,” aims to challenge the stereotype of voiceless Iranian women, presenting a more nuanced view of the country through the work of some of its most talented contemporary photographers.
Almost all the works in “My Iran” are drawn from the Sackler’s permanent collection, and most have been acquired since 2011, when the museum began a push to add work by modern and contemporary Iranian photographers, complementing the Smithsonian’s extensive holdings of 19th-century photos from Iran under the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925).
“My Iran” opens with an arresting 5½ -minute video (the only video work on view) by Newsha Tavakolian, one of the show’s six artists, along with Gohar Dashti, Shadi Ghadirian, Hengameh Golestan, Malekeh Nayiny and Mitra Tabrizian. “Somayeh” shows a woman in richly hued attire — black dress, sienna overcoat, turquoise headscarf, brown purse and shoes — standing against a large tree, a few clear plastic bags caught in its naked gray branches. As the camera slowly zooms in, the woman’s headscarf and the plastic bags sway slightly in the breeze, but she herself is immobile, her expression somber but resolute.
The story of Somayeh — a teacher at a girls’ school who waited seven years for permission to divorce her husband — is told in greater detail in an accordion-style album of about a dozen candid photos, part of Tavakolian’s series “Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album.”
Tavakolian’s reportorial style reflects her background as a photojournalist for the Magnum photo agency and the New York Times, before she branched out to more artistic photography. In an unfortunate reminder of the challenges faced by artists and journalists in Iran, the Times revealed in June that Tavakolian and its Tehran correspondent Thomas Erdbrink — Tavakolian’s husband — had been denied press permits to work since February. (The Sackler’s decision to include Tavakolian’s work was made before this news emerged.)
“My Iran” includes only one set of purely documentary photographs: eight black-and-white shots by Golestan, showing women protesting the post-revolution introduction of Iran’s hijab law on March 8, 1979 — which ended up being the last day that women went out uncovered. The photos capture the women’s anger and defiance, as well as the euphoria of their spontaneous mass demonstration.
Since the Islamic revolution, female Iranian photographers have largely turned away from such a documentary approach, in favor of styles that offer greater creative possibilities and space for social commentary.
As the show’s curator, Massumeh Farhad, noted at a press preview, “The subsequent restrictions on Iranian society and culture [after the revolution] meant that many of the photographers turned to carefully staged, cinematic style, largely inspired by Iran’s new-wave photography of the ’90s.”
Some of the most compelling works of that nature come from three series by Dashti, who uses varied genres to stage sometimes mysterious narratives. The hyper-realistic photos in “Home,” for instance — featuring abandoned buildings overflowing with plants placed there by the artist — can be read in one of two ways: as hopeful signs of nature’s rebirth, or as eerily post-apocalyptic. (Along with Tavakolian and Ghadirian — who creates satirical versions of sepia-toned, Qajar-era cartes de visite — Dashti was featured in the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ 2016 exhibition “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World.” )
Dashti’s “Iran, Untitled” series is more absurdist. One image shows some 20 men and women with suitcases, all lined up behind traffic cones and craning their heads as if expecting a plane to appear any minute — in the middle of the steppe. The setting — an apparent Nowhereland — seems an apt metaphor for Iranians’ uncertainty about the future.
Tabrizian, a London-based photographer who is also a filmmaker, employs a more cinematic realism in her “Border” series, poignantly capturing Iranian exiles and revealing a deeply palpable sense of displacement and loss. In one photo, a weary-looking elderly woman is seated by a suitcase, against a bluish wall with a closed door; in another, an older man stares out blankly from a dingy auto shop containing a wrecked car and a black cat.
There’s something universal about Tabrizian’s large yet intimate portraits: they could have been taken just about anywhere. More than any other images in this show, perhaps, they evoke a feeling of empathy with their subjects — an awareness that, in many U.S. narratives about Iran, is sorely lacking.
Art, it is sometimes said, has the power to change hearts and minds. If only we all could be so swayed.