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It is nearly impossible for Americans to get a firsthand look inside Iran these days, with our high-stakes negotiations over their nuclear development ongoing. But how better to bridge relations with a country than through their cultural offerings? Boston photography gallerist Robert Klein and Iranian-born, Boston restaurateur Azita Bina have embraced this idea with their partnership, begun in 2013, to introduce Westerners to the work of contemporary Iranian photographers. Right now in Boston, Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian is exhibiting at Robert Klein Gallery on Newbury Street, while the work of her contemporary, Tahmineh Monzavi, is on display at Robert Klein’s satellite gallery, Ars Libri, in Boston’s South End, both on view through March 28, 2015.
On the surface, Ghadirian and Monzavi have much in common as contemporary, female Iranian photographers who explore the role of gender in a post-revolutionary, theocratic Iran. They even both studied with Iran’s premier photographer and professor, Bahman Jalali. But, from what I’ve observed in these Boston shows (and in Ghadirian’s work in the MFA, Boston’s “She Who Tells A Story” show in 2013: https://whatwillyouremember.com/unveiled/) the similarities end there. These artist’s views are as disparate as their fourteen-year age difference.
At just 27 years old, Monzavi’s three portfolios on view at Ars Libri reflect a youthful call to arms over society’s inequalities that seems to cross cultures as each new generation re-invents social documentary photography. Her work is shot in gritty B&W and hung, unframed, in egalitarian same-size prints across the gallery walls. Her project “Mirrors of Mashhad Bazar” features an actual mirror held up to the masses – and to the photographer herself, in one shot – to figuratively reflect the many faces of Iranian society. In “The Brides of Mokhber al-Dowleh”, Monzavi explores the symbolic irony of the Iranian bridal gown industry being domineered, like everything, by men. In her most controversial project, “Tina”, Monzavi examines the tragic life of a transgender woman over a two-year period in a country that famously “has no homosexuals”. Her grainy, dynamic, full-frame images exemplify the edgy immediacy of injustices with consummate documentary style.
At 41 years old, Shadi Ghadirian’s photographs are both less representational and more pointed in exploring the intersections between authority and women than Monzavi’s imagery. In her satirical series “Qajar”, Ghadirian mimics the formal, sepia-toned portraiture of Iran’s pre-revolutionary society, with traditionally clad women harboring now-banned items like newspapers, Pepsi cans and mountain bikes. In the series, “Be Colorful”, Ghadirian’s glamorously adorned women are symbolically veiled by panes of painted and peeling glass interposed between her subjects and the viewer. Speaking directly to the subversion of Iranian women today, her richly hued, impressionistic frames represent women’s uneasy circumstances in contemporary Iran with biting beauty. The mixed messages women receive about how appealing and yet hidden they are expected to be under Sharia law is all the more stinging against the backdrop of Iran’s rich intellectual and cultural history.
It might well be that the differences between Monzavi and Ghadirian are completely due to distinct artistic visions, but I can’t escape Monzavi’s youthful exuberance and Ghadirian’s sophisticated symbolism. To me, the contrasts make their strong messaging all the more intriguing. By bringing us these two shows, Robert Klein and Azita Bina have opened a window into the restricted culture of Iran, offering both compelling and witty interpretations that enlarge our understanding of their society today.
For more information about these exhibits, go to: http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs156/1101527907963/archive/1119973152554.html
Feature Image: From the series “Brides of Mokhber al-Dowleh, 2012” by Tahmineh Monzavi (courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston)