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Picture This Amak Mahmoodian’s Zanjir, Arnolfini Bristol

Past struggles of Iranian women linked with present in striking series of images

ZANJIR in Farsi literally means “chain.” But it can also have the sense of “paired/coupled” and that distinction is particularly significant in understanding Amak Mahmoodian’s photographic compositions.  

In some, Mahmoodian’s female relatives obscure their faces with photographs that she has dug up at the Golestan archives in Tehran of kings’ wives, harem women and their relatives from the time of the Qajar dynasty which lasted from 1781 to 1925.

These are some of the earliest images of Iranian photography and, by altering the true identities of the subjects, Mahmoodian creates a kind of time machine that links the past with the present and future over considerable expanses of time and space.

It allows Mahmoodian, born in Shiraz in southern Iran and who now lives in Bristol, to explore issues of memory, identity, exile, powerlessness, home and family.

For most migrants and exiles what gnaws most at the soul is the uncertainty about the individual self and identity. “Contradictory identities exist within each of us,” Mahmoodian stresses, “yet before we can define our own identities, an identity has been decided for us, defined by others.”

In her experience, “women are at the margins of Iranian society and this is what lies behind my projects concerning the identity and image of Iranian women.

“I learnt how to wear my scarf [in Iran] when I was seven years old,” she recalls. At the time for her and her mother, “I” was a feeling, “an expression of identity, not an identity itself.”

Fragmentary sentences of Mahmoodian’s imagined conversation with 19th-century Iranian Princess Zahra Khanom Taj es-Saltaneh are simultaneously displayed.

The latter was a defiant writer and activist of women’s liberation in the country and the founder member of the clandestine Society of Women’s Freedom. Quite unprecedentedly for the times, she divorced her husband.

These persuasive, cathartic images cast a visual spell over altered realities. They record the separation and marginalisation of women in a wider societal sense, while offering succour to those whose plight they address directly by connecting them to a longstanding struggle for the preservation of collective memory and, ultimately, liberation.

The exhibition is free and runs from January 18-March 22, opening times: arnolfini.org.uk

 

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