Agent of Compassion
Iranian artist Hoda Afshar uses photography to engage and embolden both her subjects and viewers. Deeply poetic and politically charged, her powerful photographic images blend documentary, conceptual, and staged photography. A survey show titled A Curve is a Broken Line, compiling two decades of her art practice, is a welcome and timely addition to the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Spring and Summer exhibition schedule.
Born in 1983 to an autocratic post-revolutionary Iran, the photo media artist saw how the State could manipulate photography as a tool of social control and oppression. In response to this practice, she deliberately subverts the power imbalance between a photographer and her subjects, returning agency to those she depicts. Growing up in Tehran instilled in her the notion of having a “dual identity” – how Iranians appear in public and how they behave and speak in private. This notion of exploring what lies beneath the public image, the surface façade, had become an intrinsic part of her photography practice.
Afshar began her career as a newspaper photographer in Tehran, gaining critical acclaim for her journalistic images. However, she felt restricted by the objectivity required for documentary photography. The artist felt compelled to look deeper and began embedding herself with her photography subjects. In the series Scene, 2005, she explored Tehran’s subversive underground party culture and later in Behold, 2016, Iran’s underground gay bathhouse scene, revealing soft, half-lit images of sensual, entwining bodies.
Moving to Australia and settling in Melbourne in 2007, Afshar began to investigate the experience of migration, marginalisation, and displacement. She remarks that moving here was the first time she became aware of her “Iranian-ness” and the stereotyped perceptions of Middle Eastern culture in the West. In Under Western Eyes, 2013–14, she portrayed flamboyant Warhol-like pop art images of veiled women heavily made up and clutching cigarettes or lapdogs, playing up to the exoticised depictions of Islamic women in the West.
Exhibition curator Isobel Parker Philip comments, “Hoda’s approach is unique in that she makes us contend with brutality, not through blunt imagery but through evocation. Her work is anchored in compassion yet also radical in the way it wrestles with injustice.”
Her new series of works, In turn, 2023, created especially for this exhibition, focuses on the recent female-led revolution in Iran. Courageous women staged protests against the murder of activist Mahsa Amini in September 2022 for wearing her headscarf “improperly.” They communicated their dissent through elegiac actions, such as the public braiding of each other’s hair. Honouring these poetic practices, Afshar has created a series of portraits that act as a tender elegy to these defiant women.
Parker Philip remarks that Afshar not only challenges her viewing audiences but she drives them to care. The works may pose complex societal questions but don’t necessarily offer easy answers or solutions. “Her bodies of work might tackle timely issues, but that’s not what makes her work feel critically contemporary,” adds the curator. “Rather, it is the way her work is emotionally implicated in the world that makes it feel pressing. Hoda’s practice is an ongoing engagement with empathy as an artistic principle. That’s what makes her work radical.”
Victoria Hynes is a Sydney based visual arts writer and editor who has written for Australian and international arts publications for more than two decades.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
2 September 2023 to 21 January 2024