AEROPLASTICS contemporary presents the first complete monographic exhibition of the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian. Coming to wide public attention in 2001 with the series Qajar and Like Everyday, the artist has ever continued to explore the theme of conflict between tradition and modernity, and that of the position of women in a society dominated by male stereotypes. Showing just beneath the surface appears the whole saga of the relationship between Orient and Occident, set within a world context that sees Iran, pulled between the will to reform and conservative retrenchment, at times placed beyond the pale, at others considered as an unavoidably essential economic and political partner.
Represented at the Venice Biennale since the 1960s, Iran withdrew after the revolution, to then again take up its pavilion place in 2003. Paradoxically, that year also saw the return of conservatives to power, after a period of reform that had sparked hope for a wider opening to the world, as well as an improvement of human rights and the status of women in the Islamic republic. The series Like Everyday (Domestic Life), which presents women entirely veiled, the face hidden behind assorted items of kitchenware, might appear an acerbic critique on the obligation to wear the veil. But the artist warns against a too literal reading of these images, and underscores that the theme woman-object unfortunately has a universal dimension. The series West by East plays with fashion codes to explore the same theme: in these portraits of women in Western dress, Shadi Ghadirian uses broad black hatching to cover those exposed parts of the body as well as coiffure, reminding us of the public prohibitions against exhibiting to view what one may banally see in the pages of magazines. The technique employed is simple and effective: the models are placed behind a glass pane upon which the artist intervenes – a method also used for the series Be Colourful. These investigations round a body at once hidden and revealed may be seen as far back as 1998, in the images comprising Out of Focus. As for her series Qajar, the title evokes the dynasty of the same name (1794-1925), under which portrait photography was introduced in Iran. Veiled and dressed as in times of old, posing before 19th-century décors, women presenting objects like a radio, a mountain bike or a vacuum cleaner, like a bridge between two worlds, built upon the rather futile, though so-human, need to possess. Further, the images that make up Ctrl+Alt+Delete subtly combine the gap between tradition and modernity with a query concerning the taboo surrounding the female body within Islamic society: positioned in front of a black background that she blends into, the model is at the same time revealed by the computer icons that go to delineate the form.
The new series White Square, Nil Nil and My Press Photos may seem an extension of these various themes, to which here the subject of war is added. For White Square, Shadi Ghadirian photographed (against a white, neutral background) objects of military use - helmet, canteen, ammunition belt, etc. - that she decorates with a little red silk ribbon. Removed from their context, these accoutrements of war appear at once menacing and delicate, their aggressivity tempered by the feminine element. With Nil Nil, these same objects penetrate the domestic space (hand grenade in the fruit bowl, bloody bayonet as place-setting, gas mask in the kiddies' toy bag, etc.): the menace of conflict grafted onto peaceful everyday life, while in a way also becoming contained by the tranquillity of the familial location. As for the collages that comprise My Press Photos, they combine images drawn from press-agency catalogues with old portraits of Iranian military men. Across time and space, war's violence sadly reminds us of its universal, essentially male, dimension.
Pierre-Yves Desaive Critic and curator Brussels , January 2009
Images courtesy of the artist and AEROPLASTICS contemporary, Brussels