Ab-Anbar presents the work of photographer Newsha Tavakolian in a survey exhibition curated by Vali Mahlouji showcasing works from the past two decades, opening 21st of April. Born in 1981, self-taught photographer Tavakolian has been working in the Iranian press since she was a teenager and has covered stories internationally since 2002. As a documentarian, she has photographed regional conflicts, national disasters, and uprisings.
Curator Vali Mahlouji’s approach aims to break up the linearity of the stories presented, to produce a constellation of narratives that run parallel to each other, indeed offering a porous and non-binary discussion surrounding the photographs. The exhibition seeks to pair moments of solitude with explorations of the sublime so as to unshackle the conflicted subjects from the linearity of the photographic frame. This multi-faceted show punctures and dissects Tavakolian’s found narratives through highlighting elements of portraiture and stillness often featured in her work. This visual dialogue threads along the various chapters of Tavakolian’s photographic quests and offers a more nuanced and complex interpretation of the subjectivities exposed.
An info-graphic map dominates the first room of the exhibition: On the War Trail (2001-2016) chronicles Tavakolian's travels through various locations in Iraq and Syria over a period of thirteen years. The map avoids panoramic markings but rather seeks to present an achronological account of war, as evinced through the marginal photo mounts that highlight the borderless and perpetual conditions of devastation. Panoramas impart steadfast conclusions and didactic accounts; but the marginal images scattered around the map here are aimed to topple this universal idea and demonstrate that the photographs in this show do not paint the whole picture but rather offer a mere snapshot of a much more complex and grand narrative.
A man holding up a light source set against a grim, dark background is the subject of a photograph centrally positioned. In Adnan 35, Chel Agha (2015) amidst a disconcerting and dimly lit backdrop our attention becomes fixated upon a picture of a young woman, a Syrian Kurdish martyr fighting ISIS that is hung high up on the wall. Flanking this work to the left in the same room, a picture of a grieving woman is frozen on the TV screen and is in turn framed: an intimate peek into a traumatic experience. Tavakolian’s candid shot of a frame within a frame bars the viewer from becoming too at ease with the (un)folding event and prevents us from simply waging pity. Susan Sontag warns of the peril in being exposed too often to shocking images, in that as time goes on with each successive interaction the initial sentimental effect lessens and banality becomes paramount. The repetition of the frame-within-frame, which is a recurring device, complicates the position of the viewer.
Following the crescendo of war imagery experienced at first encounter, we are led into the next set of rooms in the exhibition where a series of installations from the series, Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album (2014/2015), are presented. Here Tavakolian examines the contemporary complexities of Iranian society through intimate forays into the private environments and experiences of a group of friends who share her own aspirations and struggles. In these works, as in much of her practice, the lone figure seemingly suspended in timelessness takes centre stage. Embedded within the meticulous mise-en-scened portraits (whether photographic stills or films-without-action) is a haunting disorientation of an unresolved past and an unknown future. We are faced with a wholly different context where, although analogous in experience of distress, the work is much more in line with the intimate link Tavakolian establishes with a select few from an urban, Iranian middle-class background at home.
Blank Pages of an Iranian Photo Album (2014/2015) is a series of works based on the childhood family albums of a number of Tavakolian’s Tehrani friends — six of whom are presented here. These found albums contained many happy records of each individual’s early childhood, especially those idealised and celebratory moments, such as anniversaries or special family events. In all of them, memory collecting had been discontinued marked by a finale episode and the albums themselves altogether abandoned, with most pages left blank and untouched. The blank pages serve as a metaphor for the unlived dreams. Taking the biographic silence as a point of departure, Tavakolian follows each individual in their daily affairs, and documents quotidian scenes. In each series, the first image is a reproduction of a found photograph from the original album and the rest reflect the gritty, ordinary realities of everyday encounters in Tehran. These expanded albums subvert the dreams of an idyllic childhood, which are disconnected from the reality of the present. The subjects are brought to life in films shot on a hillside in Tehran, where the characters remain compellingly motionless and suspended in time.
In Freefalling in Samburu: The Journey to a Safe House, a lightbox displays segments of a photo essay. The small texts in the lightbox spell out the very horrific and graphic stories of individual trauma. This project was commissioned by The Girls Generation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Kenya that strives to put an end to the inhumane practice of female genital mutilation, which is still prevalent in many African societies. Towering above the lightbox The Girl in the Red (2014), an arresting image of a young woman slows down our pace and demands a different mode of attention. The natural lighting in this photograph does much to bring the subject up-close and frontal, yet its larger-than-life scale demands hesitance and consideration on part of the viewer — a masterfully composed moment of quietude under the omnipotent shadow of terror.
The next segment is punctuated by a canvas-sized photograph Mother and Child (2017), where the human figure takes centre stage. Noteworthy is the formalism and painterly qualities in this photograph: the staging and the composition exalts the figures by recalling the familiar iconography, The Madonna and Child. The dramatic darkness contrasted with the strong light is reminiscent of the way, for instance, Caravaggio or Rembrandt handled the chiaroscuro in their portraits. What haunts our imagination is perhaps the way in which the relationship between the subjects and our gaze is negotiated. Looking at Tavakolian’s photographs, not only can one attest to their strength as portraits but also there exists a discernible sense of comfort in the way her subjects gaze into the camera lense — even in the most tumultuous of situations. The powerful and multifold gaze is a testament to the sensitivity spent in Tavakolian’s decisive moments all the while she directs her lens at her subjects, thereby relinquishing the power and provisions of representation to them. This visual treatment can also be seen in the portraits, Adnan 35, Chel Agha and The Girl in Red. The tenderness with which Tavakolian captures her subjects reaches far beyond a candid moment merely concerned with documenting — the subjects are transformed into sitters confronting the viewer.
The penultimate room in the exhibition is curated as a continuous constellation: to move forward and progress from one point to another creating a fluid dialogue across Tavakolian’s photographic practice as a whole, an oscillation between powerful glimpses that strive to present a more holistic understanding of her work — from coverage of conflicts to aesthetic explorations. This emancipates the subjects from any conventional documentarian narratives.
Finally, a selection of media cuttings dating from 1998 to the present day represent the wide use and dissemination of images produced by Tavakolian for a period of nearly twenty years since she began working as a self-trained photojournalist and reminds the viewer of her relentless occupation with recording quotidian events.
Newsha Tavakolian began working professionally in the Iranian press at the age of sixteen. Her work has been displayed in many international art exhibitions and has been on show in museums such as the Victoria & Albert museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the British Museum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. In 2014 Newsha was chosen as the fifth laureate of the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism award and in 2015 she was chosen as the Principal Prince Claus Laureate. Tavakolian became a Magnum nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in international magazines and newspapers, including Time Magazine, Newsweek, Stern, Le Figaro, Colors, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, NRC Handelsblad, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic.
Vali Mahlouji is a London-based curator, writer and currently independent curatorial adviser to the British Museum on its modern and contemporary Iranian collection. His recent curatorial work includes exhibitions at Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Photo London, Art Dubai Modern, Whitechapel Gallery, and Bergen Assembly. He is the founder of the curatorial think tank Archaeology of the Final Decade (AOTFD), which engages with accounts of culture, which have been lost through material destruction, political, economic or human contingencies.