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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Silent women: an exhibition of art by Iranian photographers

Published By: The Independent - 28 Feb 2007

Thirty years ago the revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini turned Iran into an Islamic Republic and slammed the door on the outside world. Unseen by the West, Iranians journeyed into decades of trauma. Political opposition was wiped out, women were shrouded, and there were numerous clampdowns on everyday freedoms. Then came eight gruelling years of the Iran-Iraq war, with relentless bombings and a massive loss of life.

The legacy of all this emerges clearly in a festival of Iranian women’s film and photography, now showing in Cambridge.

“I believe we have several generations who are completely traumatised and depressed by what has happened,” says Faryar Javaherian, deputy director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, and the festival’s curator. “Most of the artists are younger women, and what I see in their work is desolation, depression and anxiety. I was very struck by the lack of hope and the overall sadness.”

Thirty Years of Solitude includes the work of thirty photographers and seven film-makers, and a number of the artists have travelled to Cambridge to take part in the event.

Photographs show women holding pictures of their martyred sons, or are scratchy, ambiguous portraits of veiled women. One photograph shows a couple dancing, with their heads carefully cropped from the picture – dancing is forbidden in Iran – while another is of a Barbie doll angrily wrapped in burned and torn plastic.

Films, too, carry a legacy of sadness. In Marzieh Meshkini’s The Day I Became A Woman, a nine-year-old girl loses her boy playmate when she has to put on the veil for the first time, and a woman taking part in a bicycle race is dragged home by the men in her family who are outraged by this bid for freedom.

But photographer Kimia Rahgozar, who has a photograph in the exhibition showing a woman with her bare neck and hair on display – something forbidden to Iranian women -- disagrees with the theme of loneliness and sadness. “Everyone has problems, but I want to communicate that we are all the same, that we have a lot in common. I don’t want to show someone isolated somewhere. I want to show the normal things in life.”

However Goli Taraghi, Iran’s leading woman writer, says that life can never be normal for an artist in Iran. “You are constantly limited. You can’t express yourself. You have the censor’s knife at your throat all the time. So as a result we are always auto-censoring.”

Despite this, Iranian cinema and photography have flourished in recent decades, with women playing a significant part. The photographer Shadi Ghadirian and the film director Rakhshan Bani Etemad are among a number of artists who are now known internationally.

Thirty Years of Solitude came about after the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith was struck by the quality of the work coming out of Iran, and persuaded the president of New Hall, Anne Lonsdale, to consider mounting an exhibition. New Hall, one of two all-women colleges in Cambridge, is a long-time supporter of women artists and displays the world’s second-largest collection of women’s art on its college walls.

Lonsdale then booked herself on an anonymous tourist holiday to Iran – “I didn’t want to get anyone into trouble” – to sound out Javaherian, a Harvard-educated architect, about the possibility and saw immediately that it would be worth doing. “These directors and photographers deserve to be better known,” she says. “Let’s hope this is part of an increasing dialogue between Britain and Iran.”

Whether that comes about will depend on the political climate in Iran, which is impossible to predict. “We are not a settled country,” explains Javaherian. “Nothing is stable for us.”

As a result, shifting boundaries have to be negotiated on a daily basis. Sometimes women can show the front of their hair under their scarves; sometimes not. Sometimes a book or a film will be banned; sometimes not. The catalogue for this festival had to be printed abroad because it shows bare-headed women, but the authorities seem unperturbed that it is going ahead. Everything depends on who is filling which job at what time, explains Javaherian, and the result is a stressful and uncertain existence, but at least not one where people feel forced into silence.

Taraghi, who lives in Paris. agrees. “Every time I go back to Tehran it is like being in a Fellini film. Every shared taxi is a travelling psychotherapy room!”

For younger artists, who cannot remember pre-revolutionary Iran, restrictions are simply a fact of life. Farzaneh Khademian is Iran’s leading woman photojournalist, whose work appears regularly in news magazines around the world. She has covered everything from battles in Beirut to sex-change operations and says “you can do almost everything you like, only sometimes you have to do it more quietly.”

Her photographs in the exhibition show veiled women kayaking and kick-boxing, although normally, she points out, the women would be doing this in sports clothes. “It was only because I was there, they had to put on their scarves.” She is aiming for a full set of sportswomen, from golfers to skiers, to show how fully Iranian women live their lives, but has given up for the moment because “you ask and ask for permission and nothing happens, and then you get tired, and you think you will just put it down for a year and go back to it later.”

Iranian women’s lives are full of contradictions. They do not have he same rights as men, and their testimony in a court of law is worth exactly half of a man’s. Yet they drive, travel and do jobs of all kinds. “People think that we are living like the Arabists (sic),” says Khademian, “but it is not like that. Women are far more active now than they ever were before the revolution. They are studying, working, doing everything they want to do.”

To try and reflect this, Javaherian has avoided choosing striking photographs, such as those of robed women swimming. “I wanted to show a decent image of Iran, not just those humerous and clichéd stereotypes which the media will always pick up.”

And the artistic freedom that women feel is clear in the individual vision of many of the films being screened. Mahvash Sheikholeslami’s exquisite The Old Man of Hara, for example, takes a long, slow look at the life of an island fisherman, using no words but allowing every shot to relish the textures and rhythms of his daily routine. “I was travelling down on the Persian Gulf seven years ago, “ she says, “and I found this man who had made a small room for himself and was just living there and fishing. To me he seemed like Mahatma Ghandi. He was so strong and good. The strength of his character really shines through.”

Sheikholeslami says film-making became so difficult after the revolution that she eventually gave it up and tried other things such as university lecturing. But she wasn’t happy. “So one day I just thought, this is no good. I must make films. Making films is what I do.”

Life has still not been easy for her. A film about Iranian women prisoners was banned after she included an interview with a woman who had killed a secret service agent. But international audiences have showered her with prizes.

“Isn’t it strange,” writes Javaherian, in the catalogue of the festival, “that in an Islamic cultural context where representation is quasi-forbidden, the two art forms most concerned with representation, the cinema and photography, have achieved a world-class status.”

Thirty Years of Solitude, a Festival of work by Iranian Women Photographers and Film Directors until March 11, at New Hall, Cambridge.