Iranian photographer breaks down borders to win Royal Academy Rose Award

Mitra Tabrizian wins praise for an image that captures “the crisis of contemporary culture” in both East and West.

On 3 June 2013, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, announced Tehran-born, London-based photographer Mitra Tabrizian as winner of the Rose Award for Photography. The Long Wait brings together ideas of East and West in its exploration of migration, belonging and contemporary culture. 

Mitra Tabrizian, The Long Wait 2005, Courtesy of the artist and Wapping Project Bankside

Mitra Tabrizian, ‘The Long Wait’, 2005. Image courtesy the artist and Wapping Project, Bankside.

Mitra Tabrizian‘s The Long Wait, from the 2005-2006 series “Border“, was named the winner of the annual Rose Award and awarded a GBP1000 prize. The work will show at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition from 10 June until 18 August 2013 in London.

The Long Wait is a portrait of a female Iranian exile who is anonymous and whose story remains unknown to the public.

Breaking down “Borders” with photography

In an interview with curator Rose Issa cited on the artist’s website, Tabrizian explained that the “Border” series, photographed in London and Tehran, concentrates on “the fantasy” of Iranians in exile. The artist said that the subjects photographed in London present “a sense of displacement, solitude, creating a mise-en-scene which is unsettling”. The photographs shot in Tehran are panoramic views of crowds in what Tabrizian calls “a familiar environment, yet the image still connotes a sense of seclusion, stressing the alienation felt by Iranians today.”

Mitra Tabrizian, Road to Nowhere 2005, Courtesy of the artist and Wapping Project Bankside

Mitra Tabrizian, ‘Road to Nowhere’, 2005. Image courtesy the artist and Wapping Project, Bankside.

“What links the two projects is hardship and isolation on both sides of the ‘border'”, explains Tabrizian, who has been lauded as “one of the most innovative and visually powerful artists practising in the United Kingdom today” and whose work has been called “radical” by curator Sara Raza.  

In an interview with The Guardian, Tabrizian explained that her series could be read “as a breakdown of the barriers of otherness.”

I am not suggesting that the West and East are indistinguishable, or that people from the Middle East lead the same sort of lives wherever they may be – I’m just highlighting the difficulty of deciphering the setting visually.

Since beginning her practice in the eighties, Tabrizian has resisted the title of an “Iranian artist” and prefers the term “cultural practitioner, with a special interest in, or concern for, Iran.

Mitra Tabrzian, from the series Another Country 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Wapping Project Bankside

Mitra Tabrizian, from the series ‘Another Country’, 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Wapping Project, Bankside.

An accidental photographer

A filmmaker as well as a photographer, Tabrizian works between media but maintains a long-term interest in the position of the exile. In an interview for The Observer, writer and critic Rachel Cooke asked Tabrizian how she became interested in photography. “It was almost by accident“, she answered. “I’d always been interested in class divisions in Tehran. I started taking pictures.” Wondering what would become of those photographs, Tabrizian realised that “documentary [film] work might not necessarily be the answer.”

She turned to digital photography and, according to Cooke, created “piercing narratives that remind some critics of film posters.”

Mitra Tabrizian, from the series Another Country 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Wapping Project Bankside

Mitra Tabrizian, from the series ‘Another Country’, 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Wapping Project, Bankside.

Mitra Tabrizian, from the series Another Country 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Wapping Project Bankside

Mitra Tabrizian, from the series ‘Another Country’, 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Wapping Project, Bankside.

Mitra Tabrizian, from the series Another Country 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Wapping Project Bankside

Mitra Tabrizian, from the series ‘Another Country’, 2010. Image courtesy the artist and Wapping Project, Bankside.

In 2008, Tabrizian showed a selection of her work in “This is That Place” at Tate Britain. “All of it”, remarks Cooke, “reflects a preoccupation with the great story of our age: migration.”

The recurrent theme, according to the artist, is “the crisis of contemporary culture both in the West and the East”. In conversation with the artist, theorist Homi Bhabha calls Tabrizian’s work “a critique of consumerism and the ethics of commerce and industrial practice. It’s also a critique of the functionalism of that world.”

“Border”, Tabrizian notes, illustrates an “enormous resilience” and a “common will to survive” the “crisis of contemporary culture”. Her subjects “have unfinished business.

 HS/CN/CXMA

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Related Topics: Iranian artists, photography, art and migrationfilm, artist profiles, contemporary art prizes

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