Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian holds first exhibition in Switzerland.
AB43 Contemporary is holding the first exhibition in Switzerland by Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian. Art Radar takes a look at the work exhibited and talks to the directors of AB43 Contemporary about how the exhibition may intervene in the tense debates surrounding the looming national burka ban.
Using artistic strategies to connect the public and personal life that mirror feminist artists such as United States artist Martha Rosler or Mexican feminist collective Polvo de Gallina Negra, Iranian artist Shadi Ghadirian uses her photography to visibilise the incoherencies and contradictions of the codes of representation of gender as they traverse the global media and domestic space. Her work revolves around pulling incongruous objects together in order to critique the specific mechanisms of production of violence in the imposition of dominant gender and national identities.
Inspired by her own life experiences, Ghadirian uses humour and parody as starting points to show the paradoxes of women’s lives in Iran. In a solo exhibition running until 3 December 2016, AB43 Contemporary is showing two bodies of work both produced between 2000 and 2008: “Nil Nil” and “Like Every Day”.
The “Like Every Day” series and the “Qajar” series
The artist came to international acclaim in the early 2000s with her series of photographs entitled “Like Every Day”, in which tablecloths and strips of material drape over women like chadors. Household objects – an iron, a grater, a broom – have been placed where the face should be, thus raising issues about domestic drudgery and the cruel anonymity of many Iranian women. Ghadirian uses the utensils to represent universal stereotypes, from the “shrewish mother-in-law” to the “doormat wife”. One photograph has the face replaced with a meat clever, playing on the common phrase a “hatchet-faced wife”.
The work was born out of frustration at all the cooking utensils Ghadirian received as wedding presents when she married the photographer Peyman Hooshmandzadeh in 2000. Echoing a series of artists who have explored the connections between domestic space and the sexualised body (such as Martha Rosler’s seminal 1974 work Semiotics of the Kitchen), in “Like Every Day” Ghadirian serves a cutting critique of the reduction of women’s intellect and skills to that of a service worker.
“Like Every Day” followed on from a group of portraits known as the “Qajar Series” (1998–99), in which Ghadirian’s female friends posed in antique Iranian costumes. Set against 19th-century painted backgrounds and photographed in sepia, these women appeared to come from another era, except that in their hands they held cans of Pepsi or shouldered ghetto blasters. The images explore the tensions and contradictions inherent in Iran’s relationship with the West.
When the artist was 21, she won a competition for a photograph from this series, in which two veiled women hold a mirror that reflects a bookshelf, commenting on the structural gaps in women’s education in Iran as well as gesturing at a critique of the body as a text. The prize was withdrawn after the ministry of culture decided the photograph was too contentious, and Ghadirian was eliminated from the competition.
“Like Every Day” and the Swiss Burka ban
The exhibition opens just months after a controversial Swiss law prohibiting Islamic dress came into force on 1 July 2016 in the Swiss province of Tocino. By 8 July local police had issued the first fines to two people who violated the region’s newly-imposed law by wearing burqas in public places. In September 2016 Switzerland moved a step closer to imposing a nationwide burqa ban after politicians approved a draft bill by just one vote.
It is possible therefore that the specificity of the critique that Ghadirian is making of Iranian society through her work may fall on deaf ears in the context of current day Switzerland, where any criticisms of gender stereotyping or gender violence in Muslim communities is being appropriated and universalised by conservative and racist commentators as evidence for the need to regulate and oppress Swiss Muslims or Muslims living in Switzerland.
Talking to Art Radar about how the decision to show her work came about, AB43 Contemporary Directors Heidi Leupi and Franz Leupi stated:
Our decision to show Shadi Ghadirian was triggered by our visit to her studio in Tehran. We had already returned back to Switzerland when we asked her to show her work at AB43 and Shadi seemed surprised. She told us afterwards that she had thought we wouldn’t risk the controversy with the debate around the burqa still going strong all over Europe.
Asked by Art Radar about the reception of Ghadirian’s work in Switzerland in the context of the tense burkha ban debates, AB43 Directors explained:
Interestingly, the idea behind Shadi’s series “Like Every Day” is not centred around the question if women should or should not be wearing a full body cover. Made between 2000 and 2001, long before the burqa came into the public eye in Europe, the portraits were a reflection of Shadi’s own frustration with the role many Iranian women were reduced to when getting married. To our mind they work as universal stereotypes of women in a domestic context, and this is what both the media and the public have understood when visiting our exhibition here in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the burqa discussion has been a very visible one, so every now and then we do get people specifically referring to wanting to see the “burqa images”, only to realise upon a closer look that Shadi’s work is as much about her life in Iran as it is about ours here in Switzerland.
The “Nil Nil” series
AB43 are also showing the 2008 series “Nil Nil”, which juxtaposes everyday objects found around the home with weapons usually used in war. The shocking combination serves to humanise the daily experiences of war, explores how war impacts civilians and considers how war can change domestic life.
In an interview with Global Fund For Women, Ghadirian explained what motivated the work:
In the Nil Nil series you can see another point of view on war. In the image with the pumps, I want to show everyday life and war simultaneously. I wanted to show how war is reflected inside the home—what happens to the other members of the family who stayed at home and are now waiting. I also wanted to show what life is like when somebody comes back from war, and that many things change after war.
Shadi Ghadirian’s work explores the spaces, discourses, visual codes and bodies where war and home, public and personal, domestic and industrial meet. Her photography offers a powerful analysis of how gender binaries are the condition of possibility for the construction of violent nationalisms, not just in the Iranian context in which she works but across the globe.
- “Where We Are Standing”: 3 contemporary Iranian women artists at Edward Hopper House Art Center – February 2016 – “Where We Are Standing: Contemporary Women Artists from Iran” takes an intimate look at artists’ “diasporic biographies”
- “The personal is the political”: Indian artist Prajakta Potnis at Mumbai’s Project 88 – February 2016 – Indian artist Prajakta Potnis explores trajectories connecting intimate and public worlds
- Lifting the veil: photography and video by Kazakhstan’s Almagul Menlibayeva – artist profile – February 2016 – Art Radar profiles the multidisciplinary artist Almagul Menlibayeva, who uses photography and video to reflect on the cultural transformation in Kazakhstan
- “The Cyphers”: Hajra Waheed’s intimate stories of military surveillance – artist profile – February 2016 – the Montréal-based Canadian artist showcases her latest projects in “The Cyphers”, her first solo museum exhibition in the United Kingdom
- Homecoming: “Selected Works” by Iran’s Raha Raissnia in Tehran at Ab/Anbar gallery – December 2015 – “Selected Works: Raha Raissnia” is Brooklyn-based Iranian artist Raha Raissnia’s first solo show in her home country
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