Capturing Iran’s Past

Contemporary Photo Art in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin

Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Gravestones 4 (2004) by Arman StepanianOriginal Source: Afrand Gallery / Arman Stepanian

“I feel that time has past
I feel that moment is my share of history’s leaves”

Forugh Farrokhzad, "Window"

From the Series "Irandokht" (2006/2009) by Najaf ShokriOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri

Can artists teach history?

Nil Nil #5 (2008) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Do artists represent events and time accurately?

Qajar #9 (1998) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Are photos past or present?

Part of the Series "Hall of Reflections" - in the exhibition "Capturing Iran's Past" in the Museum für Islamische Kunst (2019) by Teraneh HemamiPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Here we journey through Iran’s past and four contemporary artists’ reflections of their present via the past. Engaging different moments of Iran’s modern history, none look further than the introduction of photography in the mid-19th century. We invite you to explore Iran’s modern history and the multiple stories of the four artists’ personal and collective communities.

"Capturing Iran's Past" in the Museum für Islamische Kunst (2019) by Arman Stepanian / Shadi GhadirianPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Capturing Iran’s Past, PhotoArt
An exhibition in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, Berlin

Capturing Iran’s Past. FotoKunst – PhotoArt – هنر عکاسی was a special exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography in the Museum für Islamische Kunst, in Berlin from 7 November 2019 to 26 January 2020. The first of its kind for the museum, the exhibition presented multiple works of contemporary art alongside the museum’s permanent presentation of historical artworks including the museum’s famed Mshatta Facade (pictured here). The exhibition served as a reminder and celebration of the living cultural and artistic achievements of Iran and the numerous communities represented by the museum’s collection.

Capturing Iran's Past | Trailer (2020) by Astrid AlexanderPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Qajar #1 (1998) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Subtle Rebellions and Modern Women

Since photography’s introduction in Iran, women have participated in their presentation and asserted creative agency in reflecting their social roles. 

Qajar #19 (1998) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Shadi Ghadirian

Qajar, 1998

Including an all female cast, Shadi Ghadirian re-stages nineteenth-century Iranian studio-portraits in Qajar.

Qajar #1 (1998) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Ghadrian’s photographs closely recall those capturing women in the Qajar court. Backdrops, clothing and the sitter’s often direct engagement with the camera are most reminiscent of the historical photos.

Ghadirian disrupts this historicity by including contemporary material objects like a soda can ...

Qajar #9 (1998) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

... or sunglasses.

Qajar #18 (1998) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Often taboo if not forbidden, ...

... the contemporary objects and the sitter’s gaze attest to every women’s need to negotiate her traditional and modern social positions.

Anis al-Dowleh (c. 1860) by Nasir al-Din Shah QajarOriginal Source: Golestan Palace

Iran’s Earliest Photographs


Photography was first introduced in Iran in 1842, not long after its invention in 1839 in France. Quickly adopted, photography became a popular modern activity amongst Iranian elites. Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848-1896), himself, was a serious photographer and regularly photographed his wives and children. The women are often wearing shalitehs, adaptations of European ballet-tutus or presented with props, like bicycles ...

Anis al-Dowleh (c. 1860) by Nasir al-Din Shah QajarOriginal Source: Golestan Palace

... and dolls. Today, these images are important documents of the court-life for women in the Qajar era.

Doorbells 2 (2000) by Arman StepanianOriginal Source: Afrand Gallery / Arman Stepanian

Memory

How do the people before us and our memory of them shape the world we live in now?

Arman Stepanian

Gravestones, 2004
Doorbells, 2000

Arman Stepanian’s series Gravestones and Doorbells connect historical, black-and-white portraits to present-day spaces.

Doorbells 3 (2004) by Arman StepanianOriginal Source: Afrand Gallery / Arman Stepanian

The historical photographs present Iranian-Armenians, many of whom operated or frequented portrait-studios in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Juxtaposing the portraits to both entryways and ...

Gravestones 1 (2004) by Arman StepanianOriginal Source: Afrand Gallery / Arman Stepanian

... tombstones, Stepanian thematises memory and the memory of individuals at the threshold of both life and death.

Gravestones 3 (2004) by Arman StepanianOriginal Source: Afrand Gallery / Arman Stepanian

Gravestones 2 (2004) by Arman StepanianOriginal Source: Afrand Gallery / Arman Stepanian

Capturing a Moment

Once the camera’s shutter closes, the moment the future photograph depicts has already past. Photography is thus bound to the past and can serve as a memory aid. Through its technical process, it was often regarded as capturing authentic moments or undistorted likenesses of a person. It is in this sense that photography was used in Iran from its introduction 1842 until the 1960s. With time, photography was used not only for objective documentation but also was adopted as an artistic medium.

"Irandokht" and "The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men" in the exhibition "Capturing Iran's Past" in the Musuem für Islamische Kunst (2019) by Najaf ShokriPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Identity

Are registration photographs more revealing of  individual or collective identities?

Najaf Shokri

Irandokht, 2006-09
The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men, 2006-12

Irandokht and The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men are scans of photographs in identity booklets (shenasnamehs).

From the Series "The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men" (2006/2012) by Najaf ShokriOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri

Shokri found these booklets discarded in a rubbish bin behind the National Organization for Civil Registration in Tehran.

All booklets found were issued in 1942, but the photographs were added later.

From the Series "Irandokht", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2009, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more
From the Series "The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2012, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more
From the Series "Irandokht", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2009, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more
From the Series "The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2012, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more
From the Series "Irandokht", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2009, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more
From the Series "The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2012, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more
From the Series "Irandokht", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2009, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more
From the Series "The Registration Congregation of Iranian Men", Najaf Shokri, 2006/2012, Original Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri
Show lessRead more

From the Series "Irandokht" (2006/2009) by Najaf ShokriOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri

The booklets are remarkable expressions of a person’s individual and collective identity.

They call attention to an individual’s unique characteristics like name, date of birth, etc. and also declare each’s membership to Iranian citizenship. Discarded, these booklets testify shifting notions of identity in post-revolutionary Iran.

From the Series "Irandokht" (2006/2009) by Najaf ShokriOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Najaf Shokri

What do official IDs reveal about their owners?

Beside other factors like common language, geography or religion, collective identity is shaped by a shared past, while individual identity is primarily based on personal experiences. An official record of Iranian collective and individual identities are life-long Iranian identity booklets, shenasnamehs. They record important events of an individual’s life, like birth, marriage, divorce, children’s birth and death. They were first introduced during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Following the Iranian revolution, new identity booklets were required.

From the Series "Hall of Reflections" (2000/2012) by Teraneh HemamiOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Teraneh Hemami

Migrations

Migrant stories are often marked by a profound sense of distance from both the places and communities left behind and those in which they aim to assimilate.

From the Series "Hall of Reflections" (2000/2012) by Teraneh HemamiOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Teraneh Hemami

Teraneh Hemami

Hall of Reflections, 2000-2012

Like many Iranians, Taraneh Hemami immigrated to the United States as a student in the 1970’s and later made her stay permanent. In Hall of Reflections ...

From the Series "Hall of Reflections" (2000/2012) by Teraneh HemamiOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Teraneh Hemami

... Hemami collects photographs ...

From the Series "Hall of Reflections" (2000/2012) by Teraneh HemamiOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Teraneh Hemami

... and letters from Iranian migrants in Northern California ...

Part of the Series "Hall of Reflections" - in the exhibition "Capturing Iran's Past" in the Museum für Islamische Kunst (2019) by Teraneh HemamiPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

... and creates mirror assemblages with this memorabilia. Hemami’s mirrors recall a common architectural feature in Iran ...

mirror-hall (talar-e ayineh), House of Moshir al-Molk (also known as House of Charmi, Khaneh-ye Charmi) (late 19th century)Original Source: Museum for Islamic Heritage

... the talar-e ayineh (mirror halls).

"Hall of Reflections" detail - in the exhibition "Capturing Iran's Past" in the Museum für Islamische Kunst (2019) by Teraneh HemamiPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Layering mementoes on mirrors, Hemami connects the viewer’s experience of the migrants’ stories to this familiar element of Iranian architecture.

From the Series "Hall of Reflections" (2000/2012) by Teraneh HemamiOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Teraneh Hemami

Staying Connected

The Persian language has a special term to describe the emotional state felt when migrating:

غربت

ghorbat

connotes nostalgia, ...

From the Series "Hall of Reflections" (2000/2012) by Teraneh HemamiOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Teraneh Hemami

... the missing of another place, ...

From the Series "Hall of Reflections" (2000/2012) by Teraneh HemamiOriginal Source: AG Galerie / Teraneh Hemami

... and also the pain of not belonging.

In twentieth-century Iran, emigration increased due to varying social and political limitations. The largest emigration occurred between 1978-1986, which included the final years of the Pahlavi era (1925-1979), the Iranian Revolution (1978-79) and also the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).

Nil Nil #2 (2008) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

War and Fractured Communities

Regardless of where it may be fought, war significantly alters home life and its impact can last for generations.

Nil Nil #6 (2008) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Shadi Ghadirian

Nil Nil, 2008

The title of the series Nil Nil references the lack of any winners in the Iran-Iraq war.

Ghadirian experienced this conflict as a child and represents in this series the pervasive presence of the war in Iranian daily life. In her photographs, she places the tools and weapons of war in domestic settings.

Nil Nil #1 (2008) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Items are carefully arranged and nods to potential violence are surprising.

Nil Nil #10 (2008) by Shadi GhadirianOriginal Source: Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

Together the photographs are a representation of the lived experience of war, which intrudes in home spaces. They also remind us that war and its traumas continue to affect daily life long after a war ends.

Mural for the Martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War (2019) by Agnes RamederPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Commemorating What’s Lost

The Iran-Iraq war began 1980 when Iraq invaded Iran hoping to take advantage of the post-revolutionary uncertainties in the country. The war ended eight years later after the United Nations negotiated a cease-fire, and the borders between Iran and Iraq remained nearly unchanged. For those who lived through the war, its impact was great and persists today. Thousands died on both sides, and many Iranian victims continue to be remembered through photographs and murals incorporated in Iranian cityscapes. Young men, in particular, are commemorated as martyrs and their loss has been etched in the memories of all of those who witnessed the war.

Exhibitiion poster "Capturing Iran's Past" in the Museum für Islamische Kunst (2019) by Nikola AehlePergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The exhibition Capturing Iran’s Past. FotoKunst – PhotoArt – هنر عکاسی shown in the Museum für Islamische Kunst Berlin (07 Nov 2019 - 26 Jan 2020) was funded by the Hauptstadtkulturfonds Berlin and the Freunde des Museums für Islamische Kunst e.V. In cooperation with the artists as well as the Afrand Gallery Tehran, AG Galerie Tehran and Silk Road Gallery Tehran.

Catalogue

Credits: Story

Text: Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Concept / Editing: Astrid Alexander and Margaret Shortle
Video: Astrid Alexander

Based on "Capturing Iran’s Past. FotoKunst – PhotoArt – هنر عکاسی", an exhibition co-curated by Agnes Rameder, Margaret Shortle, Martina Müller-Wiener and Stefan Weber. Museum für Islamische Kunst in the Pergamonmuseum, 07 Nov 2019 - 26 Jan 2020.

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Museum für Islamische Kunst

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
From Bach to Bauhaus
Art, sights and history brought to you by over 160 institutions in Germany
View theme
Google apps