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In Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’, Tehranian Simin (Leila Hatami), the female protagonist, wants to leave Iran for a country that will provide more opportunities for her daughter. Nader (Peyman Moaadi), her husband, refuses; his ailing father needs to be looked after. The film opens with the couple facing the camera head on, wanting a separation, arguing their case in front of a magistrate.
At Gallery Lakeeren, Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian, choosing to stay in Iran, focuses, like Farhadi, on the social faultlines that seem to preoccupy Iranian artists and filmmakers. Staying away from the overtly political, they are adept at making the personal political – as does Ghadirian, in her show ‘Miss Butterfly’.
Using a story by playwright Bijan Mofid, Ghadirian creates a mise-en-scene where a hijab clad woman is the butterfly trapped in the webbed windowed apartment. Freedom here is allegorical; delving into the personal realm of a woman trapped in domesticity and in the country’s Sharia law, it alludes to Iran’s political mire, when neighboring Islamic nations go through the turmoil of self questioning.
Shadi Ghadirian, Miss Butterfly Gallery view; Courtesy Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai
Here, she self questions the role of women in an Islamic society, as she has done in the past; in her earlier Qajar series, drawing from mid 19th century photographs taken by a Qajar dynasty monarch of the women in his harem and contemporary domestic tools, meshing the old and the new, emphasizing a lost harem life of a community of women in fancy costumes and contrasting it with modernity – of a woman in a nuclear family and familiar, ordinary household gadgets – she posits that not much really has changed for the current Iranian woman in the intervening 150 years. This delving into everyday of the women in Iran (also in her previous Like Everyday series) draws from contemporary life – like in their cinema, a viewer from outside Iran, is often astounded by the contradictions – of strong, opinionated women forcefully stating their case yet within the constraints of a theocratic rule.
Here, like other practitioners of staged photography, she sets up the scene carefully. There’s a commonality of the shaft of light that streams through a window; like a promised freedom it is sealed with a delicate spider’s web, often being woven by the woman herself. The scenes are universal – a living room, a bedroom – familiar to all everywhere; she strikes a chord with women trapped by social circumstances anywhere, a gilded cage one cannot fly out of.
Shadi Ghadirian, Miss Butterfly Series, 2010 , Digital Print Size, 100 x 70 cm; Courtesy of the artist & Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai.
Shooting in black and white, the contrast of light is heightened and becomes the focus – the eye is instantly drawn to the square windowed light, the exterior, the mysterious beyond, even as it is the interior that is always portrayed. The sense of claustrophobia then creeps in as one moves from room to room – one imagines the meandering of a diurnal yearning for freedom in the paces around the house. Silhouetted against the light, there’s a dignified resignation in her protagonist. Unlike the feisty Simin, who Farhadi sets free in ‘A Separation’, Ghadirian entraps Miss Butterfly cocooned in comfort; there’s a quiet discomfort in her images, and though a simple allegory, it’s a pithy comment on the political clime that exists in Iran today.
There’s a sustained rigour in the series, the contrast of the light streaming in from a webbed aperture and shadowed interiors, a quiet in each frame of a melancholic stillness, the solitary figure as delicate as the web she weaves. The idea is repetitive, the work not complex. As one walks around the gallery, one walks with her – the impact is insidious – and Gallery Lakeeren’s small confines are an unexpected ally.
One has to take into context here the parameters that a woman photographer living in Iran, shooting women in staged settings, can work within – no hair can be shown, no contact with men can be made, and working conditions for women come with restrictions. Likewise, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘Wadjda’ is her country’s Best Picture nominee to the Academy – the first submission by her country and more remarkably a film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. As a woman filmmaker, she had to observe all the rules of Sharia law, while shooting outdoors under the confines of an abaya, and often instructing from the cover of a van. In both cases, the very process of shooting the photographs or filming – the technical and administrative circumstances framed by the social context – is as much an expression of the politics of the images or film, as are the political perspectives articulated through the diagesis of thematic content and narrative structure… These veiled weavings of the fabric of their world are testimonies on film.
Using the theme of a single woman in a frame over the several years in her career, Ghadirian’s expansion of the frame in ‘Miss Butterfly’, to the surrounds of the woman, only heightens the diminished freedoms of Iranian women; they may think and dress like the rest of us, but portrayed consistently – albeit confidently – beneath the hijab and abaya, lies the history of their times.
(Image on top: Shadi Ghadirian, Miss Butterfly Series, 2010 , Digital Print Size, 100 x 70 cm; Courtesy of the artist & Lakeeren Gallery, Mumbai.)