Azadeh Akhlaghi: An eye witness in Iran - Art Collector

Issue 70, October - December 2014

Rex Butler introduces the extraordinary photographic work of Irani-Australian artist Azadeh Akhlaghi.
  Azadeh Akhlaghi, featured in Art Collector Issue 70, October - December 2014. Portrait by Mick Richards.

It was a farewell party for two colleagues, Mark and Zala, who were leaving The University of Queensland and heading off overseas. In the middle of winter, we stood around on the back deck of their Queenslander in shirt sleeves and light dresses and drank and listened to speeches. At some point Mark tapped me on the shoulder and said, “There’s someone I want you to meet. He’s read [Slavoj] Žižek”. I was then introduced to Amir, an early-30s student from Iran who was undertaking a PhD in the school of languages and cultural studies. Amir and I soon stopped talking about Žižek and got on to our real mutual love, books. He told me, somewhat surprisingly, that he was currently reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and we both agreed that the later Paul Auster represented a distinct falling off in quality. I guess I was slightly taken aback to find someone from Iran so well versed in western literature, but he told me he now supplemented his income – with the paper he had worked for back home recently closed – translating English-language novels into Persian. We said goodbye that afternoon with a promise to catch up soon, and with a recommendation from him for an Australian book I hadn’t heard of before and still haven’t got around to reading: Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole.

A few days later, I received an email from Amir. Knowing that I was an art historian, he wondered whether I would like to see the work of his partner,
Azadeh Akhlaghi, who was currently living in Iran. Of course, one of the occupational hazards of being an art historian is that people are always wanting to show you either their own work or that of others they feel deserve to be better known. And, although I’d had a perfectly pleasant time with Amir on that lovely Brisbane afternoon on the back deck, I suppose I feared for the worst. But, not wishing to offend, I said yes. A few days later, a huge four megabyte attachment appeared in my inbox. With my heart in my mouth, I clicked and opened it. I was immediately blown away. Instead of, I don’t know, a series of stiff academic still lives or exhausted anti-art gestures, I was held transfixed by an extraordinary catalogue of photos in the style of Jeff Wall. I couldn’t make out their content – although it was obvious from their captions that they involved events from recent Iranian history – but their dramatic staging, impeccable casting and slight air of computer-generated unreality drew me in and kept me there.

I had to respond to Amir straight away. “These photos are amazing. Azadeh is going to be famous. They’ve got absolutely everything going for them”. It’s a judgment, now that I’ve calmed down a little, I’d still hold to. Who else is making tableau-style photography that seems at once to come out of 19th century French history painting and to respond to events we read about in our newspapers every day? In fact, I’d even say that, exactly where Wall fails adequately to represent contemporary events – his
Dead Soldiers Talk, which sets Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa on the battlefields of Afghanistan, strikes me as a real mistake – these works succeed, thanks to the fact that they are enlivened by a tabloid-like immediacy and are not overburdened by their indebtedness to tradition. And the extraordinary thing is that Akhlaghi is an Australian citizen. As the interview over the next few pages reveals, she originally trained as an engineer at RMIT in Melbourne in the early 2000s, which is also where she first undertook art classes. One of the more striking facts about Akhlaghi’s career, therefore, is that it reveals that Australian art doesn’t always happen within these shores, and one of the deep historical connections her art reveals – beyond the obvious echoes between Iran’s past and its present – is the long and ongoing artistic connection between Australia and what might be called the Middle East.

Hello, Azadeh, can you please just tell me briefly how you came to live in Australia?
When I was 18, I entered the University of Mashad in Iran. At the same time I was dabbling in journalism as well, working for a local newspaper affiliated to a reformist party that was to take power at the next election. But the newspaper came to the attention of the local authorities. They interrogated and arrested some of the editors, and I had my share too: the university suspended my enrolment for three semesters. Given how young and inexperienced I was, it came as a huge blow to me and I decided to leave Iran. I came to know a guy who lived in Australia, and I arrived here with him. So it was due more to accident and coincidence than any deliberate decision.

You studied engineering at RMIT in Melbourne. But you also did some art courses as part of your electives, and it was there that you began to think about making art, right?
That’s true. I studied computer science because doing art didn’t seem to be a plausible way of earning a living. However, I never gave up my fascination with art, so I lived a sort of dual life at RMIT: half of my time was spent at the engineering school and the other half at the school of art. I took photography and cinema courses, and also attended lectures and classes that weren’t in the curriculum. I undertook my first photography project in Melbourne in 2001, a rather amateurish series of pictures of various gravestones at a number of cemeteries in Melbourne and Sydney. A person to whom I’m greatly indebted was the head of the school of media and communication at RMIT, who taught photography at the time. As naïve as I was, one day I just knocked on his door and told him I wanted to show the pictures, and he gave me a great deal of his time and talked with me about every picture patiently. Looking back on those days, I’d say that he played a crucial role in my career.

You then returned to Iran and began working in film. But you soon started to get the urge to make your own work.
Yes, I lived in Australia altogether for eight years and became a citizen in 2004. But, upon returning to Iran in 2005, I became an assistant director in film for three years and worked with a number of directors, including Abbas Kiarostami. After that, I made up my mind that I’d do visual art and create my own work. That’s how the professional phase of my career began.

For outsiders, what are some of the restrictions on making art in Iran? In some ways, do these determine what you decide to depict?
The restrictions are quite strong, but there are always ways of getting around them. So, rather than censoring myself, I lay the project out in the form I want to do it in, and then try to come up with techniques to circumvent the restrictions. For example, in terms of the hijab, as you may know, it became compulsory after the 1979 revolution. But many of my pictures concern events that happened before that turning point, so rather than following the rule of the land, we found relatively remote spots in town, then practised the scene in the gallery many times before the shoot, and then undertook the shoot as quickly as possible before we attracted people’s attention.

Why did you decide to record these historical events in this dramatised way? What were some of the artistic decisions involved in making them?
The issues that led me to the By an Eye-Witness project were more historical and political than artistic. It began with the political shock of the aftermath of the post-election uprisings in Iran in 2009, as well as of the Arab Spring. I started to think about the revival of history.

We read about our historical heroes in books, and sometimes come across their vague images in black-and-white photos or in fast-moving, unfocused film footage. But in all of those representations, they still belong to the past and are bound to remain so. There is a gap between us, a silence that is hard to break, because we consider them part of history. This is the reason that an often unspoken sorrow, which we all hold in silence, allows us to make a connection to them. I mean to make them as vivid as possible, to bring them into the present and turn them into an integral part of our lives today. That is how I first got into this project. Then I began the research, and mostly focused on the great names of our history, freedom fighters and political activists who died in heart-breaking circumstances. But, as there was no camera around to capture the moment, their deaths have somehow gone unnoticed. Through my research I came to the idea of seeing history rather than knowing it. We can know a lot about how those people died, therefore we all have an image of that moment on a cerebral level, but we hardly get to see the moment. That’s how I came to produce these vivid and colourful images of what happened to them at their moment of death.

One of the astonishing consequences of the 2009 uprising was that many old political figures and activists, murdered intellectuals and journalists of Iran came back into the spotlight after decades in obscurity. They emerged, as it were, from the ruins of history. Even though they died many years ago, their souls took part in the movement: you could feel their presence out on the streets of Tehran. I believe that the rising up for freedom is also an attempt to redeem the oppressed history of our past. It is a demonstration of our debt of gratitude to our predecessors. So I chased those characters down and tried to capture them. I looked at numerous cases of brutal murder during the recent history of Iran – between the constitutional revolution of 1906 and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and [during] the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war – and chose 17 characters. Unfortunately, we Middle Easterners have no shortage of candidates for such a project, so I had to be selective. My main goal was to gather people from all walks of life, so the cast ranges from the political activists of the various parties, like the national front or the leftists, to poets, writers, journalists, intellectuals and athletes, from ones who espoused armed struggle to those who subscribed to non- violent resistance to others whose weapon of choice was the pen.

I also tried to mark out the turning points of Iran’s contemporary history. Most of the depicted killings are not only tragic but a crucial turning point in the particular struggle they represent. In other words, you could say that, if any of them hadn’t died at that particular moment, our history would have been different. My final criterion was that at the final moment there was no camera to record their death. Thus there is no visual documentation of it. That is to say, a kind of visual void is felt in each case, and my project is aimed at filling this void, but with a historical delay. Our knowledge of their deaths is based on written words, confidential documents, witness reports, newspaper articles or radio reports from the time, and so on. I collected the available documents, brought them together and reconstructed the moment. These photographs represent the most likely scenarios of their death, according to the written or spoken word.

The research for this project took about three years. During this stage, I was working by myself. I went to libraries and archives and assembled as much data as I could. After finding a producer, I was able to have a professional team, and we worked together as a group. We had one month of pre-production to find all the locations and do make-up and costume tests. Then we had 20 days for production. We had to be very quick. We had one day’s shooting for each picture, and there was no chance of restaging any of them in the future, if that became necessary.

The photos are very large, right? So they’re like paintings. Can you tell me what kind of influence other photographers working in a similar format have had on you? When did you first come across the work of somebody like Jeff Wall, for instance?
Yes, the largest work is about 320 by 110 centimeters, and the average size is about 210 by 110 centimeters. I have always admired the great painters of the west and have tried to study and understand them. I have also followed the work of some of the great staged photographers, such as Jeff Wall, Luc Delahaye, Andreas Gursky and Wang Qingsong. However, the narrative techniques in my images are mostly borrowed from my engagement with cinema and literature. I admire the cinema of Fellini and Antonioni and also the many masterpieces of the Russian and French writers of the 19th century. I believe that the latter reached a height in story-telling and grand narrative that is still beyond the abilities of visual artists. For instance, I am very interested in populated settings; how to bring a relatively large number of characters into one shot and how to marshal them to achieve a coherent picture. I think the best source to learn from is Russian literature, particularly its scenes involving crowds. Just recall, for instance, the famous party in Dostoevsky’s The Devils or the notoriously complicated dance party in War and Peace. Through a careful reading of these, one can learn extremely valuable lessons about how to manage a similar situation in photography.

You once told me you include yourself in all of your pictures. Why do you do that?
Another of the interferences with chronological time in my images is that I am present in all of them as an eye-witness. In every photograph I am in a corner, looking on at the scene as a witness wearing a red scarf and black dress. In some of them, I just stare at the dying person, shocked and transfixed, and in others I am running towards them, as in the case of Farouq Farrokhzad. I have transformed myself into a time-traveller.

It goes without saying that I could never reconstruct the moment as it originally happened. In the initial stages, I tried to be as factual as possible, but the more I studied the more I became sure that historical precision is simply impossible. So, instead, I focused on capturing the spirit of the moment.

The works you have produced are part of a wider cycle, and you have more to do, correct? Can you briefly tell me how that will work?
In the current project By an Eye-Witness, I wanted to point out the repetitive tragedies that we as Iranians have experienced throughout the 20th century. Most of the depicted deaths in the sequence are not the only example of their kind, but are merely part of a brutal cycle we have always been subject to.

The next project will also be about the contemporary history of Iran. This time I am going to depict three cycles of
coups d’états and subsequent repressions, which define the history of Iran from the constitutional revolution of 1906 to the Islamic revolution of 1979. Three kings acceded to the throne during this period, and each of them went through this same vicious circle of increased crackdown, an ensuing riot and final deposition. The project is aimed at portraying the repetitive cycle of violence that characterises each era.

So you’ll be heading back to Iran soon to complete the next cycle in the series? That obviously involves quite a lot of new historical research and, I am guessing, the casting of actors, making of costumes and scouting for locations. The work requires a lot of post-production as well, I’d say.
It does. At the moment I’m studying Renaissance and Baroque painting in the library at the University of Queensland, where my partner is doing a PhD in literature. I’m studying those painters to get inspiration for the composition and mise-en-scène of my new work. After figuring these out, I’ll move back to Iran and begin shooting.

Although you obviously have to return to Iran to keep on making your work, are you at all worried about the situation there in the light of recent events?
Well, of course, Iran is not the best place on the planet to live at the moment, but I would say that the stories we hear about that part of the world are heavily politicised and considerably biased. Terrible things do happen over there, but at the same time everyday life carries on. Tehran is a bustling metropolis of some 15 million people with an active art scene, numerous bookstores and cinemas and so on. This notion that everyone’s life is at risk is far from true. I don’t want to downplay the suffering of the people, which is enormous, but I err on the side of caution when it comes to recounting these stories, since recent history shows that the heart-breaking suffering of ordinary people in the Middle East has turned into grist for the mill for hawkish politicians in the west, bent on taking military action and making the life of the people yet more miserable. I am baffled when people ask why I go back there, as if I’m going back to live on the moon. About 80 million people currently live there, and they are human beings made of flesh and blood, who want to live as much as everyone does on this planet. The solution, for me, is not abandoning them and living comfortably somewhere safe and secure, but working with them to change the situation. So, even though some of my closest friends are in jail as political prisoners, and many lives around me have been destroyed over the past five years (not to mention the astonishing catastrophe that our neighbors in Iraq are currently living through and that is looming up on the western border of Iraq), I still believe in returning there and working to bring about real change along with other Iranians.

Rex Butler
Share this page: