For an artist to see their work on the walls of a museum today, it may not be sufficient to have talent. Hoda Afshar – whose mid-career survey, A Curve is a Broken Line, has miraculously materialised at the Art Gallery of NSW in a year which has been a desert for exhibitions – shows us exactly what is required.
“Her practice is a form of activism,” writes AGNSW director, Michael Brand, approvingly… “it reinforces our belief in the function of art to effect change.” Apparently, Afshar’s sensibility “encapsulates the values the Art Gallery looks to reflect,” which are listed as “compassion” and “humanity”.
Am I alone in finding this kind of virtuous crowing to be slightly repellent? I have a lot of time for Hoda Afshar, but her compassion and humanity should not be so brazenly hijacked for purposes of institutional self-aggrandisement. While artists have the freedom to be as political or non-political as they like, a public art museum needs to be open to many different viewpoints, and many kinds of art.
Since the advent of Sydney Modern last December, the AGNSW has acted as a full-time venue for parties and functions, and only incidentally as an art museum. It seems to believe it has fulfilled its remit by holding one big, popular bash in the form of the Archibald Prize, while waiting for Kandinsky and Louise Bourgeois to arrive in time for the summer holidays.
All the “political work” Michael Brand praises is a poor substitute for a lack of honest effort on behalf of a large, heterogeneous art community. When an exhibition does come along – with an actual catalogue! – one gets the impression that only “activists” are so favoured. It would be so much better if Afshar’s show, put together by Isobel Parker Philip, was part of a varied program rather than the only game in town.
The tragic events that have unfolded in Israel and Gaza over the past fortnight should be enough to remind us that art is powerless in the face of real political upheaval. The most an artist can do to effect social and political change is to create a few striking images that circulate beyond the thought-absorbing walls of the art museum. Even then, any change to people’s attitudes is bound to be incremental and highly personal.
Afshar has produced at least one such image, in her Formidable black-and-white portrait of Kurdish refugee, Behrouz Boochani, who was imprisoned for almost five years on Manus Island, as a victim of the Australian government’s offshore detention policies. In this image, Boochani stands, bolt upright and bare-chested, looking like Hollywood’s idea of Jesus Christ, while flames flicker at his feet. The religious overtones have helped the picture cut through the media fog, and clobber viewers between the eyes.
To photograph and film Boochani and other prisoners on Manus Island, Afshar had to visit in secret. She eschewed all the miserablist clichés and let her subjects decide how they wanted to be captured. The resulting series, Remain(2018), is set to achieve iconic status, quietly demolishing the idea of Australia as a generous, open-hearted country that believes in a fair go for all.
As a politically engaged artist, Afshar has better credentials than most. She was born in Tehran in 1983, where he studied documentary photography. In 2007 she migrated to Australia and began to make work that questioned and satirised the way Iranians, or Muslims in general, are viewed in her adopted country. Some of her most overt satires have been omitted from this show, but the images in Under Western Eyes (2013-14), are suitably spikey – showing muslim women in full hijab and robes, with the ears of Micky Mouse or a Playboy Bunny; or posing like Marilyn Monroe.
It’s a savage way of exploding the conventional image of the downtrodden, muslim woman, oppressed by social role and religion. As anybody who visits Iran soon discovers, these morose caricatures do not reflect the dynamism of a free-thinking, youthful population. There’s hardly a country in the world with greater potential, if only the heavy hand of the Mullahs could be lifted.
Afshar is a product of that intellectually vibrant milieu, as was the late Hossein Valamanesh, who would spend most of his life in Adelaide. Most visible of all are those brilliant filmmakers, from Abbas Kiarostami to Asghar Farhadi, who have blitzed the international cinema festivals.
Like Valamanesh, Afshar has never been able to let go of her brutalised, much-maligned country. In her ongoing series, In the exodus, I love you more (2014-), which takes its title from a line by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, she returns time and again to Iran, capturing diverse images which have the same mixture of ordinariness and oddity one finds in the work of a photographer such as William Eggleston. Landscapes, street scenes, portraits, horses, peacocks, a building draped in heavy curtains, a hose in a courtyard… nothing is disqualified from an idiosyncratic overview that digs under the skin of her birthplace. The same applies, but with added eeriness, to the series Speak to the wind (2015-22) set on the island of Hormuz, off the southern coast of Iran.
In another series, Behold (2016), Afshar photographs gay Iranian men in a bath house, washing and embracing each other. The subjects were happy to invite her to take these photos, even though they were risking their necks if identified. It was a manifestation of that rebellious impulse that brought tens of thousands of protestors into the streets in September last year, after the death-in-custody of Mahsajina Amin, who was arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly.
Afshar has responded to that incident and the worldwide anger it generated, in her most recent series, In turn (2023), which features Iranian women dressed in sombre black, plaiting each other’s hair, and holding doves. The hair is the audacious part of these images, the rest devolves into a ritualistic atmosphere in which mourning is mingled with hope.
What’s ultimately most impressive about this survey is not so much Afshar’s politics as her amazing versatility, as she moves with great assurance between documentary photography and staged tableaux. In Agonistes (2020) she has made portraits of Australian whistlelowers, using 3-D printing that required roughly 100 cameras. The finished works resemble pictures of Roman busts, each with a small explanatory label that explains what the subject did and the price they have paid. It’s another searing indictment of our ‘fair go’ nation.
In her video Aura (2020-23), Afshar produced a fast-moving montage of all the things that have dominated the news cycle over the past three years, raising everyone’s anxiety levels. It’s a riposte to the most famous feel-good photo show of all time: The Family of Man, put together by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. In the midst of the Cold War, Steichen tried to emphasise all those things human beings hold in common. In a world growing ever more hysterical, Afshar has not been so willing to accentuate the positive.
Although Afshar’s œuvre may be politically charged, it’s also aesthetically ambitious. Isobel Parker Philip is right to point out the lyricism of these images, although she rather overplays the too-clever idea that “obfuscation” can also be a form of revelation. Despite all the dust, dirt and fog in these photographs, they are the product of a mind that operates with extreme clarity.
Hoda Afshar: A Curve is a Broken Line
Art Gallery of NSW, 2 September 2023 – 21 January 2024
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November, 2023