By John McDonald
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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 that has been a desert for exhibitions, shows us exactly what is required.
“Her practice is a form of activism,” writes AGNSW director Michael Brand. “It reinforces our belief in the function of art to effect change.” Afshar’s sensibility “encapsulates the values the Art Gallery looks to reflect”, which are listed as compassion and humanity.
I have a lot of time for Afshar, but her compassion and humanity should not be 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.
Hoda Afshar with some of her new work in exhibition A Curve is a Broken Line at the Art Gallery of NSW. Credit: Janie Barrett
Since the advent of Sydney Modern last December, the AGNSW seems to believe it has fulfilled its remit by holding one big, popular bash (the Archibald Prize), while waiting for Kandinsky and Louise Bourgeois to arrive in time for the summer holidays.
The “political work” praised is a poor substitute for a lack of honest effort on behalf of a large, heterogeneous art community. 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 month 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, 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.
Behrouz Boochani – Manus Island, from the series Remain, 2018.Credit: Hoda Afshar
To photograph and film Boochani and other prisoners on Manus Island, Afshar had to visit in secret. She eschewed all the miserablist cliches 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 1983 in Tehran, where she 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, were 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 spiky, showing Muslim women in full hijab and robes, with the ears of Mickey 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.
Remain 2018 (video still), from the series Remain 2018, two-channel digital video.Credit: Hoda Afshar
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 Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, she returns time and again to Iran, capturing diverse images that 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 bathhouse, 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 protesters into the streets in September last year after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for not wearing her hijab correctly.
Portrait #3 2014, from the series In the exodus, I love you more.Credit: Hoda Afshar
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 whistleblowers, 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.
Untitled #10, from the series In turn, 2023.Credit: Hoda Afshar
Although Afshar’s oeuvre 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 is at the Art Gallery of NSW until January 21.
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