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An Analysis of Shadi Ghadirian's Works

Author : Tarannom Taghavi

Reading Time : 8 Minutes


Original text in Farsi by Tarannom Taghavi

Translated to English by Omid Armat


Shadi Ghadirian | Untitled | Qajar | 1998 | digital print | 100 × 70 cm

Shadi Ghadirian is considered a prominent photographer by both domestic and foreign media. In her works, she addresses issues that many women around the world face: censorship, limits, obstacles to self-actualization, and confrontation between traditions and modernity. She has produced nine series of photographs up until now: "Unfocused" (1998), "Qajar" (1998), "My Press Photo" (1999) (1), "Like EveryDay" (2000), "Be Colorful" (2002), "West by East" (2004), "Ctrl+Alt+Del" (2006), "Nil, Nil" (2008), "White Square" (2009), and "Miss Butterfly" (2011).

Aiming to reveal and display stereotypes that women encounter during their lives, Shadi Ghadirian presents reality from the viewpoint of an artist concerned with issues of national identity and gender.

Attending several group shows, Shadi Ghadirian started her artistic activity in 1997. She ran her first solo show in 1998, displaying her "Qajar" series of photographs at Golestan Gallery. The series was also displayed at London Guildhall University (2000) and Victoria and Albert Museum (2012). These photographs have resulted from her work on her bachelor's thesis and the period she worked alongside Bahman Jalali at The City Photo Museum in Tehran; seeing photo archives there was helpful to do so as well. The series comprises black and white images of women wearing traditional clothes of the Qajar period, but the scene includes elements that are irrelevant to the historical atmosphere of the work (a Pepsi can, television, canvases, a vacuum cleaner, or a contemporary newspaper with the work's production date), confusing the viewer somewhere between traditions and modernity, the past and the present(2). But the story doesn't end here.

The women in these photographs show signs of cultural changes and an attempt to attain awareness and progress: two women with traditional clothes and burqa hold a mirror that reflects an image of a library. A young woman is looking directly at the viewer, and as it appears in the scene, she is reading Hamshahri Newspaper. In another image, a woman is posing with a bicycle that symbolizes prohibited things for women in Iran's traditional society. Although such a straightforward approach to revealing cultural dualities faced critiques accusing the project of reducing the issue to an image with simple, direct interpretation, it had a visual and conceptual attraction for the Eastern audience of the 1990s and the Western audience who were not familiar with Iranian culture.

Shadi Ghadirian | Untitled | Like Everyday | 2001 | c print | 183 × 183 cm

Although Ghadirian's "Qajar" series brought her fame and praise in the art world(3), her name became popular mainly because of her series, "Like EveryDay," which faced immense criticism after being exhibited at the Silk Road Art Gallery. The series consisted of 17 images displaying a woman's torso on a white background in the middle of the image. Anonymous women whose faces and bodies are covered in a patterned, colorful chador (prayer chador in different colors and patterns) holding kitchen tools before their faces; iron, grater, broom, teapot, frying pan, rubber gloves, spatula, and teacup. The tool, instead of the woman, forms each photograph's main subject and identity. Even though the artist believes that these images address the general concept of a housewife and her stereotypical duties as a woman, wife, and mother, many criticized Ghadirian for choosing the chador to represent the position of Iranian, Muslim, traditional women reduced to an object with no character in order to receive attention from the Western art market. However, according to Mehran Mohajer, "There is another aspect to the series. That is, we know that the photographer is a woman and that photography's history is mostly the history of the male gaze. The photographer has intentionally placed hard obstacles, which at the same time involve delicate holes, gaps, and reflections, before the men's gaze. […] These aspects altogether remove the mere "chador art" label from these images.(4)

The series "Be Colorful," exhibited in 2002 at Robert Klein Gallery, depicts some parts of women's hands and faces. In these photos, subjects sometimes stare at the viewer and sometimes turn their faces away while wearing colorful scarves and standing behind opaque glasses. The glass has damaged the image of the women as if they are only allowed to fulfill their desire to wear colorful clothes with an opaque, grey obstacle between them and the viewer.

Shadi Ghadirian | Untitled | digital photography

The "West by East" series includes pictures that show how Western people, especially Europeans, are seen from the Islamic East, from the past to the present. Similar to fashion photos in Western magazines, the artist photographed her subjects in front of a plain, white background, then covered some parts of the photographs with a black marker, which reminds the viewer of how images of Western women are censored in magazines that have been imported to Islamic societies.

The two series, "Nil, Nil" and "White Square," both exhibited at the Silk Road Art Gallery, comprise 31 color photographs in which men's war equipment and clothes are placed within the feminine daily life space and, according to the artist, have acquired an "anti-war" sense. By putting a grenade next to other food in the refrigerator and a vacuum cleaner in a soldier's backpack, the artist has emphasized the contradiction between the violence of war and the calmness of peace and has situated the woman's identity against the war and at the same time coexisting with it; a war which persistently exists in her life: in bed, in the kitchen, the refrigerator, and also in her children's toys. Ghadirian has defamiliarized the prevalent war images, thus engaging the viewer with the indirect presence of men in spaces that are usually considered feminine atmospheres: a soldier's torn combat uniform hanging next to a woman's clean dress in a closet; bloody, torn boots next to red high heels; a helmet put on a hanger next to a scarf with lively colors; a military belt in the washing machine; and a shell in the middle of a twin bed. The images seem to present an ended war, even though the war equipment dramatically shifts the focus onto themselves. It is as if the war discourse, as what remains from the conflict between our private lives and a social event like war, keeps dominating our lives. A poem by John Lennon, according to Ghadirian, inspired her to create this series of photographs(5).

The series was criticized for its advertising compositions, exaggeration in displaying conflict, and dramatizing war equipment and turning it into fantasy by defamiliarizing and putting it in a totally different context (a calm and clean space).

Ghadirian presented her last series, "Miss Butterfly," in 2011 at the Silk Road Art Gallery. The series was inspired by Bijan Mofid's play with the same title, a summary of which Ghadirian used as her show's statement: "Miss Butterfly as is going to meet the sun, looking for a way out and reaching for the light becomes captive in spider's web. The spider moved by compassion after observing all the grace and delicacy in Miss Butterfly, comes to an agreement with her. She is supposed to bring one of the insects from the dark cellar and ties it up in spider's web for him. Instead the spider is going to lead her to the way out and to the light. But after hearing the insects' stories the Miss Butterfly feels pity for them and eventually returns to the spider empty handed with injured wings and makes herself captive in the web to the spider's food. Knowing the truth, the spider sets the Miss Butterfly and shows her the way out to meet the sun. The Miss Butterfly recalls all the other insects in the cellar to share her freedom with them but she gets no response. She who is so frustrated by their reaction wide opens her weary wings and flies toward the sun."

Shadi Ghadirian | Miss Butterfly #6 | 2011 | archival digital pigment print | 70 × 100 cm

The series consists of 15 black and white photographs displaying a woman sitting on the stairs in the dark, standing in front of a window or under an opening in the ceiling, spinning a web across the entrance of light in a space that is sometimes minimal and sometimes fully real. It seems that Miss Butterfly has now turned into a spider and is spinning its web.

Ghadirian's works have been exhibited in various art events worldwide; Iran, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, U.S., India, Dubai, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Kuwait; Moscow Biennale (2004), the "Iranian Contemporary Art" show at the Barbican Center in London (2001), FotoArtFestival in Poland (2005), the "Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East" show at the British Museum in London (2006), LACMA (2008), the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (2012), the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Mumok Museum in Vienna, and other famous museums and galleries around the world. Additionally, a book titled "Narrator of Soveyda," containing an interview with Shadi Ghadirian by Nazanin Khosravani was published simultaneously with the artist's show with the same title at the 009821 Projects.


1. This series is not concerned with women. Ghadirian explains the formation of this series: "I accidentally got my hands on a collection of ID photos dating back to the Qajar army. The photographs were detached from the ID cards, and the rusted staplers on them had given a special sense to them. I had a World Press magazine at the same time beside me, and I decided to consciously and emotionally collage the ID photos with war photos in the magazine." Source: https://isfpc.com

2. The artist explains in an interview: "I borrowed the backdrop I used in the photos from The City Photo Museum in Tehran. I also borrowed the clothes from the traditional clothes storage of Iran's television broadcasting corporation. Then I added elements to the scene that were related to today's life: carbonated drinks, a vacuum cleaner, and a tape recorder. I didn't work with professional models in this project. The women you see in these photos are my sisters, cousins, and friends who were excited to be a part of the project." Source: https://nooriato.com/80058

3. The series is also said to be praised by Umberto Eco, the Italian semiotician.

4. For more information, see "East by West: Interview with Iman Afsarian and Mehran Mohajer by Shadi Ghadirian", Herfeh: Honarmand, No. 33, Summer 2010, p. 62.

5. Ghadirian explains in an interview: "This song caused the basic idea of addressing the issue of war to form in my mind, and I surely wanted it to be included in my show. […] I see no conflict between the song and my photos, they are both against the war. I believe that we have always been dealing with war in our daily lives, but we are used to it to the extent that we don't notice it anymore. I displayed the issue with more prominence or with some kind of advertising approach to make the viewers face it. In fact, I want to say 'look at it and pay attention to it.' Therefore, the song and my photos may say different words, but are in accordance with each other and follow the same goal which is the aversion to war." Source: www.akkasee.com/article/1387/8974


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