Amak Mahmoodian, Zanjir

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in November 2019 by RRB Photobooks (here) and ICVL Studio (here). Softcover, 146 pages, with 67 black and white photographs, combining images taken by the artist and archival images. Includes writings and poems by the artist and excerpts from the memoirs of Taj Saltaneh. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Alejandro Acin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Amak Mahmoodian, the Iranian artist and curator now based in the United Kingdom, centers on interrelated questions of identity and representation, often revisiting her Iranian identity. Her first photobook Shenasnameh (reviewed here) brought to light the stories of Iranian women, using Iranian government documents in her exploration of personalized female identification.

Mahmoodian’s new book, based on her earlier project Where Time Stood Still, takes an alternate angle discussing the subject of representation and identity, building on her Persian heritage. The title of the new book is Zanjir, meaning a “chain” in Persian. It is an imagined conversation between the artist and the Persian princess and memoirist Taj Saltaneh. Saltaneh was a feminist and a co-founder of Iran’s first underground women’s rights movement in the early twentieth century. Mahmoodian uses the figure of Saltaneh to connect their experiences across time and to talk about history and family, loss and separation.

The cover design of Zanjir was inspired by an illustration for the Shahnameh, one of the world’s longest epic poems written in the eleventh century by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. The poem recounts the mythological history of Iran, from the beginnings to the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire in the seventh century A.D. Zanjir’s cover reinterprets the original illustration in reversed black and silver, and it immediately makes a connection between the content of the book and the long history of Persia. 

The collection of works in Zanjir combines Mahmoodian’s personal work with the earliest images of Iranian photography, crossing from the past into the present. The archival photographs were taken in the 19th-century, around the period photography arrived in Iran (and soon after its invention in Europe). This collection is particularly exceptional because at the time, Islam was interpreted as banning photographs of people’s faces, especially those of women, yet it exists because the photographs were taken (and commissioned) by the king, Naser al-Din Shah, the most powerful man in the country. At the age of eleven, he received a camera as a gift from Queen Victoria, and he subsequently organized the photo studio at his court. The photographs depict his wives, children of the court staff, daily events of court life, and even self-portraits. The archive is now held at Golestan Palace Library and Archives in Tehran. Mahmoodian visited the library in 2004 and spent two years researching the holdings of the archive, giving them a fresh interpretation. 

The images in the book vary in their size and placement on the pages, creating a dynamic and surprising visual flow. The first photograph in the book is placed is the lower right corner, and looks like a group portrait taken facing mirrors. Even if we can’t see all the details in the image, it feels quite remarkable considering it was taken in Iran in the nineteenth century. It is followed by Mahmoodian’s very personal and poetic writing, as she looks at her life away from her home country and family, “With no family but memory, With no land but traces, My land travels within me, I live in the past, I have created a life, A life of memories.”  

Excerpts from the memoirs of Taj Saltaneh create a thoughtful conversation with Mahmoodian’s writings, drawing parallels between their experiences and feelings: “isn’t the review of one’s personal history the best undertaking in the world?” asks Saltaneh. This is followed by a photograph of Saltaneh posing for the camera dressed in a man’s outfit, and Mahmoodian uses this imagined conversation to address their individual journeys, families, powerlessness, and also hope. 

In other images, Mahmoodian used archival images to create paper masks, and asked her family and friends to hold them. They disguise their faces behind these “historical masks” as they perform daily routines in familiar settings, in the park, or at home. These acts symbolize her feeling of loss and separation, as she lives far away from her homeland and relatives. There are also more intimate portraits of Mahmoodian’s parents, and the images continue the conversation between the present and the past, and between presence and absence. Sinuous full spread photographs of the desert appear throughout the book, making reference to the land and adding a timeless almost abstract element to the narrative. 

Intertwining historical photographs with images of her family and friends, and layering them over a conversation reflecting on those experiences, Mahmoodian creates a complexly poetic narrative which requires careful and engaged reading. She shares her personal story through that of others, intermingling those who lived in the past and those who live in the present. In this way, the act of revisiting the past is a way to understand her own fractured identity, living between cultures and countries. 

Collector’s POV: Amak Mahmoodian is represented by Rudi Thoemmes (here). Her work has not found its way to the secondary markets with much regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Amak Mahmoodian, ICVL Studio, RRB Publishing

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