Hoda Afshar, Speak The Wind

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by MACK Books (here). Softcover with flaps (22 x 26.5 cm), 168 pages, with approximately 100 color and black and white images. Includes an essay by Micheal Taussig (in Arabic and English). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s key maritime chokepoints, is located between Oman and Iran and connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Today, roughly twenty percent of the global oil supply flows through this narrow stretch of water, but the strait has been defined by movement for many centuries, from trade boats sailing through it to Africa and India to human migration in the region that goes back to Paleolithic times.

A new photobook by Hoda Afshar explores the rituals and culture of the islands that dot the strait. Afshar, who was born in Iran and now lives in Melbourne, first visited the islands back in 2015, and she was immediately captivated by the spiritual world of its residents and the otherworldly landscapes. Over the years, as she returned to the islands, developing relationships with its residents who have taught her the history of their place.

Afshar’s intriguing photobook, titled Speak The Wind, offers a story of a land and its people. It is a medium sized soft cover book with flaps, and a black and white portrait of a young man in a white robe gently covering his face with his palms appears on the cover. A strip of red colored abstract landscape goes over the spine and continues to the back, connecting two main themes. The photographs vary in their size and layout, creating a more dynamic and unpredictable visual narrative. To build her story, Afshar brings together portraits of residents, photographs of wind-carved landscapes, simple drawings, and the voices of the residents.

The landscape of the islands, mostly barren and hilly, has been sculpted by the wind over many centuries into fantastical and surreal shapes. The wind has also influenced local rituals – on these islands, there is an ancient belief that the winds can cause possession and illness. It originated in early medieval times, when Arab slave traders brought enslaved people from East Africa to the Persian Gulf. Slavery in Iran was only abolished in 1929, and descendants still face discrimination. In his essay the anthropologist Michael Taussig asks: “Is it so surprising then that this history provokes mediums who channel spirits in the form of the winds coming from Africa?”  

To document the winds and their traces, Afshar creates a conversation between the people of the islands and the landscapes that surround them. The non-linear narrative occasionally feels disorienting but the strength of her storytelling comes from changes through images and exploring the limits of photography.  

The landscape of the islands is mostly dry and rocky. There is a sense of stillness in the visual flow, and the wind is present through its influence on the landscape and people. To draw the winds out of a possessed person, the residents of the island perform a ceremony with drum music, incense, and dancing. A photograph of a woman with a scarf around her body shot from the back is paired with a rock which mimics her shape. A person covered in colorful patterned costume and masked is photographed in profile against the blue sky. In these and other pairings, Afshar connects body and land again and again.

Throughout the book, there are black and white sections printed on lighter paper. They feature the desert landscape and rocks shaped into fascinating sculptures. In these sections, the pages are uncut at the top, creating a pocket at the bottom between pages. Inside, there are anthropomorphic drawings depicting the possessing wind and quotes from interviews with islanders about the experience of being possessed by zār (the term for a demon or spirit) run at the very bottom of the page. Some of them read, “one night, when I was asleep, it entered my body. I felt it.” “I could feel it whirling inside my skull … they will haunt you in your dreams if you don’t give them what they ask for”. This unexpected and exciting design element creates even a deeper dialogue between the rock formations and the residents of the islands. 

The last photograph is a black and white image of a wind-shaped rock, the same rock that opened the book, but the first picture was in color and from an opposite perspective, creating a paired bookend. Speak The Wind is a considered and thoughtful photobook. It offers an attentive and complex portrait of the islands, their residents, their rituals, and the rocky landscapes. It presents an unconventional and nuanced approach to re-imagining story telling. One can simply enjoy the captivating visual flow, or dig a bit deeper in its complex layers and connections, unlocking magical and invisible worlds. It is a great example of playfully using photography to offer alternate interpretations and entry points.

Collector’s POV: Hoda Afshar is represented by Milani Gallery in Brisbane (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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