Mashid Mohadjerin, Freedom is Not Free

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp (here). Softcover (19.5 x 27 cm), 184 pages with five gatefolds, 65 color photographs. Includes texts by the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Jelle Jespers. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of the Iranian artist Mashid Mohadjerin focuses on resistance, displacement, and social injustice, often combining art and documentary vantage points. In her practice, she continuously questions the representation and mis-representation of women in the Middle East. Her earlier books Lipstick & Gas Masks and Textile as Resistance look at the consequences of the Arab Spring, and particularly the role of women in the resistance. Mohadjerin’s third and most recent photobook Freedom is Not Free examines the presence of women in influencing political change across history. The book is also a very personal journey, as the artist, who grew up in Europe, returns to her home country in search of her identity and history. The book is part of her PhD research project at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Early this year the book won the Rencontres d’Arles Author’s Book Award.

Just as the title suggests, the book considers the question, what does freedom really mean? To build her visual narrative, Mohadjerin combines portraits of women from her family and of friends, with places she remembers from her childhood. In the lives of these women, the political and the personal become inseparable. Mohadjerin uses collages with archival images that relate to the history of the revolution (presented in the book as gatefolds) to show how their lives were influenced by the revolution. Her personal writing brings these photographs to life and ties everything together. The excellent sequencing of images creates a thoughtful dreamlike visual narrative to illustrate the history of women in resistance.

Freedom is Not Free is a softcover book of a medium comfortable size. A face of a woman in red halftone dots appears on the cover, yet it is hidden behind the title that prominently obscures the images, written in black font in both Farsi and English. Inside, most of the photographs are the same size with a thin white border around them. A portrait of a woman smoking hookah, as a cloud of white dense smoke obscures her face, opens the visual narrative. In the writing that follows, Mohadjerin remembers her grandmother, born in northern Persia in 1934, the same year, she notes, as Forough Farrokhzad, a Persian poetess and feminist. “Farrokhzad called on women to rise up against centuries of injustice that she believed both men and women suffered from in her society.”

Foldouts with collages placed throughout the book are divided into five time capsules. They highlight key events related to the Mohadjerin’s family and connect them to a wider historical context. The first collage tracks the history back to 1934, the year Mohadjerin’s grandmother was born. It combines photographs, newspaper clippings, a map, hand written notes, and illustrations creating a historical frame of reference. “The Pan-Arab feminist movement had origins partly in Palestinian national struggle. Its start was in Egypt”, reads one of the notes. 

As the narrative moves forward, we learn that the grandmother got her driver’s license when she was twenty, bought a red BMW, and “used to chain smoke while driving around Tehran,” she was “determined and independent.” A cut out of the red car along with photographs and a pack of cigarettes appear at the top of the second collage. The artist’s mother was born in 1954, and the collage marks a number of other key events and people, including Djamila Bouhired, a national heroine, who planted a bomb in the European district of Algiers in opposition to the French occupation of Algeria. A black and white photograph shows Bouhired carrying a package. Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead an Islamic country, was born around the same time. 

Mohadjerin was born in 1979. In the 1980s, when she was just 7 years old, following the revolution, her family had to leave the country. They settled in Belgium. The fifth collage marks the unexpected death of the artist ‘s grandmother in 1995. Layers of images also show protests and acts of resistance. The collage elements tell the story: Halima Aden appears on the cover of Vogue Arabia (June 2017) as the first hijab-wearing model, women protesting in Lebanon, headlines reading “women protesters refuse for Iraq to be turned into a “second Iran.” The cutouts of poppy flowers are sprinkled over the imagery, symbolizing love and joy. 

In between collages, photographs loaded with symbolism depict the country and its people. A portrait of a woman in a coat at home as she looks right into the camera is followed by a shot of a bottle with perhaps medicine filled with pickled snakes. Another photo captures a bowl with three goldfish in it shot from the top, a symbol of life and love. A sequence of images shot in green light (color associated with Shia Islam but also prosperity and friendship) shows a sign reading “freedom is not free” in English and Farsi followed by two shots of women inside a mosque. 

Other images relate to the recent uprisings: a portrait of a man in a gas mask, women on the streets with Iranian flags, the rusty carcass of a crushed car, a wedding dress on a broken mannequin. Mohadjerin notes that “despite heavy sanctions and limited access to the outside world, young women in middle-class areas walk the street with impeccable makeup and trendy sneakers, longing for change and freedoms taken for granted elsewhere.” Single acts of resistance fill the gaps.

This year saw a good number of excellent photobooks by women addressing a range of issues in the Arab world. In Hello Future (reviewed here), Farah Al Qasimi explores the intersection of women’s roles, Western influences, and gender stereotypes. Hoda Afshar’s book captures the spirit of life on the islands in the Strait of Hormuz (reviewed here). And Solmaz Daryani addresses the climate emergency in a moving personal narrative in her book The Eyes of Earth (reviewed here). 

Freedom is Not Free is a considered and thoughtful photobook, with an elegant design,  bringing photographs and writing together in a powerful narrative. Intertwining historical photographs with more personal imagery, and then layering them over a reflection on those experiences, Mohadjerin builds a complex and nuanced storyline. Her portrait of female fighters of all kinds not only challenges more common depiction of women in the Islamic world as obedient and passive, but also brings to light their undeniable role in shaping political change over history. 

Collector’s POV: Mashid Mohadjerin doesn’t have consistent gallery representation at this time, but a solo show of her work is on view at Twenty14 Contemporary in Milan (here) through February 28, 2022. 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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