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Persian Visions

Contemporary Photography from Iran

Photo: , License: N/A

“Untitled,” by Ebrahim Khadem Bayat

The eye in the picture is distracting, alarming, demanding all at once. It’s presumably female—the lashes mascaraed, the eyelids lined, the brows sculpted—and it’s open very wide, as if startled. Her face is no help in reading that emotion: It’s hidden in a dark shadow, the eye spotlighted in a bright circle of light. And then your own eye drifts around the rest of Ahmad Nateghi’s untitled black-and-white photograph and encounters new disorientations. A sliver of a woman’s face smiles in the lower-right corner of a frame, as if she’s peeking through a barely opened door. In the lower-left quadrant, a woman stands with her back to the camera; in front of her, a sign reads “THE PROFESSIONAL CHOICE.”

Standing before the photograph, it’s difficult to discern what exactly is going on—a street scene of a woman standing in front of a large advertisement? A book cover? Something else entirely?—and that elusive search for context is part of this exhibition’s sneaky charm. Persian Visions showcases 58 works—predominantly photographs, with a few single-channel videos—from 20 contemporary photographers who explore a wide range of approaches: posed portraiture, self-portraits, abstract, documentary, and more. As put together by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of Minnesota Department of Art, it’s a celebration of Persian art. But what you might take away from it is a rewarding reminder that the ways of looking don’t bow to geopolitical boundaries or political agendas.

The 20 artists here share a country of origin, Iran, and the photographic images we usually associate with it are loaded: seas of people surrounding Tehran’s Azadi Tower; an orange jumpsuit-clad Robert Levinson holding a sign that reads, “Why you can not help me”; veiled women; Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some of the 58 images here fit into that news-media narrative of conflict: Mohammad Farnood’s “Myth of War” captures young uniformed men clutching rifles; his “Survival,” a man whose face and shirt darkened with what looks like dried blood. For the most part, though, the imagery here moves through more mundane, familiar concerns: anxiety, identity, beauty, loss.

They’re not all as visually striking as Nateghi’s images, but many deliver their own emotional power. Saeed Sadeghi’s black-and-white photos focus on the expressive content of hands—the way one forlornly holds up a photo of a man, a woman’s fingers the only part of her visible under her modest attire, a hand’s ability blot out the rectangle of face seen beneath a hijab. Shokoufeh Alidousti’s three self-portraits creatively mingle past and present.

The show’s most indelible images come from Ebrahim Khadem Bayat. His untitled black-and-white photos have this distressed quality to them, as if light spread like Spanish moss over parts of his subjects during exposure. A chair in one photo looks submerged in aqueous light. A veiled woman in another becomes a Ringu wraith. The images date from the late 1990s, but they nail a vibe similar to one explored by Michelangelo Antonioni in his 1960s films, Gregory Crewdson in his 2000s photography, and the UK’s Channel 4 miniseries Utopia earlier this year: The ordinary world is sometimes an uncomfortably lonely place to live.

Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran At UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery through March 24.

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