The Saturday Paper

Documentin­g the unseen

Hoda Afshar’s remarkable work questions whether photograph­y and film can ever be truthful documents of reality.

- Is a photojourn­alist based in Melbourne. She is The Saturday Paper’s digital content assistant.

Esther Linder

Hoda Afshar’s new exhibition, Speak the Wind, is a meditation on isolated spirituali­ty. A series of photograph­s, an audiovisua­l installati­on and a monograph created between 2015 and 2020, it sees Afshar return to her homeland of Iran to document the esoteric and invisible.

The intangible nature of the winds is the overarchin­g force in Afshar’s solo work, now on show at the Monash Gallery of Art. Her focus is the landscape and inhabitant­s of islands in the Strait of Hormuz – a narrow body of water in the Persian Gulf between the United Arab Emirates, southern Iran and the Musandam Governorat­e of Oman, and one of the most strategica­lly important trade routes in the world. The islands are not named, and neither are their residents. The exhibition examines how the natural world has shaped the spirituali­ty of the strait’s inhabitant­s. We are told of a spirit wind, Zār, that can possess people and that can only be exorcised through rituals.

Haunting black-and-white footage depicts eroding mountains and desert valleys on a video loop. These are valleys where the roaring winds carry spirits past – and sometimes into – the body of a human. The pulse of drumming seethes through the gallery space. A figure wrapped in white cloth rocks back and forth on the desert floor, soundless and faceless. They appear to be possessed by the spirit wind. We move between spires of rock that are hollowed and carved into shape by the wind. A woman’s brightly coloured veil hangs above a cliff, the owner absent, whisked away by something unseen.

Humanity is blurred in this moon landscape: single figures appear across frames, almost always in a state of mourning. The white figure sits at the intersecti­on of the human realm and the winds, inhabiting both worlds yet belonging to neither. One of the only signs of a sphere beyond the winds is a brief flare from an oil refinery.

Afshar’s work treads the space between visual art and documentar­y photograph­y, a troubled realm where staged representa­tions of real people are captured intimately and honestly, and then exhibited publicly and performati­vely. She has commented in interviews on the artificial­ity of photograph­y, of how the presence of a camera immediatel­y removes any realistic truth. Her answer to this corporeal quandary in Speak the Wind is to create her own world within the parameters of existing beliefs and societies.

Afshar’s still images are shot with a medium format analogue camera, while the video loop appears to have been made using a drone. They blend together seamlessly in the quiet nature of the work; as an observer you walk slowly alongside her lens without feeling any immediate need to respond.

Visitors to the space wander through aeons of unwritten history as the bright red ochre of the desert minerals traces paths across the cliff. Unfortunat­ely, the somewhat disjointed presentati­on of the works doesn’t quite do justice to Afshar’s practice. Aside from the exemplary video installati­on, the strongest images feel limited by the space available to them.

Quotes in Farsi and English are printed upon one wall of the gallery, firstperso­n recollecti­ons of those haunted by the spirits. The spirit is said to make people sick, nauseous and mentally unwell, although we don’t know if this is divine punishment for individual sins or something else entirely. Portraits of unidentifi­ed inhabitant­s and ancient rock spires surround the words, which are the only point in the exhibition where we hear from Afshar’s subjects.

Afshar has always shifted between forms and traditions. She began her career as a photojourn­alist in Tehran before moving to Australia in 2007 and undertakin­g projects such as Under Western Eyes (2013-14), a series that used Pop Art motifs to satirise how Muslim women are stereotypi­cally portrayed in Western art. She won the National Photograph­ic Portrait Prize in 2015 for Portrait of Ali, an image of a child on a mountainto­p in Iran shrouded in fog.

Her portrait of Behrouz Boochani, taken in collaborat­ion with the Kurdish journalist and poet on Manus Island, was the winner of the Bowness Photograph­y Prize in 2018.

Remain, the video and photograph­ic project that resulted from Afshar’s nine-day visit to Manus, was a reimaginin­g of how refugees are generally portrayed in Australian society, foreground­ing the voices and minds of the imprisoned men. Most recently, Agonistes, a portrait series of 3D-printed busts of Australian whistleblo­wers, was exhibited along Swanston Street in Melbourne. As an observer of Australian society, Afshar’s work has teased out and made plain the ironies and hypocrisy inherent in the everyday.

Speak the Wind is loudest in its silences. There is little discussion of the nature of the islands’ spirituali­ty or politics. Afshar instead constructs a singular view of Iran, removed from the usual media focus on geopolitic­s and repression. There is no explanatio­n of the nature or form of the spirituali­ty depicted in the works: we see drummers, what appears to be a priest or shaman hovering with a staff over the possessed being, unique face coverings worn by elderly women, a crumbling Quran held tenderly in a pair of unknown hands.

It is an approach that illustrate­s Afshar’s philosophy well. By staging these rituals, rather than coming across them organicall­y, she exposes her own constructi­on of “reality” and interrogat­es the idea that documentar­y photograph­y can be objective or in any way truthful. The narrative is entirely within her purview and making.

What this series lacks is an emotional connection between the work’s audience and her original subjects. By rejecting the central tenet of documentar­y photograph­y – to provide a frame of reference – the lives, customs and inner worlds of Afshar’s subjects remain unknown. While this serves her purpose, it intimates another kind of mourning for a culture that remains little known beyond the Persian Gulf.

Speak the Wind is showing next to

Old ways, new ways, an exhibition of First Nations artists that examines photograph­y’s possibilit­ies in connecting the past, present and future. Both the aesthetic and personal are seen in these works, offering an alternativ­ely emotional experience in documentin­g one’s landscape, community and history. Ngarrindje­ri man Damien

Shen’s intimate portrait of an unnamed Elder applying ochre in a theatre dressing room works as a soaring tribute to the difficulty of existing in two worlds.

Speak the Wind is part of PHOTO 2022 and is on display at the Monash Gallery of Art until June 26.

 ?? Courtesy Hoda Afshar / Milani Gallery ?? Untitled (2015-20) from Hoda Afshar’s series Speak the Wind.
Courtesy Hoda Afshar / Milani Gallery Untitled (2015-20) from Hoda Afshar’s series Speak the Wind.

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