Arabesque: new Middle Eastern art: continued

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Shadi Ghadirian (Iran)

Shadi Ghadirian, 'Like Every Day', Shadi Gahdirian, new Middle Eastern art
© Shadi Ghadirian

Shadi Ghadirian's photographs document women's place in Iranian society; a role, she insists, that outsiders associate largely with "a black chador".

Ghadirian sets out to counter such preconceptions by portraying "all aspects of the Iranian woman" in carefully nuanced works that resonate with unexpected subtlety.

The series Like Every Day presents symbolic images of women whose faces are represented merely by household utensils.

On one level, the photographs clearly comment on the daily drudgery and routine of a traditional role in the home. Ghadirian's subjects are depersonalized, equated only with kitchen implements, the single hint of personality indicated by the varied fabrics of the chador.

Ghadirian is clearly uneasy with this situation, yet has also stated that her observations broadly encompass any woman, "no matter in what part of the world she is living". The implications are not exclusive to her own society, but intrinsic to what she perceives as a universal female condition.


Shadi Ghadirian, contemporary Islamic art
© Shadi Ghadirian

Nevertheless, while her 'portraits' highlight a very specific reality, they also reveal further, far less obvious truths.

The scant detail serves a dual purpose, embodying outsiders' one-dimensional view of Iranian women. This, the artist states, is how they are frequently assumed to be by non-Islamic and the more liberal Islamic societies.

Yet in several of the images, the metallic surfaces of the objects reflect Ghadirian with her camera. This tiny portrait-within-a-portrait depicts her fulfilling a chosen role as artist and photographer, and even when she is not visible, her creative presence looms large in the startlingly beautiful aesthetic of these minimalist portraits.

Artistic expression is far removed from mundane routine, and in this respect, even the title of the series can take on a new, unexpected meaning, pointing towards the artist's own practice and determined, daily drive.

The realities regarding Iranian women are as complex and multi-layered as these works themselves.


Shadi Ghadirian, contemporary Persian artShadi Ghadirian, contemporary Islamic art
© Shadi Ghadirian

The Qajar series (left) again investigates female identity against a subtly delineated background of conflict and convergence.

The works emulate late 19th century photographs from the Qajar period (1794 to 1925), the subjects posing in antique costume against carefully re-created backdrops. The ensembles are perfect in every detail except for a glaring contemporary anachronism.

These portraits are a tale of two eras and depict, according to Ghadirian, "... a woman (about whom) one can not say to what time she belongs; a woman who is dazed..."

Nevertheless, there is a strong suggestion that the subjects are, at heart, very much 21st century women who readily embrace many aspects of modernity.

One subject carries a boom-box on her shoulder with practised, casual nonchalance; another reads a newspaper, but not just any journal: it's a copy of Hamshahri, a progressive Tehran publication founded in the mid '90s.

Above all, the title of the series is in itself highly revealing.

The centuries of Qajar rule in Persia (now modern-day Iran) are considered one of the high points of the empire's artistic legacy, and was marked by an unprecedented openness to western ideas.

Oil painting was widely adopted, along with many conventions of European colouring, composition and realism which to many Iranians might today seem shocking - for example, women in Qajar portraiture were often depicted without fully concealing garments, despite the tradition of hijab.

The exchange of ideas with the west was reciprocal, with Europeans developing an intense fascination for the art and culture of Persia.

In Ghadirian's Qajar series, Islamic tradition again takes tentative steps towards global cultural dialogue. In what is fast becoming a new golden age for Iranian art, the multiculturalism of the Qajar period could well represent a way forward, as well as a glimpse into the past.


Lara Baladi (Lebanon / Egypt)

Born in Beirut in 1969, Lara Baladi grew up in Lebanon but later moved to Cairo, where she continues to live and work.

Baladi's richly diverse practice utilises installation, video, photo and collage to evoke an eclectic array of influence and themes.

Lara Baladi, contemporary Egyptian art
© Lara Baladi

Intricate photo-montages such as Sandouk el Dounia, 2007 (left), the name of which references Cairo's traditional street theatre for children. and Justice for The Mother, 2007 (detail: below) deftly combine Islamic, Western and Oriental motifs within dense visual landscapes that operate as fantastical, playful surveys of history, culture and personal recollection.


Lara Baladi, contemporary Arabic art
Lara Baladi, contemporary Egyptian art
© Lara Baladi

The vivid, kaleidoscopic colour that distinguishes much of Baladi's work is also a characteristic of the installation Al-Fanous al-Sihri (the Magic Lantern) 2002 (left), which takes its title from a tale in The Arabian Nights.

The enormous suspended octagonal star was inspired by one of the colossal chandeliers that hang in the mosque of Mohammed Ali in Cairo's Citadel.

Here, the structure is lit from within to create a kind of light-box illuminating a continuous strip of brightly hued 'X-ray' images

Depicting a female doll apparently giving birth (below), each new-born doll grows up, becomes pregnant, then gives birth in turn to create an endless cycle of feminine growth and renewal.

Lara Baladi, contemporary Islamic art
Al-Fanous al-Sihri, detail. © Lara Baladi

The warm glow of the sculpture references the majestic chandelier on which it is based, and perhaps alludes also to the stained glass found in Christian places of worship.

As magical in its way as the wondrous optical toy after which it is named, Al-Fanous al-Sihri unites the spiritual and temporal in a jewel-like depiction of infinite hope and regeneration.

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