Two young women study a large photograph of an older woman.

Episode 4 | Amak Mahmoodian’s Zanjir: Art as an experience of closeness beyond separation

Our current Writer in Residence is freelance journalist/reporter, radio producer and writer, Melissa Chemam. Melissa writes for many publications such as The Public Art Review, Transfuge Magazine, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Skin Deep, The Bristol Cable, Bristol 24/7, CIRCA Art Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement and Public Pressure. Below, Melissa shares the fourth episode of her writing, and the first on Amak Mahmoodian’s Zanjir

Bristol, February 2020

Distance, departure, death.

Three notions that have been driving Amak Mahmoodian’s work, now on display in the first gallery of the Arnofini. Through archival material from her country of birth, Iran, her own artistic photographs and some texts inspired by these reflections, Amak can help us process an often unspoken series of feelings, inspired to all humans by the passage of time, the loss of people, places and experiences.

Two women, separated by almost 200 years, guide us into this emotional reflection on our constant feelings of separation, mostly denied in the modern world, but above all teach us how to reconnect… With the past, with our lost loved ones, with ourselves and with the people we love the most, beyond time and distance.

The Persian princess who in the middle of the 19th century became a pioneer feminist, Taj al-Saltaneh and her father, the Persian king Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, are at the centre of Zanjir, an exhibition of the artistic photographic work of Amak Mahmoodian, curated by Alejandro Acin and Kieran Swann for Arnolfini.

And so are Amak’s own parents: Her mother, whom she calls every day from here, Bristol, and her father, who sadly passed away a few years ago.

Her book and exhibition Zanjir thus creates a dialogue between Taj and Amak, between different parts of history, and different parts of the world, but also between them and the public of the exhibition.

Why? And most importantly how? Because as a photographer and a researcher on archival photographic material, Amak has spent years using images to explore her deepest emotions, linked to exile and separation, but above all to overcome these constant tearing feelings of loss and disconnection, some of the emotions that at the core of any human experience.

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When I first listened to Amak Mahmoodian, in December 2019 at the Martin Parr Foundation here in Bristol, I was very touched by her journey…

She moved from Iran to the UK, two countries often antagonised by history and their politics, and is now almost unable to go back, missing daily her mother, her culture, her language, her previous life… Because of repression, harassment during her last trips, multiple arrests and the general dislike of her photographic work in Iran, she has been away for years.

And I have myself written and reported about migrations and displacement for years, have also grown up with a mother who had the same experience, coming to Europe at 25 years old, and living in profound nostalgia of her past childhood, both joyful and tragic, until this very day.

Amak’s constant movements between the present and the past, the west and the east, the western way of life and her culture from a Muslim country, her quest to reconnect the present ones and the absents, do mirror my mother’s feelings very deeply, and some of mine, also an outsider here in the UK.

But through her books, photography and exhibitions, Amak manages to constantly recreate the links that the passage of time tries to destroy… And she’s sharing with us this powerful lesson through her latest exhibition.

So we met again a few weeks later, in the gallery, to pursue our conversation.

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In between the photographs and texts exhibited, listening to her, I felt we have so much I common. And I’m sure many of you would too…

Surely, her family is from the Middle East, and mine from North Africa, two of the most misunderstood regions here in the West, marred over decades by an imperial past that weighed on their history and politics, but also obviously on our own families’ story… So that is a first strong link.

We both lost our dads and are very close to our mothers. And we’re even born in the same year…

Then in our experience of expatriation, Amak and I both ended up in Bristol, which was never in any of our early plans!

Since I first move to the UK in 2009, a lot of British people have asked me if I was Iranian myself. So much that I even wrote a first short story about a young Persian British woman living in London, ten years ago. This sparked a deep reflection in my mind about identity and identities. Since then, I’ve been based in East and Central Africa, moved back to London then returned to Paris, my city of birth, and finally moved to Bristol. In each of these places I’m perceived extremely differently. In Britain, I’m often called Middle Eastern. In East Africa, I was a “white African”; many of my friends told me about how different I was from the “other” European and American “expatriates”. That is how foreigners from the West are called in most African places. While African newcomers are designated as migrants, foreigners, if not outsiders, and in some case undesired intruders.

But more recently, when I travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan, near Erbil and Mosul, I was asked about my identity because Kurdish people don’t feel at ease with Iraqi Sunnis and Shias, or Iranian people. So they felt reassured that I was French from a North African background.

When in Turkey or in the Balkans, I was often very warmly welcome on the contrary, just as much as in Sicily and southern Italy. During my first trip to Naples, I was quite surprised as how much I could “fit in” for a change. And in the streets of Palermo, I was constantly asked for directions in the street, mistaken for a local…

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Once she showed me her photographs, Amak explained why she chose to use the process of the “mask”, to make every portrait look more universal: “This one for instance is me under the mask,” she said, “but it could be you or any other person…” It’s about helping us sharing the feelings that motivated the photograph…

I also asked Amak if she had always knew she would leave her country. Because in her photographs, it looks like she had been destined to go beyond her homeland and its borders. Her story and her research seem to predict her move to England.

But she had not. She had never dreamed of the western world and wasn’t prepared for such a level of separation with her homeland and original culture. Just like my mother… and maybe like yours. The younger Amak never thought she’d be one day prevented from going back home and seeing her mother.

On the contrary, I have. From a very early age, I have dreamed of walking all over our globe, of foreign lands and long travels. I have always felt a call to be a nomad, maybe like my ancestors?

But in the end, it doesn’t matter how prepared you think you are, when you become a foreigner, a outlander, a stranger in a place, even when the others are in full acceptance of your differences and choice to invade them, you experience this constant emotion of separation. Yet I believe that every human has this experience regularly. As Amak showed me with Zanjir, we’re all constantly separated from our past and from our most cherished people, moments, places. Constantly trying to recreate the feeling of belonging with the ones we loved and the places that made us who we are. Even if you’ve only moved from Weston-Super-Mare to Bristol, or whether you have lost a parent or experienced a falling-out with someone you thought was a dear friend or a solid partner…

Walking across time and continents through Zanjir made me more aware of how universal it can be to feel estranged and lonely; it’s actually a common experience. And having the chance to walk through the exhibition with its creator herself, building up a new links in our lives, made me realise how precious some encounters can be, and how important it is to be grateful for them and nourish them while there is still time.

I can only invite you to do the same and walk through Zanjir with this powerful thought in mind.

 

– Melissa Chemam

 

In the next episode, I’ll explore how Angelica Mesiti’s ASSEMBLY made me feel about our need to come together in these times of utter individualism…