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Arnolfini - est 1961

Intermission Bristol’s new review of Zanjir, a ‘compelling reflection of memory, identity, and the passing of time’ through photography, now on at the Arnolfini.

“Isn’t the review of one’s personal history the best understanding in the world?
… The story of my life is so weighty and replete with difficult situations that I couldn’t finish recounting it even if I spent every hour of an entire year.
Besides, it alternates so rapidly between sorrow and laughter that it’s bound to perplex the listener.”

These are the words of the Persian princess and early feminist Taj al-Saltaneh (1883-1936). Extracts from her memoirs and photographs taken by her father makeup half the discourse of the Arnolfini’s latest exhibition, Zanjir. The other half of the conversation imagined is the photography of artist Amak Mahmoodian (1980-present) who grew up in Iran and now lives in Bristol, and is best known for her internationally acclaimed project Shenasnameh. In Zanjir, intimate family photographs coupled with poetry comprise a poignant meditation on themes of home, ancestry, love, and mortality.

Taj al-Saltaneh’s father, the King of Persia, was a keen artist as well as a civic leader. After being given his first camera as a gift from Queen Victoria, he began to photograph those closest to him—particularly his wives and daughters. The exhibition weaves these pictures (the earliest examples of Iranian photography) together with Mahmoodian’s images of her parents, creating an intimate dual narrative. A self-portrait taken in the mirror of the Golestan Palace, the Persian royal residence, captures the king surrounded but his wives and daughters in a compelling, private moment. Juxtaposed are gripping images of the artist’s parents taken in Bristol. In some pictures they cover their faces with photographs of strangers, alluding to notions of migration and displaced identity.

Threaded throughout the exhibition is the theme of loss, as both the artist and Taj al-Saltaneh reflect on their relationships with their late fathers. The ‘burden of fatherlessness’ that Taj describes in her memoirs is illustrated in Mahmoodian’s striking images of her father. Dark, close, submerged photographs of his tattoos intensely express a deep emotional connection between the two. Moreover, his tattoos depict the Iranian myth of Shahnameh, drawing back to Mahmoodian’s Persian heritage and emphasising the parallel with Taj.

Mahmoodian asserts that ‘women are at the margins of Iranian society and this is what lies behind my projects concerning the identity and image of Iranian women.’ Princess Taj, a visionary of her time, fought for democracy and women’s liberation in Persia. She founded the Society of Women’s Freedom, agitated for female rights and publicly criticised the Persian monarchy. In conversation with Mahmoodian, the cathartic dialogue between them traverses distance and time. The exhibition title, Zanjir, translates to ‘chain’ or ‘paired/coupled’. This exemplifies the nature of the exhibition: the interwoven story of two Iranian women, illustrated through their family relationships and mirrored adoration of their fathers in a compelling reflection of memory, identity, and the passing of time.

Zanjir is on at the Arnolfini until March 22nd 2020 and is free.