a glimpse of iran at the sackler gallery

One Sunday in October of last year, we went to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, in D.C. to see an exhibit titled “My Iran: Six Women Photographers.”

Public perceptions of Iran over the last 40 years have been shaped by the upheaval of the Islamic Revolution in 1978-79, when the country’s social and cultural traditions were dramatically transformed.

The works of six female photographers, from the 1970s to the present, offer a complicated and deeply personal view of the country of their birth. Whether created inside or outside of Iran, the carefully staged, often cinematic, images are about memory, loss, and exile, but also about hope. These women acknowledge the past and challenge the present to shed light on their identity as artists, while also offering nuanced interpretations of their Iran.

Hengameh Golestan, along with her husband Kaveh, was one of the photographers who documented the early March 1979 protests that erupted in Tehran after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a decree requiring all women to wear the chador (veil) in public. Her images capture both the last day Iranian women were in the streets without head coverings and the first widespread protest since Khomeini’s return. In these photos, she poignantly conveys the short-lived sense of excitement, solidarity, and optimism that permeated the first months of the Iranian Revolution.


From the series Witness 1979 by Hengameh Golestan


From the series Witness 1979 by Hengameh Golestan

Malekeh Nayiny was born in Tehran and has lived and worked in the West since 1979.

Red Cloth references her father’s profession as a physician.  The photo evokes a sense of care and comfort but also anxiety and suffering, a range of emotions that Nayiny associates with her life before and after leaving Iran.


Red Cloth from the series Sketches of a Fractured Song by Malekeh Nayiny

In Nayiny’s series, Updating a Family Album, Nayiny scanned photographs of her family members taken in the early 20th century.  By “updating” them and digitally adding color and patterns, Nayiny also lends whimsy to the photos.


Untitled from the series Updating a Family Album by Malekeh Nayiny


Untitled from the series Updating a Family Album by Malekeh Nayiny


Untitled from the series Updating a Family Album by Malekeh Nayiny

Mitra Tabrizian creates stages cinematic photos that convey a sense of alienation and stillness.  Her Border series focuses on Iranians in exile. The photos suggest a state of physical and emotional limbo.

In one photograph, a man stands near an open door, staring into the distance.  A former soldier in Iran’s Imperial Army, he now works as a mechanic outside of London. He is separated both physically and emotionally from a younger male figure and a wrecked car in the background.


A Deadly Affair From the series Border by Mitra Tabrizian

In the next photo, a woman dressed in black stares directly at the camera.  She seems to have been in that quiet pose for days. Her small suitcase stands in front of a closed door, a symbol of her memories and conflicting desires perhaps to leave or return home.


A Long Wait from the series Border by Mitra Tabrizian

Gohar Dashti draws on her recollections of growing up during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).  The clusters of people in her series Iran, Untitled are similarly isolated from the world.  Here too, the figures are shown with small suitcases, an emblem of their memories and desires.


from the series Iran, Untitled by Gohar Dashti


from the series Iran, Untitled by Gohar Dashti

Works by Gohar Dashti are dramatically composed scenes infused with anxiety and uncertainty. In her recent series Home, she photographed hundreds of plants arranged in abandoned buildings.  Even when neglected and forgotten, nature thrives here, confirming the persistence of life and hope for a better future.


Untitled from the series Home by Gohar Dashti


Untitled from the series Home by Gohar Dashti

(All information is from plaques at the exhibit.)

On the way out of the museum, we encountered the Buddha in a Buddhist temple.


Encountering the Buddha

As we returned to our car, we came upon a drum group, Batalá Washington, an all-women Afro-Brazilian band that plays Samba-Reggae rhythms. It was quite a lively performance.


Batalá Washington

On our way home, we stopped at Luzmila’s Bolivian Restaurant for a lunch of Sopa de Mani, or peanut soup, Choclo, or white corn cob, and empañadas.  It wasn’t very good, except for the empañadas.

*October 19, 2019*