The themes of Iranian artist Samira Alikhanzadeh’s paintings revolve around human personal relationships, weaving in ideas of national and personal identity as well as the illusion and ephemerality of societal changes between the past decades and the present. For the past decade she has primarily used found Iranian family portraits from the 1930’s to 1950’s and painted over or added strips of mirrors to them to express these ideas. By western standards, these seemingly bland family portraits point to a time of apparent freedom, when women were forced by the Shah to look westernized and not wear hijab.
The eyes in many cases have been covered by a piece of mirror, except where a more arresting gaze is desired. In this sense the gaze is what its all about, for in traditional niqab or chador attire the eyes are the only part revealed, while the rest of the body is covered from head to toe in the mono-coloured dress.
So, just as the Islamic Revolution brought about a sea of burqa-clad eyes to the Tehranian cityscape, in Alikhanzadeh’s paintings they are all replaced with a mirror, in the hopes that the viewer can see their own eyes, and thus themselves in these pictures.
Why one of them in each picture does not have a mirror, it might mean that that character in the photo has come to represent Samira Alikhanzadeh or a certain part of herself, for instance when she was a child or a certain mood she was in at one point. But that is not always the case as seen in #13, Family Album (2008), where the man of the household, who is half de-rendered is the one without the mirror. So it must therefore be an attempt to hopefully reflect something inherent in the viewer’s family, which incidently would be universal to most other families in the country.
But the colours on No. 10, The Double (2010), No.1 Centennial Series (2013) and Peony (2011) express a kind of kitsch, pop abstraction; a dramatization of what’s certainly a common occurrence. They also signify a certain nostalgia, like a reminiscence of a by-gone era and the melancholic resignation of the ephemerality of it all.
Alikhanzadeh also uses mirror images to further abstract the scenes to illustrate the illusion and the ephemerality of life. In #1 and #2, The Double Series (2011) the girl is mirror imaged while the boy is either in front or looming over her from behind. In either case the boy is in a dominant position, but is out-of-focus, and the girl is subservient but is slightly, fake.
The background has what looks to be holes like in a perforated panel, but are in fact mirrors. The composition points to the solidity of typical familiar relations between brother and sister, where one was always more dominant, but this is seen to be now slowly fading.
The Persian Carpet Series of paintings is what Alikhanzadeh is probably best known for, as Iran is the cultural origin of the Persian rug and one of the country’s main export products. Kashan and Isfahan are two of the several main villages in Iran which produce hand woven, natural dyed rugs, each with their own particular traditional style and design.
Both Untitled, Isfahan Carpet (2010) and Untitled, Kashan Carpet (2011) depict the carpets in the background fading to a white oblivion and the woman in the foreground either in mourning over something in Isfahan Carpet or blurred in Kashan Carpet.
Assuming that the time these photographs were taken in the 1950’s, when women living a more westernized existence and the Persian rug trade was going on quite strong, what could she be so sad about?
The fact that the carpets are faded to white brings to mind what’s known as the ‘White Revolution’ in the 1960’s, during which the Shah tried to further modernize the country by introducing various reforms. These were good and sensible, like abolishing feudalism, which is akin to slavery, improving literacy and having equal rights for women, but offended the religious elite which profited directly from the old feudal order.
The key strategy to abolishing feudalism was for the Government to buy farmland from the landowners and sell it back cheaper to the farmers so that they could farm for themselves and keep all the profits. That was the theory which sounded good to everyone at the start, but as it was rolled out across the country, only a portion of the farmers, maybe half, were able to thrive and prosper.
The other half became disgruntled having lost what little they had and moved to the city to look for jobs. These disenchanted job seekers became the back bone of the opposition party, who lead by the religious clerics eventually succeeded in overthrowing the Shah in the bloody Islamic Revolution of 1979.
What about the Persian carpet industry? With the sanctions imposed by the US after the Tehran hostage saga and a protracted war with Iraq in the 1980’s, most other industries might as well have been faded to white. The White Revolution which was supposed to save everyone and bring Iran into a glorious new, modernized future, has instead brought about a regime change and a culture even more regressive and repressive than before.
Thankfully these sanctions have been lifted in 2015, and the carpet trade is bustling again, but since these paintings were done before 2015, I’m guessing they represent a mourning, a requiem of sorts for what once was but is no more.
What’s curious is why Alikhanzadeh didn’t just leave Iran after the Islamic Revolution, like a lot of other Iranians, if its such a loss. Maybe she couldn’t, but at her level, I’m thinking she chose to stay. For collectively these portraits and photos of other countrymen that have been altered, misrepresented, has now come to represent her own life. They reveal not only the illusion and ephemerality of life, but also point to a dispossession, a hollowing of the soul.