IN 1999, the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian had one of her early exhibitions outside Iran, at the Leighton House in London. She was showing a series called Qajar, portraits of women made to look like vintage photographs, with the subjects posed before painted backdrops and dressed in old-fashioned clothes. A close look at the portraits revealed some modern props—a vacuum cleaner, snazzy sunglasses, a boombox—that cracked the historicity of the portraits. However, at the opening, Ghadirian felt there were more people staring at her than at her art. “Everybody looked at me, with expressions like ‘You wear jeans!,’ ‘You wear red shoes!’” she recalled. Dressed like any other 26-year-old girl, Ghadirian didn’t conform to the mould of a West Asian woman to the gathered crowd and this was disconcerting to them. “I wanted to ask, ‘Do you want to show me in the gallery instead of the photos?’” said Ghadirian. “Here’s the exhibit: an Iranian woman.”
Had she offered, the gallerist may have taken Ghadirian up on it. It had been barely a year since Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. The work, literally, was her bed, unmade and festooned with the detritus of her everyday existence like cigarette butts and used underwear. Emin was among the Young British Artists who were redefining what constituted fine art and ‘My Bed’ found art in real life, a trend that was still very much en vogue at the time of Ghadirian’s first show in London. As an additional bonus, Ghadirian is beautiful. In that, she certainly conforms to stereotypes about Iranian women, but it’s best not to word it that way to her because Ghadirian hates being pigeonholed. The week before she came to India for a solo show in Mumbai in November, she was interviewed by an Italian journalist, who tried to get Ghadirian to corroborate the widespread notion of the oppressed Iranian woman. The insistence upon strengthening a stereotype reminded Ghadirian of the decade-old experience in London.
“All he wanted me to say was that I had many problems and I said, no I don’t have any problems; it’s good here,” said Ghadirian. “It’s like they want us to talk about only these things. I can talk about my problems but I don’t like that he wanted me to talk about the same things: veil is bad, Iranian women, Muslim country, Muslim Muslim Muslim. It’s a fashionable word now. But this is not my problem.”