Curatorial essay – Zanjir, Arnolfini, 2020

Zanjir is a conversation imagined between the artist, Amak Mahmoodian (1980-present), and the Persian princess and memoirist, Taj al-Saltaneh (1883-1936). Through photography and a series of coupled texts, the exhibition is a meditation on distance – reaching through histories to bring the earliest images of Iranian photography into the present, across oceans to distant family and friends, and across the border between life and death.

Translating to ‘chain’, with Zanjir, Mahmoodian casts her subjects as a series of links; stretched taut, reaching into the past. Her work attempts to resist our irrestistible movement towards the future, and with it, resist how the passage of time can pull people and places apart. Through remembrance, imagination, and longing, Zanjir is an attempt to circumvent distance, departures, death.

Entering through a liminal space – a corridor bordered by images of rolling desert dunes, printed on veil curtain – we enter a space that blurs the present, the 19th century, and mythological early Iran. Incorporating photography drawn from research at the Golestan Archives, Mahmoodian profiles Naser al-Din Shah (known as “the modern monarch of the Qajar era”), and his forays into family photography. An artist as well as a state leader, the Shah received his first camera as a gift from Queen Victoria. His subjects were his family – his wives and their relatives; and importantly to Mahmoodian’s research, his daughter Taj al-Saltaneh.

Taj was a prominent early feminist in modern Iran A founder of women’s rights groups, Taj organised marches on parliament, hosted literary salons, and advocated for structural change to the monarchy; publicly criticising the rule of her father. This difference in political views did not diminish her love for him, however – and it is in this adoration of their fathers that al-Saltaneh and Mahmoodian find a mirror in each other.

Through coupled texts (an imagined conversation by Mahmoodian, calligraphed on the gallery walls), the artist and al-Saltaneh exchange solace, reflect on loss, and bare the wound of the very moment of their fathers’ passings (al-Saltaneh through a combination of imagined writings and excerpts from her widely-studied memoir).

Images of both families recur through the exhibition. Mahmoodian’s father is a striking figure, his clear-eyed profile particularly recognisable by the shock of white beard. Among clusters of Mahmoodian’s families and friends (many masked by images of faces drawn from the Golestan archive), his presence is keenly felt – as are the presences of those archive figures; all also fathers, friends and families to others also lost to time.

We see Mahmoodian’s father at his most vulnerable in the intimate photographs of his tattoos (illustrations drawn from Shahnameh, the myth of modern Iran, from which also comes the illustration that greets visitors at the gallery’s entrance). These tender, submerged scarlet images, and other careful clusters are interspersed with large scale portraits. Receding like portals – into water, and beyond the gallery walls – Zanjir imagines that we could step through them, into memory, into myth.