Visual Art

Hoda Afshar’s remarkable work questions whether photography and film can ever be truthful documents of reality. By Esther Linder.

Speak the Wind

Untitled (2015-20) from Hoda Afshar’s series Speak the Wind.
Untitled (2015-20) from Hoda Afshar’s series Speak the Wind.
Credit: Courtesy Hoda Afshar / Milani Gallery

Hoda Afshar’s new exhibition, Speak the Wind, is a meditation on isolated spirituality. A series of photographs, an audiovisual installation and a monograph created between 2015 and 2020, it sees Afshar return to her homeland of Iran to document the esoteric and invisible.

The intangible nature of the winds is the overarching force in Afshar’s solo work, now on show at the Monash Gallery of Art. Her focus is the landscape and inhabitants of islands in the Strait of Hormuz – a narrow body of water in the Persian Gulf between the United Arab Emirates, southern Iran and the Musandam Governorate of Oman, and one of the most strategically important trade routes in the world. The islands are not named, and neither are their residents. The exhibition examines how the natural world has shaped the spirituality of the strait’s inhabitants. We are told of a spirit wind, Zār, that can possess people and that can only be exorcised through rituals.

Haunting black-and-white footage depicts eroding mountains and desert valleys on a video loop. These are valleys where the roaring winds carry spirits past – and sometimes into – the body of a human. The pulse of drumming seethes through the gallery space. A figure wrapped in white cloth rocks back and forth on the desert floor, soundless and faceless. They appear to be possessed by the spirit wind. We move between spires of rock that are hollowed and carved into shape by the wind. A woman’s brightly coloured veil hangs above a cliff, the owner absent, whisked away by something unseen.

Humanity is blurred in this moon landscape: single figures appear across frames, almost always in a state of mourning. The white figure sits at the intersection of the human realm and the winds, inhabiting both worlds yet belonging to neither. One of the only signs of a sphere beyond the winds is a brief flare from an oil refinery.

Afshar’s work treads the space between visual art and documentary photography, a troubled realm where staged representations of real people are captured intimately and honestly, and then exhibited publicly and performatively. She has commented in interviews on the artificiality of photography, of how the presence of a camera immediately removes any realistic truth. Her answer to this corporeal quandary in Speak the Wind is to create her own world within the parameters of existing beliefs and societies.

Afshar’s still images are shot with a medium format analogue camera, while the video loop appears to have been made using a drone. They blend together seamlessly in the quiet nature of the work; as an observer you walk slowly alongside her lens without feeling any immediate need to respond.

Visitors to the space wander through aeons of unwritten history as the bright red ochre of the desert minerals traces paths across the cliff. Unfortunately, the somewhat disjointed presentation of the works doesn’t quite do justice to Afshar’s practice. Aside from the exemplary video installation, the strongest images feel limited by the space available to them.

Quotes in Farsi and English are printed upon one wall of the gallery, first-person recollections of those haunted by the spirits. The spirit is said to make people sick, nauseous and mentally unwell, although we don’t know if this is divine punishment for individual sins or something else entirely. Portraits of unidentified inhabitants and ancient rock spires surround the words, which are the only point in the exhibition where we hear from Afshar’s subjects.

Afshar has always shifted between forms and traditions. She began her career as a photojournalist in Tehran before moving to Australia in 2007 and undertaking projects such as Under Western Eyes (2013-14), a series that used Pop Art motifs to satirise how Muslim women are stereotypically portrayed in Western art. She won the National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2015 for Portrait of Ali, an image of a child on a mountaintop in Iran shrouded in fog.

Her portrait of Behrouz Boochani, taken in collaboration with the Kurdish journalist and poet on Manus Island, was the winner of the Bowness Photography Prize in 2018. Remain, the video and photographic project that resulted from Afshar’s nine-day visit to Manus, was a reimagining of how refugees are generally portrayed in Australian society, foregrounding the voices and minds of the imprisoned men. Most recently, Agonistes, a portrait series of 3D-printed busts of Australian whistleblowers, was exhibited along Swanston Street in Melbourne. As an observer of Australian society, Afshar’s work has teased out and made plain the ironies and hypocrisy inherent in the everyday.

Speak the Wind is loudest in its silences. There is little discussion of the nature of the islands’ spirituality or politics. Afshar instead constructs a singular view of Iran, removed from the usual media focus on geopolitics and repression. There is no explanation of the nature or form of the spirituality depicted in the works: we see drummers, what appears to be a priest or shaman hovering with a staff over the possessed being, unique face coverings worn by elderly women, a crumbling Quran held tenderly in a pair of unknown hands.

It is an approach that illustrates Afshar’s philosophy well. By staging these rituals, rather than coming across them organically, she exposes her own construction of “reality” and interrogates the idea that documentary photography can be objective or in any way truthful. The narrative is entirely within her purview and making.

What this series lacks is an emotional connection between the work’s audience and her original subjects. By rejecting the central tenet of documentary photography – to provide a frame of reference – the lives, customs and inner worlds of Afshar’s subjects remain unknown. While this serves her purpose, it intimates another kind of mourning for a culture that remains little known beyond the Persian Gulf.

Speak the Wind is showing next to Old ways, new ways, an exhibition of First Nations artists that examines photography’s possibilities in connecting the past, present and future. Both the aesthetic and personal are seen in these works, offering an alternatively emotional experience in documenting one’s landscape, community and history. Ngarrindjeri man Damien Shen’s intimate portrait of an unnamed Elder applying ochre in a theatre dressing room works as a soaring tribute to the difficulty of existing in two worlds. 

Speak the Wind is part of PHOTO 2022 and is on display at the Monash Gallery of Art until June 26.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "Documenting the unseen".

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Esther Linder is a photojournalist and The Saturday Paper’s digital content assistant.

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