When an artist’s full body of work is gathered for the first time, underlying themes or preoccupations driving that artist become explicit and undeniable. A Curve Is a Broken Line, the first solo exhibition of documentary photographer and visual artist Hoda Afshar, brings together a decade of the Iranian Australian’s photographs and videos. Combining six collections, the Art Gallery of New South Wales describes it as “an attempt to take stock, to pause and recognise the significance of Afshar’s approach to the photographic medium”.
The title, adapted from a line by Kurdish poet Kaveh Akbar, is billed as “an admission of vulnerability but also strength”. Right away, the theme is laid bare. Afshar’s oeuvre explores perspective-shifting juxtaposition, in which she plays with composition, subject matter, meaning and political analysis to document her subjects in all their humanity – especially when others insist on denying it.
Remain (2018), secretly filmed on Manus Island, contrasts a series of black-and-white portraits of young, male detainees in Australia’s notorious offshore detention centre with a hyper-saturated video. In the latter, the men walk through the island’s lush vegetation or are submerged to the waist in its stunning turquoise waters. The proximity of sedentary lack of colour to pulsating tropical paradise renders the reality of the situation faced by her subjects – Afshar calls them her “collaborators” – all the more stark. Australia’s border protection policies transform this Garden of Eden into hell on Earth.
In the video, Afshar’s most celebrated subject, poet and author Behrouz Boochani, is suspended in a limbo of waterfalls and forests. As he walks away from the camera and we follow him into the dense jungle, he recites poetry in his native Kurdish: “The beauty of this green hell burns to the deepest depths of our souls.”
A similar concern with unbearable turmoil that must somehow be borne drives the 2020 installation Agonistes, which also displays a suite of colourless portrait photographs alongside a colour video. Here Afshar documents the experiences of Australian whistleblowers “who have each exposed instances of injustice enacted by Australian authorities”. In ancient Greek, an agōnistḗs is someone enduring an inner struggle. These nine whistleblowers, as the introduction to the video tells us, have all paid a terrible price for speaking out about what they have witnessed. To cement this ancient connection and to honour their anonymity, Afshar presents the portraits in the style of a Greek chorus.
In a painstaking process, each was photographed in a studio with 110 cameras positioned from every conceivable angle. The composite images were then printed using 3D technology to form busts, which Afshar then rephotographed to be displayed in 2D form. The resulting monochrome portraits show the face without entirely giving the person away. Undecipherable to the 3D printer, the eyes lack detail, their glazed appearance at odds with the horrors they have witnessed. There are minimal lines etched into the face to reveal age nor expressions to suggest the personality within.
These details are for us viewers to fill in, which we are encouraged to do with the information provided in the accompanying captions. An older woman exposing rampant physical and psychological abuse in aged and disability care has developed chronic health problems. Another, barely out of her teens, volunteered with the Salvation Army and ended up working in an offshore detention facility. A middle-aged lawyer is determined to bring Australian war crimes and cover-ups to light, knowing he could end up with a lengthy prison sentence.
The accompanying video, conversely, is all detail. As each whistleblower talks, they are shot in extreme close-up so that each bodily feature is magnified many times over on the large screen. Pursed, cracked lips with slightly smudged pink lipstick. Tightly clasped hands sporting glittery, gold metallic nail polish. Black pupils surrounded by bright blue irises with specks of yellow. Deeply lined, weathered foreheads with wiry, untamed salt-and-pepper eyebrows. A tattoo of a snake, its head on the back of a weathered hand, its body slithering up a tanned forearm.
Ambiguity can be achieved in diametrically opposing ways. In turn (2023) – a response to the killing of Mahsa “Jina” Amini by Iranian forces in 2022 and a tribute to her many compatriots who have protested since – renders hypervisible what the authorities deem should be kept hidden. Shot against a backdrop of overcast sky with just a promise of blue, women dressed in black are depicted in tightly cropped images. Their faces are turned away from the camera, allowing their hair to take centrestage in silent, defiant protest of the mandatory veiling law.
The women – all Iranians living in Australia – braid each other’s hair in the style of Kurdish female soldiers preparing to fight the Islamic State. The symbolism is clear: these women are engaged in an existential battle for their freedom. The magnitude of their task and their determination to take it on is signified by their size. These portraits tower over the viewer so both the women and their mission appear larger than life.
In turn comes immediately before Remain in this exhibition, in yet another pointed juxtaposition. The first collection highlights the plight of young women in the old country, the second of young men attempting to reach a new one. Together they present a challenge to our assumptions about “repressive” Iran and “free” Australia.
This challenge also underpins Agonistes, where the whistleblowers speak of abuses that include disabled patients who are brushed raw with scourers, “like the kind used to scrub a pan”. We hear of bodies twisted and deformed by neglect and of war crimes so heinous the man relaying them would rather lose his freedom than keep their secrets.
Afshar describes her ongoing collection In the exodus, I love you more (2014–), which records her changing relationship with her home country following the death of her father, as her attempt to “dismantle the idea of there being one way of seeing Iran”. A Curve Is a Broken Line also debunks the notion that there can be just one way of seeing Australia.
Hoda Afshar: A Curve Is a Broken Line is showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until January 21, 2024.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Human being".
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