Hoda Afshar was already set to have a major 2023 before she was approached by the Art Gallery of NSW last year to create a new exhibition. Just this year, the Iranian-born, Melbourne-based artist has had showings at this year’s Sharjah Biennial in February, as well as the Tarrawarra Biennial and the Museum of Contemporary Art in June. Now, she’s celebrating the opening of A Curve is a Broken Line at AGNSW, her first major solo exhibition. Created in collaboration with senior curator of contemporary Australian art Isobel Parker Philip, it’s a survey of her work from the past decade, accompanied by a print publication of the same name.
Beginning her work as a photographic artist in Iran in 2007, Afshar had an extensive body of work from which to choose for the exhibition and book. The first series visitors see when entering the gallery space is In the exodus, I love you more, which she began in 2014 as one of her earliest works after migrating to Australia. “It’s an ongoing project, which is about my relationship to my home country, Iran as a migrant, and how it changes the way that you photograph that place,” says Afshar. “But it also challenges the way that Iran is photographed from the outside world as well.”
The final image of the series shows a Persian miniature painting of a woman, whose face was erased by the authorities after the Iranian revolution. That image overlooks the adjoining room, where Afshar’s new work In turn 2023 is displayed, featuring photographs of Iranian women based in Australia. Specially commissioned for the exhibition, the series is a response to the women-led protest movement that began in Iran last year, following the death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman arrested by the morality police for “improperly” wearing her hijab.
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Inspired by protest footage from the streets of Iran, many of the images show the women plaiting each other’s hair, an act of resistance that echoes the Kurdish women’s liberation movement. The series holds particular emotional resonance for Afshar, who had been arrested by the morality police several times while living in Iran.
Political themes are central to Afshar’s work, including her award-winning 2018 series Remain. A collection of portraits of men detained on Manus Island, the project is known for its image of Iranian writer and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani, who spent six years in detention. The striking black and white portrait, which shows Boochani standing next to an open fire, won her the $30,000 Bowness Photography Prize in 2018.
The images were created over nine days on a small island off Manus, alongside a large-scale video installation that Afshar finds especially moving. “I’ve watched that video probably over a thousand times through editing and exhibiting, but every time I look at it, I’m reminded of the trust that those men put into it,” she says. “They were shattered at that point; it was over five years of being detained there and they poured the last drops of their hopes into that project. Still, to this day, it really shakes me every time I see it. It makes me cry to be honest.”
Another award-winning, political work on display is Afshar’s 2020 series Agonistes, for which she received the Ramsay Art Prize People’s Choice award in 2021, taking home a $15,000 prize. A technologically ambitious project, the series is comprised of photographs of 3D-printed busts that resemble whistleblowers who have spoken out about various issues.
To create the busts, Afshar photographed the subjects’ faces with more than a hundred cameras to create 3D models that resemble ancient Greek busts with blank eyes, the only feature unable to be captured by the technology. In contrast, the series’ video installation features extreme close-ups of the subjects’ skin and other features, which Afshar says is an exploration of how trauma is held in the body.
Examining the body as a form of political and artistic statement is also central to Afshar’s 2016 series, Behold. Shot in a secret bathhouse in Iran, the images show a group of gay men, close friends of hers, in re-created scenes of intimacy. In a country where such acts are criminalised, the images of the men embracing are especially defiant. “When you think about it, it’s desire for recognition in a country [where] your existence is basically denied and criminalised,” she says. “Being seen, and your body being exposed to the gaze of the world, is a rebellious act – it’s quite dangerous.”
Stories of defiance and survival are integral to Afshar’s work and her life. So much so, they inspired the exhibition’s title, which is taken from a poem by Kaveh Akbar. “When I first read it, it reminded me of my own experience, but also, all the other people that I’ve worked with throughout the years. We’ve gone through so much,” she says.
“And we, as human beings, the more you break, the stronger you become, and I think a curve is a strong line. It's just been broken so many times that it could curve around things, and that makes it more resilient and stronger.”
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