Amak Mahmoodian / Shenasnameh
February 2018 Interviewed by Caroline Molloy
Amak Mahmoodian is a contemporary Persian artist who lives in Bristol. She graduated from the University of South Wales, Newport in 2015 with a practice-led PhD in photography, where her research question interrogated ‘Double Identity: Images of women in Iran.’ Her body of work Shenasnameh was published as a book, in collaboration with IC Visual Labs and RRB publishing, in May 2016, and sold out within two months. The book has since been shortlisted for a number of awards, such as Time Magazine 2016 and Best Author Book Award, Rencontres Arles 2016. In addition, the work has been widely exhibited internationally, recently as part of “Catharsis” at Exposed Gallery, Belfast, NI (2017), and is currently on show at Umetnostna Galerija, Slovenia and at the Photographic Centre Northwest, Seattle, USA (2018).
Mahmoodian is working on a new body of work, with a working title of Neghab, which in Persian means false face. Below, in conversation with Caroline Molloy, Mahmoodian discusses how her biography informs her practice.
CM – There is an enduring theme throughout your broader practice around issues of identity. Could you speak a little more about why this is an important theme for you to work with?
AM – When I was quite young, the “who am I?” question was constantly in my mind. Social identity is something we adopt depending on our environment, we consent to this to be accepted in society. In Iran there is a stark contrast between public and private identity. Moving to England, I was faced with a third identity, as a Persian woman. This raises more questions around “I” and “who I am”. The “I” as an expression of identity, yet not identity itself.
CM – You speak about your interior and exterior identity. Could you speak more about how that plays out in your work?
AM – Social identity establishes a link between the exterior and the inner world, the personal and social. For me, the subject of identity is connected with ever changing interactions. It is no longer possible to construct an identity around only one “I”. Our identities are very much rooted in how we are perceived by others. This is the starting point with which I create my work.
CM – Throughout your practice you have used photography in a number of ways, as an archival practice, found photography, your own photographs and video. Could you explain why you use different approaches in your practice?
AM – Photography is a way of talking. I love writing but I am more comfortable telling stories through light. Each project is a chapter in my life. I need to feel to create and I feel in a poetic way. It depends on the chapter how that story is told. I start with some thoughts and memories, dream about these ideas. I find the story inside of me and then think of a way to express it. I listen to my photographs and allow them to speak.
CM – Can you speak more about the politics that underlines your practice?
AM – Our understanding of individuality is based on our social status. From my own experience as an ‘insider’, women are at the margins of Iranian society, in terms of who they are. This inspires my projects, which are concerned with how to express hidden truths. My past makes my present political. Women in Iran are silent but they are not voiceless. They are screaming through their silence. In one of my bodies of work, “Who Am I?”, a video piece, I asked my participants to respond to this question. One of my participants “Ranna” sat in front of the camera for 24 minutes and said nothing. It is the loudest conversation I have ever had, in my life. I could see she was talking to herself. Being silent was her voice.
CM – Can you speak more about the creation of Shenasnameh?
AM – It is a personal story that pertains to collective narrative. Eight years ago I was registering paperwork in Tehran, with my mother. I had our birth certificates, the “Shenasnameh”, in my hand, which had our ID photographs on them. According to official standards, if the woman’s appearance is not ‘correct’, the ID photograph will not be accepted. We looked so similar in the photographs. That same day my fingerprint was fixed next to my image, and my mother’s fingerprint next to her image. Despite the outward similarity of the images, our fingerprints were different. The scar I have on my finger became part of my identity next to my photograph. I decided this meant something, that our personal identities were entwined with our official identities, these prints and these papers.
In the following three years, I collected similar photographs and fingerprints from different women in Iran. Each was different from the other, and had a story to tell. I sourced some of the discarded photographs, that did not adhere to the required national standards, and only on these occasions did I crop the photograph, to maintain anonymity. Shenasnameh features the collected photographs alongside the finger prints. For an Iranian woman, only in a small part of her being can she show difference from another. Through these photographs, despite the restrictions, individuality and person-hood can still be claimed; by a glint in the eyes, a turn of the mouth, or a raise of the brows.
CM – Shenasnameh has been realised through a number of presentation strategies, could you explain how this work has been re-conceptalised in different ways.
AM – Shenasnameh has different layers, it speaks on different registers. In the book as an object, the narrative reads from back to front, the blank pages of the book become our silence. As the five-minute multi-media presentation I narrate the context of the work as selected photographs are presented. As an exhibition, the work is re-conceptualised through the exhibition space.
Amak Mahmoodian’s work can be found on her website: www.amakmahmoodian.co.uk
The multimedia presentation of Shenasnameh can be viewed at vimeo.com/177741225