The Crowd in Contemporary Iranian Art and Visual Culture

Despite the strong connection between the metropolitan crowd and the design of Iran’s urban space (harking back to the Safavid period)
and the correlation between the mob and its representation in the arts, visual culture, and propaganda (going as far back as the early
1950s, during the time of Fadaiyan-i Islam's propaganda publications), historians of modern Iran have not paid ample
attention to how the crowd has been choreographed, organized, imaged, and imagined. Is the crowd to be feared, contained, and
surveilled, or celebrated as a heroic entity capable of enacting visionary change? And what are its distinguishing features? Is the
crowd a faceless mass or an amalgamation of individuals with particular aspirations and identities? What are the conditions for
the shifting configurations of the crowd from an antagonistic entity to a holistic social body? With the exception of a few studies, there is little exploration of how such choreographed crowds have served ideology. There is, however, a vast body of literature on the subject in Western contexts. From Plato, who introduced the concept of demos or the irrational crowd, to Gustav Le Bon's La psychologie
des foules (1895), to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's theorization (2000) of the multitude as a counter-imperial force disrupting state borders and agendas; to W.J.T. Mitchell's recent analysis of collective disobedience in the Occupy Movement ( Critical Inquiry , 2012), scholars in the West have historicized and theorized the notion of the crowd. Following the theoretical framework put forward by these major Western figures, this panel aims to foreground the importance of the crowd (in its real and representational modes) in
Iran’s modern history. Through a combined analysis—which integrates urban form, social discourse, art, and media representations— this panel examines the dynamic relationships between changes in Iran’s unique mythologies of the crowd and its various transformations in architectural space and visual culture. The art/architectural historians and artist/activists contributing to this panel will cover a variety of topics, such as: how the design and architectural characteristics of main urban entities have choreographed the revolutionary and pro-regime demonstrations and how these are in tension with the regime’s propaganda machine; the student uprisings of 1997 and the 2009 Green Revolution; and the architectural spaces and novel spatial connections that are made possible by digital media (for example, in photographic collages that recall traditions of Islamic mirror-work or carpet weaving).


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Sadegh Tirafkan (1965-2013) is one of Iran’s most revered photographic artists whose work explores issues of contemporary Iranian national identity in tension with ancient Persian traditions. Early in Tirafkan’s career, he used international strategies of ‘performative’ photography to explore the lingering personal and cultural traumas of the Iran-Iraq war. Subsequently, his work continued to focus on issues of masculinity, heroic sacrifice, and mourning in works that depicted Ashura ceremonies in Tehran. Recurring motifs of blood, martyrdom, and violence have been points of critical and aesthetic inquiry over the course of his career. Since 2003, Tirafkan developed a method using digital photography that allowed him to layer imagery into collages that reference traditional Persian art forms, such as miniature painting (from the Shahnameh legends), the low-relief sculptures of ancient sites (Persepolis), as well as textiles and carpets. A significant transformation of Tirafkan’s photo-collages is evident starting in 2008, when one witnesses a shift from works presenting individual identities and self-portraits to those depicting large crowds of Iranian people. These crowd images would eventually comprise two major bodies of work: the Multitude series and the Human Tapestry series, which are the primary focus of this paper. These works were created at a historical moment of great political aspiration and unrest, and coincide with the Green Movement demonstrations and subsequent state violence. Yet at precisely this time, Tirafkan evacuates all references to blood and violence from his artwork. The vision Tirafkan presents involves a dual focus on individuals and on the robust, dynamic communities that sustain and integrate them. The faces of Iran’s young generation, as well as women, girls, and boys are configured into colourful textile-inspired geometries enabled by the digital photographic collage method. These are holistic visions of Iranian crowds united by “common threads” and “woven together” into alternative statements, which seem to counter the radical upheavals occurring within the Iranian society and politics of that pivotal historic moment. To explore the theoretical potential of Tirafkan’s artwork, I will refer to (among other paradigms) theories of “the multitude” as a force that counters state ideologies proposed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire (2000), as well as to W.J.T. Mitchell’s identification and deconstruction of the stereotypical notions of the militant Islamic crowd so often presented by Western news media, outlined in his essay “Clonophobia” (2008, The Ethics and Politics of the Image).

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Examining the relationship between the metropolitan crowd and the design of memorial spaces in Tehran, I aim to illuminate the role of commemorative practices in socio-political transformations in the crisis-ridden modern history of Iran. In this paper, I examine memorial sites and commemorative process as mechanisms for transformation of public spaces, focusing particularly on the role of memorials during various juncture points in the recent history of Iran such as the 1979 Islamic revolution, the subsequent Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, and the political unrest following the 2009 disputed elections.
Through various examples of memorial architectural projects I demonstrate the political intentions of the builders and users manifested in these sites to create new forms of political socialization and spaces of resistance. In this paper I argue that in Iran the evolving commemorative practices appropriate powerful myths to create spaces of memorialization both for and against structures of power.
Illuminating the dual-purpose of these memorials as spaces of control and resistance, I argue that they are used as military socialization sites by demonstrating how the political leaders create and use these settings to assimilate people into a political and military culture. Moreover, I demonstrate how the Iranian opposition forces utilize similar techniques to design and build spaces of resistance. Examples are provided to demonstrate how both the Islamic regime and the political opposition leaders shape and reshape memorial landscapes as part of a power struggle.

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For this panel I will present an in-depth look at my recent artistic project titled Conference of the Birds. A project that fuses images of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests to propose new networks of cultural coexistence. By weaving imagery of these two distinct movements into one another, and digitally recombining them into entwined patterns, I propose a connection between the people in these movements. Repetition and reproducibility empowers imagery with the ability to construct and define history. Through this project I will discuss the multiple ways in which imagery of Crowds through the digital sphere can empower and mobilize.

I use vernacular images that often appear on social media networks, and the semiotics of pattern to reflect upon the strong networks of collaborative organization that is now possible digital transmission.
This project resulted from my direct involvement with Occupy Wall Street movement during the Fall of 2011 in New York City, and creates a juxtaposition between the East and the West through the use of digital technologies and Islamic patterns. In Islamic art, ornamentation is an art of transformation, with an aim to move beyond mere decoration in order to transcend and transfigure. This comes out of the Islamic preoccupation with the transitory nature of being. Daring to imagine that we can transform our world into something more beautiful, and that our current struggles are but a transitory state in our evolution towards a more egalitarian society. Through the creation of patterns intertwining my subjects, Conference of the Birds uses this idealistic outlook, and envisions a better world.

This project is named after the Persian book of poetry, The Conference of the Birds, written by Farid ud-Din Attar in the twelfth century of the Common Era. Over the past decade digital communications has enabled a brand new form of activism. But this new generation of activists has also made changes to the process of decision-making. Through actions such as the human microphone and consensus at their General Assemblies, the Occupy movement uses an open, participatory, and horizontally organized process to make decisions. Like the birds in Attar’s poem, this leaderless movement looks within and values each member as an equal voice in organizing for political change.

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My photography explores how departure, absence and loss impact one’s understanding of home and identity, via portrait and landscape photography. My work addresses how struggle affects people’s sense of self and place, through the properties of photography as a medium, as well as trends in portrait photography as a genre. Drawing from the history of portrait photography and the aesthetic conventions of realist paintings of the 19th century.

The portraits are taken in the intimate setting of the participants’ homes, with minimal intervention, and shot with existing (natural) light. The longer exposure process of large format photography and the use of a tripod hinder quick snap-shots and allow participants to pose for the camera. As they pose, the participants can choose to look the camera square in the eye and meet, confront/return, or reject the photographers’ and viewers’ gazes. Exploring the possibilities of agency inherent in posing and its contingency on the relationship between photographer and subject. Implementing various approaches that include collaborating with participants to determine the pose, location, and even the moment in time the shutter is pressed. The question of agency becomes particularly relevant for the subjects who, under cultural and religions strain, now find themselves with a partner in a paternalistic society.

As an ex-patriated Iranian male, the questions of how identity is in relation to the people and places I photograph, how it affects them, and how this in turn informs the process and content of my work. My method hinges on a conscious and sensitive approach to cultural differences, while remaining aware of the fact that although I have ties to Iran, given my academic formation in the West, I cannot fully escape the binary power structure inherent in the Western gaze. The desire to explore how portrait photography can potentially create a space where ‘marginalised’ subjects can assert, (re)fashion, and perform a sense of self, become a source of my visual narrative.