This session explores how multiple notions of sex, gender, and identity were constructed and commissioned in nineteenth-century visual culture during the Qajar Dynasty (1786-1925). The range of images comprises women, men, and children from different social strata, religions, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds, created by various indigenous artists (as opposed to Orientalists) and commissioned by both male and female patrons. These inquiries consider painting and photography, as well as their connections to written texts, including poetry, memoirs, clerical writings, and tracts, to elucidate interpretations or to show how various media produced an alternative language in discussing sex, gender, and identity. Of interest is how these images operated sociologically in changing, creating, or perpetuating social constructions of gender, as well as patronage, which indicated who had a voice in such productions.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, definitions of sexuality and beauty were more fluid, bordering on the homosocial and homonormative. Diba (2003) and Najmabadi (2005) have addressed gender in Qajar painting and how it reflected political and cultural changes happening on the ground. Najmabadi has argued that Iranian society in general became more heteronormative at the nineteenth century’s closing due to global contact and modernization, and this reconfiguration is seen in the figures of women and men in later painting. Although these studies have greatly inform us on how sex, gender, and identity were performed in Qajar visual culture, painting and photography also had a language of their own that may have conveyed (different) information about how modern Iran metamorphosed or resisted changes as a result of foreign contact and modernity. In general, the visual spaces of representations have the potential to be subversive and to speak counternarratives—not just legitimize them—by telling the viewer more about the Other and how history was not.
The panel begins with gendered artistic patronage during the Afsharid and Zand periods, providing a lens through which to discuss the types of gendered perceptions that may have shaped later cultural production. The second paper addresses masculinity and kingship in early Qajar iconography, whereas the third paper deals with representations of women in mid-nineteenth-century book illustrations by underlining the social significance of women’s clothing, which tightly connected status and the roles assigned by society. The last presentation relates back to the first, examining both women photographers and sitters and suggesting that photography became a medium that empowered women as creators and witnesses of modernity.