Visual Culture in Modern Iran

The Islamic Republic of Iran is, according to Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi, a “Museum of Furious Art,” a poignant description that positions contemporary Iran as a site in which historical meaning is negotiated visually. The Islamic Republic is a place where individuals attempt to bridge the past and the present through visual encounters with historical objects. This scheme makes evident the centrality of visuality in contemporary Iran, but it also raises questions about who has permission to regulate and display images in this museum, and the degree to which the Islamic Republic exercises control over images and image-making. These kinds of questions are becoming increasingly urgent as changing technologies widen the flow of visual information and contribute to efforts of dissent. Addressing the complexities of visual experience in Iran from an interdisciplinary approach that encompasses historical, anthropological, and art historical perspectives, this panel raises the following questions: How has visual material been created and mobilized during times of social and political upheaval, and what are the ethical implications of documenting the violence of these events? How do we understand the historical precedents, both iconographic and technological, for visuality in the Islamic Republic? And how does visual material demarcate gender, class, and generational differences?

As they engage these questions, the panelists bring forth a wide range of visual material from early photography during the Qajar Dynasty to contemporary YouTube videos, and they attempt to decenter the primacy of textual evidence in our conceptualization of Iran’s modern history. The first panelist examines family portraits from the early twentieth-century in order to challenge the prevalent view that domestic slavery in Iran was a gentle form of enslavement. The second panelist considers the production and circulation of posters by the Organization of the People’s Fada’i-e Khalq with the aim of determining ideological nuance among revolutionaries during the 1978-79 Revolution. The third panelist determines how the Islamic Republic attempts to make a visualized “culture of martyrdom” relevant to today’s youth, a generation that did not experience the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War. Martyrdom is also the topic of the final presentation, which examines how various institutions categorize and visually represent female martyrs from the Iran-Iraq War and later the Green Movement in 2009.


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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, privileged urbanites in Iran commissioned local photographers to produce family portraits, and these portraits often included slaves. This body of visual evidence raises an important question about the ways in which Iranian slavery has been visualized both historically and historiographically. To what extent were domestic slaves in Iran integrated into the family unit? My reading of these photographs reveals the complicated relationship between domestic slaves in Iran and the households that they ran. While these servants played a crucial role in the life-events of those individuals whom they served, they were nevertheless treated as objects, as status-affirming property. And their lack of agency, which is clear in these portraits, suggests the cruelty of the institution of slavery in Iran.

Scholars have generally positioned the domestic slavery that was common in Iran (and throughout the Middle East) as a gentler institution when compared to other forms of enslavement worldwide. The underlying assumption is that domestic slaves shared an intimate relationship with their masters. Because slaves lived under the same roof as their slavers, their presence was automatically incorporated into the household or family unit. However, my research challenges this line of thinking by highlighting the distance between slave and master in family portraits from the Qajar era. In these portraits, slaves were not depicted as members of the family, but rather as props displayed to signal the family’s status to the viewer. At the same time, photographers often positioned slaves with children and highlighted the child’s age. This act suggests the degree to which the slaves impacted the child’s life. These portraits together capture the multi-faceted position of slaves in the family unit in Qajar Iran, and this line of research, which draws on visual evidence, allows us to access a fuller picture of slavery in the Middle East.

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During the tumultuous events of the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, previously suppressed oppositional organizations strove to instill an insurgent consciousness amongst the general populace through a variety of communicative media, including pamphlets, periodicals, audio-cassettes, and banners. Much of the scholarship regarding such political materials has focused on the Khomeinist camp due to their availability and popularity. While the eventual consolidation of state power under Ayatollah Khomeini demonstrates that Islamic-oriented groups most effectively mobilized the populace during the revolutionary era, recent material evidence— such as a new collection of political posters— reveals that various groups, like the Organization of the People’s Fada’i-e Khalq, were also significant instigators of dissent and fermenters of social action. Close examination of the visual ephemera of posters as social agents exposes complex ideological nuances of the 1979 Revolution.

Political posters act as testaments to the political realities in which particular organizations operated, not just visual embodiments of their ideologies. While previous studies of Iranian revolutionary poster art examine their visual content, identifying iconographic motifs and their cultural meanings/significance, these studies do not fully contextualize the poster medium’s specific physicality—its features as a thing, as an object—and modes of production. Working within a material cultural studies framework, this paper will investigate the social life of the Fada’i political poster.

First, this paper will examine the processes of conception and production, delineating the role of the poster object as an inexpensive and expedient communicative instrument aimed at conveying revolutionary zeal to the student population— their primary audience. Following the germinative stages, the Fada’iyan disseminated their posters in the public sphere. By defining the spatial and temporal dimensions of the posters, one can determine the organizational structure of the Fada’i as well as their program of visual propaganda. Finally, the paper will discuss the artistic form of the Fada’i poster, exposing the organization’s ideology. Examining representations of the fallen cadres reveals that the Fada’iyan strove to transform the image of the guerrilla (cherik) into a martyr symbolizing the redemption of the collective.

This line of research encourages the study of physicality and context in addition to the iconography of Iranian poster objects. Furthermore, such a study provides a model for the expansion of the discussion regarding the political landscape of the Revolution by focusing on the visual ephemera produced by Iranian leftist and secular forces.

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The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) produced an industry to commemorate martyrdom by utilizing every form of media – both visual and textual – to propagandize. The state now hopes these reminders will impress upon young people the Islamic and political values of the last generation, and yet there has been little research on how today’s youth engage the Iran-Iraq war and its cultural legacy. The state’s continued investment in the culture of martyrdom gives rise to a number of questions. In particular, how has the narrative of the war changed to reach the post-war generation, unmoved by tired state rhetoric? This paper argues that the retrospective glance of the generation who fought the war, characterized by an interest in Shi’ism and its powerful iconography, has changed dramatically as the IRI repackages and revisualizes the War to suit the values of contemporary youth.
In this paper, I examine visual and material culture including city murals, posters, and films, as well as memoirs published by the Department of the Literature and Arts of the Resistance, in order to capture these transformations in the generational discourse. For example, in its effort to beautify the visual landscape of Tehran, the state admits to the loss of emotive currency of caricatured martyrs. By examining the murals replacing these martyrs, I analyze the war's recent refashioning. Similarly, early films like the critically acclaimed Bashu (1990) emphasize the human cost of warfare but do not offer the controversial perspectives of later films like Party (2001), which prove highly critical of the state’s monopolization of the war narrative. By challenging the prevailing image of fanatical warriors and subverting gender hierarchies in the hyper masculine space of war, the state oversees (and participates in) the attempt to portray the reality of warfare rather than a religious romance modeled on the Battle of Karbala. The state thus allows this generation to create new terms for the discourse on war and martyrdom in order to give the distant trauma relevance to young people with radically different values.

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Many photographs of women published in the Iranian press during the Iran-Iraq War tended to emphasize their roles as supportive and mourning mothers and sisters. By contrast, the often gruesome images that depict the death of women in the war proved much more difficult to categorize, which reflects ambivalence towards attaching the label of shahid, or martyr, to images of women who were killed. These photographs, whether gruesomely depicting their dead bodies or portraits taken prior to death, oscillate between evoking shahadat (martyrdom), more commonly applied to men, and depicting their deaths as accidental. The ambiguous approach to gendered depictions of martyrdom reflects attempts by the Iranian press to negotiate negotiating the role of women during the war period in photographs published in the press of the newly-established Islamic Republic. However, in the context of the Green Movement of 2009, more unambiguous depictions of women as martyrs begin to emerge, particularly as a result of the widely publicized death of Neda Agha-Soltan.

In this presentation, I trace the shift in depictions of women as martyrs between the Iran-Iraq War and the Green Movement. I argue that while earlier representations reflect tenuousness and ambivalence on the part of Iranian periodicals such as Ettela’at, Jomhuri-ye eslami, and Imposed War as they sought to grapple with the turmoil of war and a still emergent political system, the clear depictions of female martyrdom during the Green Movement reflect a less ambiguous approach on the part of the official press as well as the emergence of a non-state controlled space for debate and publication in the form of the internet and social media. This polarization emerges through simultaneous outright denial of the press agencies like Fars News to acknowledge Agha-Soltan as a shahid and the multitude of examples of her “death” images that are more akin to those of male shohada in other outlets. Agha-Soltan’s death images allow for the transfer of the ownership of the gory image and label of shahid from the state-sponsored press’s hands to that of the people via the debates, messages, and publication of her picture on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Thus while the official press has solidified its approach to (not) applying the label of martyr to women, it does so at a moment in which it has lost its monopoly over the declaration and depiction of martyrdom.