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Exhibition of Portraits of Iranian Women after Unveiling: Men Are Not Allowed

06/09/11 By Tahereh Emami; translated by Roya Monajem (source: Tavoos Art Magazine)

An exhibition of portraits of Iranian Women after removal of obligation of wearing chador under the reign of Pahlavi I, titled Before Your Eyes was held in May 2011 at No.6 Gallery in Tehran. The collection was compiled and reproduced by Parisa Mandan, photographer, researcher and teacher.

The displayed works make up a part of the photographs Parisa Mandan revived during her project of finding and collecting photo archives of old photographers of the city of Esfahan from 1991 to 2000.

As a part of her research, she reproduced photo glasses of the photography studios of Mirza Mehdi Khan Chehreh Nama', Gholamhosseyn Derakhshan, Abolqasem Jala (calling his studio Sharq) and of Minas Pa't Kerhanian and others, and prepared them for publication.

The displayed photographs were a part of the above collection which did not receive the required permit for publication, but were allowed to be shown at an exhibition held exclusively for women.

They are all portraits which as mentioned in the catalogue of the exhibition show "Women in the studio, acting the poses and gestures their male photographers instructed. Though they appear yielding, nevertheless it is evident that going to a photography studio and sitting in front of the camera must have been according to their own personal will and decision, thus the choice of their outfits and make- up must have been according to their own conscious choice too.

Photographs as Historical Documents

The photos can be looked upon as a document of social status of women during the transition period of transfer of power from the Qajar to Pahalavi. Considering the style of hair dressing and self-chosen outfit of women in these photos, one can assume that most were taken during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi.

It seems in that period, graceful, serene tender poses devoid of violence were preferred. Softy curved hands, arms touching the body and feet close to each other, in some cases hand under the chin in a sitting or recline position were among current postures. Tame women in the way men love.

Recordings of the Camera

There are several very interesting points in the 22 photos displayed at this exhibition: Most women have curled their short hairs with the kind of hairdressing instruments prevalent at the time, all wear mostly white thick stockings, with high hilled shoes differing very little. In some photos they have the kind of eyebrows fashionable under the Qajar, extremely wide and long with or without woad (traditional eyebrow liner).

Their dresses are usually so thin that their underwear and handmade bras can be seen. This shows that it is the period when lining and priming was not fashionable yet. In one or two photos their dresses are quite transparent. One can see that there have been women in that period too who wished to have their photos taken with dresses different from the rest, or maybe some of these photographs, with inviting poses were taken for definite purposes.

There are a few photos showing women in a place other than a photography studio. Here they are mostly seen next to their family or their husbands with more natural poses. In a satirical photo, a man and a woman have dressed up like a dervish and sa'qi (bartender) and in one, a very beautiful woman with gorgeous body, may be a foreigner is seen wearing a short nightgown sitting leisurely on an armchair next to a clean bed, smiling. In another photo a woman is seen wearing a swimming suit of the type fashionable in Europe in those days, though at the same time wearing long stockings with a long lace covering her shoulders.

In some photos, women are seen next to dolls. For example, in one of them is a toy-dog like those pet dogs French women had in those days and in another photo a woman is seen with several foreign made dolls next to her.

Considering the fact that during the pre and post WWI, a doll factory was built by foreigners (most probably Russians) in the city of Ardebil, northwest of Iran for export of dolls and there is still an alleyway in Ardebil called Toy - meaning wedding in Turkish besides its literal English meaning - and considering the special material used in these dolls, we can assume that these women and their families were rich enough to purchase expensive export goods or had travelled abroad bringing them back as souvenir, or maybe received them as presents from some family members coming back from abroad. If true, then one can conclude that they were enthusiastic to be familiar with certain aspects of western culture and modernism and by displaying these dolls next to themselves, they perhaps wished to emphasize on this cultural point, if not showing off.

One of the most interesting examples of this collection shows a decent graceful lady reading a book and another shows a young woman wearing a guipure or lace underwear lying down with her hand under her head holding an enlarged photograph of two men in her other hand, and another similar photograph is seen on the floor. She is wearing round glasses resembling those which Sadeq Hedayat (well-known Iranian author) used to wear.

Two large photos of this exhibition were gorgeous showing two very beautiful women, very chic for the time in places other than a studio. A copy of both was given to anybody interested. The range of price of these photos varied from 400000 to 1700000 dollars.


The Atmosphere

Most visitors went around and looked at the photos several times; some young girls enlivened to discover a hole in the socks of one of the women of the photographs. Famous photographers like Maryam Zandi, Niyousha Tavakolian and Hengameh Golestan were among the first visitors and other artists including painters, actresses, theater directors, dress designers, authors, translators and poets arrived one after the other.

The ministry of Islamic Guidance issued the permit for the exhibition on the condition that men do not visit it, which was politely mentioned on the invitation card and the notice seen outside the gallery as Men Are Not Allowed.

Considering that most of these brave avant-garde females seem to be women living with democrat men, they had the courage 'to swim opposite to the current', as the saying goes. All must be dead by now, thus intensifying the research aspect of the displayed photographs, representing a document about the transition period when the society was moving from traditionalism to modernity with the middles class just taking shape; as this was a fact known to all visitors, it seemed strange that men were not allowed to visit the exhibition.

One can ask if a male researcher had carried out the same project and had discovered these lasting photographs, would he then be forbidden to continue his research just because the subject under study was women?

No doubt, the social history and documents of each country belongs to all the people of that country. It is not possible to draw line in history or make it forbidden for half the society to stop learning about some past historical documents for gender reasons or deprive them of the freedom to see such documents.

About Parisa Damandan

Born in 1967, Parisa is a photography graduate, photographer, and researcher of the history of photography.

She began her artistic career with social documentary photography and held a few exhibitions inside and outside Iran including Portraits, Human Being and Labor, Steel Miners of Nakhlak Mine, With Gulf Shores Dwellers, Tehran's Youth Prison and Bashagard.

As the milieu of documentary photography narrowed down, she appealed to research since 1993 with the aim of preservation of old endangered photography archives. In addition to collecting photographs of old photographers of Esfahan, she organized the photography collections of Ernst Holster, German telegraph specialist and photographer found in Tehran's Center of Documents of Cultural Inheritance, cleaning and collecting photos from ruined photography studios in Bam after the earthquake, carrying out an experimental project in the British Library, organizing a photography collection, creating a digital bank of visual information and documents on the great contemporary Iranian poet Ahmand Shamlu.

She has also translated and published John Berjer's Another Way of Telling  and Instant Light: Tarkovski's Polaroids into Farsi.

Gallery No. 6
No 6, 18th st, Kheradmand-e Shomali, Tehran


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