The art and opinions of Hoda Afshar
|A still from Remain by Hoda Afshar, 2018. Photograph: Hoda Afshar. Courtesy the artist and the Guardian.|
At first glance the video looks like a tourism promo. There is lush tropical jungle. Fat, glistening fish. White sands. Azure water. Remain, by Iranian-Australian artist Hoda Afshar, was not filmed in paradise, however, but in a prison: Manus Island.
“I wanted to [move beyond] images of a refugee behind bars,” says Afshar. “I wanted the subject to decide how to share the story: to give them autonomy and agency.”
Melbourne-based Afshar is one of eight young Australian artists whose work is now showing at the annual Primavera exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The 35-year-old’s often confronting photography asks us to rethink how we look at marginalised people and those on the outside.
In Behold, Afshar entered an Iranian bathhouse to shoot moody, achingly beautiful images of gay men. In Under Western Eyes, women in chadors are given the Andy Warhol treatment: posing against bright pops of colour, they smoke cigarettes, pout their lips and clutch lapdogs. In one photograph, we don’t see a face at all: just a long thick Barbie-blonde plait emerging out of the dark folds of fabric. In October, her portrait of Iranian journalist and activist Behrouz Boochani won the Bowness Photography Prize.
Afshar insists that “images share a lot of power in controlling the minds of society – for me, it’s recognising that power.”
Born in Tehran, Afshar moved to Australia in 2007 when she was in her early 20s. Her love of poetry, and her interest in politics, was instilled in her at a young age from her father, a lawyer of Kurdish background and a self-described feminist. He died five years ago but her mother remains in Tehran.
“Trump put sanctions back on Iran. The country is in crisis and is economically collapsing – people’s lives are being absolutely shattered by these policies,” she says, unable to contain her anger. “We’re talking about 80 million people: the middle class is disappearing completely. Our money has no value anymore. Wages haven’t changed but the price of everything is 10 times more.”
Slight and softly spoken, with cropped dark hair, Afshar possesses a fierce intellect, moving with ease between theories on photography to Edward Said’s seminal work, Orientalism. Said’s description of “the Other”, in particular, hit home when she moved to Australia and found herself a minority.
“I recognised pre-judgements over my identity, especially as an Iranian female migrant. … Your identity becomes a name tag that you wear every day – you have to constantly work against an image that is imposed on you,” she says, leaning forward intently.
|A still from Remain, featuring journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani. Photograph: Hoda Afshar. Courtesy the artist and the Guardian.|
Afshar rails against exotic tropes which depict the Middle East, either presenting the culture as titillating or confirming it as inferior, backward and oppressed. In order to address this, her work is carefully – unapologetically – staged. While others might choose candid shots to tackle similar issues, she wants to show the “limitations in storytelling and [that] nothing can fully represent truth and reality”.
“When the camera is present in the room, nothing is real anymore. As soon as you point a camera to someone, people don’t act the way they normally do,” she explains.
This matters in art: for centuries, painting and drawing – representations seen through the (literal) brush of the artist – were the only visual methods available to document people, events and histories. “And then photography comes along and we accept it like pure truth,” says Afshar. “It’s like any other art form – it’s subjective.”
Afshar’s decision to travel to Manus Island earlier this year (she entered on a tourist visa) emerged from frustration over Australia’s hypocrisy.
|Hoda Afshar: ‘How can we go about our lives on a daily basis ignoring this in the background?’ Photograph: Hoda Afshar. Courtesy the artist and the Guardian.|
Australia is a “democratic country. It’s first world. It’s advanced. We care about morality, we care about humanity. All of those claims which make ‘the rest inferior to the West’ – so how can this be happening under this government? And how can we go about our lives on a daily basis ignoring this in the background?” she says.
The artist’s point of contact on Manus Island was Boochani – who, like Afshar’s father, is of Kurdish descent. “Kurdish people are famous for their strength and resistance. No matter how much pressure they are under, they still hold their heads up and they don’t give up,” says Afshar.
Channelling this, in Remain the men look directly at the camera, telling their stories. “We’ve been hidden from the world,” says one. Another discusses the desperation that has led men to swallow razor blades. Or washing powder. Or shampoo. Mostly, they talk of death – a topic that sits uneasily in the abundance of teeming life that surrounds them.
|In Remain the men look directly at the camera, telling their stories. ‘We’ve been hidden from the world,’ says one. Photograph: Hoda Afshar. Courtesy the artist and the Guardian.|
“Every single one of them talked about the death of a friend there. And every single one told me that their biggest fear is that they might die on this camp too,” says Afshar.
Many of the stories Afshar shares with me are traumatic. One Sudanese refugee she worked with wept when she took him to film on a small nearby island: it was the first time in five years he had seen the ocean. Another suddenly erupted in a red rash. His friends told her: “When we face a little bit of freedom, our souls cannot handle it.”
Important for both Afshar and Boochani was to dispel the image of refugees as a “voiceless homogenous group of miserable beings”. Even the word “refugee”, she points out, is “heavily pregnant with images that reduce the individual to stereotypes”.
Photojournalists and documentary filmmakers, she says, are “complicit in feeding this machine that continues to produce and produce mass stereotypes – that never rises above this [idea that refugee men and women] are inferior”.
Is art any better, I ask? Can it make a difference? And will watching a video in the MCA – visited largely by an educated urban elite in Sydney’s wealthy harbour setting – really make people care?
Boochani believes that art can hit a home truth where reportage fails: that while the public has “become immune to the language of journalism”, art, he tells the Guardian, is “impossible to ignore”.
Remain attempts to force us all to look. Hard. At one point in the video a man recites a poem, his voice echoing above the sound of the tropics. “Freedom,” he chants, is a “heavy gift”.
• Remain by Hoda Afshar is showing as part of Primavera at the MCA until 3 February 2019
Via The Guardian