Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Since she began her career as a photojournalist at the age of 16, Newsha Tavakolian has been capturing the essence of the modern-day Iranian experience through poignant photographs that challenge Western perceptions of the women of the Islamic Republic, while alluding to the intricate weavings of dialogue that shroud this forward-thinking and over-educated population. Her photographs capture the weight of the internal and external veils that, at first glance, seem to tether their subjects. Yet there is empowerment present in the faces of Tavakolian’s women, alongside determination, and a fiery tenacity that speaks of internal strength and defies subjugation.
Four of Tavakolian’s photographs are on display at LACMA through December 15, 2013. The fourth-floor elevator doors of the Ahmanson Building pull apart to reveal these somber-faced female protagonists who have been plucked from two different series: “The Day I Became a Woman” (2009) and “Listen” (2011).
Unlike the rest of the images in “The Day I Became a Woman,” which document the rite of passage ritual that celebrates a young girl’s transition into womanhood at the age of nine, the photographs on display at LACMA show the artist’s niece, Romina, before and after this ceremony. The transformation in Romina is staggering. The nine-year-old child sits on flower-covered sheets, dressed in a revealing pink ballerina outfit, her hand absent-mindedly resting on a doll. The second photograph shows the idea of woman-ness reflected on the child’s face. This Romina is self-aware. She crosses her arms tightly across her chest, her expression serious and distant, her eyes almost confrontational. Perhaps the most jolting difference between these two images is the sense of decision present in the woman-child—a decisiveness that covers her like a veil of power even as her childhood is concealed with her hijab.
Tavakolian created her “Listen” series in three phases. In the first, she captured images of female singers—who are forbidden to sing in public under the current political regime—as they performed in a private studio in downtown Tehran. The photographs on display at LACMA are from the second phase and portray a young Iranian woman whose expression reveals an amplification of the determination present on Romina’s face. These women are not tied down by the societal restrictions placed upon them. One stands in the middle of an empty street, wearing red boxing gloves as though daring us to challenge her. In the second photograph, the woman stands in the ocean with her back pressed against the assault of waves, her stance strong and unwavering. In a third phase, Tavakolian uses these photographs to create CD covers for the forbidden albums of the female singers.
Newsha Tavakolian’s work seems especially relevant in the context of women photographers emerging from the Middle East. Unlike Shirin Neshat’s “Women of Allah,” whose bodies often become canvases for scripture and poetry, or the women presented in Gohar Dashti’s “Me, She, and the Others” series, whose split identities are explored through the realities of mandatory conformity, Tavakolian’s women seem to use their societal limitations to trigger an internal process of private empowerment that fuels a sense of quiet determination. Tavakolian’s women are not every woman. They are individuals intimately connected with the possibilities present in their shrouded potential.
“Newsha Tavakolian” runs through Dec. 15