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RCA Researcher Represents Historical Realities of Iranian Revolution

Royal College of Art Photography PhD candidate Azadeh Fatehrad has co-curated Witness 1979, an exhibition of photographic works by Iranian artist Hengameh Golestan, focusing on women's responses to the Iranian revolution.

As part of The Showroom's Communal Knowledge programme, the exhibition collects works by Iranian photographer Hengameh Golestan alongside an events programme that offers opportunities for community groups to rediscover this important female photographer and re-evaluate the events of 8 March 1979.

Hengameh Golestan was born in Tehran in 1952, and worked between 1974 and 1984 documenting life in Iran, in particular the lives of women and children, domestic and everyday life. For the past 20 years, she has lived in London as a neighbour of The Showroom, and this project, involving many photographs never seen publically before, is the outcome of a conversation that has developed over several years.

Researcher and photographer Azadeh Fatehrad first came across Golestan's work when researching for her MA, and recognised immediately that she was looking at an image of an event in Iranian history that was missing from her own education. She explains, 'The official version of the Iranian revolution presents a smooth transition towards encouraging women to follow Islamic rules, and in particular to adopt a compulsory dress code – the hijab. What I saw was an image of protest, of thousands of women demonstrating spontaneously against the use of their bodies as a site of enforcement.'

The date of the photograph – 8 March 1979 – is significant. It's the day after Ayatollah Khomeini announced the compulsory wearing of hijab, and also International Women's Day. Over the next six days, more than 100,000 women from every profession including nurses, students, artists and mothers took to the streets of Tehran to protest.  

Fatehrad is herself a photographer, whose practice is located around the use of existing images as first-hand material, sometimes disconnecting them from their own history or replacing them in new contexts. She restages photographs and creates fictional stories. The curation of this exhibition created a particular challenge, she says, to represent a historical reality: 'I wanted to put these images together, to give them a voice. They show a hidden history: something that happened has been removed.'

She continues, 'The history of women's dress in Iran is complicated. The hijab was banned by the westernising Rezah Shah in 1936, and reinstated by his son as a choice. Young women in Iran now have replaced protest with aesthetic challenges, so they are covered but wear tight clothes, short skirts and heavy make up. Like them, I grew up in Iran without access to this history, and I want them to know two things: that women's bodies were used as a site of enforcement in 1936 and in 1979, and that what they are doing is a protest, albeit in a subtle way.' 

Fatehrad's research looks in particular at the ‘image of a woman’ in Iran, and how the development of this image can add to our understanding of feminist discourse, the role of the spectator of such images, and the psychology of sexual differences. At the same time she highlights the wider context of revolt and revolutionary movements, individual desire and social repression that formed the backdrop against which this imagery was produced. 

Unable to show these images in Tehran, photographs from the series will be printed large-scale and presented informally on the walls of the gallery space and on the outside of the building. Through a process of active engagement with local girls’ and women’s groups, this extraordinary exhibition will open up a context that will allow discussion and reflection on many of the issues raised by the images including gender, protest and representation.

Witness 79  is at the The Showroom, 3–27 September 2015, open Wednesday to Saturday 12–6pm

For more information about Witness 1979 and the public events programme, visit The Showroom website.