x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Three little words

It is hardly the catchiest title for an art series: "Body Composition Remaining Within Limited Domain". Some people, including me, might even struggle to understand what the artist is getting at - that is until they see her pictures.

Shahrzad Changalvaee says her work is more social commentary than politics. ‘I am not trying to change anything,’ she says.
Shahrzad Changalvaee says her work is more social commentary than politics. ‘I am not trying to change anything,’ she says.

It is hardly the catchiest title for an art series: "Body Composition Remaining Within Limited Domain". Some people, including me, might even struggle to understand what the artist is getting at - that is until they see her pictures.

They might, however, be more curious about the work of the young Iranian Shahrzad Changalvaee if they knew that her latest series sold out completely in Dubai in just two days, bought by collectors with a close eye on the market. She is what in the art world they like to call "an emerging artist", and one with a glittering future by all accounts.

Two years ago, a picture from one of the three series she has exhibited would have fetched US$2,000 (Dh7,400). Now a similar picture costs $3,000 and with every exhibition the price is rising by 10 per cent, although meeting the beautiful 27-year-old for coffee at Dubai's Westin Hotel, it is clear that fame and fortune have never been her objectives. In fact, the prospect scares her a little.

"I am a little fearful of fame. It's going to be frightening whatever happens. The most important thing is to have my privacy and have the opportunity to do good work. We have to be in many places and many people see you but you have to do what you want," she says.

Her choice of medium is photography. A graphic artist by training, she has chosen to take the visual image to a different level with her use of the written word. In her latest series it is three words to be precise, made of large flexiglass moulds illuminated by tiny light bulbs. Changalvaee photographs a random selection of people, always at twilight, holding one of three words.

The three words are "I", "Body" and "Motherland". The word "I" is meant to represent the geography of the mind, the word "body" the geography of flesh and the word "motherland" the geography of where we live.

Add to that the context of the political climate of modern-day Iran, and the work presents a mesmerising and emotional experience. This latest series has won her a place in the prestigious Magic of Persia contemporary art competition, which focuses on emerging artists and is now in its second year. The prize is a residency at the Delphina Foundation in London plus a solo exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery.

Changalvaee has exhibited in Iran, the US, Canada, the UK and Russia and was part of a group exhibition of modern and contemporary Iranian art, Conference of the Birds, at the Flawless Gallery in London's New Bond Street in 2008. Since then there has been a considerable buzz about her work.

The current series of nine pictures features mainly anonymous passers-by, photographed on the streets of Iran - an added complication, as professional photography is not permitted in the country without permission from the authorities, which is often difficult to obtain.

Says Changalvaee: "With the political situation it is dangerous to take pictures in the street for professional reasons and I didn't have permission. Iranians today are very challenged with these things. Because of the political situation these concepts are damaged, the imagination of the 'I', the 'Body' and the 'Motherland'. I couldn't bring all three words into the streets sometimes because I didn't want to attract attention from the police. Sometimes I would just take two or one."

On top of that, the self-imposed restriction of catching her subjects at twilight gave Changalvaee just about 30 minutes of time to capture the image. First, though, she had to persuade complete strangers to agree to be photographed, although one or two were people she knew. Many were suspicious and sometimes she would find the right location only to return home empty-handed.

"I chose the location, not the people. We went to the location and asked passers-by if they would do it. I told them I was working on an artistic project. On some days nobody was interested when we went out.

"First I asked them to choose one of the three words but I didn't explain anything. Many people were afraid to choose 'motherland'. A labourer chose 'body' and so did a friend of mine. I didn't give them any instructions about how to hold the word. It was a very strange thing. Many people smile when you want to shoot them but these people wouldn't smile. I was wondering why people react like that. I didn't say anything. I just asked them to look into the camera," she says.

Twilight was important because of the mood it creates as the light fades. In mythology it is the hour when creatures change their form. "The light that comes through the faces changes. The real you shines through, putting aside the persona," says Changalvaee. "At sunset when the edges of landscape blur, the form of objects is disturbed and the environment finds another meaning. At such a moment it is time to encounter things anew.

"I put these concepts in their arms in the form of something large, heavy and shiny like a strange yet bright and clear object. Behind these words there is a world which is built by these three words. The 'I' is in the domain of their motherland with the composition of their bodies."

One particularly evocative image features two women who have just left a shrine where they were praying in northern Iran. Nobody else was around and a thin white cloud drifted across the landscape, giving the composition an eerie effect. It was bought by a well-known Iranian art collector based in Dubai.

Another subject poses in front of the factory that produces Iranian flags. He is holding the word "Motherland".

Changalvaee insists her art is not political, but clearly there are political references. This series was inspired by the poetry of Yadoiiah Royayi, an Iranian contemporary artist now living in Paris. She says it is more of a social commentary.

"I'm not trying to change anything. I want people to face the reality, which is why I am making the words very big and bright. When the people choose the word and put it in their arms they are facing it. I didn't explain anything. I wanted them to ask me what it means and think about what it means.

"It's not directly political, it's social. Living in Tehran and challenging with these words every day, I cannot ignore them.

"One of the reasons I did this project is that many friends are leaving Iran. I was thinking about what happens when you emigrate, when you move your body and somewhere else becomes your home, what happens to you."

Her latest exhibition was supposed to take place in November at a Tehran gallery and a catalogue had already been printed when the curator Ali Bakhtiari decided to cancel it, partly because of artistic differences with the gallery but also because he was concerned in case the political connotations might attract too much attention.

Changalvaee grew up in Tehran where her father is a petroleum engineer who studied in Bradford, England, before the Iranian revolution. "He could never be an artist but he was very interested in art and he really encouraged me. My mother was a little bit afraid because she wasn't sure I could make it, but now they are both happy and think I am doing the right thing."

She studied graphic design in Tehran University, where she was taught by a famous Iranian graphic designer, Reza Abedini, who now lives in the Netherlands. "I told him that I wanted to bring some improvisation with photography. It's like a performance and that's the reason I chose photography. Something is going on throughout the shooting."

She began experimenting with various materials as part of what she describes as "typo-photographs" that have a strong link to Persian poetry. One explanation of her work, published in the catalogue for the cancelled November exhibition, mentions her "impulse for merging graphic design with existent images, both for the purposes of forming a novel aesthetic and for the deeper, more conceptual agenda of revealing hidden perspectives and interpretations within images, an objective only achievable through graphic manipulation.

Her work plays on the contrast between the visual and literal characteristics of Persian letter forms showing how they can be manipulated both by the environment and by human contact."

Changalvaee is married to the graphic artist Iman Raad and they share a studio in Tehran. Raad's agent, Bakhtiari, who specialises in young emerging artists, couldn't help noticing Changalvaee's work on his frequent visits to the studio.

Bakhtiari says: "She is a true original and I found her work very exciting. There's a very thin borderline between being an artist and being a news photographer. In the modern approach it is the concept. It depends on what you think about it. That makes it art. I am particularly excited by her current series and what attaches the three words together, I, Body and Motherland.

"What I think 'I' was today, isn't what 'I' was yesterday and not what 'I' will be tomorrow. The body is changing, your thoughts are changing and so is the motherland. It was metaphorically global," he says.

In a previous series of eight pictures, called The Wall, Changalvaee photographed a classmate in a simple grey dress with bare feet, her body wrapped in a clear sheet of plastic with lettering on it. Another series of five pictures is called Lock of Hair and again involved script entangled in the hair.

Her next project, which she is still developing, involves the hijab, again clearly political in the context of Iran but also a social issue that troubles the artist: "It's a male dominance issue. Women learn to accept it because they have to and they are pragmatic about it. I don't think about changing things. What I am doing is to make people think. People are important to me, what they think and what they do.

"I don't limit myself not to be political or to be political. I don't push myself to do it but if I am going to do something I will use protest in my art. Art can be political but it's still art. There are some borders to protect your art."