Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Art Editor Zara Katz discusses featured photo essay "Listen" by Newsha Tavakolian

Imaging A Dream - Eyes closed, mouths open, as if in a dream. Standing facing us with their backs to the darkness, they sing, soundless. They have been standing here, singing for themselves for a long time, imaging us, hearing. Standing, facing days of tedium, facing a world that has adorned them with a false crown. Standing, waiting.

Abbas Kowsari -- Autumn 2010

With deep roots in photojournalism, Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian seamlessly presents a conceptual body of work that reinforces her watchful eye on the theme of women in her society. Her newest portfolio, Listen, is featured in a six-page spread in Issue One of Stonecutter Journal. In her artist statement, Tavakolian alludes to her feelings about living in an Islamic society as she creates images of women who struggle to produce music in Iran.* Upon further discussion with Tavakolian in May of this year, I learned the true depth of her angst, which is illuminated in the complexity of her three-part portfolio.

The first component of Listen consists of exquisitely lit formal portraits of professional women singers. As written in her artist statement, the women in these images are “not allowed to sing solo, perform in public or produce CDs in Iran because of Islamic tenents.” With eyes closed, the women sing to Tavakolian’s camera lens, which she records in the acknowledged silent statement of the medium of photography. The expression on each woman’s face evokes intense sadness, pain, and spirituality, as these women must battle the tension between expressing their passion and adhering to the law.

Reiterating the silenced voices of these women in a medium that connotes audibility, Tavakolian also filmed the women singing and created a six-paneled video installation. The heads fade in and out, the mouths open and close, the backdrop continues to sparkle, but what should be a cacophonous sound of many voices, remains on mute.

The final component of Listen are images of a young girl dressed in black, staged as imaginary CD covers. Tavakolian filled CD cases with the images to create the illusion of a produced CD. Void of actual compact disk, Tavakolian offered the CD case to all who visited her first solo exhibition at Aaran Art Gallery in Tehran, in late 2010. Ultimately, when part of a home music collection, Tavakolian intended the empty case to signify the restrictions, and once again the silence, of women singers as performers in the public sphere. Her choice of the title Listen drives her point home as we strain our ears to hear voices that cannot be heard.

More of Newsha Tavakolian’s work can be viewed at

*Note: Tavakolian’s artist statement for Listen can be found in the “image info” link at the bottom of each photograph in the portfolio.