Iranian-born and Melbourne-based artist Hoda Afshar seeks to capture hidden truths, seamlessly blending the political and poetic to create works that question the viewer’s reality.
Fifteen years ago, Hoda Afshar began working as a photojournalist in Iran, her country of birth, and quickly garnered critical and professional acclaim. In 2006 she was selected by World Press Photo as one of the top ten young documentary photographers in Iran and invited to attend their Educational Training Program. Rather than employ the common strategy of documentary photographers to strive for objectiveness and look in from the outside, Afshar early on began using an inventive approach and degree of intervention to see beyond the surface and reveal hidden truths. Her works from this period include The Carnival, 2007, a series of photographs that document a major Shi’ite religious festival in Iran while at the same time adopting methods from conceptual art photography. Around the same time, while studying fine art photography in her early twenties, Afshar immersed herself in Tehran’s underground party scene. She documented her life and social circle of that time in Scene, 2004–5, a series of grainy black-and-white images that convey a spirit of youthful hedonism. The impulse from these early days of her career, to blur the line between the documentary and the conceptual, between real and staged images, has remained key to Afshar’s art practice.
After Ashfar emigrated to Australia in 2007 she turned the camera lens on herself, and began exploring themes of exile, foreignness, home and belonging through her photographic projects In-Between Spaces, 2011–12, and Under Western Eyes, 2013–14. Her celebrated Behold series from 2016 is represented in the NGV Collection with three intimate images of young men in a bathhouse, where the subjects are seen washing and some gently embracing. The photographs were taken at an undisclosed location while Afshar was travelling in the Middle East. Afshar is a member of Eleven, a collective of contemporary Muslim Australian artists, curators and writers. The collective, which currently has thirteen members, was founded in 2016 with an aim to share alternative narratives and autonomous voices of Muslim artists and to disrupt the current politics of representation.
Collaboration is an important aspect of Afshar’s practice, and her capacity for building trusting relationships was crucial in creating the two-channel video work Remain, 2018, a recent addition to the NGV Collection. The work addresses Australia’s contentious border protection policy and the human rights of asylum seekers. Afshar travelled to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and followed a group of stateless men who remained on the island following the closure of the infamous immigration detention centre on the island in October 2017. One of the men whose story she recorded is Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, activist and refugee who spent six years on Manus Island and with whom Afshar has established a close friendship. During his time on Manus, Boochani, a trained journalist, published poems and news articles online about life in the centre and became a spokesperson for the men in his compound. At once deeply confronting and stunningly beautiful, Remain, 2018, is exemplary of Afshar’s practice in the way it blends her strong political views with a poetic vision. She decided not to make a straightforward ‘documentary’ work out of a belief ‘that the typical images of refugees only reinforce in the eyes of the viewer their inferior image and position’. Instead, she says what her and the group of men attempted to make ‘is an artwork – using the language of poetry, performance, and song – that defies such logic, and forces the viewer to confront their own incomprehension, as well as the very inexplicableness of the situation that these men face’.
This was originally comissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 22 May–Jun 2020.