Hoda Afshar <em>The Fold</em> 2023 (detail). Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery. Proposed acquisition, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists<br/>
© Hoda Afshar

The fold

Katharina Prugger

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Hoda Afshar uncovers and unveils. Her investigative instincts have shaped her art practice over the past decade and are a central motive in the creation of The Fold, 2023, her newly commissioned installation for the NGV Triennial 2023. A trained photojournalist, the Naarm/Melbourne-based Iranian artist has become known for carefully conceived photography and moving-image projects that not only expose urgent social and political issues of our time, but also actively change established narratives.

The Fold spans three distinct components and uses a wide range of visual strategies and artistic techniques, from traditional hand-printed photographs to digital animation. Speaking about the project, the artist draws parallels with one of her first major bodies of work, titled Under Western Eyes (2013–14).1 The subject of her PhD thesis and inspired by Richard Bell’s theorem ‘Aboriginal Art – It’s a White Thing!’, Under Western Eyes is a series of studio photographs that meshes familiar signifiers of Islamic culture with tropes and stylistic references to Pop Art in order to investigate the representation of Islamic women in the contemporary art world. Under Western Eyes was also the first series by the artist to garner a great deal of attention when it was exhibited in Australia, and therefore served to challenge expectations that Afshar, as a female Iranian artist, would make work featuring veiled women that addressed their perceived oppression. In The Fold she turns her attention back to the veil. An early source of inspiration for the project was Sarah Sentilles’ 2017 book Draw Your Weapons, which includes references to photographic postcards produced by French colonists in Algeria. With her own background in documentary photography and interest in exploring the possibilities and limitations of traditional image-making practices through her art, Afshar was fascinated by how these staged, exploitative images of Algerian women were used to spread orientalist fantasies in Europe and legitimise the colonial project.

When the opportunity arose to visit the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in 2019, Afshar was keen to view its collection of colonial postcards in person with the intention of making a new work about them, but quickly abandoned that idea as the source images felt too violent to be put back out into the world. The question of how to make work about violence without showing it is one that was also central to Afshar’s earlier works Remain, 2018, and Agonistes, 2020. The former, a two-channel video work, uses poetry, song and the deceptively beautiful environment of Manus Island as a backdrop to address Australia’s contentious border-protection policies and the human rights of asylum seekers. In Agonistes, Afshar highlights different stories of institutional abuse through a series of portrait photographs and a video that, rather than depicting the suffering, focus on the whistleblowers who exposed the issues; through their retelling, space is made for the audience’s imagination to unfold.

In the end, Afshar found another entry point into exploring how the medium of photography became a central tool for French colonisers in North Africa, and how it contributed to the construction of a multi-layered and heavily politicised image of Islamic women that remains contested to this day. During her time at Musée du Quai Branly, Annabelle Lacour, curator of the photographic collection, told Afshar about one photographer who also took images in the Maghreb region during the early twentieth century, but unlike the photographers of the colonial postcards he didn’t seek to undress his female subjects.

Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1872–1934) was a French psychiatrist and photographer who, during a stay in Morocco from 1918 to 1919, created thousands of images of Islamic women – and some men – veiled in the region’s traditional white haik garment, which has all but disappeared from daily life as a result of colonialism. De Clérambault is not a straightforward subject, and Afshar herself acknowledges mixed feelings about the body of work he left behind. On the one hand, the context of his stay in Morocco, his apparent obsession with the functionality of the veil as a barrier and his ethnographic approach to documenting and cataloguing locals he essentially employed as actors speak strongly to the presence of the colonial gaze in his images. However, Afshar uncovered another side to de Clérambault’s project during a visit to Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, which holds transcripts of de Clérambault’s university lectures that indicate that his obsession with drapery might have existed even prior to going to Morocco and which encourage evaluation of his photographs from an artistic point of view. Then there is the question of how the photographs are connected to his work as a psychiatrist. The Fold takes visitors into an investigation of de Clérambault’s archive in an attempt to unpack his ideas about fabrics, covering and fetishism.

The physical experience of navigating the different elements of Afshar’s installation is designed to make tangible both de Clérambault’s obsession with photographing and archiving his studies of the veil as well as Afshar’s experience on the heels of her subject, who continues to evade her, or at least resist her efforts to fully uncover his intentions. To assist in her investigation, Afshar brought in experts for the film component of the installation, including a forensic psychologist. The film begins with a digital animation re-imagining the scene of de Clérambault’s death – he shot himself in front of the mirror, with a camera focusing his reflected image – and leads into a sequence in which clinicians and academics offer their assessment of him. The interviews are filmed within a setting inspired by the house of mirrors in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and draw on the aesthetic of film noir, a style of cinema that commonly features a crime-centred narrative and morally ambiguous male protagonists.

Much space – both literally and metaphorically – is left for the viewer to reflect. The first component one encounters comprises larger-than-human-scale panels, their reflective surfaces screenprinted with a sequence of images by de Clérambault that illustrate how he arranged images in order to study the movement of the draped fabric. Here, Afshar challenges us to contemplate our personal reading of these images as we look at our mirror image, reflected onto the body of a veiled Islamic woman.

A third component of The Fold conveys the scale of de Clérambault’s project through an installation of around 900 black-and-white photographs. These prints, laboriously made by hand in a darkroom, came about as a sort of digital fluke, which Afshar describes as follows:

At the earlier stages of my research, I spent days saving from the online archive the images I wanted to work with or study. I didn’t realize that every time I saved an image it only saved a square grab of the picture, from where I clicked on it. The result was hundreds of small square images of folded fabric and hidden faces, purely selected by chance. I decided to continue to save more images and bring them into the project, as a way of referencing the repetition, excess and obsession with the fold – the very qualities of the Baroque period as described by Deleuze in his book The Fold.2

The fact that this huge grid arrangement of fragmented images, installed across gallery walls to surround the visitor, stems from an algorithm built into the online archive to limit access to the images seems like a poetic coincidence, considering the subject of the work. The square format of the photographs recalls a digital thumbnail – a small-image representation of a larger image – only here there is no access to the full picture. This experience of trying and failing to see more than what’s on the surface describes the overall experience of The Fold. De Clérambault’s photography unveils nothing about his subjects or himself, and Afshar doesn’t provide easy answers to our questions, instead leaving us to question our own interest in uncovering who is behind the veil.

Hoda Afshar <em>The Fold</em> 2023 (detail). Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery. Proposed acquisition, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists<br/>
&copy; Hoda Afshar

KATHARINA PRUGGER is a Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria.



Unless otherwise noted, this and all following references are from a conversation with the artist from 20 April 2023.


Hoda Afshar, artist proposal for NGV Triennial, April 2022.