By Tara Biglari
Tate Modern is displaying a powerful series of works by the late Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan. Taken between 1975 and 1977, these portraits document sex workers from Tehran’s former red-light district, Shahr-e No, which was set on fire after the Revolution. The photographs have been shown in museums, galleries and fairs across Europe thanks to the efforts of curator Vali Mahlouji.
Shahr-e No was established in the 1950s when a wall was erected around a section of Tehran, creating an inner-city ghetto where approximately 1,500 women lived and worked. There, Golestan witnessed “the social, financial, hygienic, behavioral and psychological problems that exist in everyday society . . . magnified,” he later recalled.
Golestan spent several years researching the area and gaining the trust of the residents, as evidenced by the sensitivity of his portraits. By documenting harsh realities, he hoped to raise awareness of social issues and encourage the public to take action. “I want to show you images that will be like a slap in your face to shatter your security,” he once said. “You can look away, turn off, hide your identity . . . but you cannot stop the truth. No one can.”
When Shahr-e No was deliberately set on fire after the Revolution, the authorities made no attempt to extinguish the flames. There are no records of how many women died. The area was demolished in an act of cultural cleansing, and now bears no reference to its past. Golestan’s images are among the last known records of the women of Shahr-e No.
Kayhan Life spoke to Mahlouji about the work that his non-profit platform Archaeology of the Final Decade has done in bringing these photos to light for the first time in four decades.
When and where did you first come across Kaveh Golestan’s photographs from Tehran’s red light district?
I first saw the photographs in Kaveh’s own home in Tehran in about 2010 – the actual photographs, as opposed to images of them. I requested to see the physical vintage prints.
The photos had been published here and there, but they weren’t circulating that much. I think that in the back of a lot of people’s minds, in a space which is prone to some kind of amnesia, memories of lots of events exist: they are just repressed. The images were so powerful that I knew that I wanted to make sense of them through curation.
How were you able to get these photographs out of Iran? Did they require restoration or were the prints in good condition?
We basically took them out of Iran with the help of Kaveh’s wife Hengameh. We brought the material I wanted to work with bit by bit, in plastic bags, and wrapped inside suitcases. It wasn’t just the 61 vintage prints that he originally selected to print, but diaries, contact sheets, negatives, and other information about where they’d been exhibited during his lifetime. I wanted to have the full story.
Once we got them here, there was a procedure whereby I had the prints examined by a museum conservator. Each one of the works has an individual passport on its specific condition. Since I started to exhibit them, we’ve been very strict as to what conditions need to be fulfilled so as not to damage the works.
Why do you consider these photographs to be important?
When I saw them, I felt that some of the photos in this series constituted some of the strongest photographic work done on the female figure in Iran in the second half of the 20th century. I really believe they are powerful works, compositionally, aesthetically, and I was sure I could do something very important with them.
As a curator, I am interested in militating against amnesia. The photographs are a record of not just the women and the space, but a host of reactions and associations with history, especially because of historic events that happened after the photos were produced.
The process through which the project took shape wasn’t simply journalistic. Kaveh didn’t have a permit: he eased his way into the space and immersed himself. Living conditions in the red-light district extended to a fight for citizenship rights, health services and education. When the space was destroyed in 1979, it was re-territorialized as a park, so all signs of the original space were gone. I thought it was important to excavate that history.
The photos were previously shown in exhibitions around Europe. Where exactly were they shown? And how did Western museum curators react to them when they first saw them?
They were first shown in March 2014 at the Foam Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam. That was the first time that the vintage prints were exhibited in their totality, since their initial exhibition at Tehran University in 1978. That exhibition had been taken down after 14 days, since it was deemed controversial.
After Amsterdam, the photos went straight to the Musée d’Art Moderne in May 2014, then to the MAXXI museum in Rome, and then to Photo London at Somerset House in 2015. Now, they’re on show at Tate Modern.
As for curator reactions, every space has had a different response to it. In Amsterdam, Paris and Rome, the attitude was open and embracing, and curators were very understanding of the different layers of the excavating, viewing it as serious and important. Once it came to Tate Modern, the attitude changed, as they have physically acquired the works. Now that they have the rights, they have edited down some of the documents. But the overall reaction has been positive and enabling.
Why has Tate Modern chosen to display them in a special display room at the museum?
I believe Tate finds the project to be important and interesting – they value the artwork and the context around it. Since expanding their space, they have more scope for non-European and non-American art. These are the holes which they have recognized in their collection. As the world expands, and as other art worlds and histories become more relevant, they need to collect them too.
I believe they place value in these works. At the same time, they have the possibility to do so because of their remit to be more inclusive. Their photography department is less than 10 years old, so collecting such works for Tate is quite new, and I imagine that emphasizing them is equally important.
How have Iranian audiences inside and/or outside the country reacted to the content of the photographs?
The reaction has been very excited, very inspired. There was a slight initial resistance from the Iranian environment, both inside of Iran and the diaspora, which came from two angles: it’s problematic, and it’s not commercial. The reticence and resistance to the projects in the beginning was met, at the same time, by excitement from other segments of the art community, who were refreshed by the fact that the project wasn’t linked to the market – that we can have engagement with art and art history without engaging with the market.
Otherwise, as soon as the project took off and began to get circulated in museums, there has generally been a positive response, both within the art world and academic circles, which has seen a renewed interest in the subject matter.
Click here to learn more about the Archaeology of the Final Decade.
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