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REVIEW: Unedited History: Iran 1960-2014, Musée d’Art moderne de la ville de Paris

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This exhibition focuses on painting, photography and cinema, as well as key aspects of Iran’s modern visual culture: posters and documentary material” – that’s a hell of a wide focus. It also covers “the years 1960–1970, the revolutionary era of 1979, the Iran-Iraq war (1980–1988) and the postwar period up until today.” All of which means it’s impossible to take the whole thing in, certainly not in one visit, and the best thing to do is to pick one aspect to genuinely focus on.

Luckily there is plenty to choose from, including an important, and very moving, documentary photography collection. Kaveh Golestan’s photography series The Citadel, of prostitutes in Shahr-e No, the red light district of Tehran, between 1975 and 1977, hasn’t been shown in public since 1978. 45 images were shown at the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam this spring, but this is the first time all 61 images have been exhibited.

Golestan, who would have been 64 this week, was killed on April 2, 2003, by a land mine while working for the BBC in Iraq. A prolific documentary photographer and deeply committed to social issues, he published several groups of photographs from his prostitute series in the daily Iranian newspaperAyandegan, with essays exposing and drawing attention to the living conditions of the women. In 1978 the photographs were exhibited at the University of Tehran, but the show was abruptly shut down. They were shown again in a short-lived exhibition at the Tehran Art Fair in the same year, but clearly the Islamic government did not approve.

Golestan’s photographs show women young and old, beautiful and ravaged, looking confidently into the lens or hiding their faces. Instead of burqas they wear mini skirts and 70s patterns – it’s always jarring to be reminded that Iran was once a secular, Western-facing society. There’s a lot of pattern – wallpaper, bedspreads – and big photographs of glamorous faces tacked to walls.

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The rich chiaroscuro of Golestan’s photography make them beautiful images, and his classical arrangements give the figures power and weight. But, obviously, their lives look grim. Most of the time the framing leaves no hint of a space beyond, there are few windows or doors: there seems literally no way out for the women.

The image that keeps coming back to me is of a woman in a room just wide enough for a mattress. Crouched far back against the wall, she glares at the camera. The flowery walls look like they are closing in on her, and the fan on the windowsill is so big it looks like it’s threatening to fall and crush her. There’s an oil lamp behind, and I can’t help but think, ‘What if it ever got knocked over?’

In the end, the worst happened. Within days of the start of the revolution in 1979, the district of Shahr-e No was set on fire, apparently on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini. Many of the women burned to death, others were arrested and later faced the revolutionary firing squads in the summer of 1980. Kaveh Golestan’s pictures are their memorial.

(until August 2014)

© Fiona Hayes 2014