Aydin Matlabi


Aydin Matlabi: Untitled (2009): C-print. Images courtesy the artist.Aydin Matlabi: Untitled (2009): C-print. Images courtesy the artist.

By James D. Campbell

Aydin Matlabi
FOFA Gallery, Concordia University
April 4 – 29, 2011

Aydin Matlabi’s portraits of Iranian citizens before, during and in the wake of Iran’s recent protests against the government are terrifically candid and, well, they shine. They stake a claim upon us that is hard to shake off. Like the English photojournalist Larry Burrows before him, Matlabi is a seeker of truth and a photographer of conscience.

In this exhibition, Came Like Water, Like Wind I Go, Matlabi captures an essential, if often elusive, human truth. They do not pander to a need for spectacle or violent rupture on our part. If they have a documentary function, they effortlessly surpass it in their expressive candour, even when his subjects are at their wariest and most opaque. Matlabi is neither a polemicist nor a purveyor of overt political messages. Rather, he is a searcher concerned with what the camera lens can reveal about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. (Matlabi was also featured in a three-person exhibition, Landscape, Revolution, People, during Toronto's CONTACT festival in May.)

If images generate their own rhetorical fervour, Matlabi seems to be telling us: “let mine speak of my people first and foremost”. Still, it is remarkable that his portraits should portray the immensely visual feast that is contemporary Iran, and which observers more typically associate with India. He has an eye for that vibrant Iranian palette, rather than the canvas of bloodshed, and he celebrates its indigenous culture even as he critiques its murderous politics of closure and oppressive force.

Aydin Matlabi: Untitled (2009): C-print.Aydin Matlabi: Untitled (2009): C-print.Like Burrows, Matlabi is no craven war photographer. While it does seem likely that he will be known for his photographs on the streets of Iran in the midst of the uprising, we should remember that this is not his single claim to early fame. After all, Burrows was famed for his work in Indochina, and yet that illustrious, London-born son of a British railway employee was far more than a war photographer. His work in museums and studio settings yield a family resemblance to Matlabi’s other work, including his Sufi-inspired photographs of male and female angels. Most telling in this respect are Matlabi’s exemplary portraits of Iranian women.

This photographer shares with Sufism a reverence for felt intuition. What is hidden in plain sight appeals to him, as in the faces of the Iranian women who consented to be photographed, even when the permission may well have placed them in mortal jeopardy.

Looking into these faces, one is reminded of the famous Shams, Rumi’s mystic friend in Iran who was murdered at the hands of his persecutors. It has been said that his life was blossoming darkness, death and light united for all time in a single temporal moment. When I spend quality time with Matlabi’s portraits, I am drawn to reflect upon the doctrine of Ishraq (illuminations), which is so closely allied with both Sohrawardi and Ibn Arabi and so resonant in Islamic poetry as a felt metaphor for both pain and joy in the life-world.

Matlabi captures pain and the effects of suppression, pride and perseverance, and a fierce, unbridled joy, in his portraits of Iranians. I am also reminded that the Sufi usage of Ain and Aiyan means ‘God’s face emerging from darkness like a divine irradiation’. The ultimate meaning of the Sufi inspiration in the world is God’s own face. In his portraits, Matlabi seems to tell us, look into the restless darkness and the effulgent light of my subjects and you can see the true face of God.

Genuine empathy annihilates both narcissism and taxonomy, and speaks of the Other’s needs and values as though they are one’s own. We feel Matlabi’s respect for Iranian women who have tirelessly sought to express themselves despite destructive patriarchal regimes. His portraits span three generation of women in their everyday environments and in relation to the land. Simply put, these women stare us down. (“All in all, they are seen as they would like to be seen, and not for what the patriarchal hierarchy dictated them to be,” says Matlabi.) “We are women,” his subjects seem to say as they confront us. In chorus they chant: “Hear us roar!”

Matlabi has further said of his subjects: “I set out to capture this crisis in photographs, to capture the faces of the people who fought for their rights, and to prevent them from slipping silently into oblivion. I want the faces of the rebellion to be remembered, faces of demonstrators, parents, brothers, sisters and even soldiers who were forced to repress friends… I’ve brought these faces closer to viewers to confront them with the distance one has to travel to relate to the individuals depicted. These individuals still remain strangers whose stories have to be told.”

His subjects may remain strangers in one very obvious sense but in another, deeper sense, they are the proverbial tips of an iceberg – subjectivities that put on a brave mien or a sombre one, in the face of grave difficulties, and the living memories of significant Others damaged, silenced, brutalised and butchered by the government because they were strong and reckless enough to express an innate desire for freedom. Matlabi’s faces speak to us at the heart of a frozen present tense, even as they prophesy a still-uncertain future that might well be free. When the current regime extinguishes itself in a self-consuming orgy of continuing violence and wholesale repression, it will be those bearing witness who brought it down.

Matlabi captures the collective face of the resistance in his photographs. It is in this sense that he is a photographer of conscience and care. He leads us over the threshold of empathy, and invites us to consider the unseen power of his subjects, and feel the invisible wind that sweeps them through the world. Being Tehran-born, he also alerts us to the salient fact that these people are human beings caught between a rock and a hard place, desperately craving, whatever the consequences, one thing: freedom.

James D. CampbellJames D. Campbell is a writer on art and a curator based in Montreal. He is the author of well over 100 catalogues and books on art and artists. Upcoming and recent publications include monographs on painters Paul Bureau, Michel Daigneault and Mirana Zuger. Campbell also contributes frequently to many art magazines, including Frieze, Border Crossings, Canadian Art and others.