Haleh Anvari: Beyond the Cliche

Image from Chador-nama

The black chador has irrevocably become what Iranian photographer and writer, Haleh Anvari describes as Iran's visual shorthand, its unregistered trademark. Haleh's quest to deconstruct and liberate the chador from reductionist stereotype occurred as a byproduct of her relationship with the foreign press reporting in Iran and that of the chador itself. Her determination to re-present the chador has resulted in the photographic projects, Chador-nama, Chador-dadar, and Peace Chador, and the performance-work, Power of Cliche.

Having studied politics and philosophy at university in UK, Haleh returned to Iran and worked as a local translator/producer for foreign journalists covering Iran. “I was a product of two cultures and it subsequently gave me license to see both sides of the coin, so to speak,” she remarks. One thing that she consistently observed while working with foreign press was that the black chador had become synonymous with Iran; regardless of the issue being reported on hand, it was the sole image being transmitted of Iran. "I was unhappy that they would see my country exclusively through that lens and I was always trying to make them see Iran differently," she says. 

"After six years of working as a 'sidekick', I started writing for myself but the Iranian authorities were not happy and subsequently, banned and threatened me," she reminsces. "I got stuck in the house with lot of bitter and depressive thoughts...and it was around that time that I received a digital camera as a birthday present."

A definitive encounter with the chador also deeply impacted her. "I was driving down a street when I saw a woman in a chador rush to me, there was so much swagger in her walk - and it made me angry! It made me think at that point how the Iranian system had somehow made me feel separate from them the way I was dressed," she says. Coming from a chadori family, Anvari mentions that as a child, she perceived it an aspirational garment, describing it as "cuddly and a safe harbor." So where did the alienation and disconnection to the chador spring up from? "Wearing the chador was no more about a personal choice of modesty; it had become a political statement instead," she says.
Image from Chador-nama
Image from Chador-dadar
Her engagement with the chador then occurred on a more emotional level, including and highlighting all that had been omitted from the chador's current avatar: color, light and movement in Chador-nama, significantly situating the chadors in the Iranian country-side. The chador then saw itself on a global journey in Chador-dadar. “If the chador had become an Irani icon, I thought of taking it to other global icons and photographing it in their midst,” she says; the project became a live installation and her journey took her to Jaipur and Agra in India, Istanbul, and Dubai [Dubai's landmark Burj al Khalifa in the background above]. “I learnt so much about the environment that I was photographing in," she mentions, elaborating that while onlookers engaged with the chador at Amber fort, Jaipur, for instance, she had had to model the chador herself in Turkey, where the chosen model declined to do due to her secular beliefs.

While Chador-nama and Chador-dadar were photographic explorations of the chador, 'Power of A Cliché' was a spoken performance about the 'why' behind the projects. “It all started out when the Women's University of Bahrain invited me to give a talk...their brief was very open-ended and the talk metamorphosed into 'Power of A Cliché',” she says. The 30 minute presentation consisting of 220 slides of the chador sourced from internet and family archives, Haleh describes what is essentially an addendum to the photographs as "a rant and a whine"; she has since then performed in United States and United Kingdom.
Peace Chador witnessed her presenting the chador in an entirely novel, unprecedented context: internet spam posters. During a trip to United States in 2007, when Iran feared being bombed, she photographed a peace chador embroidered with the Persian poet, Saadi's verse about the essentiality of human condition in various American war memorials, such as the Arlington Cemetery. Upon returning to Iran, she sent saturated versions of the photos as spam-art to her mailing list over four weeks as reminders of the loss of life in each famous war the USA has been involved with. “If I was in London, I would have gone out and pasted them on walls...here, I chose to 'bombard' people with spam instead,” she mentions. 

Currently Executive Director at Iranian Heritage Foundation, London, Anvari says that at a point, she felt the "chadors were in the past" and felt the desire to engage with, rather than merely provide a commentary upon the issue, which was primarily of deconstructing stereotypes. She began AKSbazi.com, an online photo-sharing platform, a crowd-sourcing initiative encouraging Iranians to upload their photographic interpretations of Iran; in translation, 'Aks' means photo and 'Bazi' means game, translating into playing with photos. Her objective was to showcase the ordinariness of Iranian life by looking beyond the tall walls of stereotype and cliche that obscure it. With already over 2500 photographs uploaded, Haleh mentions that the initiative is fulfilling her aims as well as nourishing the growth of a community of young Iranian photographers.

If black denotes the absence of color, Anvari not only restores the color in the chador but rejuvenates and depicts it in alternate contexts - and compels us to look beyond the surface of stereotype.