In Conversation with Azar Emdadi

Born in Iran Western Azerbaijan, Azar Emdad now lives and works in South Yorkshire, UK. She obtained her BA in Multi-disciplinary Design specializing in Photography at Staffordshire Polytechnic in 1989. In 1990, she was commissioned to document the war with Armenia in Soviet Azerbaijan. This extremely sensitive and important work was published internationally in many journals. In 1996, Emdad completed a postgraduate course in Gender Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, where she majored in Women in Film.

Azar's engagement is with art-based concerns, with particular emphasis on social, political, and gender issues. Her works have been widely exhibited both in the UK and internationally, including a solo show at the World Cultural House Berlin, the Silk Road Gallery in Tehran, Iran, the Homeland Society in Baku, North Azerbaijan along with UK-based group shows, including Stoke-on-Trent Museum, St. David Hall Cardiff, the Rose Issa Project, and many more. Azar’s work has been collected by many private collectors, including the Salsali Private Museum Dubai.

Dinner in Tehran is a series of 12 images, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. These images explore the various paradoxes that exist within Iranian society today; the issue of public and private personas, the fractured identities, censorship, religion and strict social codes, which result in many Iranians living a double life.

All 12 images show the same woman center stage, putting the role of a woman at the heart of Iranian society. In each image, the table is properly set and the food is plentiful as it plays a fundamental role in Iranian society, joining people together on a daily basis. These images are of young actors, professional models, friends and family members. Using the perspective of an Iranian woman living in the West, Azar Emdadi reexamines and questions representations of Islamic identity.

Q: You were born in Iran but you are living in the UK. How much and in which ways do these opposite cultures mark your works?
A: Being an Iranian living in the West, I feel myself curiously ‘bound’ equally to both. It is as if being caught between the divergent cultures of both East and West have somehow re-‘molded’ my perspectives, allowing me to appreciate and understand them in new ways. Because of this, I find myself politically, psychologically and emotionally torn. So much so, that even time spent in either sphere is physically disorienting. This continual conflict within my life has shaped – and continues to – my character and personality. Being centered from within, my principles and values clearly reflect these influential conflictions externally through my work.

Q: What does it mean for you to take a tradition and use it – is this just an endorsement or are you doing something else with it – something unexpected?
A: Contemporary art today explores ideas, concepts, questions, and practices that examine the past. This means using tradition as a vehicle, a visual platform to describe the present, and imagine the future. Often this helps to understand the underlying questions one is trying to answer and the ideology, or label it is subject to. Contemporary art can often seem overwhelming, difficult, or so simple that the viewer might wonder if they are missing something. Sometimes to understand where the behavior comes from, it is necessary to study the values and beliefs of the traditions that underpin them. It is an intensely personal undertaking for any artist to look into their own traditions to seek understanding. So, for myself, I see what is happening today in my homeland, and I ask why certain traditions are disappearing and how these experiences have an impact on how Iranians see themselves on the world stage. It is hard to realise that, because of this, many younger Iranians are losing interest in their own culture and heritage.

Q: Why do you define yourself as an artist? And what is the role that art has in your everyday life?
A: An artist is someone who connects to others emotionally through various media relevant to their creative practice in order to give them pause, to capture the attention of others through word, image, color and sound. I see myself exploring these media in order to grow both technically and emotionally, thereby evolving on a daily basis within the new technology to create dialogue. Art enabled me to find myself and at the same time lose myself; art has helped me transit the displacement process. I owe it to my art practice to continue and to establish a dialogue that is more of a universal language.

Q: Can women do everything?
A: Throughout history women have proven they are capable of doing and partaking in many professions, undertaking a variety of jobs very well indeed. Of course they may be subject to physical restrictions on certain heavy jobs. But this is not a sufficient hindrance to prevent women becoming active members of society and effective role models for the future generations. Today the younger generations of women are striving to perfect themselves. In most underdeveloped countries more girls are able to enroll in schools than ever before, but still women are paid so little compared to men, so that they are frequently dependent on men for their survival. We need to remove a fixed set of expectations, a false objective in that, simply speaking, because we feel we can do anything, we feel we have to do everything.

Q: How does Dinner in Tehran explore the extant paradoxes prevalent in Iranian society right now?
A: Dinner in Tehran focuses on the desire of many Iranians, especially the young, to free themselves from the social and cultural conditioning of a strict society. The images in Dinner in Tehran explore those subcultures that undermine and subvert their strictures and balk against the autocratic confines apparent in Iran today. I refer in particular to those trafficking in sanctioned banned goods on market stalls, such as medicines, Barbie dolls, dollars and euros. We see older women meeting together to share photographs and to discuss their memories of children no longer with them, who have emigrated. We see women artists, whose works explores their political and social position as women in Iran today. As consequence of this bravery, they are putting themselves at great personal risk, frequently being imprisoned for voicing their creativity.

Q: Why did you choose to use a globally known masterpiece such as The Last Supper? Why did you choose a Western icon?
A: The Last Supper was chosen precisely because it is globally known; and as a universal image its message is immediately understood. This iconic motif – Christ’s Last Supper – I discovered in the house of a friend of my mother, and both women are in their late 70s. One of them is Christian and the other a Muslim. Without any awareness of the narrative behind the image, the Muslim lady loved the image, purely from the emotive beauty it raised within her. From this I developed the idea of using a Western icon within an Iranian setting to create an image of the time and historical period depicted in the painting. It served as the perfect base from which to build a universal message, not bound by culture, fulfilling my own impression of Iranian society in the here and now.

Q: In what way does Dinner in Tehran represent Iranian society?
A: My work takes into consideration all those layers within Iranian society, breaking these layers down. It depicts the older generation in addition to the younger generation. Many young Iranians wish to represent themselves; they want to be in control of their own identity and to express themselves creatively through fashion, art and youth culture. My images expose all these layers and the paradoxical Iran of today in order to reveal it as it stands.

Q: All the human figures are depicted around a table, talking in groups of three, with their bodies, gestures and their facial expressions half-hidden by the table. Who are those people? And which roles do they play in society?
A: They are young people under the age of 30, who constitute the largest demographic group in Iran (young fashionable women, young men and children), older mothers, intellectual women and street market holders. They represent all walks of life. Even soldiers who fought in the war with Iraq who are now in their late 40s are represented by real figures. Soldiers that were involved in the war against Iraq have brought their memorabilia from the war. I depict mothers whose children left home and who, even in their country of Iran, live a lonely life. Children are brought up with mixed messages at nursery; young boys and girls with plastic surgery and heavy make-up, and finally, intellectual woman fighting for their beliefs.

Q: Do you think judgment is part of your culture/religion?
A: Yes, it is a tragic element that pervades our culture to be judgmental. But that does not mean that I agree with it or practice it, it’s wrong according to my own system of morality to pass judgment on another human being.
There is a famous wisdom verse within the bible, attributed to Jesus Christ and oft quoted being quite well known today, by which I place my own credo of live upon, it is: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”

Q: The woman in the centre of your photos is always the same, holding this same position. Who does this woman represent?

A: All 12 images have the same woman centre stage, representing women’s place at the heart of society, keeping the fabric of Iranian life together. I drew on autobiographical experiences for this central image.

The images in the Dinner in Tehran series are numbered 01 to 12. My numbering of the photographs relates to the subtle finger counting that the central female figure is doing in every image.
She represents the mother, sister, wife and hard working woman of Iran who has kept the family together in the last 30 years during the revolution, throughout war and sanctions, etc... She is always composed and calm, sitting in the middle counting her fingers gently. I like to leave it to my viewer to interpret the counting however they like.

Q: In the last photos there are only doves. Why? Is because they represent peace and freedom and is this what you wish for your country?

A: I created 12 images for the number of people on both sides of the table, in ten of those images; a table is surrounded by all 12 people on the same side as that of the middle woman. Finally, in one image only there is one person, and in the last image, with no one but doves.
The images of doves represent intellectual freedom and hope, the escaping of social norms, and the creation of new landscapes for Iranians to possess.

Dinner in Tehran (2012) was exhibited as a solo show in Tehran Silk Road Gallery (Iran), part of it in the London-based Rose Issa Project, and at Art Space London and Art13 London. The last exhibition was held in May 2013 at the Dubai Art Space Gallery.