Diaspora, representation, and hybridity in the work of Hoda Afshar

Written by Evie Taylor

Born in Tehran, Iran, Hoda Afshar is a visual artist whose work in still and moving images explores ideas of diaspora, displacement, and marginality. Based in Naarm (Melbourne, Australia), on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, Afshar’s practice has developed from documentary photography to expanded ideas of staged and conceptual image making, which seeks to disrupt traditional notions of representation and visibility. Focusing on the representation of diasporic identities in Afshar’s work, this paper will also discuss how Afshar depicts the ways in which diasporic histories have shaped our physical and psychosocial worlds. This discussion will draw on Afshar’s distinct perspective regarding ideas of cultural hybridity and how her practice is influenced by her own cultural identity within the diaspora. Analysis of Afshar’s work will consider the cultural contexts relating to Iran and Australia, and notably discuss the ability of photography to represent traditionally marginalised cultural groups and narratives. The development of Afshar’s exploration into the diaspora will be uncovered mainly through a comparison of her early series of tableaux photography titled In-between Spaces (2011-2012) and her most recent body of work Speak the Wind (2015-2020). Here, supported by theorists such as Homi Bhabha, the paper will discuss Afshar’s practice and perspective in negotiating cultural hybridism within the diaspora.

The concept of diaspora emerged from the historical mass displacement of Jews from their historical, cultural, and ethnic homelands in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the 6th century BC (Shuval 2003; Rajak 2006). Following this, the term diaspora was used to refer to the physical displacement of populations from their homelands, ascribed to several historical moments of mass displacement (Edwards 2007). Diaspora has since become associate with ideas of imperialism and colonialism and broadened to include individual and more personal experiences of displacement and disconnection from one’s homeland. The term now is used to describe any group or individual who by force or choice reside outside of the place they primarily identify with (Edwards 2007).

During the 20th century, concepts of diaspora began to consider the ways in which cultural identity is influenced both by a historic homeland and place of residence. Moving away from the early idea that displaced people and populations held onto the cultural identity of their homeland, theorists such as Homi Bhabha and Stuart Hall began to construct a hybridist view of cultural identity that merged between several places and cultures (Hall 1990; Bhabha 1994; Brubaker 2005). In this theorization, cultural identity involved both one’s historical or ethnic homeland and one’s place of residence, in line with the idea that people may identify with several places or cultures at once (Hall 1990; Bhabha 1994). With this advancement, diasporic identities particularly are understood to be complex and unique, relating to each individual’s own experiences, histories, and connections between and across places (Hall 1990; Papastergiadis 2015). Mixed and merged, diasporic identities disrupt cultural binaries, instead residing in Bhabha’s ‘third space’. In this context, Bhabha’s third space refers to the in-between and hybrid space where two or more cultural identities interplay in a state of hybridity (Bhabha 1994).

Through this, diasporic identities are often forced outside of conventional cultural belonging, forced to occupy the in-between space.

Iranian born artist Hoda Afshar provides a perspective on what it means to be an artist occupying in-between spaces. This theme is threaded throughout her photography and video works. This has included works which focus on her own cultural dualities between Iran and Australia, and her acclaimed works depicting the men imprisoned in the Australian offshore detention centre on Manus Island. Using her medium to document marginalised narratives, Afshar presents an interplay between the traditionally Western form of photography paired with less traditional subjects as she challenges ideas of visibility and representation. This idea is discussed in an interview between Afshar and Nikos Papastergiadis, where Afshar states her role in attempting to translate non-traditional narratives and representation onto traditional forms (Monash Gallery of Art 2022). Following the ideas of compatriotic artist Shirin Neshat, Afshar describes the process of ‘inject[ing] your content in a form that is not yours’ (Monash Gallery of Art 2022). This friction however imposes a duality of interpretations onto work such as Afshar’s and Neshat’s, where meaning can be ‘lost in translation’ between Iran and the West (Monash Gallery of Art 2022). Furthermore, Afshar notes her shifting approach towards her practice between Iran and Australia. In Iran, for example, she describes a passionate drive to document and represent Iranian culture and stories, contrasting her slower, conceptual approach in Australia (Monash Gallery of Art 2022).

Notably, interrogating narratives regarding Islamic countries and communities is emphasised in areas of Afshar’s work, challenging widespread negative views of Islamic culture and religion in Australia and the West (Foster 2021). Following the Cold War, and particularly the attacks on September 11th 2001, the Western media has correlated Islamic cultures and religion to ideas of ‘violence, terrorism, fundamentalism and religious extremism’ (Fotouhi and Zeiny 2017:55). This period within the ‘war on terror’ greatly impacted the visual representation of Islamic cultures, largely through media publications’ orientalist inspired image of the ‘Islamic’ terrorist (Fotouhi and Zeiny 2017). As Islamic culture and people continue to be othered by visual cultures of image making, Afshar’s work interrogates the ways in which these representations have been constructed (Sakr 2019). This is described in an interview with Liminal Magazine, where she describes her experience as a new migrant to Australia, confronted with the misrepresentation and lack of representation of Iranian women (Sakr 2019). She notes this confrontation as a turning point in her practice, shifting from documenting realities to investigating and challenging the ways in which ‘realities’ are constructed through visual media (Sakr 2019). These interrogations can be seen in Afshar’s works such as Under Western Eyes (2013-2014) and In-between Spaces (2011-2012), which employ cultural iconography to investigate the representation of cultures in dominant media. Afshar’s sentiment in reframing narratives of Islamic cultures and people however should not be confused with complacency or support for Iran’s authoritarian regime, where mass state violence continues, as seen with the current killing of protesters after the death of Mahsa Amini (Chulov 2022; Fazeli 2022).

Afshar’s tableaux photography series In-Between Spaces (2011-2012) engages in discourses of hybridity and unbelonging through parodic representation of diasporic identity. Afshar describes this series as illustrating the ‘social parodies based on performative masquerade’ (Hoda Afshar n.d.). This is achieved through depicting oppositional cultural signifiers of both Islamic Iranian and typical ‘Aussie’ attire together in awkward conglomerate. Providing visual representation of the cultural hybridity experienced by diasporic identities, the work also comments on the way that Australia pushes migrants to assimilate into ‘Aussie’ culture. The series derives from Afshar’s own experiences as a migrant to Australia (Hoda Afshar n.d.), describing it as ‘inevitable as part of [the] experience as a migrant [to] occupy this in-betweener space’ (Monash Gallery of Art 2022). Through employing oppositional cultural icons, Afshar’s series reveals the performativity of ‘Australian’ identity. This is seen for example in Figure 1, where a traditionally dressed Iranian man and woman are seated at a kitchen table laid with vegemite sandwiches. On the right, the man holds out a slice of the sandwich towards the woman, who looks off into the distance with a sense of melancholic longing.

This tableau references the pressure to consume and thus assume and assimilate into a National identity and gives visual representation of the third space that diasporic identities occupy. Afshar expresses this relationship, describing ‘[the subjects’] identities have been reduced to the superficial tropes of their hybrid cultural belonging’ (Foster 2021). This idea references her interrogation into the ways in which visual representations of culture are constructed using symbols and icons.

Afshar’s most recent body of work Speak the Wind (2015-2020) explores the cultural memory of diasporic histories, exposing the ways in which diaspora impacts the world on a physical and psychosocial level. This is achieved through exploration of a cultural folklore from an Iranian island in the region of the Strait of Hormuz. Filmed whilst visiting the area, the work is comprised of both photographic and video elements which are centred around the local belief that individuals on this island are often possessed by the wind (RMIT School of Art 2022; Monash Gallery of Art 2022). Afshar describes this wind, which moves to the island from the East of Africa, as a trace of history moving with diasporic memory of the African slave trade in Iran (RMIT School of Art 2022; Monash Gallery of Art 2022). Haunting the region, the possession demands healing from a shaman or shawoman, who is of African descent perhaps with lineage from former African slaves

in this region. Only after the cleansing ceremony will the individual be free from this possession (RMIT School of Art 2022). Like history coming back to haunt us, Afshar relates this narrative to that happening in Australia describing ‘we are possessed by the history of colonisation in this country as well’ (RMIT School of Art 2022).

Visually, Afshar represents this narrative through depicting subtle, abstract and sculptural motifs of certain fabrics, colours and landscapes. For example, Figure 2 depicts a thin fabric sculpturally blown up by the wind, positioned in the rocky mountainous landscape. Almost resembling the loose fabric image of a ghost, the image gives form to the presence of the wind. The form of the fabric mirrors the jagged rocks seen in the background of the photo, which reoccurs throughout this body of work. Mirroring the physical world, where landscapes are shaped by forces such as wind, water and erosion, the image invites a meditation on the ways in which diasporic histories present themselves in physical and psychosocial levels. The familiar image of a child wearing a sheet as a ghost is alluded to in Figures 2, referencing the possession embodied by the wind. In further images throughout the series, a body can be made out underneath the fabric, alluding to the physical histories and people manifested in the wind which undermines the possession. With delicate subtlety, the series explores the possibilities for diaspora to shape our physical worlds, exposing the constant haunting and returning of diasporic narratives which reverberate through place over and over again. The work reveals the memory of the African diaspora which circulates through Iran, and merges with Iranian culture, folklore and tradition. In this, both physical and psychosocial spaces are seen as impacted by diasporic histories, suggesting that hybridity is not solely experienced by those who are displaced.

Afshar’s photographic and video practice interrogates the representation of diasporic and marginalised identities. Her practice is deeply influenced by her own experiences and identity, residing in the in-between space between Iran and Australia. This not only is reflected in her subjects but is negotiated within her form of traditionally Western photography. Using cultural iconography in In-between Spaces and narrative metaphors as seen in Speak the Wind, Afshar exposes the ways in which cultural hybridity is experienced, exploring the ways in which diasporic histories impact the world around us. These notions invite a broader representation of what it means to exist within the diaspora, as diasporic memory and histories reverberate throughout our collective world.

Figure 1: Hoda Afshar (2011-2012) In-between spaces: Man and Woman at table [photo], courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery.

Figure 2: Hoda Afshar (2015-2020a) Speak the Wind: Tan fabric floats in rocky landscape [photo], courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery.

Afshar H (2011-2012) Man and Woman at table [photo], courtesy of the artist.

Afshar H (2015-2020a) Tan fabric floats in rocky landscape [photo], courtesy of the artist.

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