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A photographer taps her Iranian roots for ‘universal’ images about home

Gohar Dashti filled Iranian houses with plants and trees.Gohar Dashti

It’s been six years since Gohar Dashti took a trip to visit her childhood home in Ahvaz, Iran, roughly 22 years after her family fled the Iraq-Iran war. As she walked around her old concrete house and courtyard, she recognized a date palm tree in the front yard. That got her thinking about roots, about the sense of belonging she felt in her home country.

That fruit tree was the seed for the Cambridge-based photographer’s “Home” series, with its mix of documentary photography and surreal natural elements. The eight photos are on view through July 12 for the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Reimagining Home” exhibition. Dashti will talk about the images January 19 for a public event at the MFA.


Dashti and her team created “Home” by searching Iran for abandoned buildings and filling them with horticulture. Dashti specifically looked for simple dwellings, structures without the distinct geometries of Iranian architecture.

“I didn’t want to choose very old and traditional Iranian architecture because it’s very nostalgic,” Dashti said. “I wanted to refer to home as something that could be everywhere. When I talk about home, it doesn’t just refer to Iran. It’s very universal.”

The images tackle social issues and reflect global cultural shifts — displacement, sense of belonging, and refuge. Another inspiration was Farsi, a language in which so many words and phrases have double meanings. But the “Home” series is also personal for Dashti, informed by her love of nature. “Nature gives me the energy to think about my favorite issues and discover myself,” she said.

This behind-the-scenes image shows Gohar Dashti and her team at work on her "Home" series.Hamed Noori/Courtesy of Gohar Dashti

Dashti studied graphic design in high school in Iran, where she also took two photography classes. Falling in love with the medium, she enrolled as a photography major at Tehran’s Fine Art University. That’s where she met her mentor, a photographer and influential teacher named Bahman Jalali.


“At the beginning of my study, my major focus was on technique,” Dashti remembered. “[Jalali] was the one person who really told me ‘Gohar, you should think about your surroundings. You should think about what’s happening in Iran. The concept of the idea is much more important, the technique just helps you to produce the artwork.’ ”

Jalali spent years documenting the Iraq-Iran war and the Iranian revolution, aiming his lens for the country’s collective consciousness. With its mix of flowers and Iranian calligraphy, his “Image of Imagination” series from the early 2000s weaves cultural history with traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. Jalali died in Tehran in 2010. His “Image of Imagination” project is featured in the MFA’s “Reimagining Home” exhibition alongside Dashti’s series.

Dashti and Jalali both made “very poetic work,” observed Laura Weinstein, curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the MFA. “It’s very indirect and imaginative, and yet it’s still very much rooted in the world they live in and the experiences they’ve had.”

After years of simmering tensions between the US and Iran, “Reimagining Home” arrives at a time of crisis. But politics weren’t a factor when planning the exhibition.

The MFA’s collection features Iranian art spanning five millennia, from a decorated ewer from the 13th century to these contemporary works. “We focus on Iranian art in a lot of different contexts here,” Weinstein said. “Because there is a lot of wonderful art to show.”

Through July 12. At Museum of Fine Arts. Curated Conversations: A Conversation With Gohar Dashti: Jan. 19. 617-267-9300, mfa.org


Grace Griffin can be reached at grace.griffin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GraceMGriffin.