We often think of home as a safe, familiar harbor, a place we are cherished. But that’s a gauzy ideal. Home can be uncomfortable or dangerous. Home can be loveless. Whatever it is, it is where we come from. It defines, in some way, who we are.
Iranian photographers Bahman Jalali and Gohar Dashti consider their home and history in the exhibition “Reimagining Home” at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 12. Home is not so rosy for these two. Jalali (1944-2010) was a teacher at several Iranian universities and a documentary photographer known for his images of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Dashti, born in 1980 at the dawn of that nine-year conflict, was his student. She now lives in Cambridge.
Jalali urged Dashti to ground her art in concept and context. He was a strict documentarian until late in his career, when he produced the series on view here, “Image of Imagination,” a sober meditation on power and the history of photography in Iran. He was a scholar, with a particular passion for 19th- and early-20th-century Persian photographs, and, as a founding member and curator at the Museum of Photography in Tehran, had a deep understanding of how photographs altered and reflected Iranian culture.
Europeans brought photography to Persia in the 19th century. Its Western realism transformed the traditional flattened style of Persian art. Its availability democratized image-sharing. Photography, then, is a prism through which to view clashes of Western sensibilities — with their relentless drive toward modernization — and more traditional ones.
“Image of Imagination” elegantly gets its arms around that schism with double and triple exposures. Jalali availed himself of his own collection of historic photographs. These include pictures of women (some eroticized to fit European tastes for exotic ladies), images of Iranian men in Western dress or shirtless at a gym, and a photograph of a vandalized sign the artist took after the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, which replaced a pro-Western monarchy with a conservative Islamic theocracy.
The sign was that of a photography studio that specialized in Western-style portraits, and the attack was likely a repudiation. Jalali turns details of his photo, angry slashes and drips of red paint across bits of black calligraphy, into abstractions ripe with implication.
An untitled image from “Image of Imagination, Red” layers those red swipes with an old portrait of five stern young men, four of them shirtless. You have to look closely to recognize there’s a third, ghostly layer, a portrait of a woman gazing right at us. Her eyes appear almost accusing, obscured as she is by hyperbolic masculinity and violence.
Another Jalali piece, from the “Image of Imagination, Black and White” series, gives equal weight to two old photos: a foregrounded woman reclining alluringly like the subject of a Western orientalist painting, exposing her bare legs, and a group portrait of six rather stiff looking men.
“Image of Imagination” opens up and airs out reflexive, oppositional societal structures, as Jalali rhymes the divide between the West and Iran with the one between Iranian men and Iranian women. He doesn’t offer answers. But he’s a canny witness, exposing what may be difficult to see. As a documentary photographer, that’s what he was trained to do.
Dashti’s “Home” series embraces past and future, and so it’s more strangely hopeful. Her work hasn’t always been. In “Stateless,” her series shot in 2014-15 on Qeshm, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf, people wander through a parched landscape, reflecting the refugee crisis in nearby Syria and a years-long drought in Iran. Earlier series centered around people, and the dissonances in trying to live a normal life with threats always lurking. In recent years, landscapes have dwarfed figures. Most recently, the people have disappeared.
Her staged photographs set up hard-to-pin-down, dreamlike scenarios. In “Home” flowers, trees, ivies, and reeds take over decrepit buildings. These images were shot in Iran, but they don’t invoke history by exemplifying Persian architecture. They might be anywhere. But they do suggest time’s passage, and the old giving way. In one image, a fir tree and grass grow out of an abandoned fountain. In another, trees fill an atrium and its balconies like a silent chorus.
As a girl, Dashti and her family fled war in southern Iran, moving north. She looks back on a home imperiled, a home riven with conflict, a home thirsty for water. A home, in the context of Jalali’s series, struggling with tradition and modernization and all the power dynamics that brings into play.
What she sees is resilient life breaking through the old shell of abandoned architecture. Nature will overtake and outlast these manmade structures. Some might find that a despairing notion, but I find it hopeful. Life continues, even if it’s not human life.
REIMAGINING HOME: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BAHMAN JALALI AND GOHAR DASHTI
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through July 12. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org