Amak Mahmoodian’s Zanjir and Angelica Mesiti’s Assembly explore themes of identity, unity and collective togetherness across space and time at the Arnolfini.
Journalist, writer and lecturer Melissa Chemam reflects on the Arnolfini’s current exhibitions: Zanjir, by Iranian photographer Amak Mahmoodian, and Assembly, a film installation by Angelica Mesiti, who represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 2019. As the Arnolfini’s writer in residence, Melissa went into the gallery’s new exhibition with high expectations. Here she shares her experience of connecting with figures both present and absent in order to transcend loss and join in a collective sense of togetherness.
Could curators dream of a better time to show artworks from these two countries?
While Iran and Australia have been making headlines since December 2019 for all the wrong reasons – terrible diplomacy, fear of global war, panic over the Covid-19 pandemic, environmental catastrophes and the vast devastation of Australia’s wildlife – artists Amak Mahmoodian and Angelica Mesiti offer meaningfulness and healing at a time when we are still trying to come to terms, somewhat helplessly, with a world in chaos.
The work of these two women succeeds in connecting us beyond our world’s keenest troubles. With incredible insight, Mahmoodian and Mesiti offer deeply personal responses to our global situation.
I have been passionate about art ever since I was a teenager, growing up in a working-class family of immigrants who were not ready for my deep interest in unresolved world issues. And if there’s one lesson that art has taught me in the past decade, it’s that our creations, artistic and otherwise, have the power to heal our wounds. In their own way, Mahmoodian and Mesiti have given us the tools to see behind the mirror of our present insanity and misunderstanding, so as to recognise our most important needs and abilities; in order to recognise what unites us, especially in times of trouble.
With her photographs, layered between black and white portraits and antique archives, Amak Mahmoodian invites us on a profound voyage across time and continents. Her study is heavily focused on two families: Iran’s most powerful King and the artist’s own. Framed through father-daughter relationships, the photographs represent tender moments of closeness between family members; they tell a story about loss, nostalgia and the invisible bonds that link those who have now been separated by time or space.
With her filmic installation Mesiti goes further and helps us to reconnect, to channel the powerful energy of togetherness in communal spaces, through rituals and acts of music, dance and performance.
Have you ever heard of a Persian princess who, in the late nineteenth century, as the favourite of her father, became a pioneering feminist? Taj al-Saltaneh and her famous father, the Persian king Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, are at the centre of Mahmoodian’s exhibition, Zanjir. Mahmoodian was born in Shiraz and studied photography in Tehran. She later moved to Wales to pursue doctoral studies around her archival research and chose a selection of private and unseen family photographs to build her exhibition. These photographs were taken by the Shah himself, inside his unattainable palace, where his innumerable wives and children lived with him, hidden from the general Persian public in the palace andarun, with a camera offered to him by Queen Victoria herself. The story of these photographs therefore becomes a thread between al-Saltaneh and Mahmoodian, from Persia to England, and back and forth. The other photographs selected for this exhibition are portraits of Mahmoodian’s parents taken by the artist herself in black and white film. Some depict moments of togetherness; others show her family holding photographs in front of their faces, as masks symbolising their universality.
In one of the photos, the seated figure hiding her face is actually Mahmoodian herself in a self-portrait. She explained this to me when we toured the gallery together in late January: “This is me but this could be anybody” she said. We are all alienated from the moments that make us, Mahmoodian says; we are forever in search of our continually evolving identity and the bonds that define our place in the world. ‘Zanjir’, the title of the exhibition, means “chains” in Farsi, and Mahmoodian’s works exemplify and explore just this: the links between individuals, families, histories, worlds; the issues and experiences that bind and connect us.
Curated by Alejandro Acin and the Kieran Swann for the Arnolfini Gallery, the show displays Mahmoodian’s photographs on walls shaded black and dark green. There are a lot of mirroring effects that interplay with Mahmoodian’s archival material and photographs. One of the central photographs is a portrait of the Shah with his closest family members taken by himself as reflected in the mirror of his main room. Another is a still of his wives above a fountain in the palace’s garden, almost perfectly reflected in the water.
At the other end of the room, Mahmoodian’s photographs of her father’s tattoos – which are taken through a red filter – are exhibited on metal plaques and presented in horizontal baths of water, thus creating a similar mirror effect. Most of the other photographs are displayed in semi-darkness behind glass surfaces, each reflecting light and the viewers’ own shadows. Together, this arrangement creates a web of connections between each family moment, the different figures, and us.
The exhibition is also punctuated with personal texts in Farsi and English. This is Mahmoodian’s way of reconnecting her past with her fast changing present life in England: “My past and present life,” she writes, “excites both wonder and anguish, and you expect me to be interested in another’s tale? Isn’t the review of one’s personal history the undertaking in the world?”
Now based in Bristol, where she teaches photography at the University of West England and lives with her husband and children, Mahmoodian is unable to return to Iran, where her work has been criticised and where even her photographic film and equipment has taken from her. She confesses that her work is her raison d’être; it is how she is able to express the complexity of her self, and confront the obstacles that prevent her from reuniting with her mother, which deeply saddens her. But after 18 years of exploring her country’s past, she has created an invisible bridge between her family and herself; between two countries, both haunted by colonial disputes and tensions; between the visitors of her exhibition and an often misrepresented Iran.
The second gallery space of the Arnolfini has been completely transformed to host Angelica Mesiti’s film installation, Assembly. The floor is covered with a red carpet and the visitors are invited to sit down on the single march, created as a circle on the ground. The film is projected onto three giant screens. Each presents different angles of the same scenes.
For the next 25 minutes, the screens take us on a very different journey. Opening in the empty rooms of the Italian senate in Rome, Assembly shows us how a few people use a ‘Michela’ machine, a nineteenth-century instrument that uses a short keyboard connected with a type machine to transcribe to public audiences – also known as a stenotype. Multiple keys are pressed simultaneously (known as “chording” or “stroking”) to spell out whole syllables, words, and phrases with a single hand motion. This system makes real-time transcription practical for court reporting and live closed captioning. Here, it connects the writing of the laws (since we’re in a Senatorial amphitheatre) with a musical element.
In the following scenes, other characters enter different rooms: some perform different instruments (a violin, a piano, a clarinet, a xylphone, etc); others some dance movements. Separately, they create the beginning of a choreography. The films culminate when a main dancer starts her single performance followed by drummers carrying percussion, who storm the main empty room in a sort of collective, shamanistic, exulting procession or ritual.
Transforming an original cacophony into a form of harmony through the practice of collective efforts to “assemble”, to join in collectively into a circle, an ensemble, a group, Mesiti uses sounds, rhythm and physical interactions to unite what seems to be isolated individuals in cold, official buildings. Inspired by collective events such as the “Nuit Debout” movement, a series of socialist protests which occurred in France in 2017, the artist transforms a social and political idea into a cathartic, curative, artistic experiment.
Enhanced by the rhythm of the drummers and the movements of the performers’ bodies, the viewers feel like joining in themselves, and entering a state of euphoric participation. “For those seated in the stepped circles of Assembly’s amphitheatre,” wrote the curator Kieran Swann, “this is a reminder of both our responsibility and capacity to effect change; to bring our voices together for our own and each other’s good.” And who wouldn’t feel empowered by such an experiment?
Amak Mahmoodian’s Zanjir will be showing at the Arnolfini, Bristol, until 22 March. Angelica Mesiti’s Assembly will be shown at the Arnolfini until 26 April. Both exhibitions are free. For all other events at the Arnolfini, click here.
Woven into the fabric of Bristol since 1961, Arnolfini is a pioneer of interdisciplinary contemporary arts, presenting an ambitious programme of visual art, performance, dance, film and music. Housed in a Grade II listed, accessible building at the heart of the harbourside, Arnolfini is an inspiring public space for contemporary arts and learning, welcoming over half a million visitors each year and offering an innovative, inclusive and engaging experience for all. An internationally-renowned institution, Arnolfini supports and develops work by living artists, investigating their influences and aspirations, and celebrates the heritage and wide-reaching impact of the organisation by sharing a 60 year archive of exhibition slides, publications and artist book collection with the public and artists, inspiring new commissions. In 2019, Arnolfini relaunched its major exhibition programme with Still I Rise. Arnolfini is an independent organisation, part of the University of the West of England, Bristol and supported by The Arts Council and The Ashley Clinton Barker-Mills Trust.