Burnt Generation: Contemporary Iranian Photography (Terrace Rooms, Somerset House)

Bakak Kazemi  Khoramshahr Number by Number

Bakak Kazemi Khoramshahr – Number by Number

Iran’s Generation X, known as Nasl-e Sokhte, encompasses those born between 1963 and 1980. They are known as ‘The Burnt Generation’, born to an epoch bookended with the events of The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iran/Iraq war. The human and material spoils of conflict and talismans of everyday life appear scattered through the images in the Terrace Rooms. The spheres constantly encroach on one another in a display that aims to show the inner realities, both public and personal, of modern Iranian society. The featured contemporary photographers, each of whom has lived and worked in Iran, operate through varied means: from documentary and photojournalism, to portraits and more conceptual work. They unite in a bleak neutrality of palette, lining walls in shades of brown, grey and black. It is punctured only by the suspended bulbs of green from Abbas Kowsari’s Lights series, the traditional colour of Islam in glowing neon, which line the neighbourhoods of Tehran in festivity.

Newsha Tavakolian, Look, 2013

Newsha Tavakolian, Look, 2013

Burnt Generation opens with two voyeuristic glances into this interior world. Ali and Raymar’s series We Live in a Paradoxical Society shows scenes from a life glimpsed through the doorframes of Iranian families. Characters enter and leave vignettes of kitchen-sink realism. Pathos is located unexpectedly in the half eaten watermelon on the arm of the chair and the act of a father breaking an egg into a pan whilst cooking with his sons. The series is mirrored by Newsha Tavakolian’s Look, whose solitary unhappy birthday party for one distils the dissolution of the burnt generation itself. The element of social documentary in Look attests to Tavakolian’s vocation as a photojournalist, turning her experience as an eighteen-year-old chronicler of student uprisings to the subject of her neighbours. From the window of her apartment block in Tehran, the interior pictures were captured at precisely 8pm over a period of six months. The newspapers, shirts and handkerchiefs that litter the furniture of the subjects’ homes are as crumpled as their expressions. Looking closely at the cold-toned portraits, you can see the men have been crying too. The domestic thread is culminated in Babak Kazemi’s affecting Khoramshahr Number by Number: a series of double exposures of number plates from a town located on the Iran/Iraq border that experienced eight years of war.

Azadeh Aklaghi’s restages dramatic and mysterious deaths from modern Iranian history in the series By An Eyewitness. The scenes combine the dimensional compositional tricks of a Caravaggio with the dramatic juncture of Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Sadegh Tirafkhan grazes the curves of the male body with calligraphic brush strokes, inspired by body painting practices amongst ancient pre-Achaemenian kings. Letters follow the lines of movement across the masculine form, evoking traces of traditional gymnastic ritual practiced at a Zoorkhaneh. Tirafkhan’s work is perhaps the most traditionally referential and least bleak on display. Overall, Burnt Generation presents a dark but innovative look at the growing pains of the Nasl-e Sokhte.

Natasha Morris is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Burnt Generation is on at the Terrace Rooms at Somerset House until 1st June 2014.