‘I was born into ancient and contemporary histories of resistance’.1 The Kurdish artist Shadi Harouni (b.1985), who is native to the Iranian province of Hamedan, grew up in a family of revolutionaries. Her father made a career of fighting the oppression of working people, refusing to leave the country and spending years in prison. Her mother was a different kind of revolutionary: an independent, educated woman with an incomparable intellect living in a patriarchal Iranian society. Harouni notes, ‘As an artist, I have always been committed to connecting these personal, even quiet and seemingly insignificant forms of resistance into larger social movements and revolutions’. Her work looks to history but only as a framework for new futures, allowing her to make ruptures in past narratives and regimes of violence and oppression.
Harouni has always centred these themes in her practice, but her work resonates particularly within the context of the uprising in Iran. Recent events, including widespread demonstrations calling for an end to the Islamic Republic, are the continuation of centuries of resistance and despair. This point in history grows out of years of effort from women’s and workers’ rights groups, environmental and student activists and those who have laboured to preserve the diversity of cultures and languages threatened by the country’s regime. Iranians are all too familiar with erasure and loss. For Harouni this has manifested as ‘relatives forced into exile, mother tongues made extinct, family homes left in ruins or confiscated, identities and histories disavowed, and the personal always masked and hidden in the public realm’.
As an Iranian woman living in exile in the United States, Harouni has a particular perspective on the ongoing struggle. Her physical distance from her homeland and the histories it holds, as well as her desire to be a part of their possible futures, have always been at the heart of her practice. She is also very active in her support of the Iranian counter-revolution and, especially, of fellow Iranian women at the forefront of the resistance. However, she is adamant that her advocacy should not overshadow the resilience and work of those who risk their bodies, lives and livelihoods inside the country: ‘All that I have done is to bear witness, to learn from, and pay tribute to all that is being done in Iran on a daily basis, and to activate language to engage dormant histories of resistance and revolutionary work that have led to this moment’.
Her latest project embodies this statement. An Incomplete Timeline of Sorrow and Resistance FIG.1 is a series of large-scale photographs in which the artist depicts her own arms extending out of tiny circular openings in walls. Her hands hold signs and artefacts relating to the uprisings, including an image of a bloody hand making a peace sign FIG.2; a concrete brick used by protesters to create roadblocks, with a revolutionary catchphrase scrawled across its side FIG.3; and braided hair, a potent symbol of Iranian women’s struggle FIG.4. On 16th September 2022 the twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Jina Amini was arrested by Iran’s Guidance Patrol for allegedly not abiding by the Islamic Republic’s strict yet ever-shifting dress code, which considers female hair threatening, and thus stipulates that it must be covered by a hijab. Amini was detained and died three days later. Although the government has argued that Amini’s death was the result of natural causes, her family and millions throughout the country remain resolute in their belief that her death resulted from head injuries sustained during her arrest. This belief is informed by the Guidance Patrol’s longstanding record of violent treatment of detainees, as documented by first-hand experience, eye-witness testimony and photographic and video documentation.
Social media is, inevitably, one of the main ways in which the crisis is experienced from afar. However, Harouni is sceptical about the privileging of sight as a strategy to elicit constructive action:
I don’t feel what is significant at this moment is to simply see. We see more than we have ever seen before in human history. I think what is significant to recognize is that this is a unique opportunity to learn from a people’s uprising.
For her, crisis is merely a starting point. Instead of responding directly to such events, her work spans decades of history and moves towards speculative futures, creating a space that offers the potential to expand time rather than fixing itself resolutely in any given critical moment. In addition to her artistic practice, from 2017 to 2023 Harouni was the Director of the Studio Art programme at New York University’s Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions, where she is now professor of video and photography. Although her work as an educator and organiser directly wrestles with crisis, she does not believe in isolating this as its sole focus:
For me, the goal has always been to allow room for layers and complexity. For the notion that ruptures in history are both the stuff of miracles as well as the tireless, unflinching, and costly work of individuals and groups that build and care for eternal flames of hope.
One way that Harouni makes room for such complexity is through humour, which the artist is interested in as a form of resistance. This sometimes manifests as sharing the ‘behind-the-scenes’ laughter that characterises her research, production and process. In her film The Lightest of Stones FIG.5, for example, Harouni extracts stones from a mountain quarry in Iranian Kurdistan one by one with her hands, while a group of men standing behind her comment on her actions. In addition to their critique they cover a variety of topics, from the urgent – such as the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), who were especially present and violent in Kurdistan across the border at the time of filming – to more light-hearted matters, including dragons and Jennifer Lopez. In capturing the diversity of their conversation, Harouni paints a multifaceted portrait of the group and the territory, which addresses themes of labour, gender and politics while at the same time transforming this specific scenario into a universal one.
Another lens that Harouni is interested in utilising is that of memory and amnesia: ‘I embrace the relationship between remembrance and forgetting’. For the artist, amnesia serves as both a tool for erasure and a strategy for survival and persistence. Harouni reflects this dual potentiality in her practice by recognising and building monuments from the perspective that they themselves are expressions of forgetting and despair. In her work in the stone quarries of Kurdistan – to which she travelled for several years – Harouni often noted that there is no monument to history as fitting as a mountain being dismantled one stone at a time. This concept is exemplified in her film I Dream the Mountain is Still Whole FIG.6, which details the story of a dissident imprisoned for his work as a teacher. He is ultimately barred from continuing his profession and pushed into spaces of harsh labour, including the stone quarry in which the film is made FIG.7. This work – encompassing the mountain referenced in its title and every stone that the former teacher holds throughout the film’s duration – becomes a monument to his untold story.
The relationships that Harouni developed with stone and stone carvers working in the quaries also took her to cemeteries throughout Iran. Here, she set out to observe, and even document, the systematic erasure of the remains, graves and shrines of what she terms ‘undesirable elements’: dissidents and revolutionaries, poets and mystics – both ancient and contemporary – whose bodies, even in death, carry political meaning. Sunken Garden FIG.8 is a series of twenty photographs taken clandestinely of the graves of dissidents who were executed and buried by the then-regime, but mysteriously paved over weeks after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Over the past forty years, the stones have been forcing their way out of the pavement and they continue to rise FIG.9.
Harouni’s tendency for multiplicity lends itself to constant experimentation with mediums, in particular with sculpture. All of her images attempt to give weight to histories, identities and ideas that have, throughout history, been reduced to mere surface. She works with intricate, obstinate forms that complicate neat categorical definitions of volume and flatness. For example, the series Unnamed Dwelling FIG.10 was inspired by reliquaries erected over the graves of martyrs. The sculptures are made of brass elements based on various sources: flowers taken from a young man’s grave, cast in brass with every broken petal rendered in sharp relief; velvet curtains taken from a temple; a plaque with the revolutionary slogan ‘Bread, Housing, Freedom’ carved in Farsi lettering; outlines of early social housing projects in Tehran; and the hands of a Zoroastrian priest carved into an interior wall FIG.11. In Left Untitled FIG.12, metal bookends are embedded into a wall, which the artist thinks of as ‘little shrines, missing or waiting to receive a sacred object’. Just as Harouni’s forms occupy a liminal space, her medium is also never fixed. The artist considers this fluidity a necessity for her process of dismantling, analysing and recalling real-world relationships through material. In her shape-shifting practice, the weight of inherited histories coexists with the hope for possible futures.
Her work MOSADEGH FIG.13 clearly illustrates this unique bond. Harouni uses plexiglass, light fixtures and a long descriptive title that tells the story of its source material: Reza Nik was a shoemaker in Hamedan. A few days after the Revolution, he changed the name of his shop to ‘Mosadegh’, the name of the first elected prime minister of Iran, deposed in a CIA coup . He installed a neon sign with the name – four connected letters that in Farsi read as ‘MSDQ’. About a month later, the new authorities ordered him to change the name. He had the first letter taken out, and now the shop was called ‘Sedqh’, which means ‘truth’. After a few years, the light in the ‘S’ went out. His shop’s new name was now ‘Deqh’, which means ‘death by heartbreak’. He let this new title stand. For Harouni, the light that continues to flicker, even after orders to extinguish it, is a sign of hope as is the shopkeeper’s veiled yet public statement on the state of affairs in the country through a simple sign over an unassuming shop.
Harouni draws mainly from neglected or incomplete public and private archives: images that circulate on the internet or handwritten notes on the backs of Polaroid photographs, letters, books, and comments and recollections that she records when sitting with storytellers. Each of her projects – whether manifesting in film, photography or sculpture – comprises a mixture of these images and texts. Over the past ten years and, especially, the past six months, a large portion of Harouni’s practice has involved a frenzied yet methodical archiving of events and images that trigger and define ruptures in history. She has collected hundreds of screenshots, transcriptions and translations: of women dancing in the streets, parents speaking at their children’s gravesites with grief and conviction, the strange and often undecipherable push and pull between protesters and plainclothes paramilitaries on the streets of Iran, and the now ubiquitous marking and erasure of slogans and signs on the walls.
Harouni is currently focusing her attention on the history of women dissidents who, following their release from prison, have been forced to go into hiding in spaces that are foreign and even oblivious to their positions. Despite being harsh and isolated, such spaces have also allowed these activists to engage with different communities and practices, as well as natural environments and forms of Indigenous knowledge that have been under attack for decades. Harouni is also working on a project that examines the state of failing regimes through film and sculpture – from various perspectives, including that of architectural history and public commentary. As she has done in all of her other projects, she aims to explore these topics with humour and hope. Harouni’s goal has always been for her work to visually embody the promise of utopia and revolution. As she says, ‘We and everything around us are forever imbued with that promise, and as artists and activists, we can hold and mould and re-engage that promise through our work’.
This is the third in a series of profiles of contemporary Iranian female artists.