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Shirana Shahbazi
Another Level

Shirana Shahbazi
Another Level

Objekt-07-2010] C-print on aluminium 90 x 70 cm

In 2002, a year after finishing art college in Zurich, Shirana Shahbazi came rapidly to international recognition when she was awarded the prestigious Citibank Photography Prize for her Goftare Nik/Good Words series. These photographs, taken in Iran, include images of a mother bending to tie her son’s shoelace, a bride posing underneath a cherry-blossom tree, a half-built tower block alone in the middle of a dusty landscape and a a rooster standing in the dirt. Like Shahbazi’s other photo series, the combinations of images are unexpected and suggestive of an inconclusive story of some kind.

Shahbazi’s life in some ways mirrors her photo series – a collection of parts or layers that somehow work together as a whole but are not immediately obvious or expected. She was born in Tehran in 1974. At the age of eleven she moved to Germany with her family, where she lived and studied until 1997, when she moved to Zurich. She has lived in Zurich now for thirteen years – the longest she has ever lived anywhere in her life. Contemporary art there is, according to Shahbazi, relatively international for such a small city, and her decision to stay there has influenced her work in an enormous way.

Shahbazi’s work crosses histories and geographies as easily as it crosses different visual forms and media. Still lifes sit alongside landscapes and portraits. Photographs resembling European Old Masters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are painted onto walls by billboard painters from Tehran.

It is tempting to interpret Shahbazi’s photographs from the series Fruit, Flowers and Portraits, which resemble northern European vanitas paintings in their composition, as a moral comment on the emptiness of contemporary life and consumerism. However, as the artist tells me, this was definitely not her intention:

The historical background of the objects is the starting point for me. My work does not only bring together the vanitas motifs; there are monochromatic images together with black-and-white landscapes, still lifes, pseudoscientific images of shells and other specimens, portraits and so on. The combination of all these genres is about photography and images and how they can be read, rather than about the meaninglessness of life.

Indeed, by combining conventional photography with other techniques such as carpet weaving or billboard painting, Shahbazi is pushing the boundaries of photography, creating a multi-layered medium and trying to change the common perception that photography is precise, readable and simple. She is, if you like, trying to elevate it from a mere documentary tool into the realm of art:

If you look at an installation, a painting, sculptures etc., the viewer is already prepared to see an art piece. Photography seems to have a longer way to go to be read as a bit more complex, conceptual or complicated. In this sense it is limiting, so when I do my excursions into other media, it is all about creating a base to have more space around my pieces besides reality.

Shahbazi’s photographic work contributes poignantly to the debate around reality and its interpretation.

Artist: Shirana Shahbazi is a photo artist who lives and works in Zurich. She has had solo exhibitions at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva (2005), the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago (2003), and the Photographers’ Gallery, London (2001). Her work has also been featured in major group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006), Kunstmuseum, Thun (2006), the Fourth Berlin Bienniale for Contemporary Art (2006), the Seventh Sharjah Biennial (2005) and the Venice Biennale in 2003.

Writer: Juliet Cestar is a curator, writer, and photographer with an MA in anthropology of art, specializing in contemporary art from the Middle East. She worked on the visual arts programme at Asia House in London before joining Rose Issa Projects.