This past May, the Iranian art community mourned the loss of Sadegh Tirafkan, one of the country’s “new art movement” pioneers, to brain cancer at the age of 47. Known for his innovative blending of photography with other artistic media, Tirafkan was an early proponent of photo-based art in Iran and a prominent international representative of Iranian contemporary art.
Born in Karbala, Iraq, to Iranian parents in 1965, Tirafkan spent his childhood and adolescence in Ahwaz, southern Iran, where he volunteered to join the Iranian army during the war between Iran and Iraq (1980–1988). His early experiments in theater and filmmaking as a teenager led him to apply for a degree in photography at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran on leaving the army. After graduating in 1990, Tirafkan remained committed to developing his own visual idiom, and it was this that set him apart from the many artists whose practices were informed by official narratives, or who were pursuing the dominant current of war-oriented documentary photography.
Though Tirafkan’s early works may ostensibly appear to be documentary in nature, the level of dramatic expression betrays a subconscious tendency toward staging, which can be attributed to his cinematic eye. Tirafkan adopted a method of “constructed photography,” combining the photographic image with hints of painting, a practice developed in tandem with his experiments in new media. His friendship with the painter Parvaneh Etemadi also had a strong impact on his work.
While the exploration and use of traditional Iranian imagery is perhaps common among Iranian artists today, Tirafkan should be credited as one of this style’s originators. Choosing historic sites like Persepolis and Susa as his settings and referencing Iranian post-Islamic history—the Ashura ceremony, Iranian ritual champion wrestling, miniature painting and carpet motifs—Tirafkan introduced themes such as the traditional identity versus the modern identity, notions of the self and the problematizing of male psyche.
In The Iranian Man (2000) and Temptation (2004–5), the conceptual framework of male violence contrasts with the typical aestheticization of the body, creating an unfathomable anxiety. Here, through the direct or indirect use of the genre of self-portraiture, Tirafkan manages ingeniously to integrate the archetypal triple roles of “the artist,” “the narrator” and “the actor”, which frequently appear in traditional, staged studio photography. Covertly, and without disrupting representational norms, Tirafkan poses serious questions about Iran’s patriarchal culture and about society at large.
Tirafkan’s fastidiousness and perseverance pervades the entirety of his oeuvre. In 1986, within the extremely restrained socio-political atmosphere that followed the Cultural Revolution, he, along with some classmates, organized one of the first independent photography exhibitions in Tehran at the Ketab Azad gallery. It is for such examples of dogged commitment to his work that he should be remembered.
Translated by Helia Darabi.
Sadegh Tirafkan’s works are permanently housed in the collections of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, British Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Mehran Mohajer is an Iranian scholar and art photographer. He is a faculty member of University College of Fine Arts, at the University of Tehran and is one of the major translators of photography and art theory textbooks in Iran.