WRITINGS: Review: Amak Mahmoodian "Shenasnameh"

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This is not a book. It’s a lyrical, impactful and on occasion, purposely disjointed meditation into a nation’s identity and a testament of its collective history. 

I feel an immediate sense of intimacy approaching ‘Shenasnameh’ – the name given to the official Iranian identity card issued at birth. For days that turned into weeks and then months, I resisted breaking its red-wax seal bearing an imprint of the Emblem of Iran. Sitting in the palm of my hand, Shenasnameh feels precious and fragile. I want to protect it. 

The publication is a series of predominately black-and-white mug shots of Iranian women posing for their government-issued ID. Sparse impressionistic texts written by Amak Mahmoodian sit as punctuation marks between appropriated images, fingerprints and handwritings, revealing little but not enough for you to stop probing. At intervals when you think you know what follows, the design surprises you – a torn photo, the cutout rim of a woman’s face, a confrontational double spread of a crossed out photograph – condemned by authorities for falling into the realm of the dreaded ممنوع (mamn'ou meaning not allowed). 

Shenasnameh gets me because I relate to it. The palpable weight of bureaucracy, the illogical rules of representation citizens must comply to and the sheer madness of forcing an entire generation of women to conform, settle and fit into a regime-crafted mold. I wonder how the women would have chosen to portray themselves pre-1979 – when the former leader of what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, commanded the revolution that overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. 

Were the women’s gazes as numb as they are here? Did they look at their image capturer with the same accusatory eyes? Did they feel equally vulnerable? 

It is behind this veil of compulsory sense of union that fingerprints stand as the distinctive markings of the women they portray. “The scar I had on my finger became part of my identity, highlighted and noted on the page next to my photograph,” Mahmoodian writes. 

Here the series unites in an act of defiance. A scream .. a chant .. a collective howl in the face of indoctrination and manufactured conformity. There are no victims here, only feisty fighters. 

I turn the pages on Shenasnameh many times over. On occasion I choose to go against its intention – flipping right to left, the way one would do a Farsi or Arabic book. Each time I discover subtleties I had not encountered before. 

I advocate all artistic endeavors are deeply personal. They must be. For me Shenasnameh is a testament of it. It is a where humility of an idea, sensitivity in design and excellence in form harmoniously marry into something beautifully exclusive – the precise quality a Shenasnameh is intended to conceal.  

Laura El-Tantawy / October 25, 2016