This exhibition includes five bodies of work: an installation of 19th-century glass transparencies of Iran and Iraq conceived by artist Iraida Icaza; a collection of shadow figures by Lotte Reiniger from her 1926 animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed; paintings by Selma Gurbuz inspired by shadow theatre; and an animated film by Beate Petersen, Nassereddin Shah and His 84 Wives, which complements an album of mid-19th-century Persian photographs by the Persian king, Nassereddin Shah himself.
Iraida Icaza’s installation, Laterna Magica, is based on a collection of 19th-century glass photographic transparencies of Iranian and Iraqi cities, people and landscapes. This collaboration between the artist and the unknown photographers reflects on a world where the boundaries between authenticity and appropriation have been blurred through the digital dissemination and mass production of photography, thus giving credit to the photographers of the past.
The installation consists of 20 small, wooden, candle-lit lightboxes that contain a selection of the original large-format transparencies. It reveals the wonder of early photography and the projected image. It also comments on themes of illusion, memory, appropriation and the power of photography as a means to preserve and document what is, what was, and by implication, what might be. With this installation Icaza explores the nature of time and transformation in the Middle East. Her lightboxes re-illuminate images that want to be revisited and even resurrected. Icaza says, “This installation honours the work of unknown and unnamed photographers from the past who travelled to then-remote parts of the world, creating photographic records on behalf of museums, educational institutions, news agencies and private collectors. These images reflect impressions of the Orient which, for many audiences in Europe and the New World, were the first and only encounter with ‘the other’ distant people and the majesty of their cultures.”
The collection of shadow figures by Lotte Reiniger (1899-1981) is from her classic animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (or Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed). This pioneer of silhouette animation holds a unique position in the history of cinema. Her exceptional talent for cutting paper silhouettes led her to study the history and tradition of shadow plays in China, Indonesia and Turkey.
Reiniger worked on Prince Achmed from 1923-25, creating a 90-minute silhouette film based on episodes of The Arabian Nights. The film premiered in Paris in 1926, in Berlin in 1926, and in London in 1927. After 1933 she worked mostly in France and England, and during her 60-year career she made a number of short animated films of fairy stories, legends and magic. It was during a visit to London in 1927, Reiniger gave her great supporter Thorold Dickinson a small collection of shadow figures from Prince Achmed that were exhibited at the London Film Society that year. After Dickinson’s death in 1984, the filmmaker and curator Lutz Becker inherited that collection which seems to be the only private collection in existence, while the Düsseldorf Film Museum and Stadt Museum in Tübingen hold the most important collections of her work. Becker lent this collection to the British Film Institute’s Museum of the Moving Image from 1988-2002 and in 2004-2005 to the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition, Eyes, Lies and Illusions.
Inspired by Reineger’s innovative style, the filmmaker and a writer Beate Petersen’s created an animated film on the role played by women in the 19th-century Persian court, Nasseredin Shah and His 84 Wives. It has received many awards since its premiere in 2012. Drawing from a rich array of photographs - specifically those by the Shah, who photographed his harem, this groundbreaking feature documentary film provides insights into the history of modern Iran, the corruption and violence in officialdom and the rivalry and intrigues within the harem. With its many animated sequences, the film demonstrates the centrality of gender in the shaping of modern culture and politics in Iran. Petersen’s visual story also affects our conceptions of beauty and homeland, providing a strange but witty perspective on Iranian history and the organisation of its politics and social life.
The man behind those pictures, Nasseredin Shah, was one of the first and most enthusiastic photographers in Persia. In 1842, the 11 year-old heir to the Persian throne received a camera from Queen Victoria of England. In the following decades he documented his life, revealing to the public what it was never supposed to see.
The album of 48 vintage photographs in this exhibition, which he took in the late 1850s, are of his travels, parties, religious ceremonies, wives and ministers, provide an intimate insight into the private life of the Persian monarchy. He set up a studio at the Golestan Palace in Tehran and many of his photographs remain there to this day, perhaps the most accurate document of this period in Persian history. The Shah would often give his photographs as presents, a sign of his personal gratitude. This album was first presented to the Shah’s Prime Minister, Mostofial Mamalek, who in turn gave it as a gift to his friend Haj Fatanal Molk Jalali, the current owner’s grandfather.
Selma Gurbuz’s large drawings on paper demonstrate that the historic technique of silhouette cutting and shadow theatre - in her case Turkish Gharagozlou - are still part of our contemporary visual language, and reveal how creativity from the past inspires contemporary artists, who express this inspiration in modern terms. The exhibition shows glimpses of the future of a tradition and the tradition of future.