Everything around us creates what we are. Our bodies, the way we adorn them, are a reflection of who we are, and often of who others believe we are. The Islamic veil belongs to women wearing it, as much as it belongs to the entire world. For Muslims, the veil has never only been a piece of clothing. This is also true for the Western world: the veil is a signifier of social and cultural norms and realities, it informs opinions and drives discourse.
Reza Gorji Hassani is a young photographer and visual artist who addresses this symbol. His series ‘Freedom’ attempts to subvert common visualisations of veiled bodies, suggesting that the veil has the power to reveal, just as much as it has the power to cover. Himself of Iranian descent, Hassani employs a narrative of liberation, which gives his work a certain kind of daring energy.
Elena Stanciu: Tell me a little about yourself.
Reza Gorji Hassani: I was born and partly raised in Iran, and moved to the UK when I was young. My mother sold everything she owned so we could move here, so I am a product of two very different cultures, experiencing both being uprooted from my home country, and coming to a society that values personal and creative freedom. I now work as a photographer, based in London.
ES: In your series ‘Freedom’, the Islamic veil is a central element. What inspired you to address this symbol?
RGH: I believe it is neither right to govern a law to wear the veil, nor to force people to take it off. For that project I wanted to confront and explore the ideology of the veil in relation to parallel ideas of freedom. Iran has an interesting and difficult history of going from a modern society under King Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to a fundamentalist society after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. However, both periods went to some extreme: under the Shah, the veil was forcefully removed, while now women are imprisoned for not wearing it.
ES: Was there a point when you experienced this at a very personal level?
RGH: Yes. When I was in Iran I witnessed both my cousins being arrested for wearing "too much make-up," they were locked up in a cell overnight. This was the first time I did work that was this personal to me.
ES: Are you an artist or an activist, or both?
RGH: I don´t call myself either of those. I want to explore beauty in the world, which might be defined as being an artist, but I would also like people to think about and question any social construction that stems from ideologies of religion, and is given the power to control or destroy in the name of that religion. That could be a form of activism, as long as my work inspires others to question their surrounding realities.
ES: Would you say that artists have a duty to use their art and speak against injustice or abuse, especially in a country like Iran?
RGH: I don't see it as a duty; it is a normal, human reaction for me. I strongly believe that clothing, for instance, is one of those elements of daily life that are given too much value. It is normal and good to appreciate creativity, and fashion inspires so many people. But if we detach ourselves from the content of it, and just look at how people use it, we will notice that we assign maybe too much meaning to material things, and it is so often that we forget we are all just people, despite different beliefs, skin tone, sexuality or religion. I don't think this is necessarily injustice, it´s just how our world evolves, and both in the West and in the Middle East, many people are tempted to go to extremes. We have to always create new paradigms and find ways to come together as one, on this planet we all call home.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Photography: Reza Gorji Hassani