I believe that when we consider the rich and diverse experiences of individuals … we begin to see that we are more alike than we are different.
Memory is the loom on which experience is woven. We look back along the warp of time and see the past reeling out before us. But memory is mysterious rather than mechanical. The capricious threads continue to work loose and reweave themselves. While some hues become more vivid than the event itself, others fade or disappear as the fabric of recall wears thin. Its patterns of narrative become entangled, reshaped, rolling inexorably away from the precision of the present. And yet the cloth is always dear to us, even in its imperfection.
A photograph has a curious relation to memory. It is precise, unchanging. But it is simply a tiny fragment, a lint from the weft. It needs context to disclose its possible meanings. And so, the archive, as it ages, takes on that uncanny blend of the familiar and the estranged. Reflecting, as L.P. Hartley put it, a foreign country where they do things differently.
The Iranian artist Samin Ahmadzadeh harnesses the dialogue between memory and photography through the practice of weaving. Interlacing archival imagery to suggest the complex interplay of culture and context across time. These woven composite images are then bonded to birchwood panels and sealed in varnish, creating an object of substance, durable yet elusive. An open-ended story that invites each viewer to bring their own reading. To imagine themselves into the work. For, while the artist draws on archives from different times, different ways of life, depicting the lives of specific individuals each with their own identity and heritage, the very heterogeneity of the work draws forth deeper threads of a humanity we share in common. Family, connection and separation, the intransigence of time, the legacy of mortality, and our afterlife in the memories of those who loved us.
What initially drew you to photography as your medium of expression?
When I was seventeen years old, I began a four-year course in photography at Azad University in Tehran. I had a diploma in mathematics and going to art college suddenly opened a new world to me. I felt I could start expressing my thoughts, my ideas, and my perspective on various subjects. Photography allowed me to reach out of my comfort zone, connect with different communities, be proactive, meet new people. It was for sure the best time I had in my student years.
You began by making documentary images.
I absolutely loved documentary and street photography. I loved going into the city, engaging with new people and communities. Natural shots. This allowed me to have many different kinds of conversation with people, which I really enjoyed, even if it could be challenging at times. In this way I was able to explore social and cultural aspects of Tehran. Presenting the depth and richness of Iranian culture and history through my own lens and not in the one-dimensional way it was represented through the news and media at the time.
What led to the change of direction in your artistic practice?
I came to the UK in 2011 to study photography at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. This brought me into close contact with the other fine-art students, which led me to explore different ways of expressing my thoughts through photography. I was interested in archival photographs and had access to an amazing collection of images from my own family dating back to the 1920s. I decided to explore new ways of expressing my ideas.
Why do you choose weaving imagery as your form of expression?
Iran is well known for the art of fabric and carpet weaving so, for me, these techniques are deeply familiar. And I love the weaving process. It is detailed and evocative, and this really suits the type of archival imagery with which I work. It allows me to build a close relationship with the images themselves. In the process of combining images, I can reveal or hide certain details, manipulating the imagery as I weave it to convey a story. Sometimes bringing images together from multiple sources.
How do you control the weaving process to get the result your seek?
Well, there is always the element of surprise, especially with some of the larger works that are built across anything from ten to fifty panels. No matter how much I plan a piece – weave and reweave it – I am always a little surprised by the final result. The more I explore the different patterns and possibilities, the more I learn, and the more ideas that come to my mind. There seems to be no limit with this technique.
How did this new expressive journey begin?
I wanted to work on a project about my father’s childhood. From the age of three, he had been sent to boarding school in the UK. Back in the 1950s, Iranians really believed in the British educational system. It was quite common amongst more affluent families to send their children abroad to study, though three was unusually young to begin. Consequently, my father was raised as a British boy, visiting his family back in Iran around once every two years. This continued until after he had completed his post-graduate studies and married my mother. As a result, I believe his current identity is constituted from two different cultures, from the east and the west.
© Samin Ahmadzadeh ‘Memento’ 2014
How did you go about developing this project?
I decided to visit his boarding schools in Kent and was excited to find an amazing archive of photographs from his time there. All the images were archived in such detail… and I was given access to use them. As I developed this project, which I called ‘Memento’, I undertook a series of interviews with my dad, my grandparents, and with one of my dad’s teachers from that time. He remembered my father very well and I was able to reunite them after so many years, which was very interesting for both them and me.
I asked everyone who I interviewed to share their memories from the time – an emotional experience for all concerned. I found this helped me to relate to my father’s childhood a lot more; to understand his experience of being raised in a completely different culture from that of his family. I realised that physically weaving images from the different archives – his life in the UK and his visits to Iran – would be a great way to reflect on how his identity was formed from the interplay of two different cultures, two different strands of memory.
Identity and memory – different cultural perspectives and the process of remembering – are concepts that underpin my practice. And it began with this project: ‘Memento’.
Those themes can be very personal, experiential. How is the space between the personal of self and the personal of others bridged for you as an artist?
One of the biggest considerations that I have in my work is balancing the personal nature of the photographs with the goal of making my art more universal and relatable to others. I try to find, and focus on, a common ground between the individual stories and a broader human narrative; between personal memories and shared humanity… To create a bridge between individual and shared experience.
In ‘Experiences’ and ‘As I Recall’, your focus opens out to include the environment. What did you seek to explore in these two series?
The ‘Experiences’ project is about the relationship between landscape and people and the effect it has on the individual, making them who they are. I believe that the landscapes we live in help form who we are through the way we individually experience and interact with and in them. The meanings we come to associate with those experiences shape our persona, giving us our individuality.
In the ‘As I Recall’ series, I explore people’s memories and the act of remembering, a process that is not always perfect. Over time, our minds can confuse and combine memories, altering how we perceive our own past. As we forget and then try to recall, memories can become entangled or obscured, influenced by our environment, our emotions, the company we keep as we assimilate new information. In time, the narratives of memory can evolve into a personal mythology.
‘Recollection’ is a large work. How did it come about?
In 2015, I took a geometry course in Iran. I really enjoyed it and it had a great influence on my work. I’ve always been fascinated by the geometrical elements used in Iranian architecture and by the wonderful detail in the tile work. This course helped me understand the complexity and the science behind it all. As a result, in 2016 I started incorporating shapes within my work creating circular weavings, which I presented in a regular grid like pixels.
As I was creating them, I was sharing my work-in-progress on Twitter. It was then that I was contacted by Tristram Aver, the curator of the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery. He came to my studio to view my work and then commissioned me to create a site-specific installation for their forthcoming group exhibition, ‘Reportrait’. It was such an exciting moment for me as an artist, because I was now committed to creating a large installation of five hundred circles, a challenge I really enjoyed.
How did the project evolve?
While I was working on this project I was contacted by the English photographer Tim Andrews, who had seen my work on Twitter. He told me he had an archive of photographs from his own family and would be happy for me to use them. It was an amazing archive. And what was particularly interesting for me was that it spanned the same period as my own archive. Here were two separate families in parallel time, one from the West and one from the Middle East.
What did you want to explore through this work?
I believe that when we consider the rich and diverse experiences of individuals – each with their ancestors, each from different places and cultures – we begin to see that we are more alike than we are different. In this installation I was seeking to highlight our common humanity and the things that unite us, rather than focusing on what sets us apart.
This led to an even more ambitious project: ‘10,000 Faces’.
Tim Andrews gave me a remarkable archive of photographs that had belonged to his mother. She had been a dancer in England and had collected a series of signed headshots of the performers she had worked with throughout her life. Performers who might well have been famous at the time but became unfamiliar to later generations.
I read an article discussing the limits of the human memory and our potential to remember the faces of up to 10,000 people throughout our lifetime. It made me think about how many faces I could remember. My family and friends, of course, then celebrities, faces we are exposed to in our day-to-day life over the years. With this in mind, I began combining images of celebrities and headshots from the same era. The images created an interesting snapshot of the fashions and culture of their era.
[Left] weaving two images together; [Upper Right] bonding a woven image to birch wood; [Lower Right] sealing the bonded work with varnish (images © Samin Ahmadzadeh)
Can you talk me through the physical process of making and mounting a woven image?
I was inspired by the beautiful tile work in Iranian and Islamic architecture. This led me to develop a way of mounting the woven images onto wood, which I then varnish. The result is more of an object. All the works are handwoven. Having decided on the photos and subject, I select a weave pattern. When the weave is completed, I soak the work in water to stretch it and bond it to the birch panel. Once dried, each piece is varnished several times, which gives the final work a permanence. I want to create a unique handmade object reminiscent of the tiling I grew up with in Iran.
What are the challenges of working in this way?
Fixing the work to the birch board is one of the most challenging parts of the process. Once it has been soaked in water, the woven paper can so easily tear. That said, what I have learnt through this process is the way some mistakes can actually improve the work, opening up a completely new idea that I can use later. These works can sometimes take weeks to complete, but photo weaving has taught me the patience to enjoy every detail of the process.
[Left] © Samin Ahmadzadeh ‘Looking North’ 2018 from the series ‘As I Recall’
[Right] © Samin Ahmadzadeh ‘Memento’ 2014
Are there conceptual challenges?
Having started by creating work based on personal family photographs, I found one of the biggest challenges was to detach myself. To step back from personal relationships and memories to see the bigger picture. To discover the broader concepts behind the images and present them in a way others can relate to. But the final work is shaped through the act of making. I weave and reweave until I get a composition I like. The process of making the work can change how one image interacts with another. And there are always surprises, which I think of as happy accidents. So, while there are definitely challenges, I have come to accept them as part of the process, which I really enjoy.
What have you learned about yourself while making these woven archival artworks?
It has definitely broadened my horizons as my work has evolved from focusing on my own culture and family to working with archives from different countries, different people. I have had amazing opportunities to travel, leading to many new stories and experiences. This has given me a more heightened sensitivity to images and a deeper understanding of the concepts behind the works I weave and the stories they depict.
Samin Ahmadzadeh was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1989. She received a bachelor’s degree in photography from the Azad University, Tehran in 2011 and, in 2013, a master’s degree in photography from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London. Her work has featured in over forty exhibitions in the United Kingdom and Iran, as well as France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the USA, at prestigious venues and festivals including Saatchi Gallery, London, and the Iranian Art Biennale. She currently lives and works in London, United Kingdom.