Featured photo by Maroupi Sani

The shot is called “Mother’s Little Helper,” but it could also be called “The Persian Mona Lisa.”

The similarities between photographer Sia Yazdanfar’s image and the seminal painting by DaVinci are not subtle.

In Yazdanfar’s photo, the little girl, 10 years old, stands in three-quarter profile to the right of the frame, caught glancing at the camera from the corner of her dark eyes. Behind her, desert mountains wear patches of white snow, the rustic dwellings of this tiny Iranian hamlet — Chenesht, in South Khorasan Province — filling the bottom-right corner in soft focus. And like her Italian cousin, she’s smiling, just a little bit, enough to make you wonder why.

"Mother's Little Helper"
For over five hundred years the women of this mountain hamlet have been wearing a style of colorful clothing not seen anywhere else in the country. [courtesy image]
“Mother’s Little Helper”

Layers of woven fabrics wrap her shoulders and the top of her head, exposing her smooth, unfurled brow. Bright frills, sequins and coins accessorize the garment. It’s the way women have been dressing in this remote village for more than 500 years, though the older ones cover their faces for modesty’s sake. But Mother’s Little Helper’s face is open, exposed, a rare moment in a country where taking pictures of women is not particularly welcome, little girls even less so. This is the lone uncovered face in the entire exhibit.

This photo and a couple dozen others comprise Restless Anahita, Yazdanfar’s “kaleidoscopic journey through the fabric of female clothing in remote corners of Iran,” his homeland, according to his website. It’s paired with another of Yazdanfar’s exhibits, No Friends but the Mountains, “a glimpse into the daily lives of Kurdish people in the namesake mountainous Kurdistan Province, where untamed landscapes are dotted by stepped villages,home to a unique culture, heritage, and language that has been preserved for centuries,” both on display at Alamance Arts through June.

Sia Yazdanfar

Almost 7,000 miles away, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, time can stand still. Outside the industrialized cities, in the terrain Yazdanfar has been traversing since 2017, folks exist in mountain isolation or eke it out on the hundred or so tiny islands that dot the Persian Gulf, populating the villages their ancestors built and living in much the same way.

We can see this aspect of timelessness in the images of No Friends but the Mountains: wizened men in a desolate place that could have been taken three centuries ago, had cameras been invented. Even the artist’s technique harkens back to the ancient — he prints his photos for display on paper from Hahnemühle FineArt, a German company that has been making paper since 1584. These prints, colored only with pigment-based inks, should last 200 years.

“I believe the amount of resources and effort that have gone into capturing and processing the images merit presenting them in a way that not only honors the subjects,” Yazdanfar says, “but provides patrons a work of art that can be enjoyed and hopefully inspire for generations to come.”

The bright colors of Restless Anahita weave a throughline to the work. Bright burkas and masks. Tapestries that fold and flow. The light as it passes through the ancient, stained-glass window, painting the mosque floor.

“Autoscopic” is a diptych featuring a model posed on the coast of the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. The first, “Exposition,” forms the first act of the autoscopic — that sensation of seeing one’s doppelganger, or perhaps hallucinating it. In it, the model stands in profile on the shore, her sandals digging into the red sand, rich in iron oxide. She’s wrapped in a pale, diaphanous sheet, her face obscured, arms forward, the garment draping down like a batwing. In the second, “Denouement,” she’s barefoot on a craggy rise in a bright-blue tunic with arms outstretched, her wrap billowing in the wind behind her, the top half of her face covered by a wide, red mask.

All the models in Restless Anahita — named for the Persian virgin goddess — cover their faces: wide masks that band across the nose, thin slits at the eyes; ornate, bejeweled cutouts with wispy frills; scarves wrapped and layered; delicate filigree outlines that hang from the ears and don’t cover much at all.

“There are a lot of written and unwritten rules about taking pictures in the Middle East,” Yazdabnfar wrote in his notes. “Many of the subjects in my current body of work are people with whom I have spent time with during multiple visits to their villages or towns. In remote places, word of mouth and your reputation go a long way.”

His lone unmasked model, Mother’s Little Helper, came to him like that.

“While I have encountered difficulties in capturing subjects elsewhere,” Yazdanfar wrote in his notes, “nothing compares to my experiences in this place. Images of the villagers are rare, as photography is strictly frowned upon.

“I met a local and hung out with him enough that he let me take a photo of his 10-year-old daughter,” Yazdanfar clarifies.

He also included in the exhibit a shot of an old woman in the village, in a wide eye mask and draped in traditional garb, puffing the hookah that Yazdanfar says she smokes all day long.

“I don’t know how she does it,” he says. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article contained errors. We incorrectly named one of the paintings “Autoscape” rather than its correct name of “Autoscopic.” And we misidentified a character as a grandmother. These errors have been corrected. TCB regrets them,.

No Friends but the Mountains and Restless Anahita are on display at Alamance Arts in Graham through July 1. Learn more about the artist at siayazdanfar.com.

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