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Mahdi Ehsaei

March 31 / 2021

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Born to Iranian parents in Germany, the photographer and designer Mahdi Ehsaei has long been accustomed to living life between different cultures and navigating his dual heritage and identities within these worlds.

In his project and book, ‘Afro-Iran’, he captures the culture, history and daily life of a forgotten minority in southern Iran: descendants of enslaved people and traders from Africa. Like him, the community he has documented embody the rich complexities of their own hyphenated identities.

 

Q >How does where you live affect your photographic work?

A >I was raised by Iranian parents in small towns with migratory populations. So I grew up in a bicultural environment with an influence of Persian culture and tradition within the context of German society. I’m no stranger to living life between the different cultures and navigating the dual heritage I feel in my identity. These formed my long-held interest in intercultural topics and I try to focus on these issues with my work.

Q >What themes do you pursue and why?

A >I pursue topics and themes which inspire and especially create contradictions in the minds of people and inspire viewers to dig more into them. Catching the viewers’ attention and making them start to think or even to rethink specific biased topics. If I reach that, disregarding any judgement, I’m glad and satisfied as an artist. That’s what I also see and admire from other artists I follow, who mostly have the same cultural background as me. Sharing awareness about neglected cultural subjects which receive little to no attention is a theme I’m interested in and try to follow up with.

Q >Tell us about moments in your life that helped define or change your identity.

A >The country of my parents, Iran, and the country I’ve been born and raised in, Germany, both play a role in the development of my identity — good and bad. My parents and relatives, especially my grandparents in Iran, who I rarely saw, shaped my identity in terms of maintaining and reviving the Iranian side. But on the other hand, also encountering racist moments, stigmatised and stereotypical thinking and experiencing discrimination, as a German-Iranian, have influenced my identity in ways that I still don’t fully see myself belonging to one nation or cultural heritage. I think that this is as much as it influences other migratory populations. I remember once writing an essay in school about identity crises. To me, it’s still relevant. I still get inspired and enriched by finding out new facets, faces and historical background about these two homes.

Q >Could you give us an overview of your project ‘Afro-Iran’, and tell us which reactions, questions or perception-shifts did you hope to raise in the viewer?

A >The photographic series shows a side of Iran, which is widely unfortunately, still mostly unknown even to Iranians: a minority of people who influenced the culture of a whole region by continuing the African heritage with clothing style, music, dance and oral traditions and rituals.

I set out to the Hormozgan Province at the Persian Gulf coast to shed some light on this part of Iran, which is home to the descendants of enslaved people and traders from Africa. The traditional and historical region contains one of Iran’s most ethnically diverse populations and is framed with unique landscapes.

In my book “Afro-Iran” I show portraits which are — for a lot of people — not typical for the common picture of Iran. They reveal details documenting a centuries-long history of a community, which represents a neglected chapter of the African diaspora and is often overlooked in Iran’s history, but which has even shaped the culture in Southern Iran.

With this project I want to shift the perspective of the viewers, who already have a stereotyped image from Iran and its people. Furthermore, it has opened up neglected and lesser-known topics and questions of the African diaspora and heritage in Iran.

Q >Whilst navigating and connecting with the local community in Iran — tell us a disturbing and an inspiring story you refuse to forget.

A >Fortunately, during my research and stay in the Hormozgan province, I did not experience many disturbing moments.

The most inspiring was the fact that African culture has largely influenced the well-known and popular Iranian Bandari culture in terms of music, dance and traditions. And also the Iranians of African origin and also non-African origin exemplify an Iranian culture, which is now for centuries an integral part of society and cannot be imagined without. Here, as part of a minority in Germany, I see many overlaps. Also, those moments were inspiring for me when I felt the hospitality of some local communities who basically had “nothing” (from a material point of view) but were much happier, hospitable, kind and loving than people who have “everything” in the West.

Still, some encounters saddened me. Once, a black Iranian man I was traveling with told me that he would be approached in English when he travelled to the northern part of Iran. That he has a hard time getting jobs and faces other social difficulties based on discrimination. The kind of people that disturbed that man are first and foremost the target group I try to reach with my work.

Quite a lot of people inside and outside of Iran are not aware that black Iranians have been an integrated and influential part of Iran for more than 500 years. And that the enslavement and trading of enslaved people to Iran from different parts of the world is part of Iranian history, which needs to be told.

I firmly believe that history shows that perpetuating and respecting cultures outlasts any war, discrimination, or injustice.

Q >What was the most satisfying part of this project and why?

A >From a personal perspective, the moment the project went viral and I was overwhelmed with messages and requests from media outlets and people from all over the world. My thesis was appreciated and very well received by the viewers. At first my thesis was not meant to be published as a book, but I saw the need because I received many messages from people who knew nothing about Afro-Iranians and wanted to know more. This moment was very special for me because I achieved my goal of shedding light on the untold stories. From an academic perspective, I was happy and honoured to be the first person to visually represent this part of Iran, as they never really got a platform to be seen.

I’m very grateful to have been invited to present the project in different parts of the world. It shows that universities and organisations value ethnographic works by small artists. I hope it encourages more and younger people with visual skills to work on topics which really interest them. This would also satisfy me, too.

Q >Migratory journeys: from global interactions to local resistances — which topics should we be discussing more?

A >As I mentioned above, I appreciate topics where I am encouraged to think and dig deeper, and I admire stories — much like “Afro-Iran” — which are also unheard of or unrevealed from a global perspective.

Q >Which things do you think the people around you (in your community, city or country) often take for granted?

A >We in the western world take a lot of things for granted. Things such as a secure working economy, being able to work after studying, being able to receive funds if not working. All things which the people in poorer regions of Iran, saw as unreachable, but still we nag when the smallest difference in a working system fails or malfunctions.

 

Ehsaei currently works as a creative director in Darmstadt, Germany. He loves capturing undiscovered beauties and unique memories through his art and photography. In 2014, he received his degree in communication-design and photography from the Faculty of Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt, Germany. 

In 2015, his photo book entitled Afro-Iran was published in cooperation with Kehrer Verlag in Germany. So far, the Afro-Iran project has been exhibited in Germany, Colombia, Italy, Kenya, the United States, the Emirates, Norway and the United Kingdom.

The southern area of Iran is a very vibrant place with unique and vividly coloured clothing, usually among women. In Nasirai, Hormozgan Province, Zahra has given her child, Sobhan, a prayer in a small green pocket patch to carry. The purpose of this is to ward off evil spirits.

Eshagh leans against one of the most sold cars in Iran, a Kia Pride, in Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan Province.

Armin and Reza — Ghader Khani, Hormozgan Province. These two children in one of the villages near Bandar Abbas are cousins. They show the present cultural diversity in Iran.

Women walking into an alley in the Khaje-Ata area of Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan Province. The 'Chador Bandari' is a lightweight outergarment worn by women in the southern parts of Iran.

At the Thursday market in Minab, Hormozgan Province, a woman wearing a 'Borke' sells colourful garments mostly used for traditional Bandari clothes such as 'Chador Bandari'. 'Borke' is a facial cover women and girls use in southern provinces of Iran. The colour and shape of the 'borke' communicates which area they come and whether they are married or widowed.

Iran flags wave behind Ghasem, a man standing in Gurband, Hormozgan Province. Behind him, a street sign says ’Persian Gulf Alley' in Minab. Minab is another city in the Hormozgan Province with a large community of Iranians with African ancestors.

During afternoons at Khaje-Ata Beach in Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, there are often lots of children playing such as Mohammad Ali. The beach is popular with both locals and tourists.

Ameneh, a woman wearing traditional clothing in the Khaje-Ata area in Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan Province. She's smoking 'Lengeyi' hookah and selling gasoline. Some people from poorer neighbourhoods try to sell local foods and handicrafts on busy streets, usually close to where they live.

Sanaz, a young Afro-Iranian mother, holding her sleeping child in Minab, Hormozgan Province.

Amir Ali, a kid in the Khaje-Ata area in Bandar Abbas, Hormozgan Province.