Bronx Museum of The Arts Offers Rare Glimpse into Lives of Iranian Women

Photos of Iranian women–some posing, others in the shadows–at first look out of place on the walls of the Bronx Museum of the Arts community gallery, a space reserved for exhibits by native Bronx artists.

A driver poses in her bright green “woman taxi.”  On the opposite wall, a sea of women in black burqas are carrying large posters of male political leaders. Down the stairs, a collage of photographs surrounds a monochrome portrait of two girls giggling. 

A collage of photographs in the museum’s “Women Only” exhibit by Randy Goodman, one of the first American female journalists to visit Iran during the 1980s hostage crisis.

The myth-challenging range of emotions of the Iranian women’s images are not the only jarring aspect of the exhibit.  To find an Iranian photo series in the Bronx can itself be unexpected.

For Randy Goodman, the political sociologist and photojournalist who took these images, it was emotional to bring the exhibit to the Bronx, to the very Grand Concourse neighborhood where she was born and where she spent her earliest years.

“It is by photographs that I go back to the Bronx,” said Goodman. She lost her mother three years ago and said that when she stood in the gallery and looked outside to the Grand Concourse, she remembered the stories her mother used to tell her. It was as if her mother was looking down on her.

The women inside the matte paper photographs, are also separated by time. They represent a collection from different trips that Goodman made to Iran, first in the 1980, again in 1983, and finally 35 years later in 2015, after the Obama-era nuclear deal was signed with Iran.

“I wanted to see what had changed and what had stayed the same,” said Goodman, 63. The exhibit runs from June 6 to September 23.

A few steps away from the Iranian photographs are contemporary art displays by Syrian artist Diana Al-Hadid. Her work provides a middle-eastern complement to Goodman’s, said Silvia Benedetti, a curator at the museum.

She added that some museum visitors have been Iranian. “I am from Venezuela,” she said, “so we talked about the parallelism between the dictatorship in my country and the government of Iran.”  

The exhibit, its first showing beyond academic spaces in an art museum, spans two levels. Down the stairs and past a pillar is a set of three striking photographs. These are not of Iranian women, but of Goodman’s visas.

In the first one she has thick black hair down to her shoulders. In the second, she wears a hijab. In the third, she is in a printed head-scarf. A puff of grey hair, now short, slips out.

“She was showing a country that was hard to know, because of all the politics,” Benedetti said about the tradition of tension between the U.S. and Iran.

The two countries have not maintained diplomatic relations since the 1980s and the tension is strong even today. Between May and July of 2018,  President Donald Trump threatened to re-impose economic sanctions on Iran, and a hostile exchange followed with Iran’s leader Hassan Rouhani. 

Goodman doesn’t fully understand why she was allowed entry recently, when it is still very hard for other American journalists. 

But the photojournalist hopes that the exhibit will be meaningful for immigrant families and others who practice Islam in the Bronx.

“I didn’t know about the museum until I was in college,” said Ayesha Akhtar,  a Bangladeshi Muslim, who grew up in the Bronx. She now works as the community outreach and marketing associate for the museum and is trying to engage the local people.

As a Muslim woman, Akhtar said she felt gratitude for such a rare and important exhibit. She said that she met with Dominican and Bengali muslims from Morris Park who had specifically come to see the photographs.

Of the different middle-eastern exhibits that the museum has recently hosted,  Goodman’s project stands out. “It is not interpretations or abstract paintings, but documented photographs,” Benedetti said.

“It is the real window.”


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