Interview with Maryam Athari | AMCA | Association for Modern + Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran + Turkey

Interview with Maryam Athari

1. What led you to study the work of Rifat Chadirji?

Maryam Athari

In the summer of 2018, my PhD cohort traveled to Beirut to fulfill the summer research component of our program, an intensive two-week research trip to Lebanon. I could not travel with them. Due to the Trump administration’s travel ban, being an Iranian, I was unable to leave the US as it was more than likely that the US wouldn’t allow me to come back: the actual fate of many other Iranian PhD students who were stranded during the four years of the travel ban. Even though I could not travel to Beirut, I still had to fulfill the summer research requirement. My department was supportive, and my advisor, Hannah Feldman, suggested a brilliant alternative plan: Working on the Rifat and Kamil Chadirji archive which had been relocated from the Arab Image Foundation (AIF) in Beirut to the MIT Aga Khan Documentation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My first encounter with the collection was that of intimidation and awe at the large scale of materials ranging from binders, negatives, contact sheets, prints, ephemera, to mention a few, all related to Rifat Chadirji’s practice and his professional interests. To navigate my way through the archive I started with what attracted my attention most, the binders of printed black and white photographs labeled by Rifat Chadirji with handwritten categories such as “research,” “skills,” “shopping,” “production,” “entertainment.” These binders holding the photographs of everyday activities of Iraqi people that Chadirji took in the 1960s through early 1980s were brimming with life! It seemed to me that I found among these images what was lacking in my work until then. Whereas my research hitherto was mostly focused on the macrolevel critical analysis of the dynamics of selection, circulation and representation of art works from the Middle East in the institutions outside of the region, what I encountered through Chadirji’s collection was an intact ensemble of images, each packed with a plenitude of on-the-ground everyday experiences. I distinctly remember one of the first photographs that fascinated me was from the “Shopping” series, and it depicted the interior space of a tobacco store. In the center of the frame stood a middle-aged shopkeeper. The ceiling light, the only light source of the picture, singled him out from the darker setting. The walls around him were covered with finely carved dark wood cabinets, while he calmly and confidently stared at the camera with his glowing presence in this tenebristic photograph. The unguarded, friendly and proud pose of the man directly looking at the camera was captivating. When looking at these images, the most urgent question for me was to find out Chadirji’s underlying logic of grouping the photographs, the archive’s system of visibility so to speak. Working on Chadiriji’s photographs was really fulfilling as it brought together two main aspects of my research interest: photography and theories of space. 

Even though the travel ban aimed to impede the mobility and scholarly growth of people like me, I am so grateful to my advisor, Chadirji’s exceptional archive, and AMCA’s recognition of this paper, which turned this obstacle into a platform for me to further expand my knowledge and more firmly situate my work within the field. In addition, the fact that Rhonda A. Saad, like me, pursued her PhD in the art history department at Northwestern and was also Hannah’s advisee, makes this award even more meaningful to me. 

2. Chadirji’s collection of about 90,000 images of people and public spaces in Iraq remains intact and has been housed in several locations. This is quite rare in our field, where archival records are often scattered and incomplete. Can you tell us more about the history of this archive? What are some of the rewards and challenges of working through this collection?

Rifat Chadirji’s collection also contains photographs by his father, Kamil Chadirji (1897-1968). Kamil Chadirji’s picturesque photography is different in style from that of his son, and therefore adds another historical layer or even a precedent to Rifat Chadirji’s vernacular images. The archive was first housed at the Rifat Chadirji Foundation, a collection of diverse materials assembled and administered by Chadirji himself, which has remained intact while travelling between the architect’s different office locations and later, different home institutions. From the Chadirji Foundation the archive was then housed on a long-term loan at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. In 2016 it was relocated to the Aga Khan Documentation Center (AKCD) at MIT. The format and the thematic arrangement of this collection has remained unchanged.

When approaching Chadirji’s archive, we can distinguish between different modes of circulation that it has undergone. One is the internal circulation and organization of print images, contact sheets, folders, to mention a few, that has remained intact; the other is the circulation of the archive between different sites, institutions, and continents; and finally, there is the ongoing digitization of the collection that has created another mode of visibility and circulation of the collection’s content. Each of these modes of circulation, accumulation, and exchange has added a new layer to the archive that should be investigated. My focus was on the first aspect: for me the observation of the traces of how the archive and the images actively worked for Chadirji himself was one of the most rewarding dimensions of working on the printed photographs and binders. Different brightly colored circular tags on the folders’ sleeves, or notes and labels on the verso of the photographs, the missing prints and sheets in the binders, and the thematic labels on each folder speak for ways in which Chadirji configured and reshuffled the internal organization of his archive. He used these photographs either to illustrate his own books or to support his arguments in his design theory and practice. 

The challenge is of course the archive’s immensity. As I corresponded with Clémence Cottard, the head of collections at AIF, she judiciously mentioned several dissertations could be written on this archive. The incredible catalogue that AIF published on Chadirji’s archive, Rifat Chadirji: Building Index (2018) contained only reproductions of the contact sheets and photographs of Chadirji’s architecture projects, and we are talking about a 400-page catalogue. In order to navigate my way through the archive I ended up making a mini archive of my own. I did not work on the images of Chadirji’s architecture and design. Instead, I focused on his photographs of everyday life. When I was working through the binders of printed photographs, even the sequence of the images in each folder was intriguing to me. I took pictures of the photographs in the binders’ sleeves and wrote down a visual analysis of each and my understanding of why the images would correspond to the category assigned to them. Although I was closely following Chadirji’s own logic of organization, I inevitably had to intervene and create a new mode of circulation for the images in order to approach them.

3. Your research recovers significant connections between Chadirji’s photographic and architectural practice. How did you approach your analysis of this relationship?

Rifat Chadirji’s archive consisted of two main types of photographs. One comprised the photographs of his architectural projects, and the other, the images of people and everyday life. My focus was on the latter. I initially approached his photographs of daily Iraqi life from a pretty conventional angle. Because a large number of the photographs in Chadirji’s collection documented his architectural projects–namely, frontal elevations and interiors of his buildings– I used the architectural lens as a starting point to make sense of his photographs of everyday life. I first relied on the preservationist perspective, a vein of photography that articulates the interwoven histories of architectural preservation and photography. Practiced from the 19th century onwards, preservationist photography attempted to capture old neighborhoods and buildings before their destruction during intense periods of urban renewals and social transformations. The preservationist approach, as far as my research revealed, was dominated by a dualistic understanding of the relationship between the built environment and people to the point that peopleless images would constitute a major trope of such practices. In this dualistic understanding, people and the spatial structure were configured as separate entities. 

But what stood out to me in Chadirji’s images of everyday life was the intense interaction between people and their surrounding built environment. Nevertheless, I was still stuck with the preservationist approach, interpreting the images as a lament and an anxious gesture that aimed to capture the vanishing fabric of traditional Iraqi life and everyday professions in the face of the processes of modernization.  Until one day in January 2019, while strolling in the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw Naeem Mohaiemen’s Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017). Focusing mostly on the mid 1950s through the 1970s, Mohaiemen’s three channel film installation recounted the story of an ambition: the ambition to unify the post-colonial space of the global south against bipolar perception of the Cold-War world. Mohaeimen used abandoned monumental architecture as one of his key metaphors to decipher this moment and its lost legacy– the faith in the unified space of future, the faith to create a better future. The film deeply impacted my understanding of Chadirji’s project. Chadirji, too, belonged to a generation of cultural arbiters who aimed to transform and reconfigure the order of the world. But that generation’s undertaking, as the film depicted, was not simply a reaction, it was more of an active remedial response tied to a sense of care. Thus, the film, even though on a subject entirely different from Chadirji’s photographs, allowed me to shift my frame of reference from reaction to responsiveness. Responsiveness allows for articulating a co-constitutive relationship among agents. Revisiting the images through this lens of responsibility and responsiveness, while engaging with Chadirji’s writings on architecture, I could better see that the photographs were not supposed to produce reified images of bygone spatial configurations and everyday practices.

Instead, as I came to understand, the photographs depicted the interface between people, the built environment and the architect himself. They recounted the way these agents participated in the production of those photographs alongside the production of space. As a result, the diagnostic dimension of Chadirji’s images became more evident to me. One needs to first identify the nature of a phenomenon, distinguish its signs, and anticipate its future course to find the right treatment. Important here is to note that people and traditional spaces of life were not carrying the symptoms of an illness, but the contemporaneous Iraqi architecture was. Chadirji actively returned to the people and their everyday spatial practices for a remedy and critique to modern Iraqi architecture. These photographs depict how people take possession of the space.

4. Tell us about your methodologies, and how you situate your work within the field of modern and contemporary Arab art?

Responding to the question of methodology is easier than situating my work within the field. I try to integrate the two in my response. Writing about Chadirji’s photographs of everyday life could be tricky. We are dealing with an archive that is governed with a clear set of decisions excluding those spaces of everyday life that are not associated with traditional modes of production; we don’t see pictures of factories and assembly lines for instance. One could fall into the trap of interpreting the images through the quasi-critical lens of the self-colonizing gaze of a privileged technocrat directing his objectifying camera from the upper echelons of society towards the bottom. This kind of interpretation actually obfuscates the agency of Iraqi people and would foreclose any chance for the discussion of the relationship between the architect and the people that was so central in Chadirji’s thinking and writing. As I mentioned earlier the preservationist perspective was also another possibility that I moved past. At the heart of both the preservationist and the aforementioned approach lies a kind of Cartesian division that makes a sharp distinction between the observer and the observed, and by extension between the so-called traditional modes of being and the modern ones. 

What Chadirji’s photographs reveal is quite the opposite: he offers a relational field of active negotiations between different agents. This relational field contains the relative map of social interactions between the architect and the people, and it does acknowledge differences in social placement but is not limited to that. In fact, these differences are to be bridged and reconciled through establishing a rapport between the architect and the people, which, as I tried to argue, was the raison d’être of his photographic practice. For me, the two mediums of space and photography that Chadirji worked with encompassed this relational site between people, the architect, and space. In fact, both photography and space are mediums that index the presence of not only the people and the built environment, but also the photographer and the architect. Additionally, space and photography comprise plenitude, and this is precisely what Chadirji took advantage of in his images of Iraqi people’s spatial practices. For example, his tilted frames do not communicate an intention to control the pro-filmic event; they rather aimed to capture as much of the unfolding plenitude in front of the camera as they possibly could. The contingency of what came to be captured through Chadirji’s frame corroborates the diagnostic dimension of his practice. As such for me, visual analysis of photographs and close study of the photographic event became pivotal in approaching Chadirji’s project. 

Simultaneously, Chadirji’s own writing about the philosophy and teaching of architecture were critical in my understanding of his images. Parallel to these, I used theories of space, and above all Henri Lefebvre’s triad of perceived, conceived and lived space, to unpack the relationship between Chadirji’s work as an architect and urban planner, and his photographs of daily life, without establishing a top to bottom, hierarchical relationship. I understood Chadirji’s photographs as the lived spaces of the encounter between the architect and the people, which allowed Chadirji’s conceptions of space in his design and urban planning to meet the practical test of the material arena of everyday life, or the perceived space. Moreover, these lived spaces are configured by bodies and the way they appropriate their surrounding places to make it work for them. To better grasp the terms of the encounter between Chadirji and people, I turned to social art history and illuminating readings on Iraq’s modern history and urban planning.

Here is perhaps a good place to situate my research on Chadirji’s archive within the field of modern and contemporary Arab art. Working on Chadirji inevitably demands a multi-scalar analysis that is embedded in the region and Arab culture, while simultaneously moving beyond it. Rifat Chadirji is an architect and theorist who questions the mechanistic and widespread international cliches of Modernism, while rejecting conventional building technologies and fragmented ‘quotations’ from Iraqi traditional architecture. I think any research involving Chadirji would inevitably bring together the place-bound and the worldly dimension of modern art theory and practice. Chadirji’s work bends the crude dichotomy between modern and traditional, local and global, observer and the observed, and between people and the architect. His practice generates epistemologies for better understanding Iraqi modern art, culture and social thought that is not developed in isolation from the broader world-space negotiations. Similar to a number of his fellow Iraqi, Lebanese, and Egyptian artists and literary figures of that time, Chadirji aimed to conceive a framework capable of articulating not only the particular but also the broader human experience. In his writings, he emphasized the relationship between human social needs and the corresponding technology and knowledge that would fulfill those needs. Chadirji foregrounded the place of everyday experience in the production of architectural knowledge and artifacts, while simultaneously mobilizing conventions and technologies embedded in Iraqi tradition as well as modern traditions of design and building. While I think the epistemologies that Chadirji configured in his work constitute an important contribution to the unique discourse of Arab modern art and architecture, I think his work enhances the broader discourse of global modernisms. I hope my paper on Chadirji, too, could be as much embedded in the unique history of Arab modern art as is in the broader context of modernisms

5. How does your research build on or differ from other studies of modern and contemporary photography in Iraq or elsewhere?

As I approached Chadirji’s photographs, the first step was to better see the images and comprehend the photographic event. In doing so, I had to draw on numerous studies on photography. For instance, Christopher Pinney’s writing on photography and print materials in India were revelatory and helped me rethink the pro-filmic event in Chadirji’s images and the agency of people who populated them. Likewise, I benefited from Elizabeth Edwards and Deborah Poole’s critical analysis of anthropological and colonial archives to appreciate Chadirji’s deliberate inclusion of plenitude in his frames while photographing Iraqi practices of everyday life. Additionally, Ariella Azullay’s writing helped to shift my attention from the photograph as a record of an event to the event of photography as a field of encounters between different protagonists. This understanding aligned with the writings of Chadirji and the pivotal relationship between the architect and the people in his work.

The second step for me was to contextualize Chadirji’s practice. In order to make sense of Chadirji’s vernacular photography, I situated his collection in relation to two types of contemporaneous photographic practices, each of which also documented the everyday, albeit through disparate lenses. The first one I called “the beautification mode,” through which I suggested the genre of representation practiced by several Iraqi photographers, primarily by Latif Al Ani, the father of Iraqi photography. In his photographs of everyday life Al Ani revered and beautified the depicted subject through specific aesthetic and thematic choices. The other type constituted the vernacular photographic projects undertaken by a number of European-trained architects, above all by CIAM architects (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), which focused on the daily life of ordinary people. I argued that Chadirji’s photographs were “diagnostic,” and therefore different from these other projects. I contended that such diagnoses were formed by the interdependent relationship that Chadirji defined with his photographic subjects (the people), and the specific spaces of social life and social production that he chose to depict.

6. How has this project developed over the last few months? Can you tell us more about your current research?

In the past few months my focus has been on the studies of vernacular photography, and also materiality and circulation of images. I dwelled more on writings about photography in ethnography and anthropology to better map out the contours of Chadirji’s project in comparison to such practices. Moreover, I have been thinking about the co-constitutive relationship between the local and global models of spatial configuration as Chadirji aimed to conceive them. Thinking more about Chadirji’s collection, I have been constantly reminding myself that both mediums that he worked with also brought together a generative tension between the fixed and the multi-scalar: space and photography are mediums that cannot be approached in isolation. The lens-based medium’s circulation is facilitated by its reproducibility and its flow through digitized pixels or material prints and negatives. Likewise, space constitutes simultaneously any single unit or any aggregation of bodies, objects, cities, regions, and the globe. 

In my current research on modern art in Iran from the 1950s to the 1970s, I investigate the same dynamic: the dialectic of the local and the global. There are many similarities between the creative practice of Chadirji and the Iranian artists that I examine. It always fascinates me how artists from the region, against the high modernist proclamation of distinction between mediums, simultaneously practiced different mediums, and how their multi-media practices constitute their actual oeuvre.