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In the Studio: Mandana Ranjbarcheshmehsorkhi

Mandana Ranjbar is an Iranian Houston-based conceptual artist whose feminist practice is mainly expressed through the medium of photography. Evoking strong emotional responses, she uses different props as metaphors to talk about women’s and feminist issues.

Eliciting a visceral response, her ‘Captivity’ series presented at the MFA exhibition deals with women’s rights and struggles. The artist explains how “Captivity refers to ways in which women unconsciously self-destruct to free themselves from all kinds of social and psychological pressures and worries. They often do this to relieve pressure on social relations and establish a more harmonious relationship with society.”

The result of this, according to Mandana, is that taking these actions may be the only way to deal with political or religious issues or unequal gender power dynamics. She asserts that attempting to free themselves from this reality “often has the opposite effect in destroying a person’s relationships with the community and surroundings over time. Eventually, allowing themselves to be chained ends any connection with the world around them while creating its own mental conflict.”

One of the issues that stands in the way of change is, according to Mandana, how for many women, “this is their reality, though they are often completely unaware of this bondage”. Raising questions about this reality, she engages with these struggles by showing these women in severe oppression but showing that there is agency by making them hold the keys to freedom. In each of the presented pieces, the artist directly has a message for the audience. In nine different ways, the photographs are created by stage photography very directly show the kind of oppression Mandana wants to address. The works draw distinctions to how women throughout the world often struggle after marriage as it’s difficult to follow their desire and dreams. The female subject in each photograph endures something very oppressive, and there is a recurring red stitch or attribute to communicate the violence of it all. It’s all set against a dark bluish backdrop, which she uses to make the red more bold.

The captivity series in Mandana Ranjbar’s studio.

Although the subject matter is dark and the violence is tangible in each piece, she tries to be positive, she ensures. This is reflected in how in most of these artworks, the final agency lies with the depicted subject. In CAPTIVITY 2, featured below, for example, you see a woman standing, holding a red cage over her head. In the cage, there is also a captivated red bird. Outside of the cage, she’s holding a white origami bird, which according to the artist, refers to freedom. In this piece, Mandana sets forth that there is final agency because the possibility of freedom is held in her own hands.

Mandana Ranjbar, CAPTIVITY 2, 2022, 16*24, Digital Photo.

In a similar way, in CAPTIVITY 9, the female subject is shackled and sitting in an uncomfortable crouched position. She is, however, holding the key to the lock in her hand. Again, showing in this way, there is a way to end the oppressed situation to some extent.

Mandana Ranjbar, CAPTIVITY 9, 2022, 16*24, Digital Photo.

In these poignant images, Mandana sheds light on the restricted reality of many women worldwide. But by giving the subject the ability to create her own freedom, she shows that there is still a chance to change things around.

-Maribelle Bierens

Maribelle Bierens is a London-based curator and founder of online platform where's the frame?. This post is part of a series in a collaborative project with the 2023 UH MFA Exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art.


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