Diving for Pearls: Robert Adanto’s Film

Pearls on the Ocean Floor, directed by Robert Adanto in 2010, profiles female artists who identify with an Iranian background to discuss their work.  The 16 artists explore the fluid confluence of identity, religion, and political expression for Iranian women as they strive to present it in their art.  The film is currently making its way in screenings across the world.

Adanto features the artists’ works—who work in a variety of mediums—throughout the film, interspersing images of their art with interviews.  You can see a list of all of the artists featured in the film, along with links to their personal websites where you can see some of their work, at the film’s website.

One of the themes that ran through the film was how societies and mainstream media focus on presenting Iranian women following the Iranian revolution using the singular image of women enshrouded in black chadors—silent and submissive to the political and religious changes that took place with the nuanced reality of Iranian women’s lives entirely ignored.  This imagery (which is familiar to all Muslim women, even those who are not Iranian) contributes to the perpetuation of a single, unrepresentative version of practicing Muslim women.  The women of the film (many of whom focus on featuring women in their own artwork) use their art as a way to combat this false identity with an Iranian perspective.

Shadi Ghadirian

"Untitled," from Qajar series. 1998. Image via the LACMA Collection.

Some of my favorite art featured in the film were black and white photographs by Shadi Ghadirian, from the Qajar series.  Ghadirian presents portraits of Iranian women that are at once both familiar and unexpected.  All of the women wear hijab and are shown in various sitting and standing positions typical of Qajar era (1794 to 1925) art; many of them are posed with modern objects (like the portrait pictured left).

Adanto also features artist and film director Shirin Neshat in his film.  I reviewed her film Women Without Men for Muslimah Media Watch in November.

During times of stark political and religious change in countries, Muslim women are often ignored, marginalized, and silenced not only by media covering the transition, but also by their fellow compatriot male leaders.  Art as a form of political expression among women artists seems especially rare.  There was one statement by an artist that remained with me long after I’d finished the film, as she describes the challenges of forging and presenting her own intricate identity in her work—“I could not express myself through language.”

While I enjoyed the unique perspectives each artist shared, I would have liked to spend more time hearing from each woman.  A 77-minute film simply wasn’t enough time to spend with 16 artists exploring and discussing their own complex identities! The women of the Pearls on the Ocean Floor use the process and creation of their beautiful, inspiring art to explore and transcend the singular identity forced upon them by society.


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