Shape-Shifting Flickers of Love
سوسوهای تغییر شکل‌دهنده‌ی عشق
رمش الحب المتغير الشكل

In image culture of the Qajar Era in Iran (1789-1925), beauty ideals were not gendered but rather defined as a set of attributes; a coquettish moon-faced figure with crescent eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes, and rosy cheeks. The Abrahamic prophet Yusuf embodied this standard of beauty and is believed to be one of the reasons why the ideal spread widely. On a grand mosaic painting in the Takieh Moaven ol-Molk mosque in Kermanshah, Iran, Yusuf looks identical to the female characters in the scene, who ultimately cut themselves with fruit knives when struck by his beauty.

Europeans hated such beauty ideals and understandings of gender, which they wrote down in their travelogues and journals. As imperialist relations between Europe and Iran increased, these standards became binary. The male object of desire was rejected and replaced by the female one. Depictions of same-sex couples were replaced with opposite-sex ones. Yet, there is a trick! In post-western intrusion paintings, the woman gazes at the viewer while the man looks at her. It seems that the woman is inviting the viewer to desire her but the man, who is shyly posing, embodies the very same beauty standards as the woman, thus allowing an outsider’s gaze to desire him. This way, the viewer can be aroused by both figures in the painting. At first glance, the images appear to depict heterosexual courtship; however, closer examination reveals a potential homoerotic desire between the viewer and the figures in the painting.

In, Shape-Shifting Flickers of Love, we have written three stories about how these ideals of beauty live on, and how they manifest in choreographies of the gaze when battling with punishable desires. They are accompanied by paintings from both the Hermitage Museum Collection, and the Women’s World in Qajar Iran at Harvard University Libraries – a digital archive focusing on portraiture of Qajari women. We also display photographs from the Fahime Zeidan, Photo Caron, and Studio Chargh Collections, archived at the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, Lebanon. These three collections are from the 1940s-80s and hold unique sets of hand-colored photographic objects from Kuwait, Lebanon, and Iran.

Nour Helou and Afrang Nordlöf Malekian
Graphic design: Agga Stage