Shirin Mohammad: Portrait of an Artist Between Berlin & Tehran

15 September, 2022
Shirin Moham­mad pho­tographed Nazanin Ahari (cour­tesy Shirin Mohammad).



Noushin Afzali


When I was asked to do this month’s artist por­trait, my mind wan­dered through all the artists I know who live in Berlin. As one of the cen­ters of the art world, Berlin brims with cre­ative ener­gy. After much con­tem­pla­tion, I was con­vinced that Shirin Moham­mad is the per­fect fit. A young artist whose prac­tice inter­twines doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion, Mohammad’s sharp eyes inves­ti­gate Iran’s past and present. She then show­cas­es these “unprece­dent­ed con­stel­la­tions of his­tor­i­cal events” in pow­er­ful images.

Shirin Mohammad’s mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tice encom­pass­es archival research, film­mak­ing, and instal­la­tion art. Born in 1992 in Tehran, Moham­mad earned her BA in Cin­e­ma from Sooreh Art Uni­ver­si­ty in her home­town in 2015. A year lat­er, she moved to Bre­men to pur­sue her aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies at the Hochschule für Kün­ste (Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts) in Fine Art. Moham­mad now divides her time between Berlin, Bre­men, and Tehran.

With a par­tic­u­lar focus on the socio-polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Iran, Moham­mad cre­ates her own archive by bring­ing togeth­er ele­ments of both doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion, scru­ti­niz­ing the remains of lost, ignored, and aban­doned nar­ra­tives. These nar­ra­tives, either found or fab­ri­cat­ed, are in turn an attempt to show how his­to­ry can be manip­u­lat­ed in dif­fer­ent ways. Hav­ing received her Diplo­ma in Fine Art from the Hochschule für Kün­ste in 2020, Moham­mad spent one year doing her Meis­ter­schule (equiv­a­lent to a Master’s degree) with Pro­fes­sor Natascha Sadr Haghigh­i­an — in Ger­many stu­dents who have com­plet­ed the reg­u­lar course of study with above-aver­age results can start a mas­ter class at Ger­man art or music colleges.


In 2018, Moham­mad was the recip­i­ent of the Mag­ic of Per­sia Con­tem­po­rary Art Prize. The award, which rec­og­nizes the tal­ent of emerg­ing Iran­ian artists, pro­vides them with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to gain inter­na­tion­al expo­sure. The prize led to Mohammad’s first solo exhi­bi­tion out­side of Iran: A house then, a muse­um now [sic]: Chap­ter one, Wind of 120 days (2019) at Saatchi Gallery in Lon­don. An ongo­ing project of Mohammad’s, A house then, a muse­um now research­es the his­to­ry of inter­nal exile in Iran[1].

Hav­ing moved to Berlin in the sec­ond lock­down in 2020, Moham­mad has found new oppor­tu­ni­ties for her artis­tic expres­sion in the bustling cap­i­tal. She is cur­rent­ly a par­tic­i­pant of Berlin Pro­gram for Artists (BPA), an artist-led orga­ni­za­tion cen­tered around mutu­al stu­dio-vis­its between par­tic­i­pants and men­tors. Her par­tic­i­pa­tion in BPA will result in a group exhi­bi­tion at KW Insti­tute for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Decem­ber 2022. Moham­mad is plan­ning on exhibit­ing A house then, a muse­um now: Chap­ter two for this occa­sion. A research on the his­to­ry of inter­nal exile as a pun­ish­ment for polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, the exhi­bi­tion will bring togeth­er hybrid dia­grams, assem­blages of human and non-human, wind waves and sounds, and mul­ti-chan­nel videos. In this regard, Moham­mad rejects the term “activism” in describ­ing her prac­tice: “I see myself in between a reporter and an artist,” she says. To approach this top­ic, she oscil­lates between doc­u­men­tary and fiction.

What she most enjoys about her time at BPA is the chance to get to know the art scene in Berlin bet­ter, espe­cial­ly through stu­dio vis­its and the exchange between the par­tic­i­pants and the men­tors. “The res­i­den­cy has helped me in find­ing more inspi­ra­tion and has result­ed in build­ing a hor­i­zon­tal com­mu­ni­ty,” Moham­mad explains.

Since many of her projects are loca­tion-based, Moham­mad has cho­sen the nomadic lifestyle of mov­ing between a num­ber of cities. Based in Berlin since 2020 — where she has her stu­dio — Moham­mad returns to Tehran quite often for artis­tic col­lab­o­ra­tions and con­duct­ing research. She appre­ci­ates Berlin’s active art scene and its abun­dance of oppor­tu­ni­ties. How­ev­er, what she finds prob­lem­at­ic is the com­pet­i­tive men­tal­i­ty which man­i­fests itself in var­i­ous spheres of life. Anoth­er hur­dle she’s had to over­come is learn­ing to deal with “Ger­man bureau­cra­cy.” As an artist, on the one hand, she feels the need to per­fect and advance her prac­tice. On the oth­er, the process of famil­iar­iz­ing your­self with the Ger­man admin­is­tra­tion (tax, insur­ance, etc.) “as an out­sider” can be quite tax­ing and tedious. “You need to find the right strat­e­gy of how to sit­u­ate your­self in this utter­ly com­pet­i­tive world,” con­cludes Mohammad.

In 2021, Moham­mad won the Karin Holl­weg Prize for the instal­la­tion “In the Midst of a Ford.” The instal­la­tion, which con­sists of trans­par­ent bro­ken glass stick­ers, milk, fake blood, and LED pan­el among oth­er things, was about Iran­ian farm­ers’ protests against water short­ages, pow­er out­age, and the high infla­tion rate in the spring of 2021. The instal­la­tion accen­tu­at­ed the socio-polit­i­cal rel­e­vance of a glob­al envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis and ques­tions of respon­si­bil­i­ty. The prize has award­ed Moham­mad with her first solo exhi­bi­tion in Ger­many which will open on the 17th of March, 2023, at Kün­stler­haus Bre­men. The exhi­bi­tion, a sculp­tur­al mul­ti­me­dia instal­la­tion, is an archival research on cer­tain his­tor­i­cal rup­tures in the polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Iran from 1946 to the present and will explore the influ­ence of lin­guis­tic expres­sion on polit­i­cal discourse.

“The fatal tem­po­ral­i­ties of things” is the phrase Moham­mad uses in explain­ing her rela­tion­ship to Tehran and Berlin. “Shap­ing your prac­tice in between geo­gra­phies and in dif­fer­ent con­texts is like being in a remote bus sta­tion. No bus comes and goes and you are unsure where to go. Your prac­tice is shaped as if you are con­stant­ly car­ry­ing tem­po­ral­i­ties,” she elaborates.

Her prac­tice has enabled Moham­mad to under­stand the social and polit­i­cal his­to­ry of her coun­try on a deep­er lev­el. One of the chal­lenges of mov­ing to Ger­many for Moham­mad, both per­son­al­ly and artis­ti­cal­ly, has been how to sit­u­ate her­self in this new envi­ron­ment. “When you dis­place a per­son into anoth­er geog­ra­phy, it could be very chal­leng­ing to find your place in your new sur­round­ings and sit­u­ate your­self,” explains Moham­mad. She means this both in terms of human phys­i­cal­i­ty and the body of her work. Play­ing with this “dis­place­ment” has become the core of her prac­tice now. Anoth­er chal­lenge Moham­mad has been con­front­ed with is how to keep the con­nec­tion with the real­i­ty of life in Tehran. The nature of her prac­tice requires her to be in close con­tact with what is hap­pen­ing in Iran on a dai­ly basis. Tehran, a metrop­o­lis of fast-paced trans­for­ma­tions, makes keep­ing the con­nec­tion more demanding.

Our sto­ries over­lap. I’m also a Tehrani who calls Berlin “home” now. Lis­ten­ing to Shirin talk about her artis­tic jour­ney through these cities as I’m sit­ting at my work­space in Berlin and she is some four thou­sand kilo­me­ters away in Tehran (at the time of the inter­view, Shirin was work­ing on some projects in Tehran), I share her con­cerns about dis­place­ment and the need to con­stant­ly sit­u­ate yourself.


[1] Moham­mad Mossadegh — Iran’s first and last demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly-elect­ed prime min­is­ter — is per­haps the most famous exam­ple of inter­nal exile, as he spent the last many years of his life after his ouster at the hands of Mi6 and the CIA, in 1953, liv­ing under house arrest in his Ahmad­abad res­i­dence, where he was buried upon his death in 1967. Ed.


Berlininternal exileIranIranian artistsTehran

Noushin Afzali is a writer, editor and independent curator based in Berlin. Her research focuses on contemporary art and culture, feminist and gender studies, and postcolonial studies. She has a BA in English Studies from Allameh Tabataba’i University in Tehran and a Master's in English Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Freiburg.


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