Sadaf Ahmadi

Statement from LMDC after our resident artist Sadaf Ahmadi's recent work was censored in Sweden.

Basil G-Galloway

I first met Sadaf Ahmadi in Germany 15 years ago. She had worked on a documentary about women’s soccer and women’s rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran and I had written the first press about it while I was living there. We met again on another project in Germany by the same director the following year. It became very clear to me that this was someone to keep an eye on in whatever she did, regardless of medium.

We kept in touch and I had followed her work, and we reconnected by chance in late 2022, shortly after the death of Mahsa Amini and the beginning of the current uprisings in Iran. She had emigrated to Sweden two years before and expressed frustration at her inability to help and at the violence and repression that was taking place. Without hesitation I invited her to the artist residency program at La Maison des Chapitres, and she already had a project ready to create. This became her first exhibit, ‘Concrete’, which I showed at La Maison des Chapitres and which went on to international acclaim and a major show in Paris, as well as a future show at Kultushuset in Boras, Sweden, her new home town. During this exhibit she also teased her next idea, displaying one concrete statue of a women in a chadoor. Sadaf returned for another residency in July of 2023 and further developed the concept of what would come to be called ‘Settings’, a room full of hanging, concreted figures in chadors. They were ghostly, almost just a wisp of air. Visually, it took my breath away, and conceptually it connected deeply with everyone who saw it. I realised I was seeing a light speed evolution of her work- her first two shows in one year, and ‘Setting’ was just as well received. It was also very widely written about, and was incorporated into the upcoming show in her new Swedish hometown.

I can’t say strongly enough how proud I was to work with and support Sadaf and her poignant, personal work. It’s devastating simplicity, the theatricality of it, the minimalism, the power- I knew that something special was being made and the international reaction validated all of her effort and my faith. Fast forward to late summer and the current political environment in Sweden deteriorated, now characterised by unrest around Quran burnings and anti-immigrant sentiment. And things changed in Boras. Suddenly, ’Setting’ was too controversial to be shown in a public forum. The work, already commissioned and programmed, was canceled due to security concerns. The fear, according to the administration of Kulturhuset in Boras, was that this work would be seen as anti-islamic and inflame an already tense situation in Sweden between the muslim community and the rest of Sweden. If you actually see and understand Sadaf’s work, you understand that it is deeply personal, that it is about her experiences growing up and living under the rules of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a criticism of an autocratic regime and the politicisation of Islam in her home country. It’s about what it’s like to grow up, live, and work as a woman there.

In my view the role of art in society is to express and to question, to reframe ideas through different lenses and in different ways through various media. To harness an artist’s creative power to express something – be it an idea, a feeling, a concept – in a novel way. The function of security, where it might unfortunately be necessary, is to protect freedoms, including that of artistic expression. It’s shocking to me that a liberal democracy that values the role of free speech so highly would consider that security concerns arising from a misreading of an exhibit critical of tyranny and oppression would constitute grounds to censor it in the public square. It comes as even more of a shock that the work would be commissioned and scheduled, and then abruptly withdrawn. As a curator, it’s hard to fathom that you would consider the opinions of people who won’t even try to understand the work when you decide whether or not to show it. As Sadaf has said, this is reminiscent more of what one would expect in Iran than in Sweden.

As much of a shock and a disappointment as this has been for Sadaf, it is with a sense of both vindication and gratitude that we have received a wave of support and offers for new venues to showcase this important and viscerally touching work, as well as a huge new swell of press coverage around this topic which is both deeply personal to her and relevant to the freedom of so many other people today. It continues to be with great pride that I support Sadaf Ahmadi, her work, and the freedom to show work critical of power and in support of human rights.