Iranian culture has throughout the centuries experienced influences from various cultures and people. One of the, surprisingly, widely unknown of these influences come from the relatively unseen minority of Afro-Iranians; descendants of slaves and traders brought over to Iran during the 16th century via the Portuguese who ruled the southern islands, and during the 19th century via the slave trade through the Indian Ocean. Slavery in Iran was common during the Qajar dynasty and wasn’t fully abolished until 1928, during the reign of Reza Shah, through an antislavery bill passed by the Iranian government that demanded immediate emancipation of all slaves throughout the country. This began a new era of Afro-Iranian influence, as the formerly enslaved Africans began settling down in the areas they were brought to and building their own communities and forming their own cultures.
Little documentation of Afro-Iranians and their history has been made through the years, and their existence has passed by among Iranians without much notice. Fortunately, one person aiming to change that is Mahdi Ehsaei, a graphic designer born and raised in Germany. He’s a former student of Communication Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt, Germany. “The affection I developed towards graphic design and photography has been an ongoing thing throughout my life. I was always attracted to the intimacy of capturing experiences and moments in drawings or photographs. Drawing is something I’ve done since childhood. I wanted to recreate characters and objects I saw in cartoons.” Nowadays, his main inspirations and subjects for his art are people, emotions and places.
Growing up with Iranian parents in Germany provided him with a bicultural environment heavily influenced by Persian culture and tradition in the context of a western society. “It was through the complexities of my dual heritage that the foundation for my ever-growing interest in Iran developed. I have a special connection to Iran, which has constantly been my second homeland, but never my home like Germany.” The aspect of his dual heritage is what lead him to eventually begin to actively explore and experience the different facets of Iran, capturing them and sharing them with the world.
The journey of his Afro-Iran photographic series began at a football match in Shiraz in the summer of 2010. “The opposing team came from Hormozgan, whose fan-guide was a dark-skinned Iranian who cheered the players in, for me, a new way. I was appealed by the way the opposite fans joyfully and rhythmically chanted for their team. Ever the documentarian, I decided to capture this moment on video.” From there, it quickly escalated. He began researching the history of Africans in Iran, as well as learning about the experiences of the people, and immersed himself in a rich and fascinating portrait of Iranian culture. “All this made me so interested that I finally decided to make it to the topic of my final thesis, while inspired by a man named Antoin Sevruguin who lived 1830-1933. He was one of the first photographers in Iran of Russian descent, and the first photographer who documented the many demographic and ethnic groups in the country. Even after more than 100 years his work is still very valuable for ethnographers.“
The photographic series Afro-Iran shows a side of Iran which is widely unknown even to Iranians” he explains, “a minority of people who influenced the culture of a whole region by continuing their African heritage with their clothing style, their music, their dance and their oral traditions and rituals. I deliberately wanted to portray faces of people who usually aren’t associated with Iran, who barely get a chance to speak or play a role in the current representation of the Iranian history. My intention is to give the society an understanding of the hidden face of the country. Afro-Iran deals with the human being, her environment and the landscape in which she lives in.”
His documentation began in Hormozgan province in the Persian Gulf, where the vast majority of the former African slaves settled down after their emancipation and which is now the home to the large community of Afro-Iranians. “Before I started my research, I had never thought that the history of Afro-Iranian people would stretch back hundreds of years. I wasn’t the only one. Many Iranians I spoke to didn’t even know that black Iranians have lived in the country for centuries. It was very difficult for me to find any books or information about this community. There was hardly any visual documentation existing.”
“As I continued my research, I realized that this was an injustice. The history behind these people is so profound that it demands a global platform, it must be seen. I was determined to use my knowledge to open up the world’s eyes to the community of black Iranians. In the first weeks of being in Hormozgan I was planning my journey and slowly getting to know the living structures of the places. During my first days there, I was very cautious with how I approached people. The approach you have to European and Western subjects is different to people in Iran. Hence why I didn’t take any pictures in the beginning. I simply took the occasion to get to know the people and places better, by living everyday life in the community and letting my emotions guide me as I immersed myself into the, for me, unknown world of Southern Iran.”
In the two months he spent documenting the lives of Afro-Iranians he saw with great detail how African culture had influenced Southern Iranian culture through their way of dancing and music. “The well-known Iranian music style Bandari which has roots in African tribal music is an important part of the lives of the people of the Persian Gulf region. It is very rhythmical and easy to dance to. The women also have interesting and different clothing styles. The Chador Bandari is a lightweight garment worn outside by women in the southern parts of Iran. It has very colorful patterns, mostly with flowers. You see a lot of that in the portraits of the Afro-Iran series.” These traditions have throughout the centuries been passed on and heavily practiced by the rest of the population in Southern Iran and are now an integral part of the culture. So on the question of whether or not Afro-Iranians feel like a part of Iran even though they haven’t widely been recognized as such, Mahdi has no doubt they do. “Aside from the color of their skin and their concentration in particular locations, they aren’t any different than other Iranians. They feel Iranian and feel uncomfortable being asked about their origins. Some of them know of their cultural background, some don’t.”
So why do Iranians know so little of such an influential group of people living within the confines of the same geographical borders? According to Mahdi, it’s due to a lack of information. “Unless you don’t go to the south of Iran you almost won’t see any black Iranians. This minority is more unrecognized in the north of Iran. A lot of Iranians encountering a black person think they’re just tourists or just business men from Africa or Saudi Arabia. Even the people in the south aren’t aware of the centuries-long history of the African diaspora of the Persian Gulf and the Afro-Iranians. Without anyone educating you about the Afro-Iranians you will never know.”
On a personal level, his trip to Hormozgan opened up a new formerly unknown world to him which he hadn’t yet encountered during his many visits to Iran. “There is still a lot of unknown gaps to fill with awareness and enlightenment in the rich and diverse culture of Iran. The African influence on the now lived Iranian culture in southern Iran is very interesting and noticeable. I found it remarkable and amazing how well an intercultural life with people of various ethnic backgrounds can work out so well. The feeling of “otherness” is no longer in keeping with the times.”
“The feedback I have received has been overwhelming, I had no idea that the project could become viral in such a short period of time. So many people in the last month have asked how they can buy the Afro-Iran book, and I have been receiving inquiries and demands from renowned media and institutions around the globe. ‘Afro-Iran’ has created so many opportunities for me.” He has also been asked to exhibit his photographic series in several countries, such as Italy and Nigeria where exhibitions are already planned for the end of the year. The huge interest in the project has attracted has showed him that a dialogue about Afro-Iranians is very neglected chapter of the African Diaspora and extremely essential in Iranian history. “Afro-Iranians are a part of Iran and it must be more present. It is not enough to just be aware of the topic. Nowadays, all Iranians should also be proud of this minority and accept the sad part of Iranian history regarding slavery.”
“The main and primary purpose of my work is awareness and education. I decided to work on that objective in order to shed a light on the often overlooked community in Iran’s history, which a lot people both inside and outside of Iran aren’t aware of. Nowadays the topic of Afro-Iranians still produces a contradiction in the minds of people that have a false picture about Iran and its people through mainstream media sources. Thus, this work gives the viewer a surprisingly new view, the image of a community that has influenced the lifestyle and culture of the society in southern Iran and which reflects the characteristic features of this region. Efforts to unlock the history and present realities of black people in Iran will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of this oft-neglected and forgotten minority.”