Men hugging in a bath house
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Unexpected but thought-provoking

Review: Laurence Watts, “Looking West” and Hoda Afshar, “Behold” ·
Perth Centre for Photography ·
Review by Phoebe Mulcahy ·

Though an Iranian bathhouse and regional Australian rodeo culture might be some of the last places you’d expect to see signs of shifting notions of gender and masculinity, both make for an interesting social study, as two new exhibitions at the Perth Centre for Photography reveal. In Laurence Watts’s “Looking West” and Hoda Afshar’s “Behold” we see two worlds that can be defined in large part by their insularity, and respective codes and rituals. Yet the self-contained customs that underpin these communities may not be as impervious as they appear. Taken together, the exhibitions offer a fascinating view of what might be at play behind the bounds of these two vastly different realms.

At first glance, the two exhibitions seem an improbable double-bill, with little in common in tone, subject matter or composition. But delving closer, it becomes clear that the separate collections of works play off each other at a number of levels.

 a cowboy holding a stuffed stag's head
‘Mansfield’ by Laurence Watts.

“Looking West”, Laurence Watts’s exploration of Australian rodeo subculture, is placed in the sunlit front portion of the gallery, heightening the works’ highly performative and forward-facing style. The cowboys square off the camera in their hyper-masculine costumes of Stetsons, chaps and heeled boots, resisting as best they can the pervasive signs of suburban domesticity that surround them. Positioned beside a large pink fitness ball or a neatly-arranged bedside scene however, their claim to the kind of rugged masculinity promised by the archetype of the cowboy is unconvincing.

By contrast, Hoda Afshar’s “Behold”, placed in the back gallery as one enters the space, is dimly lit and subdued, lending a reflective tone to these provocative depictions of same-sex relationships in a Middle Eastern bathhouse. In the same way as the Australian rodeo subculture sits apart from broader society, bathhouses can be seen as refuge-like sites that are distanced from the outside world and maintain implicit rules about who can and can’t attend. Afshar herself states that as a woman, she was “not allowed to enter” and in fact had to rent the premises in order to produce her photographs — a detail that renders the scenes just as staged as Watts’s self-conscious modern cowboys. Nonetheless, the works are touching in their seeming unaffectedness and intimacy, and illustrate their own version of the complexities of masculine identity today.

By pairing these almost absurdly disparate cultures, the exhibitions put forward a composite view of maleness as experienced in societies that are literally worlds apart. It’s a thought-provoking combination that adds nuance to the so-called ”crisis in masculinity” brought on by changing social landscapes.

“Looking West” and “Behold” continue until April 6.

Pictured top: Detail from Hoda Afshar’s ‘Untitled #4’, 120 x 95cm, 1 edition left NFS 75 x 60cm, 5 editions.

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