At first glance, Speak the Wind (MACK, 2021) is a visual exploration of the uncanny environs and inhabitants of the islands of the Strait of Hormuz, near the southern coast of Iran. Full color images by the Iranian photographer Hoda Afshar zoom in and out, capturing craggy, Martian-red rock formations in landscape view. Close-up details reveal layers of color and texture accrued over years of erosion. Likewise, Afshar’s human subjects are rendered in communion with landscape, sometimes in ambiguous framing — a scar on a calf, a man perched in a tree with eyes obscured by a branch cutting across the foreground. The fins of dolphins break through a soupy teal ocean surface. Patterned fabric is caught rising in the breeze like a paper lantern, while figures pose for portraits in veils and masks.
But the unseen force in the images is one with which everyone is already familiar: the wind. On these islands, winds are generally believed to be harmful, bearing spirits capable of human possession, potentially causing illness or disease. This belief system has an attendant cultural heritage of protective practices and ritual healing, including a ceremony in which a hereditary cult leader speaks with the wind through the possessed, in order to negotiate its exit.
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In two groups of inserts between the straightforward images, a series of bound black-and-white landscape pages form little pockets with interior drawings and writings, that can be glanced at but not fully spread open. In English and Arabic, a poem of nightmares unfolds — a choppy, firsthand account of the possession, the torment, the demands of various wind-spirits — accompanied by scrawling, hand-drawn caricatures.
Afshar’s play with dimension cannily reinforces the concept of unseen forces acting upon the alien landscape, bleeding through to hold sway over all that can be seen on the surface.
Speak the Wind, by Hoda Afshar, is now available from MACK Books.