After the 1979 revolution art in Iran seemed to have no future beyond what was considered compatible with the new Islamic orthodoxy. But today, counter to clichéd expectations that only expatriates could produce interesting contemporary work, a lively contemporary art scene flourishes in Tehran. Three views.
‘Only a few years ago, every middle-class family wanted a Daewoo automobile. Now they want a kid who’s in art school’, quips photographer Amirali Ghaasemi. I’m sitting with Ghaasemi at the Café 78, surrounded by hipster students with their lattes, combat fatigues and clunky sunglasses, finding it pretty easy to believe that a promising new scene is blossoming. Indeed, if there’s anything typical of Tehran, it’s the dizzying pace at which cultural fashions swell and transfigure – be it architecture, reformist Islam, Speed Metal or the visual arts.
Back in the 1980s, in the wake of revolutionary euphoria and the repressive atmosphere of the Iran–Iraq war, a number of cultural forms, including sculpture and pop music, were banned, while others were closely monitored and restricted. Today not only sculpture biennials but also video installations, independent art collectives and other features of your standard urban ‘art scene’ – though still the object of cultural debates – are becoming commonplace. Even art in public spaces – performances in shopping districts, exhibitions in lorries and half-built high-rises – has reared its grisly head in Tehran. A poster at the entrance of Café 78 announces ‘Performances every Wednesday’.
Censorship, once a predictable affair, has become a tiresome guessing game of blurry loopholes and contradictions, with the sanctity of the Revolutionary Leader and the legitimacy of the Iran–Iraq war being the only remaining out-and-out dogma. Even the notorious hejab rules (the dress regulations for women in the Islamic republic) are now subject to exceptions. In 2000 the complicated and shifty burden of censorship was passed on to 120 or so official galleries, who will lose their licences if their shows are too dicey.
Not everyone feels that the Islamic revolution has been disadvantageous for the arts. Painter Khosro Hassanzadeh has a biography so dramatic and allegorical it is bound to satisfy any post-colonial enthusiast: from Islamic militant and war soldier to fruit bazaar vendor to an international career in the arts. ‘It was a tabula rasa, a degree zero’, he explains. ‘Art used to be exclusively for local élites and New York galleries, then suddenly everyone was claiming to be a painter – including myself. It was democratic chaos.’ Be that as it may, these days the Tehran art scene suffers from the same unbending economic hierarchies as any other Third World city. The rising cost of material and equipment aside, what is striking at any Tehran opening is the sheer aura of bon chic, bons gens, the bourgeois veneer of the dress code and the nose jobs. ‘Well, it is getting more flashy’, Hassanzadeh agrees. ‘Gucci, Prada, the British Art Show at the Modern Art Museum last month, but that’s a red herring. The real problem is, there’s too much trial and error in the arts, too much trash and not enough recycling, not enough perseverance and critical debate. We don’t have the right curators, critics and instructors.’ It is indeed widely argued that it is the lack of adequate academic training that spawns the haphazard, awkward nature of much of the local production – from the heavy-handed use of parables and symbols that bespeak the overwhelming ubiquity of the literary heritage to the decorative pastel aesthetics that would go nicely in a pedicure salon in Beverley Hills.
All seven art academies in Tehran (six of which are public) are criticized for their intellectual isolation. The professors are commonly referred to as ‘dinosaurs’, and if younger tutors are now teaching topics such as ‘Art and Globalization’, along with Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault et al., the material is said to have been parachuted in, in a superficial manner that fails to spark new debates. By and large, the know-how that is actually put into practice is based on on-line autodidactics, which is not doing anyone any favours. At times the influence of Western icons – particularly the reveries of Shirin Neshat or, more recently, certain examples of 1970s Conceptual art – culminates in comical examples of outright plagiarism. Luckily there’s a growing number of examples of cultural production, which depart from local tradition without ignoring local context, and without replacing it with a folklore simply more modern and internationalist in character. For example: work included in the ongoing photography biennial (Arash Hanai or Mohamad Ghazali); experimental documentary approaches in video (Pirooz Kalantari); and the tongue-in-cheek strategies of appropriation by way of installations and ready-mades (Shirin Aliabadi, Farhad Moshiri).
But if there is one institution whose influence on the artistic panorama is hard to overestimate, it’s the Tehran Museum of Modern Art. It is undeniable that the museum has become more accommodating and more state-of-the-art since the appointment of current Director, Alireza Sami Azar, in 1998. And yet it still perpetuates an idiosyncratic definition of critical professionalism: at the Venice Biennale last year, for example, Iran was represented by an obsolete artist reputed to have excellent relations with the upper echelons of the museum staff.
Not only does the institution dominate the field of international relations, but most public funding for local projects are approved by the Museum of Modern Art, and artists who choose to circumvent its sphere of influence must rely on private donors. Even when recent legislation obliged all government ministries to invest 0.5% of their budget in artworks, the purchases were conducted under the auspices of the museum.
The institution was founded by Queen Farah Diba two years before the 1979 revolution. She swiftly invested ludicrous sums in buying work that apparently saved scores of weathered American galleries from bankruptcy. As a result the collection grew to include hundreds of masterpieces from the Western canon, from Paul Gauguin to Fernand Léger and Robert Rauschenberg. Perhaps one of the best examples of the ideological obstinacy of the present government is the fact that many of these works have never been allowed to be displayed.
Still, if you visit the museum today, you’re likely to run into a discreet, refreshingly slipshod display in some corner of the institution, lumping together a handful of paintings – an Andy Warhol or, say, a Joan Miró or two, crammed in between four or five Mark Rothkos – while in the courtyard a cluster of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti are being eaten away by acid rain. The collection also includes watercolours by Adolf Hitler. Unveiled at a press conference in 2001 with a vague air of embarrassment, they were then reportedly carried off without a word of explanation.
Since the museum has yet to publicize the complete inventory of works in its subterranean vaults, many people are concerned that they’re bound to disappear sooner or later. A case in point was the ruckus following the rumour that a Jackson Pollock had been sold to David Geffen for over $105 million. The sale is flatly denied by Sami Azar, who insists that the original is still in Tehran – though without caring to back up his statement with concrete verification.
Suspicion and paranoia are further heightened by the fact that Azar himself is the object of persistent rumours regarding a dubious political past under the present regime, and that, rumours aside, the museum is indeed known for embarrassing examples of financial mischief. Khosro Hassanzadeh was once summoned as a court witness; he had received $300 per diem for a Beirut show, only a fraction of the money that disappeared into staff pockets.
Overall working conditions in other Iranian cities do not appear to differ in any decisive manner, and few Tehran artists have considered the option of looking beyond the capital – save for a holiday or a photo shoot – the idea being that anything outside Tehran is still too provincial to be of interest. (Tehran comprises over 12 million inhabitants, almost a fifth of Iran’s population.) Reactions differ when it comes to a career outside the country’s borders. Beyond the more officious projects of the Museum of Modern Art, every year brings a new curator from somewhere in ‘Euro-America’, scouting for undiscovered talent off the beaten track, and eager to explain how their project is different to her ‘imperialist’ predecessor’s. And it so happens that many of the younger artists, including Ghaasemi, are increasingly wary of resorting to the Western art world, even as a platform or cash cow, and are insisting on the necessity of prioritizing local networks, local debates and even local money before reaching for Euro-American arenas, since their power to engulf and appropriate is perhaps too overwhelming for a burgeoning scene such as Tehran’s.
On the other hand, the majority are quick to point out that international collaborations have opened the proverbial doors for local artists – and that globalization need not amount to ethnic group shows in London and Manhattan. Western curators aside, calls are at long last increasing to forge better links to neighbouring countries and regions, particularly to the art scenes of Cairo and Beirut – which may be the next fashion to swamp Tehran.
Tirdad Zolghadr is a writer, curator and filmmaker living in Zurich. He is currently working on an exhibition ‘Ethnic Marketing: Art, Globalization and Intercultural Supply and Demand’.
Walking through the streets of Tehran today, it’s noticeable how many changes have taken place over the last decade. After years of drab monochrome, not only outfits and styles, but also billboards and buildings, have become more colourful. The militarized city, with its pervasive police and army presence, has become a much easier place to live in – but this should not blind us to the fundamental realities of contemporary Iranian society.
Mass communication has developed dramatically in Iran. Although officially illegal, satellite receivers can be found in most homes, and the number of Internet users has vastly grown. The powers that be don’t exactly welcome this development, but they have had to compromise – the sheer practical difficulties have made it impossible for them to keep the country in a state of isolation from the outside world, despite their best endeavours. As a result, many Iranians are now keen to show that world their real, uncensored face, using every available means, independent of both the Iranian authorities and the often distorted international media coverage.
In addition, more and more museum curators have recently been visiting from ‘Euro-America’, and an increasing number of events and exhibitions are being organized to raise the international profile of the Iranian art scene. Although this is a positive development in general, and Iranian artists extend a warm welcome to these visitors, it has one important side-effect. Some of the resulting shows run the risk of being unrepresentative of the actual art scene in Iran, insofar as the images of the country they favour tend to be largely ‘exotic’ ones. The emphasis has mainly been on the glory and grandeur of Iran’s rich history, the mystical aura of Persia or even, more recently, the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’. Obviously, none of these portrayals can be used as part of a coherent narrative, one that squares with current realities in the country. Much of the art being shown outside Iran thus either seeks to recycle outdated images or to hang onto the coat-tails of the views of the country presented in the global media.
The most famous example of this strategy is Shirin Neshat’s series ‘Women of Allah’ (1993–7): eerie photographs of veiled women wearing guns as a prosaic symbol of war and violence, superimposed with Persian calligraphy. Another example comes in the form of two photographic series by Sadegh Tirafkan: ‘Persepolis’ (1995–8) and ‘Chogha-Zanbil’ (1995–8). In these the most glorious ruins of pre-Islamic Iranian architecture have been used as a backdrop for dramatic self-portraits of the artist, apparently supposed to convey a contemporary sense of male alienation. Symbolism as a traditionally favoured strategy among Iranian artists appears to be taken to the extreme in many of these works. Incorporating local references is obviously a legitimate part of artistic creation, but exploiting them as a mere marketing tool is surely detrimental to the development of art in Iran.
There is, in fact, a historic precedent for this questionable trend towards oversimplified notions of cultural identity. In the years immediately following the 1979 revolution there was constant debate about the social responsibilities of the artist and the ways the country’s Islamic identity should be represented in art. This debate resulted in works that, at best, are comparable only to examples of Socialist Realism from the former Eastern bloc, although there are still those who follow this approach and are supported by the government.
In fact, Iran’s artistic heritage has been almost completely eviscerated over the last few centuries, with Western aesthetics and styles becoming increasingly dominant. This process began during the Qajar dynasty (1794–1925) and continued under the Pahlavis (1925–79). As a result, the main problem with contemporary Iranian art is that, as in many other Middle Eastern countries, there is neither a tradition of art criticism, nor – outside a small élite – the ability to understand and assimilate the theoretical foundations and methodologies of contemporary art. Of course, there have been some attempts to revitalize the academic field, and the number of publications, seminars and events is growing, but it is unreasonable to expect fundamental change within such a short period.
Iran nevertheless remains in many ways unique. While there is relatively little financial backing for the arts, and despite the extensive political and social constraints that exist, it’s still a spectacular socio-political environment for ambitious young artists to take as their starting-point as they seek to forge a dialogue with the rest of the world.
Kianoosh Vahabi is a Tehran based architect and writer.
In Azar Naficy’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) the former University of Tehran professor muses about her wanderings among the city’s second-hand bookstalls, fearlessly seeking out contraband literary classics that could nourish the hearts and minds of her downtrodden students. The book, wholly seductive in nature, has been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for months; when it comes to contemporary Iran, images of Hezbollah wannabes, clandestine (gasp!) sex, bumbling atomic experts, the hejab and, of course, atrocious censorship abound in the collective consciousness. Still, Naficy (who is now a celebrity living in the USA and featured in Audi advertisements) was on to something with the bookstalls.
Indeed popular images of Iran reveal nothing of its literary treasures. The country is, after all, one third of the apparently barbaric and uncivilized ‘Axis of Evil’. Nevertheless, 25 years of isolation have created a sealed repository for books, collections that are perhaps without parrallel among rogue nations at large. Whereas Baghdad is not the ideal stamping ground for bibliophiles at the moment, Tehran’s bookstalls – unlike blue-chip locales such as Geneva’s Marché aux Puces, Paris’ Clignancourt or even Cairo’s sprawling Friday market – rank top, untouched by seasoned second-hand tramps.
The majority of the bookstalls in question are impossibly tiny and claustrophobic, concentrated in the city’s Independence Square – a locale that holds iconic significance, having been the geographical centre of the revolution that brought down the Shah and his American-backed cronies in 1979. With the ascent of the clerics much of the ‘Westification’ of the ancien régime was considered satanic in nature – for example, a popular children’s book featuring a chicken as its principal character was banned; the guilty hen was not wearing the hejab.
Chickens aside, a handful of spaces in the public realm have managed to escape the tentacular reach of the morals police. Within the dusty halls of bookstalls one may find clandestine cassettes of Googoosh (Iran’s own diva, and answer to Lebanon’s Fairooz and Egypt’s Dalida), the memoirs of former queen Farah Diba (most anti-climactic when she moans about the poor fashion sense of the ruling clerics), or banned texts by Sadeq Hedayat and Ali Shariati, revolutionary thinkers who soon fell out of favour with the engineers of the Islamic Republic.
Bookstall proprietors are an interesting lot. One I know cites Ahmad Shamloo (Iranian poetry’s contemporary great) and Wim Wenders in the same breath. The last time we sat together, he and colleagues (very official) sat debating the finer points of Japanese film director Shindo Kaneto’s use of sexual repression as a metaphor for latent militarism. Another quotes US presidents with manic fervour. A favourite: ‘You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans’ (Ronald Reagan, God rest his soul). A number of particularly frivolous booksellers will slip you shots of arak (the Armenian drink that puts Russian vodka to shame) once you make it on to their relevant ‘white’ lists. In fact, beyond alcohol and the predictable like, there is little one cannot find here; the black market is one of the most prolific and active in recent memory (I saw bootleg versions of Lost in Translation and Fahrenheit 9/11 before they reached Europe).
And the books. In the initial period after the revolution, informal paramilitary police (Basijis) would haphazardly invade bookstalls, armed with garbage bags, ready to expunge all material deemed haram (unholy). However, as most could only read Farsi, Anglophone texts often escaped the reach of censors – hence the abundance of pocket romance novels (pre-teen in nature) that not quite so dangerously border on the pornographic. Enter The Magic Finger, Some Women Can’t Wait and Valley of the Dolls.
A prehistoric remnant of pre-revolutionary Iran, the Tehran Guide (1977) is full of references to ‘his Imperial Majesty’ along with recommendations for discos, bars and leisure clubs such as the American Women’s Club – a reminder of a bygone era in which kings, queens, Christian proselytizers and tourists were not quite the novelty they are today. Another gem is Travels with a Peykan (1975). Effectively a tribute to an indigenous vehicle modelled on the now defunct British Hillman Hunter – nine out of ten cars on the road in Iran are Peykans – the guidebook was compiled by British Iranophile Roger Tagg. Writing with apparent (but possibly tongue-in-cheek) seriousness, Tagg meticulously chronicles suggested day and weekend trips from the urban grind that is Tehran, along with advice as to how deal with the ‘natives’, ‘ethnic spots’ and an appendix packed with translations of essential phases such as ‘We are Christians’ and ‘Can we borrow a chador?’ In a section entitled ‘People outside Tehran’ the ever keen Tagg warns: ‘Adopting the condescending superiority of the civilized town dweller is the quickest method of getting stones thrown at your car.’
And there are treasures from the post-revolution era. The seven-part series The Imposed War (1986), with its dramatic, gory photographic representations of the nine-year Iran-Iraq war (compiled by the same people who curate the ubiquitous soft-focus, wall-size mural homages to martyrs), is a stunning testament to the elaborate iconography of Iranian contemporary politics. In a similar vein, the Institute for the Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works is ever prolific, issuing volumes such as The Narrative of Awakening – A Look at Imam Khomeini’s Ideal Scientific and Political Biography (from Birth to Ascension), by Hamid Ansari. An excerpt from the introduction: ‘Describing the dimensions of Imam Khomeini’s personality and explaining the periods of the life history of such a “grandee” in a single essay or book or volume is like pouring an infinite sea into a single jar.’ Enough said.
Negar Azimi is a writer and curator who lives in Cairo and Tehran. She has initiated long-term research in Iran for the Fondation Arabe pour l’Image
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