Tehran

March 1, 2009

“The East looks to itself,” wrote Gertrude Bell in her book, Persian Pictures, “it knows nothing of the greater world of which you are a citizen, asks nothing of you and your civilisation.”

In the era of globalisation one can only smile at those Orientalist sentiments that impressed Bell’s readers with their profundity in 1894. There is no longer any hard-and-fast line between the East and the West. Everyone is connected, even those states that are treated as international pariahs by the United States and her allies.

Chief among these connected-disconnected nations is Iran, a country that has credible claims to being the birthplace of western civilisation.

Iran may look to itself, but it would also like to be part of an international community. The obstacle, of course, is politics. The country’s controversial nuclear program and its persistent antagonism with Israel are the main reasons we do not see more Iranian artists treading the world stage, or more western artists making their way to Iran. These issues are not going to clear up overnight, but there is a widespread belief that cultural exchange may open the door to a broader political dialogue.

These were sentiments I encountered frequently when I visited Iran as a guest of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), to take part in a conference and view the exhibitions connected with the First International Fajr Festival of Visual Arts.

The MoCA Director, Dr. Mahmood Shaloubi, believes that Iranian art has universal value. “This art should not be limited to its own borders,” he argues, “We are trying to connect with other parts of the world, to our mutual benefit.” Not only would the Iranians like to see their artists exhibiting in other parts of the world, they would like to play host to more international artists. But any program of cultural exchange would necessarily be a delicate operation because Iranian art, in forced isolation, has long been engaged in its own search for identity.

The MoCA collection, put together in the days of the Shah, is a ‘who’s who’ of modern art, containing pieces by Monet, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Picasso, Miró, Degas, Bacon, Giacometti, Duchamp, Johns, Warhol, and many others, yet only a small percentage of this work is shown at any time. The collection is not considered taboo, but it would send all the wrong messages if the Museum was filled with western art instead of the local product.

During the Fajr festival, which coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, MoCA was crammed with paintings and sculptures by local artists, but the effect was rather like the annual Archibald, Wynne and Sulman events at the Art Gallery of NSW, in Sydney; or the Royal Academy Summer Show in London. In other words, there were too many works of indifferent quality, ensuring that the stronger items got buried. This is the perennial problem of ‘open’ shows no matter where they are held.

This was partly the case with a large photography exhibition held at the Niavaran Cultural Centre: a huge amount of work, but largely without a focus apart from a ‘Great Family of Man’ overview of life in Iran today. Because only one medium was used, this at least provided a greater degree of consistency and allowed the best photographs to stand out from the crowd.

The strangest, and most disturbing exhibition we visited was not part of the official program, but nevertheless provided insights into the problems of making contemporary art in a country where religion and ideology play such dominant roles. At one of the local art academies, in a gigantic exhibition celebrating the anniversary of the Revolution, there were numerous paintings, works of graphic art, sculptures, and even a few installations, condemning the use of torture by the old regime and the Shah’s secret police. The United States was lambasted on the very same charge, through its activities in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

This is the kind of thing that could be found in exhibitions of contemporary art anywhere in the world, but it had a strangely hollow feeling in Tehran, where political imprisonment and torture continued unabated under the Revolutionary government, and according to Amnesty International reports, are still widely practiced. This is a consistent feature of ‘revolutionary’ states, whether they be Communist, Maoist, or – in this case – Islamist in persuasion. The artist is always encouraged to put forward positive messages about his own country, and to ‘struggle against’ perceived enemies.

It was during the conference that visitors were able to get a better idea about the range of work that has been made in Iran since the Revolution, and the sophistication of the local art scene. Over the course of three days we saw hundreds of images, and absorbed a heavy bombardment of statistics. Some of the most powerful work seemed to be made directly after the Revolution of 1979, when the whole society was charged with energy and idealism. The work had strong political and religious themes, but soon became preoccupied with the disastrous war with Iraq into which Iran was thrown. That conflict would last eight years and cost more than 300,000 lives.

In the years that followed there were many movements and tendencies, including the ‘Tea-House’ school, which took its stylistic leads from the paintings of the Safavid dynasty. There were artists who concentrated on the symbolism of water, others who took light as their theme. Both these motifs figure strongly in Iran’s distinctive Shi’a beliefs and doctrines. Religion was also a leading motivation for those who worked with geometric forms or calligraphy. One of the key features of Iranian art as opposed to much of the Islamic work being made elsewhere in the world, is that there is no avoidance of the image. The vast majority of artworks are figurative. Even those artists who work in a geometrical style are not beyond slipping in a pixellated portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini, blurring his trademark scowl.

One cannot overstate the centrality of Islam in the art being made today in Iran. There may be artists who simply do what is expected of them, but it is undeniable that many are genuinely inspired by religious passion. Indeed, any discussion of what constitutes an Islamic version of contemporary art cannot ignore what is being said and done in this nation, where the Shi’a traditions of argument and persuasion are prominent in the debates about art. It is Islam that has inspired the country’s most original art, although there is apparently no ‘official’ style favoured over any other.

The most characteristic artworks in Tehran may be the gigantic murals devoted to the martyrs of the war against Iraq. Although some of the largest have begun to fade over the years, and others have been added in new, more artful styles, there is a tremendous pathos in these large-scale portraits of dead soldiers that stare at one from the sides of buildings. Tears and tragedy are a big part of the Shi’a faith, but one takes away the impression this is a country that is heartily sick of war that would prefer to constrain its displays of emotion to the annual commemorations devoted to the Imam Hussain.

There is a fascinating exhibition here, but it would need to begin with the art of the Revolution and trace those thematic shifts between meditation and martyrdom that have risen and subsided over the past three decades. There may be no better way to begin to understand Iran, than to look at the complexities, the twists and turns of its art. The biggest challenge might be to overcome politics and prejudice on both sides, and find willing partners in the English-speaking world.

Published for the Craft Arts International, March, 2009