Interview: Longtime Art Advocate Rose Issa Discusses Iranian Art 'Boom'
An auction of contemporary Iranian art at the Magic of Persia art gallery in
Dubai last year.
Lebanese-Iranian gallerist Rose Issa, 61, has
spent the last 30 years championing artists from Iran and the Arab world.
She has curated numerous exhibitions and film festivals, leading efforts to
introduce the West to international stars such as filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami
and Bahman Ghobadi or artists Farhad Moshiri and Shadi Ghadirian. She serves as
an adviser on Middle Eastern art for the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and
the National Gallery of Jordan, among others.
She is the author of "Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema," and the founder of
Paris's first-ever Arab Film Festival. She has sat on the jury for the Venice
Biennale and advised the Berlinale film festival, among many others.
Issa, who now runs her Rose Issa Projects in New York, told RFE/RL why Iranian
art has experienced a boom in recent years.
Rose Issa: There was always an art market [in Iran], of course,
not a boom. The boom happened, yes, with the first art sale of Christie's in
Dubai five years ago. And before that I did a major exhibition in the Barbican
[Art Center in London] in 2001, and there was a fantastic interest in [the]
contemporary art scene, and that's when it started, you know, the interest, lots
of Iranians discovering that you can, you know, access those artists and that
people are alive, and they're still working. And there is still a production,
hence people could invest and start collecting.
The market in the last five to six years has
been fantastic, thanks to the exhibitions that have been happening at the
British Museum and in Dubai, with the auction houses opening in Dubai, and
Sotheby's in London being interested in contemporary Iranian and Arab art....
All these exhibitions have contributed toward the awareness of the Iranian art
scene. Hence, also, awareness of acquisition and [interest in the] collection of
a buzz everywhere about a culture that was ignored for the last 30
years, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979."
Of course, first the initial buyers were Iranian, but now it has moved. Many of
the foreign galleries, European galleries, have been interested in the artists
and are signing them up. In Austria, in Germany, in France, in America -- people
who have never even, even Iranians who have never even promoted Iranian art are
now promoting Iranian art. So there is a buzz everywhere about a culture that
was ignored for the last 30 years, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The generations [of Iranian artists who are doing well now] are very mixed.
People who were famous in the '70s...these people are doing quite well thanks to
the recent boom,
although in Iran there is hardly any publication of these artists, you know?
Only in the last years Alireza Sami-Azar, who was the director of the Iran
Museum of Contemporary Art, published catalogues about the pioneering art in
Iran or people who were quite important before the revolution.
Of course, after the Islamic Revolution, for eight years we had war between Iran
and Iraq, therefore the curriculum of the universities changed, the museums
closed, many galleries closed, and the priority was on survival and war. And
then, later on, it was on documenting the country, really. The film industry
moved forward, the photographers moved forward, and so on.
I think, from the older generation, finally credit is being due to people like
who is now in her mid-80s and yet is [still] doing fantastic work that she was
doing in the late 60s and early 70s when she was commissioned to do huge
mirrors, with mirror mosaics, and finally, now, in her 80s she has been
recognized internationally. And museums are acquiring her work, showing her
work, and commissioning her. ... She's a bit like the Louise Bourgeois of the
Mideast. But we also have younger artists, like
who became in the last four-five years one of the best-selling artists, everyone
compares him to the Jeff Koons of the Mideast.
But there are lots of the young generation who are famous. A young photographer
I can quote,
whose first exhibition I did here 10 years ago, was only 24. And subsequently
she became a well-known artist and who still lives in Iran. So not everybody
lives outside Iran.
I will say that all the Iranians today, like
a young unknown artist who moved into visual arts and is doing pieces with felt
and guns and slogans from the streets of Tehran, where it says, "our breasts are
like shields, your bullets have no effect," and these are vernacular texts that
everybody is writing on the text, and you know, "from the blood of the martyrs
the tulips blossom" -- tulips are symbols of martyrdom in Iran. And there are,
from the most unknown people to the most famous one, everybody in Iran is now
reflecting the crisis. The crisis within what is happening in the state of Iran,
but also the double standards of the West. And that is what is fantastic about
what is being produced now in Iran.
expressing through the loopholes of the system -- no matter what the
restrictions are within Iran or outside Iran, we're going to produce
For centuries, our references were our poets: Sa'di, Hafez, Rumi. And this
culture, [which] is based on poetry, always finds loopholes in which to express
itself though poetry and through visual arts.... Everybody is expressing through
the loopholes of the system -- no matter what the restrictions are within Iran
or outside Iran, we're going to produce artwork.
RFE/RL: You were in Iran just last year. Can you talk about the artistic
environment of Tehran?
Issa: You know, there is a real buzz. The buzz is that, how can you
have a country that has been sort of closed, where you don't have, really, a
public library without millions of censorship, we don't have so many public
institutions that...[allow]...people to express themselves.... What is happening
is that people are referring to their daily life, and getting inspiration from
life itself in order to produce art.
And this, actually more than 10 years ago, in 1999, I published a book called
"Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema," that the success of Iranian cinema in
the '80s proved that you don't need high technology, a lot of money, freedom to
express yourself. Despite restriction, despite financial restriction, censorship
and everything, you can say what you want if you find the right aesthetic
And this is something that I think Iranians have to say. I think, unfortunately,
even as Orson Wells says, you know,... the Italians were in civil wars and
tension and they produce Michelangelo and all these fantastic artists, and
Switzerland was at peace and they produce cuckoo clocks...so I think also the
tension in the country, the fact that there is always this threat [from the
authorities], and this frustration, this dissatisfaction, these injustices, like
everywhere in the world, but particularly of what women want and what the public
want to express and stolen promises, I think this is reflected in that people
have something to say. And if you have something to say you find a way to say
it. And they [the artists] are finding ways of saying it, you know, no matter
how modestly. But they are finding the way....
The overwhelming luxury, the overwhelming number of museums, libraries,
bookshops, show something, [about the West, it] is that people are saturated.
There is saturation in the West, while there is hunger in the East. And that
hunger, and that desire to express themselves, is that people find a way to
express it. Hence the buzz.
You know the demonstrations in Tehran? Many new galleries opened, even trendier
than before. More luxurious than before. And they are functioning and they are
doing exhibitions and finally they are doing publications, which is something
that has not happened in years, for decades, in Tehran. Now commercial galleries
are doing publications.
RFE/RL: You have advocated for Iranian artists for many years. Do you
have personal reasons for doing so?
Issa: Of course, at first because I'm half-Iranian. I went to Iran in
the early '90s, in 1992, '93.... Through the film scene I discovered that there
were fantastic artists that nobody knew about. And since I liked them, I wanted
other people to also discover them and enjoy them, so I invited them. Ten years
ago, I did the first solo show of people like
and many, many other people.... So I have always promoted those artists.
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
... Payvand News - 05/25/10 ... --