Despite Tightening Up Of Society, Iranian Art Sees A Boom
By Kristin Deasy, Hannah Kaviani,
The Persian word for "love" is spelled out in
Swarovski crystals and glitter, with a small footnote from the artist: "A
picture is worth a thousand words and a word a thousand pictures." The estimate
wasn't high enough.
An artwork by Nikoo Tarkhani, titled "This Is Not A Woman"
When the acrylic painting on canvas sold at Bonhams in Dubai two years ago for a
historic $1,048,000, the Iranian creator Farhad Moshiri became the first artist
from the region to break the $1 million price barrier at auction.
It was a breakthrough moment -- not just for Moshiri -- but for Iranian art,
which for the last few years has been going through what experts say is a
"golden age." Largely attributed to the stabilization of the Dubai art market
and strong ties between the United Arab Emirates and Iran, the boom is also
being fuelled by a younger generation of artists attempting to push the
boundaries of freedom of expression.
Lebanese-Iranian Rose Issa, a gallery owner and art dealer, has spent the last
30 years championing artists from Iran and the Arab world. These days, she says,
there's "a real buzz" in Tehran.
The mass demonstrations that broke out following the disputed reelection of
Mahmud Ahmadinejad last June are related to a growing demand for self-expression
among Iranians, Issa says. She says it is no coincidence that since the
protests, "many new galleries have opened" in Tehran, calling them "even
trendier" and "more luxurious" than before. These galleries, she says, have
started publishing catalogues, something she hasn't seen "for decades."
For Iranian artists, the growth of the Dubai art
market over the last five years has been a boon. Iranian artists working inside
the country now have the ability to network, exhibit, and sell their works in a
fine-art market much closer to home. As a result, they have seen the value of
their works steadily appreciate.
PHOTO GALLERY: The
Renaissance In Iranian Art
Sales of Arab and Iranian art in Dubai increased from $2 million in 2006 to
$35.7 million in 2008. Iranian artists now represent 74 percent of sales of
artwork in Christie's Modern and Contemporary Arab and Iranian auctions and 64
percent of sales at Bonhams.
Edward Lucie-Smith, a curator of Middle Eastern art (in which category Iran is
often mistakenly placed), writes in an e-mail interview that currently Iran
boasts "more artists, bigger talents, many [of them] still firmly rooted in
Tehran despite the current political situation."
Dubai's high prices for contemporary Iranian art "obviously find an echo in
Europe," Lucie-Smith writes, "not least because collectors feel that there is
now an established market if they need to sell," but also because "Iran has the
richest contemporary visual-arts culture in the region."
Forty-six new galleries have opened in Iran over the last two years -- 26 of
them in Tehran, says Mahmud Shaloie, the director of the office of visual arts
for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. There are about 300 art
galleries in all of Iran.
Some of the artists now achieving success are part of Iran's burgeoning younger
generation born after the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many of these young
artists came of age under the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami, a
relatively moderate leader who allowed greater freedom of expression and
promoted cultural and artistic dialogue between Iran and the West.
Hamid Dabashi, a culture critic and award-winning author who was born in Iran,
says the young generation of artists is bringing something new to the
contemporary art scene.
"The impact of the revolution, eight years of war, and the subsequent theocracy
is the political and social context in which the current generation of Iranian
artists define their own particular mode of artistic expression," Dabashi
Compared with the previous generation of Iranian artists, the works coming out
of Tehran today "have aspirations, they have frivolity, playfulness," he says.
And he also sees a new trend in their work: disillusionment with ideology.
"Ideology is no longer as valid, significant, as it used to be," he says. Among
young Iranians, "ideological differences have come to a dead end."
The recent boom is also providing Iranian artists who gained notoriety in the
1960s or 1970s, in the years that Iran first opened up to the international art
scene, with something of a renaissance. "Finally," Issa says, "credit is being
due to people like [Mohammed]
who is now in her mid-80s and yet is [still] doing fantastic work that she was
doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s." Issa calls Farmanfarmaian "the Louise
Bourgeois of the Mideast."
Or 73-year-old sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, who made a record-breaking Dubai
auction debut in 2008 with the $2.8 million sale of "The Wall (Oh Persepolis)"
at Christie's. There is also renewed interest in 69-year-old Tehran-born
abstract expressionist Kamran Katouzian, some of whose paintings are in the
Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The Iranian artists of this generation remember the 1977 founding of the Tehran
Museum of Contemporary Art at the initiative of the last empress of Iran, Farah
Diba Pahlavi. The museum houses valuable collections of post-Impressionist, and
modern and contemporary art -- some of the finest outside the West.
In 1979, two years after the museum opened, Iran's
newly installed Islamic leaders said the works of art symbolized the shah's
obsession with the West. The collection has since been opened only rarely to the
a rare tour.)
The interior of S.M.'s studio in Tehran
During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, most galleries and museums closed in
Tehran. The art scene turned its attention to "survival," Issa says, "but the
years following the war were highly productive for documentary arts." "The film
industry moved forward, the photographers moved forward," she adds, explaining
that the emphasis was on loss: Eight years of war cost the country at least
300,000 lives and left some 500,000 injured.
By the mid-1990s, the art scene in Iran was slowly opening up, helped along by a
more moderate cultural policy on the part of the government. In 1991, Iran held
its first painting biennale since the revolution. Galleries reopened and started
holding exhibitions, the private sector started to invest, and artists started
to form unions. The Iranian Graphic Designers Society first formed in 1997, and
is now known as one of the largest in the region.
Life in Iran today is much harder on artists. The government responded to the
demonstrations last June with a severe crackdown, and artistic activity is now
The combination of an artistic boom and renewed government interest in the art
scene has brought new dilemmas. S.M. is a young artist living in Tehran whose
work is frequently exhibited in the city as well as galleries in Europe.
(Because her artistic credentials inside Iran prevent her from using her real
name, she asked to be referred to by the pseudonym S.M.)
She says many artists in Tehran face hard choices over the best way to remain
true to their work, seek international recognition, while still being welcome in
"The question becomes whether I should do some
very simple works -- ones that are not socially or politically provocative --
and have the advantage of being able to come home to my country," she says, "or
do the works that I want, deeply, to do myself, but be unable to come back
Iranian artists who have produced more socially or politically provocative works
while living inside the country face a host of problems. Many are unable to show
their work, and some are harassed or even imprisoned. Others resort to smuggling
pieces across the border in order to exhibit them in the West.
The authorities typically ban works on subjects the Islamic republic finds
offensive -- anything from showing kissing or nudity to works treating Islam, or
the politics of the Islamic republic, in a critical manner. Despite the
restrictions, artists continue producing such work. Often, a gallery will
exhibit an artist's moderate works and will keep the more controversial pieces
out of sight, to be discreetly shown to interested buyers and collectors.
One prominent Tehran-based artist, who has been politically active since June's
disputed election and who wishes to remain anonymous, says that he perceives art
"as a form of resistance." Now, he says, artists like him are "back to work,
holding private gatherings to see what we can achieve [in the country] through
art," since it is a medium that "can suggest and point to overlooked
sociopolitical issues." He says every time he organizes an exhibition in Tehran,
it is closed down or some pieces are removed by the government.
But some art critics say artists are producing overtly political works in order
to take advantage of the international attention focused on Iran following its
internal turmoil last summer.
Culture critic Dabashi warns that Western observers risk overly politicizing or
"anthropologizing" the work of Iranian artists. He says their work "is being
taken as an indication of social, political, or ideological aspects." "It is not
that their art does not represent those aspects -- it does -- but not, there's a
difference between a work of art and a political manifesto," he says.
Nasim Manuchehrabadi, a young Iranian artist now working in Berlin, says "the
fact that I'm Iranian" makes her works political, "whether I like it, or not."
She thinks the work of the younger generation reflects the difficulties they
face in Iranian society, as modern ideals face off with conservative values
promoted by the Islamic government.
Iran's 2,500 years of artistic history does influence her work, Manuchehrabadi
says, but "it's not only [traditional Persian paintings of] flowers that we've
grown up with," it's also the fact that "we are the MTV generation."
Interview: Longtime Art Advocate Rose Issa Discusses
Iranian Art 'Boom'
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
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