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Iranian Art: Bridging the Modern and Contemporary

11/24/10 By Miwako Tezuka, PhD, Associate Curator, Asia Society

Asia Society Museum, New York, Oct. 25, 2010

October 25, 2010, New York, NY-In preparation for a major exhibition focusing on the development of modernism in Iran scheduled for 2013, Asia Society launched its multi-year study of modern art in Iran with "Bridging the Modern and Contemporary," a discussion by esteemed specialists in the field.

L-R. Mitra Abbaspour, Hamid Keshmirshekan, Layla Diba, Linda Komaroff, Venetia Porter

Melissa Chiu, Asia Society Museum Director and Vice President of Global Art Programs, introduced the program as part of the Society's ongoing commitment to bringing a new perspective to modern and contemporary Asian art-a commitment that began 15 years ago. Participating speakers included Mitra Abbaspour, Associate Curator at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Hamid Keshmirshekan, art historian, critic, and chief editor of the Art Tomorrow Journal in Tehran; Linda Komaroff, Curator of Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Venetia Porter, Curator of Islamic and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at the British Museum. The program was moderated by Layla S. Diba, an independent scholar and art advisor, and former Director and Chief Curator of the Negarestan Museum in Tehran (1975-1979). In the United States, she has also held a curatorial position at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The discussion examined contemporary Iranian art in relation to art movements before the Iranian Islamic Revolution, as well as in the larger context of the global contemporary art scene.

Diba began the program with an overview of the evolution of Iranian modernism and the current state of the field. She traced the trajectory of Iran's effort in "becoming modern," which began with the inception of European academic painting in the late nineteenth century, and continued with the first installment of the Tehran Biennale in 1958 and the founding of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977. During the 1960s and 1970s, leading up to the Iranian Islamic Revolution, artists in Iran developed their own modern visual language by combining Persian artistic traditions, such as calligraphy, with the adopted techniques of European modern art. The most significant development in this regard was called the Sakahone movement, but there were various other experiments-many by artists who were trained abroad and returned to Iran to begin a search for identity, authenticity, and stylistic diversity. Diba pointed out that an increasing number of study materials have been made available in recent years through exhibitions and related publications; examples include the exhibitions "Picturing Iran" (2002 at New York Unversity's Grey Art Gallery) and "Contemporary Iranian Art" (2001 at the Barbican Centre in London). Interest in Iranian modern and contemporary art has been intensifying among institutions and collectors alike, coinciding with a thriving art market in the Persian Gulf. Asia Society's close examination of the unique contributions that Iranian artists have made in the past 40 years is timely.

The first speaker, Hamid Keshmirshekan, emphasized the continuity between pre- and post-Revolutionary art, in particular, the significance of the 1960s and 1970s as the rise of so-called Neo-Traditionalism. The 1979 Revolution brought a halt to this artistic movement, but it resumed again with new dimensions in the early 1990s, with the establishment of official biennials and other types of exhibitions. While both pre- and post-Revolutionary artists have been concerned with identity, the new Neo-Traditionalism has been less homogenous in its approach. Artists are now more critical of their identity and conscious about how to present themselves, rather than simply celebrating their heritage.

Following Hamid's presentation, Mitra Abbaspour offered her insight into the legacy of pre-Revolutionary art by focusing on the importance of Iran's unique photographic tradition. Today's Iranian artists-most notably Shirin Neshat-have clearly inherited a great deal from their predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s, who formulated a unique visual language coded with metaphor. In the 1960s, such artists as Bahman Jalali combined careful investigations into social circumstances with formalist and poetic beauty. The visual language of gesture and pattern can be considered the legacy of pre-Revolutionary art. Moreover, the new generation of Iranian artists is also inspired by the rise of the individual in the 1960s and Iran's strong tradition in documentary photography. In reevaluating the effect and legacy of pre-Revolutionary art on today's artists, Abbaspour suggests that we will escape the clichéd approach of categorizing today's Iranian art either with western modernism or with contemporary Islamic art.

Venetia Porter placed Iranian modernism within the larger context of the Middle East. After illustrating her museum's collection of works from the Saqqakhaneh movement-by artists such as Sia Armajani, Hossein Zenderoudi, and Parvis Tanavoli-Dr. Porter clarified the position that a preoccupation with traditional authenticity can be found widely in Middle Eastern art. For example, in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s, artists such as Jawad Salim modeled their work after Sumerian and Babylonian art as well as ancient epics such as the Gilgamesh story. While a significant number of philosophically oriented manifestos emerged in the Iraqi art scene, Iraqi artists also looked deeply into the technical and formal aspects of traditional scripts and calligraphy. It is important to consider Iranian modernism, particularly the Saqqakhaneh movement, within this international context.

Linda Komaroff brought up the issue of collecting and exhibiting Iranian art in America. She introduced artworks recently acquired by the Islamic Art department at LACMA, including works by such artists as Malikeh Nayiny, who reconnects with her own past by recontextualizing her family photos; Yassaman Ameri, who uses small images based on photos of women that her mother inherited; Houra Yaghoubi, who addresses women's position in society; and Siamak Filizadeh, who recasts famous Iranian heroes from the Shahnamah as contemporary pop culture superheroes. This new generation of artists is working not only within the context set by Iranian artists that preceded them, but also within the larger context of Islamic art. Komaroff assigns great importance to the acquisition of works like these, which helps broaden our perspectives on today's art. She is hopeful for future projects in which various museum departments can share in the richness of art from this region.

After the speakers' brief presentations, Diba led a discussion with them on stage. She first posed a question about how to contextualize modern Iranian art in exhibitions. In Komaroff's view, exhibitions should be thematic or focused on media rather than a specific culture or region. She commented that it is an exciting time to be dealing with the issue of contemporary Asian art in relation to contemporary art globally. Porter followed up by giving an example of the shift-or expansion-of interest within the United Kingdom. Recently, the British Museum, Tate, and the Victoria and Albert Museum have begun a joint effort in collecting contemporary photography from the Middle East.

Diba also questioned the role of calligraphy in Iranian modern art. Keshmirshekan noted that the use of calligraphy in the modern context began in the 1960s in a kind of Dadaistic manner, in which calligraphy was practiced as a kind of nonsensical pseudo-writing. In the early 1990s, this approach was expanded with more specific attention to religious meanings. In addition, many artists today critically reevaluate calligraphy through satirical deformations and by infusing it with humor. They are also influenced by globalization and postmodern approaches. For many artists, Porter adds, perhaps calligraphy provides a comfort zone, and for uninitiated audiences, a gateway to contemporary art from this region.

Another important issue brought up during the discussion was the role of women. According to Abbaspour, during the pre-Revolutionary period there were spaces and opportunities for women to be active in the field of art, but the post-Revolutionary era saw a rise of female artists in the  diaspora. In terms of women as subjects of art, Komaroff pointed out that women's dress has become a popular focus of both artists and western curiosity. The topic of women in Iranian art in a way exposes our expectations of and preoccupations about the region. Porter offered the observation that western collectors and museums are interested in particular subjects-such as women and also calligraphy-because they are easily recognizable cultural identifiers. In reality, Keshmirshekan reports, a great number of galleries in Iran are, in fact, run by women-proof of women's real contributions to the field of Iranian art.

The discussion also covered the field of photography and film. Abbaspour elaborated upon an approach that she terms "poetic documentary." It was generated by cross-disciplinary communication among literary figures, poets, and visual artists in the 1960s. Keshmirshekan adds that there was no fine art photography during the pre-revolutionary era, and it was only during the reform period of the late 1990s to early 2000s that a fundamental change-from photojournalism to art-was brought forth and the development of fine art photography began.

Perhaps the hardest question posed during the discussion was the last: what is the future of Iranian art? Although the speakers agreed that it is extremely difficult to forecast the future given Iran's ever-changing state of affairs, there is good news. First, the development of art is becoming more independent of cultural custodians. Secondly, with increasing connections to and communications with the broader world, artists are breaking out of their seclusion and moving in a direction that promises a more creative future for Iran's art. 

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