A golden age for Iranian art
By Kristin Deasy and 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.
When the acrylic painting on canvas sold at Bonhams in Dubai two years ago for
a historic US$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 past few years has been experiencing what experts say is a "golden
age". Largely attributable to the stabilization of the Dubai art market and
strong ties between the
United Arab Emirates and Iran, the boom is also being fueled by a younger
generation of artists attempting to push the boundaries of freedom of
Lebanese-Iranian Rose Issa, a gallery owner and art dealer, has spent the past
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 re-election 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 past 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
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% of artwork sales in
Christie's Modern and Contemporary Arab and Iranian auctions and 64% of sales
Edward Lucie-Smith, a curator of Middle Eastern art (a category in which
Iranian works are often mistakenly placed), writes in an e-mail interview that
currently Iran boasts "more artists [and] 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 past 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.
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] Ehsai,
like Monir Farmanfarmaian, 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 public.
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. SM 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 SM.)
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
"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 home."
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 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 ... 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 it
faces 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."