What does it mean to be Iranian? Artists pose the question – in pictures

Iranian contemporary artists from the post-revolution period ask what it means to be “authentically Iranian”.

An exhibition at the School of Oriental and African Studies presents post-revolutionary Iranian art to London audiences. The artists on show challenge the assumption of a single national identity and the existence of “authentic Iranianness”.

Rana Javadi, 'Iran Revolution 1979', digital print on Luster photo paper, 50 x 75 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Rana Javadi, ‘Iran Revolution 1979’, digital print on Luster photo paper, 50 x 75cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Recalling the Future: Post-revolutionary Iranian Art” opened at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), on 16 January 2014 and will run until 22 March 2014. The exhibition is co-curated by London-based Iranian curator Aras Amiri, London-based art historian David Hodge, Iranian critic Hamed Yousefi and Iranian artist curator Rozita Sharafjahan.

The show features the work of 25 contemporary Iranian artists, some of whom are exhibiting for the first time in the United Kingdom. The exhibition also includes the work of three influential artists, Ghasem Hajizadeh, Fereydoun Ave and Masoumeh Mozaffari.

Ghasem Hajizadeh, 'Untitled', 2000, mixed media on canvas, 210 x 180 cm. Photo: Taha Moghani. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Ghasem Hajizadeh, ‘Untitled’, 2000, mixed media on canvas, 210 x 180cm. Photo: Taha Moghani. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Iran’s contemporary art scene

Despite its tumultuous history, today Iran is home to an active contemporary art scene, mostly concentrated in Tehran; Iranian artists are gaining increased international attention thanks to the vibrancy of this scene.

In an interview with The Huffington Post in 2013, Assad Gallery manager Orkideh Daroodi points out that the art scene boasts 150 licensed art galleries. 30 hold regular exhibitions of contemporary Iranian artists and ten are active internationally: Aaran, Etemad, Khak, Shirin, Tarahan-e Azad, Mah, Mohsen, Silk Road, Seyhoun and Daroodi’s own space, Assad.

Bahman Jalali, 'Iran-Iraq war', 1980 -1988, digital print on Luster photo paper, 50 x 75 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Bahman Jalali, ‘Iran-Iraq war’, 1980 -1988, digital print on Luster photo paper, 50 x 75cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Helia Darabi, writing for ArtAsiaPacific, notes how the growth of Dubai’s art market in the 2000s was a major driving force behind the growing number of galleries in Tehran. Iranian artists also started fetching record prices at auction in Dubai, which brought Iranian contemporary art into the spotlight. In 2012, Tehran held its first local auction, although most of the art was in line with the government’s moral expectations and limitations.

Katayoun Karami, 'Untitled', form "Stamp" series, 2005,digital photographs, 16 x 21 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Katayoun Karami, ‘Untitled’, form “Stamp” series, 2005, digital photographs, 16 x 21cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

In fact, in Iran there are still issues of censorship, which make it difficult for artists to express themselves with complete freedom around certain religious and political issues. Censorship starts in the art schools as Professor of Visual Arts at Tehran University Mohammed Ziai tells Der Spiegel, and some daring exhibitions last just a single night.

Mehran Mohajer, from the “Tehran Undated” series, 2009, digital print scanned from 6 x 6 cm negatives, 76 x 76 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Mehran Mohajer, from the “Tehran Undated” series, 2009, digital print scanned from 6 x 6cm negatives, 76 x 76cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance still keeps close control on what can and cannot be displayed. In an interview with Al Jazeera in 2012, Nazila Noebashari, owner of Aaran Gallery, says that artists have grown up with such restrictions and, therefore, know how to express themselves using different channels, eluding the eyes of the censors while still conveying their messages in a subtle, unique way.

Masoumeh Mozaffari, 'Table', 2010, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Masoumeh Mozaffari, ‘Table’, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 300cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Questioning ‘authentic Iranianness’

During the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of young artists started producing a new kind of modernist art that also aimed at retaining an ‘authentically Iranian’ identity. By the 1979 Revolution, this issue of authenticity became dear to intellectuals, clergymen and politicians as a form of opposition to western colonisation. Today, ‘authentic Iranianness’ is central in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ideology.

Parastou Forouhar, 'Documentation', since 2009, site-specific installation. Parastou Forouhar’s interactive installation features documents from the investigation into the 1998 murder of her parents, who were opposition politicians. Visitors are invited to use the photocopier in the space to make copies and take them away. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Parastou Forouhar, ‘Documentation’, since 2009, site-specific installation. Parastou Forouhar’s interactive installation features documents from the investigation into the 1998 murder of her parents, who were opposition politicians. Visitors are invited to use the photocopier in the space to make copies and take them away. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

“Recalling the Future” presents the work of contemporary Iranian artists who all question “the assumption that a single, authentic national identity can be found in a country’s history and treated as timeless,” as stated in the curatorial statement. These artists suggest that identities are a construction, made at a particular time and for certain political aims.

Fereydoun Ave, 'Persian Miniatures 1', 2003, photography, 18 x 12.5 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Fereydoun Ave, ‘Persian Miniatures 1’, 2003, photography, 18 x 12.5cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

As the curators write,

These works do not define an image of ‘Iranianness’ or search for its true meaning in the past – they uncover the processes by which identities are constructed, and consider what kind of a future they might lead to. Above all else, in refusing the idea of timeless identities, these artworks offer the hope that we might be able to take over this process of construction, control it and turn it towards prosperity and change.

Ghasem Hajizadeh, 'Volcano', 2008, mixed media on paper maroufled on paper, 200 x 150 cm. Photo: Taha Moghani. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Ghasem Hajizadeh, ‘Volcano’, 2008, mixed media on paper maroufled on paper, 200 x 150cm. Photo: Taha Moghani. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Inspiring the younger generation

Ghasem Hajizadeh, Fereydoun Ave and Masoumeh Mozaffari are artists that have influenced and inspired many young contemporary Iranian artists, including those in the exhibition. Hajizadeh puts the manipulation of images at the centre of his practice, creating mixed media paintings based on photographs. Ave also combines images from different sources and media, such as photographs of graffiti and TV screens in his Persian Miniatures series. The artist suggests how tradition is now reproduced through modern technologies.

Nazgol Ansarnia, 'Fabrications', 2013, residential apartments/water reserve and wind towers on Sayad highway, plaster, resin and paint,18.5 x 18 x11 cm. In collaboration with Roozbeh Elias-Azar. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Nazgol Ansarinia, ‘Fabrications’, 2013, residential apartments/water reserve and wind towers on Sayad highway, plaster, resin and paint,18.5 x 18 x11cm. In collaboration with Roozbeh Elias-Azar. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Nazgol Ansarnia, 'Fabrications', 2013, residential building with front shops/mosque with courtyard on Resalat highways, plaster, resin and paint, 11 x 20 x 13 cm. In collaboration with Roozbeh Elias-Azar. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Nazgol Ansarinia, ‘Fabrications’, 2013, residential building with front shops/mosque with courtyard on Resalat highways, plaster, resin and paint, 11 x 20 x 13cm. In collaboration with Roozbeh Elias-Azar. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Tehran’s urban space

Nazgol Ansarinia’s Fabrications comment on the incessant changes in the city’s urban spaces. Her works are based on the recent government-sponsored murals around Tehran, covering building facades with idyllic images of pre-modern traditional Iranian architecture. The 3D models juxtapose both modern and traditional buildings resulting in impossible, absurd spaces that represent the existing contradiction between nostalgia and the ever-changing reality.

Khosrow Hassanzadeh, 'Faheshe' - 'Prostitute', 2002, silkscreen and acrylic painting on paper, 107.5 x 264 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Khosrow Hassanzadeh, ‘Faheshe’ – ‘Prostitute’, 2002, silkscreen and acrylic painting on paper, 107.5 x 264cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s Prostitutes is a tribute to the prostitutes who were picked up in the streets of Mashhad and murdered. The series evokes urban spaces in the use of the rough silkscreen technique and the image repetition, emphasising the constructed and planned nature of Iran’s images in and of its cities.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, 'My Land', A reference to Yasna, Hat 46, 2004-2013. From left to right: Meridian 60°-64°, Orbit 28°-32°; Meridian 46°-50°, Orbit 36°-40°; Meridian 44°-48°, Orbit 36°-40°; Meridian 44°-48°, Orbit 34°-38°; Meridian 44°-48°, Orbit 32°-36°; Meridian 48°-52°, Orbit 28°-32°; Meridian 54°-58°, Orbit 24°-28°; Meridian 60°-64°, Orbit 24°-28°. Eight panels: papier mâché, laser cut iron, metal frame, 100 x 83 x 5 cm (each panel). Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, ‘My Land’, A reference to Yasna, Hat 46, 2004-2013. From left to right: Meridian 60°-64°, Orbit 28°-32°; Meridian 46°-50°, Orbit 36°-40°; Meridian 44°-48°, Orbit 36°-40°; Meridian 44°-48°, Orbit 34°-38°; Meridian 44°-48°, Orbit 32°-36°; Meridian 48°-52°, Orbit 28°-32°; Meridian 54°-58°, Orbit 24°-28°; Meridian 60°-64°, Orbit 24°-28°. Eight panels: papier mâché, laser cut iron, metal frame, 100 x 83 x 5cm (each panel). Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Mapping borders

Mahmoud Bakhshi’s My Land comprises eight maps, each depicting a section of Iran’s border where historical battles took place. The maps are mathematically precise, each labeled with exact geographic coordinates. The materials – dark unpolished iron and rough papier mâché – evoke Iran’s historical violence, the physicality of the soil and the working class labour associated with heavy iron.

Rozita Sharfjahan, 'Sixth Desire', 2010, digital print and sew on canvas, 160 X 160 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Rozita Sharfjahan, ‘Sixth Desire’, 2010, digital print and sew on canvas, 160 x 160cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Exploring gender inequalities

After the 1960s and 1970s modernist fashion of juxtaposing traditional symbolism with modern (European) styles, some contemporary artists display contradictory techniques to highlight social differences and inequalities. Rozita Sharafjahan and Masoumeh Bakhtiari mix traditionally domestic female labour, such as embroidery and childcare, with technical drawing. Ghazaleh Hedeyat includes raw depictions of the female body viewed through the TV screen or a musical stave.

Shahb Fotouhi, 'Aerial Appendix', 2008, mixed media and neon light, installed over a 4 x 3 m platform, height 4 x 3 x 20 cm + A3 paper guide. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Shahab Fotouhi, ‘Aerial Appendix’, 2008, mixed media and neon light, installed over a 4 x 3m platform, height 4 x 3 x 20cm + A3 paper guide. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Revisiting official imagery

Shahab Fotouhi’s Aerial Appendix relates to Ayatollah Khomeini’s journey from Tehran airport to the place of his speech at the cemetery during the 1979 Revolution, upon his return from exile in Paris. Khomeini once called the revolution “the explosion of light” and the artist incorporated this symbolism into his work through the use of neon light.

Shahb Fotouhi, 'Can I Speak to the Manager?', five mixed media frames, each 1 x 1 m. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Shahab Fotouhi, ‘Can I Speak to the Manager?’, five mixed media frames, each 1 x 1m. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

In Can I Speak to the Manager? the artist depicts the six stages that a draughtsman must go through in order to produce the emblem of the Republic. Foutouhi highlights the bureaucratic organisation through the over-complicated official design process.

Mehran Mohajer, from the “Tehran Undated” series, 2009, digital print scanned from 6 x 6 cm negatives, 76 x 76 cm. Image courtey the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Mehran Mohajer, from the “Tehran Undated” series, 2009, digital print scanned from 6 x 6cm negatives, 76 x 76cm. Image courtey the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Revolutionary Photography

Mehran Mohajer’s Tehran Untitled series of ghostly photographs expresses a sense of desolation. Significantly, the images were made after the mass protests of 2009. In his long-exposure pictures, the city looks empty and almost surreal. The artist has created another dimension of Tehran, a new reality replacing what is already there.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, 'TalkCloud 92-04', 2013, rusted iron and fluorescent light, 195 x 41 x 19 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, ‘TalkCloud 92-04’, 2013, rusted iron and fluorescent light, 195 x 41 x 19cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, 'TalkCloud 92-03', 2013, painted iron and fluorescent light, 180 x 55 x 22.5 cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Mahmoud Bakhshi, ‘TalkCloud 92-03’, 2013, painted iron and fluorescent light, 180 x 55 x 22.5cm. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Art, the people and public spaces

Mahmoud Bakhshi’s Talkclouds represent two quotes about the social mission of art. “Art should be for everyone.” is from Andy Warhol, while “Art must blow a spirit of commitment into the people.” is from Ayatollah Khomeini. The use of rusted metal, the roughly cut words and the fluorescent lights all hint at the class differences and inequalities, suggesting that art speaks to, or about not just one kind of viewer, but is instead set within a complicated and shifting socio-political field.

Neda Razavipour and Shahab Fotouhi, 'Census', 2003, documentation of a public installation. Photo: Abbas Kowsari. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Neda Razavipour and Shahab Fotouhi, ‘Census’, 2003, documentation of a public installation. Photo: Abbas Kowsari. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Neda Razavipour and Shahab Fotouhi collaborated on Census, a performative piece involved placing portraits in the windows of an unfinished high rise, with lights behind them that altered in brightness over time. Its title and the tightly cropped portraits mimic the restricting logic of bureaucracy, but this contrasts with the empty, half-finished building – a common sight in the city, which suggests chaotic, disorganised activity.

Neda Razavipour and Shahab Fotouhi, 'Census', 2003, video documentation. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Neda Razavipour and Shahab Fotouhi, ‘Census’, 2003, video documentation. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Graphic Design

Graphic design in Iran is considered a high art like painting and sculpture, and there are many prolific graphic artists. Reza Abedini, a key graphic artist, frequently incorporates images from Shi’a Islam, alongside forms of digitally produced calligraphy and pictures of mundane, everyday objects. Shi’a symbolism is central to the official imagery of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its harmonious composition, typical of religious art, is in sharp contrast with the rest of the images, creating a shocking effect. Abedini shows how these same symbols can be placed in a completely re-imagined Iranian image world. By doing so, the artist unhinges their meanings, inviting viewers to think about how their idea of the nation has been constructed and whether it could be put together differently.

Reza Abedini, poster for the artist’s own exhibition at Sarv Gallery, 200. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Reza Abedini, poster for the artist’s own exhibition at Sarv Gallery, 2001. Image courtesy the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.

Other artists recalling the future

 C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related topics: Iranian art and artists, gallery shows, art and identity, art and the urban environment, Islamic art, events in London, picture feasts

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