Sunday, 27 June 2010

Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art Puts Little Seen Modern Art Masterpieces on View

A woman visits the "Manifestations of the World Contemporary Art" exhibition at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art. Artists like Monet, Picasso and Warhol were considered revolutionary in their day, but their works were not much appreciated by the leaders of Iran's Islamic revolution and many were kept out of view for decades. Now, one of the greatest collections of contemporary Western art -- put together under a Western-leaning monarchy in pre-revolutionary Iran -- is open to the public, with some works on display for the first time in more than 30 years. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl.

By: Robin Pomeroy and Ramin Mostafavi

TEHRAN (REUTERS) - Artists like Monet, Picasso and Warhol were considered revolutionary in their day, but their works were not much appreciated by the leaders of Iran's Islamic revolution and many were kept out of view for decades.

Now, one of the greatest collections of contemporary Western art -- put together under a Western-leaning monarchy in pre-revolutionary Iran -- is open to the public, with some works on display for the first time in more than 30 years.

In the Islamic Republic, where the United States is considered the "great Satan" and its decadent music and movies are considered the products of a Godless society, the art exhibition is full of cultural contradictions.

The first paintings visitors to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art see are of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- portraits that are compulsory features of all public buildings.

Below their austere gaze, a winding staircase leads down to what looks like an empty black plinth, but on closer inspection proves to be a modern art installation -- an open vat of crude oil -- the substance that paid for Iran's priceless collection.

The galleries of the stark concrete museum -- built especially to house the collection during the latter years of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's reign -- are works by pretty much every major Western artist of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

"Without exaggerating, Tehran's contemporary art museum has one the most important treasuries of artistic works in the world," said Ehsan Aghaie, executive manager of the exhibition which runs throughout the summer.

Past the French impressionists, the Van Gogh lithographs and the self-portrait of Edvard Munch, sculptures by Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti litter the hallways.

Aghaie says the collection has been valued at more than $2.5 billion. Its most prized piece, "Mural on Indian Red Ground," a violent spatter of color painted by Jackson Pollack in 1950, fills half a wall.

The challenging works draw a crowd. "Iran is not separate from global community. (Modern art) is widely welcomed by people and when these works are exhibited the number of visitors rises dramatically," Aghaie says.

Women in chadors gaze at plain black canvasses with the same looks of incomprehension that similar "post-minimal" works inspire in visitors to galleries in the West.

A Picasso painting of the artist and his model is abstract enough not to risk offending prudish sensibilities.

A colorful meter-high bronze by Roy Lichtenstein looks like a giant glass filled with a fruity cocktail -- not a common sight in the Islamic Republic where alcohol is banned.

Next to it, one of the pop artist's cartoon-like paintings shows a fighter pilot picking off enemy planes.

The fantasy image is a world away from the grim eight-year Iran-Iraq war which followed the 1979 revolution and put such modern, Western art out of favor and into the storage vaults.

Portrayals of Iranian military might -- like the murals which still decorate Tehran's walls -- were the kind of art in vogue during the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, backed by many of the Western countries which had produced the art.

Aghaie is keen to dispel the idea that Iran ever banished its Western art treasures, even though they were kept out of the public eye for years.

"Perhaps during war time, countries try to keep the epic sprit of their nations high. Therefore, there is more appetite for that kind of art," Aghaie said. "But it does not mean that there was no appetite for these art works."

"Even in the West, after World War II, war elements were more evident in artists' works, and Iran is not an exception.

"But this kind of art has never been rejected and Iranian people and authorities always liked them, that is why they are safe and sound and now you can see them," he said.

The collection, which contains around 4,000 pieces, was always stored in good conditions, even when it was kept out of sight, Aghaie says.

Iran's authorities have no desire to suppress the collection, he says, but there is simply no room to display them all at once. In future the museum may mount theme-based exhibitions, rotating the collection through various schools of art.

Leaving the museum, visitors once again pass the oil installation which fills the atrium with a mild smell of petroleum that employees at the gallery no longer notice, back into the polluted real-world air of Tehran where Iran's biggest export is put to a more conventional use.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)
A Tehran Art University student looks at a painting by 20th century U.S. artist Jackson Pollock at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art June 19, 2010.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?   
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.  
 Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,   
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.  
 Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,   
And often is his gold complexion complexion dimmed;   
And every fair from fair sometime declines,   
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed.   
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,   
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;   
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,   
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st, 
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Interview: Longtime Art Advocate Rose Issa Discusses Iranian Art 'Boom'

By Kristin Deasy
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 this market.

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, Mohamed Ehsai, 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 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 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 Farhad Moshiri, 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, Shadi Ghadirian, 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. 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.

I will say that all the Iranians today, like Bita Ghezelayagh, 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.

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 language.

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 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 Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Shadi Ghadirian, Farhad Moshiri, and many, many other people.... So I have always promoted those artists.

 An auction of contemporary Iranian art at the Magic of Persia art gallery in Dubai last year.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Despite Tightening Up Of Society, Iranian Art Sees A Boom

An artwork by Nikoo Tarkhani, titled "This Is Not A Woman"

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.

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 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 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.

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 artwork sales 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 (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 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.

Postwar Generation

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.

(Gallery Walkthrough: "Iranian Bodies" exhibition in Berlin's "Werkstattgalerie," featuring figurative art from five Iranian artists.)

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 explains.

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. (Watch a rare tour.)

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.

Political Dilemma

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 closely monitored.

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 Iran.

"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."

PHOTO GALLERY: The Renaissance In Iranian Art

Further Reading:

A Conversation With Critic Hamid Dabashi

Background: Why The Art Boom?

Via Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

 The interior of S.M.'s studio in Tehran