Thursday, 31 March 2011

Revolution's Long Shadow Over the Tehran Art Scene

 A preformance of "Come Caress Me, September 2010" at the Azad Art Gallery in Tehran. In the exhibition, Amir Mobed, an artist, invited visitors to shoot him with a pellet gun. 

By Benjamin Genocchio

The paradoxes of Iran are visible at the Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by the Iranian artist and architect Kamran Diba as an inverted version of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

In the central atrium hangs an Alexander Calder mobile bought for the museum’s inauguration, in 1977, two years before the Islamic Revolution. To the right is an untitled 1966 sculpture by Donald Judd consisting of a vertical array of nine panels of what the wall label describes as “galvanized iron” stacked from floor to ceiling.

The Judd, probably worth $5 million today, is just one of hundreds of Impressionist, modern, and contemporary artworks acquired at the institution’s founding. But it and the Calder are among the few Western pieces still on view; the rest, including works by Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Magritte, Miró, Braque and Pollock, are buried in storage. A close look at the Judd sculpture reveals scratches and solvent stains on several of the panels, which are spaced unevenly on the wall and fixed badly — some askew.

Until the revolution, Iran was among the most cultured, cosmopolitan countries in the region. It had a progressive movement in art and literature and a sophisticated film and television industry. The mostly Shiite Muslim population was pious but not fanatical.

“We used to drink in public and pray in private, but today we pray in public and drink in private,” said my guide, who has an engineering degree and whose job was to accompany me everywhere, reporting on my movements.

Having him around was a condition of my entry into a country where foreigners are largely unwanted and unwelcome. Officially, Iran reports that it receives around 10,000 tourists annually, a staggeringly low number considering its cultural attractions; Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is one of the great archaeological sites in the region. Dubai, with little to offer beyond shopping and an annual art fair, gets about a million visitors a year.

These are anxious times for artists in Iran. Some have simply decided to remain outside the country.
In spring 2009, the brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh were en route to Tehran after a brief trip to Paris for their first show at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac when, according to an interview published recently in Wmagazine, “they got a call from a friend warning them not to return home.” Their work had been confiscated during a raid on the home of a Tehran collector, and it was feared that they would be arrested. The brothers applied for residency in the United Arab Emirates and now live in Dubai.

Culture is valued here. There are numerous public theaters, museums, galleries and both public and private art schools in Iran. The country annually turns out about 40,000 art-school graduates, including graphic artists. But since the end of Mohammad Khatami’s relatively liberal presidency in 2005, numerous artists, editors, writers, and filmmakers have been jailed.

According to Hamid Keshmirshekan, editor in chief of Art Tomorrow, a new Iranian contemporary art magazine, Tehran has more than 60 private galleries — 100 if you include all the “public” spaces — spread around the city but mostly clustered in the wealthier northern suburbs. Many are in private houses, so the scene has an ad hoc feel. A handful of private individuals back the arts. Most gallery owners are women, as they are elsewhere around the world.

In the course of my stay in Tehran, I visited about a dozen galleries, met many talented artists and saw daring and progressive work. The good news is that Iranian art is alive and well. The bad news is that so much of the work cannot be shown publicly, or can be exhibited only for a few hours during an opening before being whisked into storage.

The Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance keeps a tight rein on what can and cannot be displayed, and every gallery owner I met had a story about being called in to the ministry and asked to explain and subsequently remove the artworks on their walls. Pieces deemed offensive or blasphemous expose dealer and creator to prosecution.

Younger artists are especially daring. Many of them employ humor as a weapon in their work, obliquely poking fun at the ruling clique of mullahs or pointing out the absurdities and contradictions of contemporary life in Iran. It is at once heartening and unnerving to see these young people embracing art-making as a mode of protest.

In April, several Tehran galleries hope to stage an impromptu joint exhibition of about 70 artists’ works devoted to flower imagery, an act of solidarity with Mehraneh Atashi, a photographer who was detained in January 2010 for documenting Tehran’s street protests. She was released on the condition that she start taking pictures of something more suitable, like the beauty of local horticulture.

Indeed, photography has emerged as a particularly vital means of social and political engagement. Shirin Aliabadi and Shadi Ghadirian are known for exploring women’s issues in Iranian society. Both have exhibited abroad, and their work is in American and European museum collections. Ms. Ghadirian has recently established an Internet registry of Iranian photographers,, which presents online exhibitions.

The photojournalists Abbas Kowsari and Newsha Tavakolian, who live in Tehran, have had some success exhibiting and selling in and outside the country. Mr. Kowsari likes to portray Iranian society’s absurdities; his images of chador-clad female police cadets valiantly rappelling down the sides of public buildings in Tehran are now famous. Then there is Arash Fayez, 27, a promising young photographer who received some attention at the last Paris Photo fair. For his recent series “Decadence of Memories,” he shot five Polaroids of favorite childhood relics (including a ball and a sauce bottle in the shape of a bear) against the backdrop of Tehran’s crumbling urban landscape, summoning the faded dreams of his youth.

Nazila Noebashari, a collector, opened Aaran gallery on the second floor of a family-owned building in central Tehran two years ago. She has her office on the upper level, which doubles as the gallery storage. Artworks lean against walls, lie on makeshift shelves or rest on the floor among books. Ms. Noebashari is a curator as well, recently organizing a show of Iranian artists at the 18th Street Art Center in Los Angeles. Her gallery shows mostly younger and experimental artists and is one of the few in Tehran that is not overtly commercial.

When “Eshgh,” or “Love” — a Pop-style work in acrylic, Swarovski crystals and glitter on canvas by Farhad Moshiri — fetched $1.048 million at Bonhams Modern & Contemporary Arab, Iranian, Indian & Pakistani Art auction in Dubai in 2008, a proliferation of galleries began looking for ways cash in on a perceived growth market for Iranian works. But leading contemporary artists in Tehran, including Mr. Moshiri, refuse to exhibit with these galleries, who they say lack professionalism.

Another mode of expression that is popular among young, progressive artists is performance. Azad, established a decade ago by Rozita Sharafjahan and Mohsen Nabizadeh, the most avant-garde gallery in Tehran and a frequent venue for such pieces, is in a hard-to-find basement space with black-painted walls and a concrete floor in a quiet residential neighborhood. There, I met Amir Mobed, a 37-year-old conceptual artist. Mr. Mobed earned a name for himself with a performance at Azad, inspired by the American artist Chris Burden, in which he stood in front of a target with a protective metal box over his head and invited gallery visitors to shoot at him with a pellet gun. It was, he says, a symbolic execution, with a message about freedom of speech and the hopes of artists of his generation being silenced.

Most of the best art I saw contained guarded metaphors for national and social issues. Among the country’s emerging stars is Barbad Golshiri, the 29-year-old son of the late Iranian writer Houshang Golshiri. Barbad Golshiri’s powerful 2005 series of postcard-size photographs, “Civil War,” uses the many political, religious and commercial billboards around Tehran as none-too-subtle metaphors for the ideological conflicts at the heart of Iranian society.

An experience at the Silkroad Gallery perhaps best summarizes the perverse position of artists in Iran today. Perusing a portfolio of prints by Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, an artist and prize-winning writer (whose book was just banned), I paused at one showing young people in a Tehran cafe looking though a book of reproductions of photographs by Shirin Neshat, the Iranian expatriate contemporary artist. I asked the gallery owner, Anahita Ghabaian Etehadieh, why they are so interested in Ms. Neshat’s work.

“Because it has never been shown in her own country,” she replied.

Benjamin Genocchio is the editor of Art+Auction magazine. 

Via NYTimes 

Iranian artists inspired by adversity

His pieces have been displayed at the British Museum in London and the World Bank headquarters in Washington, been fawned over at exhibits in Venice, Amsterdam and New York, and fetched tens of thousands of dollars in auctions held by Sotheby's and Christie's.

But artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh says he was never more delighted than when a barely literate carpenter arrived at his dingy former studio to make some repairs and stood, mouth agape, staring at one of his works. It was a garish, gigantic diorama of a famous Iranian professional wrestler, decorated with cheap trinkets, fake flowers and esoteric memorabilia comprehensible only to locals in the south Tehran neighborhood.

"I do art for my neighbor," says Hassanzadeh, whose perpetual smile softens a face of severe angles as eye-catching as his larger-than-life works, which incorporate the Islamic Republic's bombastic propaganda with street-level Iranian kitsch and the playful sensibilities of Andy Warhol.

Hassanzadeh, 46, is among the most successful of a new crop of artists in Iran who seamlessly meld East and West, even as they breezily blend Iran's traditions, both hokey and classical, religious and secular, and its recent history, especially the traumas of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, into the idioms of high art.

Although they've made a modest splash on the international circuit, they choose to remain in their homeland to feed off its ancient inspirations despite the challenges, including a new rule that requires artists to send photos of their works to the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance for clearance before sending them abroad. This work is being noticed; for instance, a show of new work by 30 Iranian artists recently opened at Los Angeles' Morono Kiang gallery and is running simultaneously with a show of the artists' work at Tehran's Aaran Gallery.

Unlike previous generations of contemporary artists, they don't hail from a specific Western-oriented elite.

They brush off the limitations, the censors, the glares of people who see their work as subversive.

"If you look at our history, at the poets, Rumi, Ferdowsi, Hafez, they were artists too," says Sadegh Tirafkan, 45, a photographer and videographer. "They were never given a chance to write about whatever they wanted. They had a lot of difficulties. Iranians just deal with that."
Hassanzadeh was a teenager when the revolution started. He dropped out of school and became a Basiji militiaman, joined the notorious neighborhood committees that searched for morality crimes, and when the war started against Iraq, he headed to the front.

But even his Basiji mentors quickly realized where his talents lay. Instead of carrying a gun, he was asked to paint giant primary-color portraits and posters around the country of the martyrs, the tens of thousands of young men and boys who lost their lives at the front, their sacrifices immortalized on the streets of Iran's cities.

After adjusting to normal life back home, he enrolled in art school. When he first walked into a classroom for formal art training, he was stunned to see male and female students mixed. And they were equally astonished by him. "The other students were shocked that a guy who looked like me had walked in," he said. "They thought I came to raid the place."

His rebellious instincts emerged immediately. The techniques and themes of his days as a martyr painter crept back into his work. His teachers told him to "draw small" so he could sell his works. He refused. He wanted to draw giant portraits that made people laugh out loud with delight. He eventually abandoned his studies, barely lasting a year at art school.

He's been described as a pop artist. He calls it "people's art." He finds inspiration in public events such as the Ashura ceremonies commemorating the 7th century martyrdom of the Imam Hussein or the colorful lights strung up around the city to commemorate the anniversary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 return from exile. From Imam Hussein to the pop diva Googoosh, he took the basic elements of his south Tehran district and made them internationally known.

"I make the worthless valuable," he said. "I send the most worthless things to the museums."

Though the Islamic Republic creates hardships for artists, the revolution that forged it opened art up to people like him. "Based on my background," he said, "I should have been a bazaar merchant or a drug dealer."

Critics have placed him among a group of Middle Eastern artists who've made it abroad by deconstructing the dichotomies between the East and West. "They argue that terms like 'Islamic,' 'Middle East' or even 'Iran' are loaded with religious and political subtexts and that the use of such terms in exhibition concepts draws away attention from the artistic value of their work," critic Mirjam Shatanawi wrote in Dutch journal in 2006. "Ironically, it is precisely Hassanzadeh's raw commentary on Iranian society that prompted most curators to include his work in their exhibitions."
Not only was Golnaz Fathi recognized as one of the greatest calligraphers of her generation, she also was prized as a rare woman who had advanced so far in the ancient craft.

She had studied six or seven years at a calligraphic institute, practicing the same scripts over and over for hours a day. She worked with one of the greatest professors of calligraphy in Iran, who taught her inner peace and pure love for art. But Fathi found herself thinking unorthodox thoughts.

This was in the years after the Iran-Iraq war, when a country recovering from the trauma of a years-long conflict began questioning all of its presuppositions. Fathi began toying with the idea of incorporating elements of painting into her work. And that was the start, the beginning of the break.

"I'm trying to break all these barriers. At the moment of painting, I don't think about any of these rules," the 39-year-old says. "I know the structure. My hand is trained as a calligraphist. But at that moment of creation, I don't think about anything. It's the battle between the ink and my brush. I make my letters dance to the candlelight."

The Tehran gallery scene — located mostly in the capital's northern expanse — is surprisingly lively, despite risks and restrictions for gallery owners, including occasional harassment and the possibility of being blacklisted for showing works that are sexually or politically risqué. Exhibitions are often magnets for intellectuals as well as art lovers and artists. Fathi loves visiting the medieval city of Esfahan and once did an entire series inspired by its blue-tiled mosques and palaces.

"The whole city is a piece of art," she says. "You have the palace of the king and the bazaar and two mosques with the beautiful topaz dome. Imagine at that time the king was living in the most public place. In the morning the people who work at the bazaar would come and work. The king comes to the balcony and he can see what is going on in the city."

Iranian artists say the challenges they face are inspirations as well as impediments.

"Even the things that hurt me, even the things I don't have, this hunger, make me work," Fathi says. "What can I do? What choice do I have? I voice this emotion through my work. Daily life is my teacher."
The Iran-Iraq war shaped multimedia artist Sadegh Tirafkan's life as well as his work. He signed up to fight when he was 14, and spent three years on the front.

"I lost all my friends during that time," he says. "They were 15 or 16 years old. A friend of mine died and I buried him. At midnight I have dreams about that."

His early pieces reflected the conflict's sadness and despair. Many resembled photographs of funeral processions — commentaries on the Iranian obsessions with death and martyrdom as well as tributes to fallen comrades. They included portraits of himself, shrouded in fabrics decorated with symbols of Shiite Islam and ancient Iranian history, and videos of young men dressed in white walking like ghosts through bleak landscapes.

"People ask me, 'Why are your works sometimes so lonely, so depressed?' " he says. "It's because I was born here. I grew up here. I wasn't born in Switzerland. Here, life is not easy."

But in recent years, his work has undergone a transformation. His pieces include massive collages of Iranian faces, crowded together in mosaic-like patterns as part of his "Human Tapestry" series. They captured the vibrant civil society taking hold in Iran that captivated the world during the 2009 anti-government protests, which probably will serve as a source of inspiration for artists in the years to come.

"They're about the new generation," Tirafkan says. "Something changed in my life, and I wanted to have more contact with people. And get involved with them and know them more."

Friday, 11 March 2011

Ut poesis pictura

Katayoun Rouhi - Kambiz Sabri exhibition at the Taiss Gallery in Paris 
Curator Mrs Farnaz Bahmanyar from the 11th of March to the 7th of May 2011

A woman and a man, both born in Iran in the sixties, exhibit their paintings and sculptures at the Taiss Gallery. Their childhoods were marked by the fall of the Shah's monarchy in 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeini's establishment of the Islamic republic a troubled time when a conservative regime replaced that of a dictator. Katayoun Rouhi left her native land at 17 to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Paris, following in the footsteps of the grand masters. Her series of Trees shown at the gallery was a great success at the last auction at Sotheby's in Doha last December. Her book, "L'ontologie du lieu (The Ontology of the Place)", an interrogation on the act of creation, has just been published by Editions L'Harmattan. Kambiz Sabri chose to remain in Tehran where he acts as a sculptor, designer and professor. He participates in numerous biennial exhibitions and coordinated the Iranian pavillion at the 51st Venice Biennial. 

The Taiss Gallery welcomes these two artists for a confrontation between their works. At first glance, they would seem to have little in common. However, a more penetrating look reveals symbols that reveal a similar quest: that of knowledge. Kambiz Sabri regards the world with detachment, the better to know and understand it. The movements of the sculpted mattresses that welcome groups or solitary individuals symbolize the valleys that man, according to the philosopher Sufi, must cross to gain truth and thus discover his deepest self. Katayoun Rouhi's paintings represent this quest for self that passes through introspection and the necessity of living in osmosis with nature. Both speak in a symbolic manner. Both have the same objective, plenitude. 

Katayoun Rouhi's paintings show a young girl before a tree or advancing down an alley in the direction of a faraway light. A Persian poem composed by the artist covers the figures. Written backwards, it cannot be read. The meaning is hidden behind the sign as if to signify the importance of the underlying words, of the allegory." During the repression, poetry allowed one to say a lot of things," says the artist. The figure of the child, a melange of the artist's daughter and herself as a child, is shown from the back, allowing one to identify oneself with her. In this way she becomes a generic, timeless figure. The tree itself also symbolizes the quest for identity. Is it the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, a Family Tree, the Cosmic Tree?" Everyone can see what they wish. But in Persian poetry, it is a point of reference. During my childhood we oriented ourselves in the wild by the trees that punctuated the landscape." The classical style of her paintings confronts a surrealistic representation. The artist paints her unconscious. And in the image of Persian calligraphy, perspective has disappeared. The nature, the writing, the human, the monochromatic background, the white line and the young girl are treated on the same scale, as if to represent the sought-after unity. By repeating the same poem for four years, by drawing these same figures for four years, the artist accentuates the spiritual dimension of this series by the spell-binding aspect in the form and in the idea. 

Before the paintings of Katayoun Rouhi which invite introspection, Kambiz Sabri's sculptures open themselves to the world. Dozens of individuals stand upon a disproportionately large mattress. Some in groups, some alone, they all seem similar. But the closer one looks, the more differences reveal themselves. In this uniform group, attitudes are distinguished. The majority of them are immobilized in anticipation of an action that never comes. Others advance to act. These works are understood as metaphors for today's world. They play on contradictions. They invite a back-and-forth from near to far, between a mass view and a close-up, between the hope for a harmonious world thwarted by the desire for domination of a Small group hidden somewhere outside of this representation. These same oppositions are found in the execution. Stylized forms confront precise representations, the symbolic faces realism. A second, more violent, more critical reading then takes form. The fragility of the soft matter turns to stone. The apparent lightness becomes judge. The tension is obvious." I dream of the day when the wars and conflicts will be replaced by luminous and joyous parties, where collective expression will become sacred." Kambiz Sabri imagines this beatitude, foiled by conflicts engaged in for domination, by this desire to slouch like a Roman emperor partaking of every luxury as he sends his army to their deaths. 

"Iranian philosophy is based on the apparent and the hidden. What you see has to relate to something invisible that must be revealed," explains Katayoun Rouhi. The creations of these two artists borrow from this culture. Their remarks are hidden behind the form. It is up to each of us to lift the veil.

Aude de Bourbon Parme

 Katayoun Rouhi, Ut poesis pictura, 2011, huile sur toile, 195 x 130 cm 

 Kambiz Sabri, sans titre, 2010, detail

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Iran's artists struggle to find space for expression

Tehran's artist community's strength is dwindling, both because of an exodus to Europe, where there are more opportunities, and because of the repressive nature of the Islamic Republic.

  Pooya Razi works on his animation project at his studio in Tehran, Photo: Courtesy of Marketa Hulpachova.

By Marketa Hulpachova

Six years ago in central Tehran, Iranian painter Pooya Razi recorded a heated conversation with his conservative neighbor. Disapproving of Mr. Razi’s artistic lifestyle, the man threatened to report him for inviting unmarried girls to his abode, which could lead to eviction. Now, in a different apartment nearby, surrounded by easels, paint thinner, and a heap of sketches, Razi and his team of animators are transforming the recording into a short film.

A mile away, in a crumbling, turquoise-painted storage room that serves as his atelier, Mohammad Ghazali leafs through one of his latest projects – photographing shop windows after closing hours – for which police twice arrested him. “People abroad like to say the situation is bad here after the election, but somehow I still manage to produce,” he says.

For a city of 12 million, Tehran’s independent art scene is minuscule. Its members are marginalized not only in numbers, which are constantly shrinking as prospects of better work lure them to Europe, but also by the sociocultural norms of the Islamic Republic itself.

“Any movement [resembling] a dance has to be censored,” says Niusha R., a local ballerina who requested that her full name not be used for fear of persecution. Dancing is technically forbidden in Iran, and female dancers survive here by either performing for female-only audiences or by limiting their expressions to “harmonized movements.” The results are often perverse – choreographers choose young males to perform sensual pieces, while females are veiled and limited to stiff, comical poses.

Though they are all but banished from mainstream society, local artists still manage to find outlets for authentic expression. Kiarash Ghavidel, a local art gallery manager, estimates there are 20 galleries in Tehran that, despite tough guidelines, support talented young artists. “Everything happens in Iran,” says Niusha, who is currently working with a small local theater. “If you cannot do it publicly, it will exist underground.”

Via Christian Science Monitor

Friday, 4 March 2011

Body Language in the eyes of Iranian artists

FA Gallery's Group Exhibition of Iranian artists: 
Iman Safaei, Katayoun Karami, Mohamad Mehdi Tabatabaie, Samira Eskandarfar, Shima Esfandiary, Jahed Sarboland.  

The Opening is 7th of March at 7.30 PM

Body Language

The first and oldest forms of artwork in existence are figurative or representational works in the form of cave paintings. Throughout history, figurative works have been created to form associations between viewers and the artists’ vision of society and religion.

The six Iranian artists in Body Language have also tried to focus on the current conditions in their society and the region at large. 

Samira Eskandarfar, Iman Safaei and Katayoun Karami challenge the traditional gender roles enforced in an Islamic society. Eskandarfar’s Numbered Beauties are portraits of finely groomed men. 

The inclusion of a rose in each work as the most common symbol of love, depicts a softer and more romantic side of the Middle Eastern male while Safaei’s soldiers and pahlevans or athletes, recall a tougher side. Katayoun Karami’s double self portraits depict her on one side and a style of hair – the physical attribute every Muslim woman is required to conceal – on the other.
 Human & Numbers by Iman Safaei, 2008, 80 x 106 cm, embroidery and digital print on canvas. 

Shima Esfandiari and Mojtaba Tabatabaee depict illnesses, both physical and emotional. Esfandiari’s female forms in various positions – under a blanket, slumped over or on hands and knees – all hint at a level of discomfort and pain and suffering. Tabatabaee’s large canvases or human forms in grey tonalities are lit using small red lights along curved lines resembling scars.
Day by Shima Esfandiari, 182 x 105 cm, mixed media on canvas

Jahed Sarboland’s German Expressionistic inspired works focus on the current political conditions in society. Faces commonly associated with the behind-the-desk characters of a bureaucratic system peer out of these brightly colored canvases in an impersonal and distant gaze.
Untitled by Jahed Sarboland, 2010, 195 x 195 cm, acrylic on canvas

Body Language is the reply of socially committed artists living in a post-revolutionary society struggling to live by the standards of that revolution. The desperation to fulfill their desire for a more open and modern society is clearly visible in the works of these six artists.
Simin Dehghani

The Exhibition will continue till 24th of March, 2011

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Bridging Cultures

The Iranian Theater Festival explores a culture not normally associated with theater

By Simi Horwitz
Mention Iran and the image that usually comes to mind is women cloaked in chadors or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on an anti-Semitic rant. The word certainly doesn't evoke theater for most Americans. That was reason enough for Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Brick Theater to produce an Iranian theater festival, say the theater's artistic directors and participants in the event.

It's one of the first festivals of its kind and an opportunity to introduce New Yorkers to an unfamiliar side of Iran, says writer-actor Safa Samiezade-Yazd, who will perform her one-woman show "Cover Girl" as part of the festival. "Iranians love culture and art," she says, "but all these things have been suppressed by the current government. The festival is a chance for people to see a softer, more eloquent, articulate side."

The Iranian Theater Festival, running March 3–26, features works by Iranians still in their native country, Iranian exiles, and Americans of Iranian descent. Some are old works; others are newly commissioned. Some are in English; a few are in Persian or Farsi. There will be solo pieces, plays with large ensembles, readings, excerpts, standup comedy, mixed media, and experimental productions.

"I think the goal was to cast as wide a net as possible," says Brick Theater co–artistic director Michael Gardner. "So the festival boasts shows about the 1979 revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, religion in Iran, contemporary Iran, mythological Iran, works from Iranian literature, and works that are not about Iran at all but represent Iranian artists. We've received permission to screen two works of Reza Abdoh's. This is very exciting for us, as Reza Abdoh was one of the leading avant-garde voices in the theater world over the last 30 years."

Though eclecticism is clearly a motif, some of the artists maintain that Iranian culture—as difficult to define as that may be—is the unifying element. It embodies such influences as Zoroastrianism, in addition to Islamic and European culture.

"It's a unique culture, Mideastern but not Arabic," says Wendy Coyle, an expert on Iran, a translator, and a writer, whose memoir "Iridescent Iran" was published last year. "Iranian theater is very sophisticated, with a lengthy tradition that goes back thousands of years. It's on par with world theater anywhere." Nonetheless, it's unfamiliar to most Westerners, despite the growing presence of Iranian films at cinemas around the world. The plays are rarely translated, Coyle says, suggesting that it's especially challenging to "translate" the play's cultural context. She says the stories are often told through complex metaphors designed to elude the censors. While a stage work may have meaning to Iranians who can decipher the codes, it's not always accessible to non-Iranian viewers.

Consider Mohammad Ebrahimian's "Three Eternal Days," which Coyle translated and Dominic D'Andrea is directing. It centers on Iran's war with Iraq but uses heightened language. According to Coyle, it has convoluted mythological and religious references, along with elements of Iranian Passion plays. Instead of producing a finished product, D'Andrea thought it would be more valuable to examine the play's historical and cultural context.

In a laboratory setting, Coyle, D'Andrea, the actors, and the playwright—who communicated with the team via Skype—spent time exploring "the meaning of the play, learning about Iran and Iranian theater tradition," says D'Andrea. "Our goal is to share with the audience what we've learned. It's a reading followed by a dialogue with the audience. If you take the stakes of production away, you can focus on meaning and cultural exchange."

Tradition vs. Modernity

Many pieces in the festival deal with the ongoing conflict between tradition and modernity as experienced by Iranian Americans. In "Cover Girl," Samiezade-Yazd talks about her evolving relationship with the veil worn by Muslim women—from comfort to embarrassment to acceptance. "It's ironic, but the veil was a kind of protection," she says. "When I took it off, I became aware of anti-Islamic racism. There were always snarky, passive-aggressive comments. But it was not in my face. 9/11 became an excuse to voice it."

In "Silken Veils" by Leila Ghaznavi, a young woman who is about to get married is emotionally paralyzed at the prospect of committing herself. Flashbacks to her traumatized childhood during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war are depicted using puppets and shadow projections. In the end, she is reconciled to the past and can move forward.

"Bootleg Islam," a one-woman show by standup comic Negin Farsad, recounts her experiences in Iran attending a cousin's wedding. The two women have wildly disparate lives. Farsad feels wonderfully free, but "guilt is sewn into the dynamic," she says. "It's survivor's guilt."

The actor's life is also explored. In Sade Namei's "In Medias Res," she explains her career choice and her love for the craft of acting. She also believes that it's her role as a theater artist to broaden the public's view of Iranians. She sees herself as a rebel and a voice for the oppressed.

Assurbanipal "Bani" Babilla's absurdist "Something Something Über Alles" depicts the demented life of a lonely and isolated actor who has little going for him, short of his striking resemblance to Hitler. Two gay pastry chefs befriend him and induct him into a Hitler-worshipping cult six miles below a Manhattan subway tunnel.

Babilla, who is considered one of the major Iranian experimental theater artists now living in exile, says, "I don't want to be original; I want to be myself. Basically, there are three themes in all my work—sex, politics, and religion— and all are inseparable. I do not force any theme into my work. I allow them to appear by themselves. This is natural because of who I am as an Iranian, a Presbyterian, and a homosexual. When I say my work is avant-garde, I mean I allow myself total freedom. This means that a play might be language-oriented, or language-free and improvised. I value humor. I take humor very seriously. As the saying goes: If the world were not so tragic, it would be very funny."

Babilla has had an extraordinary journey. Prior to the Iranian revolution, he was part of a "vibrant and stylistically varied" Iranian theater scene, he says. "You could see a range of work—from extremely traditional to very avant-garde. I was part of the avant-garde scene." But everything changed in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini and forces of Islamic fundamentalism took hold. Babilla found himself in serious trouble—not as a theater artist but as a visual artist. He had included several explicit nude self-portraits in an exhibition of his photographs, was put on trial, and had to flee the country.

"If I had stayed, most probably I'd be dead by now," he says. "As everyone knows, the authorities in Iran don't allow much that smacks of freedom of expression, which is anathema to strict religions. Any sign of joy or playfulness is forbidden." But the New York theater scene also disappoints him. "Obviously, money plays a huge role in American theater," he says. "I despise Broadway, and unfortunately, I have also witnessed the so-called avant-garde theater leaning towards Broadway, which makes me sad."

Forging Careers in America

Other festival participants are concerned with issues they face as Iranian actors. Ghaznavi, for example, says she has been able to play nonstereotypical roles because she is very light-skinned. But, she notes, there are limited opportunities for darker-skinned Iranian actors, who are still largely cast as abusive men or submissive women.

Farsad recalls an audition for background work in a commercial where she was told she was too ethnic. "To be in a crowd scene?" she asks rhetorically. "When I go out for ethnic roles, I'm told 'not ethnic enough.' "

Namei notes that though she is often mistaken for a Latina at auditions, she has not encountered limited opportunities as an Iranian. "Iran is a hot subject, and to be Iranian is posh," she says. She is looking forward to the future and hopes the festival will be her springboard: "I would love to expand the piece and perform it at Under the Radar at the Public."

Everyone interviewed is optimistic. Coyle looks to the theater in Iran. "The women who were banned from stage during the revolution have now re-emerged on stage," she says, "though they have to cover their hair and wear the Islamic garb. But they're now doing it in very innovative ways. In one play, an actress came on stage in a wig. Technically she was covering her hair. They just keep pushing the envelope. We're delighted."

But the best news is the existence of the festival itself. In a sentiment shared by everyone interviewed, perhaps Babilla sums it up best: "I most admire and love people who create bridges between religions, colors, and cultures. I hope this festival will be a bridge between cultures."

The Iranian Theater Festival runs March 3–26 at the Brick Theater, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y. For more info, call (718) 907-6189 or visit