Saturday, 31 December 2011


Agahi (Missing), a poem by Shafi’i Kadkani
Translated from Persian by Alan Williams

A child called Happiness has recently gone missing 
bright sparkling eyes
with flowing tresses and high hopes.
If anyone catches sight of her 
inform us 
this is our address:
Between the Persian Gulf 
and the Caspian Sea

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Iran Onscreen: Truth through the Prism

‘Sometimes self-censorship or social censorship is worse than actual censorship, so when I make a film I don't think about what is allowed and not allowed.’ 
– Jafar Panahi

by Dan Geist in Berlin, Tehran Bureau

Can a movie tell a story set in contemporary Iran without being seen as a "portrait of Iranian society"?

In re A Separation's Oscar dreams, should the Academy Awards be considered an arm of the U.S. State Department?

If cinema is dead, why do Iranian censors continue to pay it so much damned attention?

A few of the questions that linger from the conference "Cinema in Iran: Circulation, Censorship, and Cultural Production," held this past week in Berlin under the aegis of the Annenberg School for Communication's Iran Media Program. The two-day event drew scholars -- many of Iranian birth or heritage, many young and in midpursuit of doctorates -- based around the United States and Europe, as well as Israel, India, Australia, and Brazil.

By the very nature of its national focus, such a conference promotes readings of an ethnographic bent, but several presentations made clear the risks in taking individual films primarily as social portraiture, as Iranian movies often appear to be received in the West -- and, among films aimed at the foreign festival and arthouse market, often seem intended for such reception. Norma Claire Moruzzi of the University of Illinois at Chicago warned of what she called the "romanticization of Iran as a dystopia," routine in such internationally intended pictures. An apt caveat, though time pressures thwarted an exploration of the particular strokes employed in that sort of portraiture -- an important consideration, as regular festival attendance could similarly convince a credulous film lover that London is the lake of fire and Paris, perdition.

What of films that focus on a very specific aspect of the society in which they are set? Baharak Darougari of the University of Strasbourg looked at the different narrative strategies employed by three films -- Leila, directed by Dariush Mehrjui; Shokaran, directed by Behruz Afkhami; and Chaharshanbe-soori, directed by Asghar Farhadi -- to problematize the conventional treatment of polygamy. But whether arthouse or mainstream, like the films to which this trio stand less or more in opposition, can films consciously concerned with a sharply defined social problem do much to honestly inform the viewer about a culture when their topical program tends to flatten the social context?

Friday, 23 December 2011

One Born

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,
‘a mighty fortress is our God’,
But Christmas comes too often.
There’s not a single year forgotten
but that I think ‘Please fortify
my brain
with this campaign’.

I now announce
(in Christian spirit)
that Christmas comes too frequently,
theologically too plural!
I once was a duophysite
– two years between each one might well be fine –
but for a Trinitarian, three years is more divine.

Design the Church’s calendar
(society’s as well),
then once in three years
hit the pages with the news that Christ is born,
and fit to govern for a thousand more!
On Christly love and ethics,
the people all agree.

Our campaign slogan’s ‘One in Three!’ not ‘Three in One’.
Invent a reason,
colleagues, friends and retailers,
and manufacturers?
But no, it will not work.
For ‘Christmas is a yearly feast. We need it now. Beginning early.
In the autumn. Rejoice, then, now and later.’

But didn’t Meister Eckhart say
once, ‘Christ is born each minute
in my soul’?
So constant Christmases are more the thing
The laughter, giggles, whispering
And mysteries stored
Divinely in the word.

© Alan Williams 2011

Andrei Rublev, Trinity, 1411 or 1425-27, Tempera, 142 cm × 114 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Image courtesy Wikipedia 

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Possibilities, Paradoxes, and Our Moment of Painting

by Houman Harouni, Tehran Bureau

It's a good time for painting in Iran. In my visits, I make sure to go to the galleries in Tehran as often as I can. And I prefer to visit the ones that exhibit young artists most often, the galleries that are not geared for sales, but for the advancement of lesser-known painters. A great deal of energy is channeled into painting these days.

There are ways of measuring the impact of these artistic efforts. Some will measure them by their originality (whose measuring rod is almost exclusively not local), some by their relevance. And of course they will also be measured by the art market: how many paintings make it to international auctions, how much certain painters sell, at what prices, who is doing the buying. I am, however, more interested in what these channeled energies are expressing. For now, at least, I'm interested in what they reflect.

If there are more paintings being produced, it is partly because more paintings are being bought. It's a function of the growing stability of a wealthy class in North Tehran, willing to invest in the arts, and painting is the most investible art form. To that end, the inexplicably active art market in neighboring Dubai has also helped. There is also the relative reopening of Iran's actual and virtual borders: more artists can travel to the West, and, since the Internet, we do not have to wait for smuggled, expensive art books and catalogues to see the new trends. There are plenty of styles out there waiting to be applied to Iranian subjects, and there are plenty of painters willing to apply them.

Saturday, 17 December 2011


With a range of global sanctions against Iran, how does one buy Iranian art?

by Daniel Grant, Artnet

In March 2011, the Leila Heller Gallery in New York City held an exhibition of 38-year-old artist Shirin Fakhim’s provocative found-object sculptures of Tehran streetwalkers, her first solo show in Manhattan. A number of works were sold, for around $10,000 apiece.

But Fakhim lives in Iran, which has been targeted with a range of economic sanctions by the U.S. and other countries around the world. Most of the Iranian artists Leila Heller represents live and work outside of Iran, but not Fakhim, who resides in Tehran. Getting her artwork out of Iran and paying the artist for sales of her work in New York can be tricky.

According to regulations first established by the U.S. Department of the Treasury following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, “goods and services of Iranian origin may not be imported into the United States, either directly or through third countries.” A ban on “any brokering function from the United States or by U.S. persons, wherever located” is also in place. Banks in the U.S. cannot transfer money to Iranian banks.

So how is an art gallery devoted to showing contemporary Iranian art supposed to operate?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Iranian film industry thrives amid continuing censorship

Pirated versions of Iranian films sold on the streets of Tehran. Photographer: kamshots

By Sakina Shakil, The International

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s film industry has been thriving amid the turbulent political scene and in spite of strict censorship laws. The relationship between politics and film has been especially pronounced when Iran’s controversial presidential elections coincided with a burgeoning international recognition of the country’s film industry. Many Iranian films have competed in international film festivals and several were awarded prestigious prizes. Mr. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly won numerous awards including Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival award and the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009. Ms. Shirin Neshat won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival for Women Without Men.

Moreover, many of the latest Iranian films—many made by women—discuss women’s roles in Iran and how they have been developing in a country where politics, religion, and culture are deeply intertwined. Indeed, creativity often feeds off censorship. As Ms. Negar Mottahedeh, an associate professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Duke University and author of Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, told CNN, "film cultures have flourished oftentimes when they have been under restrictions."

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Nostalgia for the Past I Have Never Had

This article was originally written in Persian and published on Mardomak website. Read the original article in Persian here.

by Gelare Khoshgozaran

The YouTube video of Shirin Neshat’s TED Talk has by now been shared numerous times by a large number of Iranian Facebook users.

Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat explores the paradox of being an artist in exile: a voice for her people, but unable to go home. In her work, she explores Iran pre- and post-Islamic Revolution, tracing political and societal change through powerful images of women.

Shortly after the video was released on Youtube, a similar video of a TEDx Talk by another Iranian woman artist, Morehshin Allahyari, became available. The latter, though obviously not getting anywhere near as many hits as Neshat’s, was soon shared by users on social media websites and became very popular amongst the similar Facebook users or TED Talks fans.

Art activist Morehshin Allahyari teams artists from the US and Iran in a creative exchange designed to build bridges between the countries. She urges us to take action and think about how we can use our own talents to extend what collaboration can look like.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Iran via Video Current

Thomas Erben Gallery presents Iran via Video Current, A project of OtherIS – a curatorial initiative conceived to address cultural production and exchange with countries under international sanctions, curated by Amirali Ghasemi (Tehran) and Sandra Skurvida (New York)

Week-long screening of current video art from and in relation to Iran, until17 December 2011

The main question in transnational art production is who represents whom and for whom? This project engages the problem of representation via an ongoing exchange among participants in Iran and elsewhere, as conveyed in the two distinct, yet co-related video programs focused on Iran — one by Tehran-based artist and curator Amirali Ghasemi and another by New York-based curator and scholar Sandra Skurvida. Both curators started their research from their respective locales, yet both programs include artists who live in Iran and elsewhere around the world.

In her program entitled 1979/1357-, Skurvida revisits the sightlines of the most prominent, controversial Western observer of the Iranian Revolution, Michel Foucault. Both his advocacy and the ensuing critique of it reverberate in the appraisals of the recent and current events. The year denoted equally as “1979” and “1357” signifies the difference in time borne out of the societal spaces that are not the same. This negotiation unfolds in the works by Abbas Akhavan, Morehshin Allahyari, Amir Bastan, Bahar Behbahani, Kaya Behkalam & Azin Feizabadi, Barbad Golshiri, Arash Fayez, Mirak Jamal, Farhad Kalantary, Sohrab Kashani, Gelare Khoshgozaran, Amitis Motevalli, Nosrat Nosratian, Anahita Razmi, Jinoos Taghizadeh, Negar Tahsili, and Katayoun Vaziri.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Flying Fingers

 There are very good reasons why Mohammad Reza Mortazavi is known as the drummer with the "fastest hands in the world"; listening to him perform, one gets the impression that one is listening to an ensemble of drummers playing a variety of instruments. Marian Brehmer reports

 Iranian Tombak Virtuoso Mohammad Reza Mortazavi

By Marian Brehmer,

It is not exactly the most likely of settings for an Iranian solo drummer. The trendy "Lido" club in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin is the type of venue that is more usually frequented by indie or electro bands. With no seats for the audience, it is standing room only.

On the stage are four drums – two Iranian frame drums, or dafs, and two tombak hand drums – silently awaiting the animating touch that will give them life. The daf is the rhythmic heart of traditional Sufi music and is also used to accompany prayer and chanting in many Muslim countries, while the goblet-shaped tombak is the most important percussion instrument in traditional Persian music.

There is tension in the air; the concert is late in starting. The "Lido" is packed, the atmosphere stuffy, and the sense of expectation almost palpable. It is amazing how many young people have come along. This is a very different gathering from the usual Iranian exiles that so often make up the lion's share of listeners at a concert of Persian music.

A ripple of applause suddenly greets the appearance on stage of a slim, almost inconspicuous man. When he says a few words into the microphone, Mohammad Reza Mortazavi seems shy, perhaps even too shy for the stage. Once he has a drum in his hand, however, a transformation takes place and he begins to work his magic, mesmerising his audience. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Clandestine Trade

By Melik Kaylan, WSJ

Two utterly disparate artworks now on view in Manhattan—a centuries-old masterpiece and a modernist grotesque of immense price—are linked by a history that has remained largely in the shadows. At the Metropolitan Museum's newly reopened Islamic galleries you can see the first, the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, or parts of it at least. A gloriously illuminated manuscript from the 16th century, generally considered one of Muslim civilization's foremost artistic expressions, it came to be known as the "Houghton" Shahnama. Why it is no longer called that, why the Met has some 78 of the initial 258 pictorial folios, and how and why the remainder of the original volume went back to Iran in a clandestine swap for the second artwork are all part of the story.

You can see that second work, simply known as "Woman III," at the Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 9 as part of "de Kooning: A Retrospective." Willem de Kooning's prominent place in modernist art needs no expounding here. Suffice to say the painting last changed hands, into the possession of hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen, in 2006 for $137.5 million. Mr. Cohen purchased "Woman III" from entertainment magnate David Geffen, who had acquired it from the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1994 via a Swiss dealer. "Woman III" originally went to Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art in the 1970s during the last shah's time and had remained there since.

Up until 1994, the Shahnama's owner was Arthur Houghton Jr. of the Corning Glass Houghtons. He gave Harvard its Houghton Library and presided for many years as chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic. Four years after Houghton's death in 1990, "Woman III" was exchanged for what remained intact of the Shahnama (118 paintings with 500 pages of calligraphy plus exquisite binding). That much is on the public record. And when the intricate deal was done and "Woman III" sold off, some $9.5 million went to the Houghton family trust. Virtually unknown, however, is the role of Arthur Houghton III in the stealthy deal—one that required steely nerves, considering his job at the time. A longtime foreign-service officer, he worked in an office of the White House, advising on international strategies in the war on drugs while Iran was still under an official U.S. embargo dating from the 1979-81 hostage crisis. Then, as now, relations between the countries were icy. The younger Mr. Houghton remembers the mood as "extreme hostility bordering on paranoia."

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Poet, Activist Remembers Life in Iran Pre-Revolution

"At that time, nobody paid attention to what girls did when they got together." 

Q&A | by Rasheed Abou-Alsamh in Brasília

Saghi Ghahraman is an Iranian lesbian poet and gay rights activist who lives in Toronto. Born in 1957 in the holy city of Mashhad, she studied classic and contemporary Persian literature at Azarabadegan University in Tabriz. She left Iran in 1982 after attacks on the women's organization she worked at, and was a refugee in Turkey until 1987 when she emigrated to Canada.

She now works with PEN Canada's Exiled Writer program, and is on the editorial board of the literary magazine Descan. She has published three collections of poetry and one collection of short stories. She also serves on the board of the Iranian Queer Organization.

Ghahraman recently spoke about what life was like for her growing up as a lesbian during the Shah's regime and just after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Lesbians in Iran do not get much attention internationally. Is this because the Iranian authorities pay less attention to them than to gay men? Are some of them also arrested and charged with being homosexual?

The gay movement in Iran started right before the Revolution, and then picked up again around 1990, with gay men leading the fight without any lesbian involvement for a very long time. Lesbians appeared very slowly and reluctantly around 2005 or 2006, and without much fuss or pretense in making their presence felt as part of a social movement. So the attention is rightly given to gay men.

Iranian lesbians were heavily oppressed by the Iranian women's movement and its concerns. Lesbians were told to be quiet so as to prevent any labeling of the movement by the regime. They argued that all activities in the women's movement should deal only with Muslim women's requirements, lest the movement [be] attacked by the regime with allegations of Westernization of the movement.

Thursday, 1 December 2011


Babak Golkar explores shifting meanings through picture frames

  Blue Mosque, 2011, by Babak Golkar, who uses echoes of form in picture frames to explore fluidity in meaning. Courtesy the artist / Third Line

by Christopher Lord , The National

When we look at a painting, the ornate frame around it could almost disappear into the wall. It is separate from or subordinate to what we want to see.

But if we then concentrate on the wall around the painting, the frame becomes, in our eyes, part of the artwork. The question arises: what is the frame there for at all?

Conundrums like this are prime fodder for the conceptual kiln that fires Babak Golkar's art. To these questions, the Vancouver-based Iranian artist brings architectural sense and a head for complicated lines of inquiry. Parergon, Golkar's latest exhibition at The Third Line in Dubai, satisfies all these sides of his practice.

Golkar has produced a solo show that focuses entirely on the frame itself. He's created eight hollow wooden frames, painted in a single bold colour using acrylic. The ornate ridges on the surface have been built to evoke the outline of several architectural wonders from around the region. At points, the continuity of the frame breaks, and these ridges cast a perfect silhouette of the building on to the gallery wall.

The idea came from the essay Parergon in the French philosopher Jaques Derrida's 1987 book, The Truth In Painting. In it, Derrida discusses the way that a frame's relationship with the art it surrounds comes and goes, depending on where we focus - the wall or the image. Golkar talks about the frame "melting" between these points, and this process sparked Golkar's imagination.