Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Iranian Artist's 'Pill Protest' Highlights Harmful Side Effects of Sanctions

by Courtney Brooks, RFE/RL

Young Iranian artist Sanaz Sohrabi has a mission: to raise awareness of the impact crippling international sanctions are having on ordinary Iranians, especially those living with illnesses.

She took the first step this week, setting up a small performance-art protest across the street from UN headquarters in New York.

Sohrabi, 24, sat silently before thousands of pill capsules filled with strips of paper telling the stories of 40 Iranians who say they have not been able to attain medicine or medical help as a result of the sanctions. The aim is to show that each drug shortage affects a large number of people.

Speaking before the protest, Sohrabi said her sister, who works as a pharmacist in Tehran and sees the medicine shortage firsthand, inspired her to raise awareness of the problem.

"I'm really hopeful that this project will raise awareness among people, and also that [it will fill] an empty part of the puzzle of the sanctions -- which is only a word but it involves people's actual lives," Sohrabi says. "I wanted to fill that empty place in the puzzle of the sanctions, because that was a very, very empty part, because no one knows what happens in the daily life of people who have to go to drugstores, have to go to the hospitals."

Sohrabi says she eventually hopes to fill 26,000 capsules. Photo courtesy of RFE/RL

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Crossroads of Art and Human Rights: Sketches of Iran

by Omid Memarian , The Huffington Post

The following is excerpted from the introduction to Omid Memarian's new book Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights:

One day in January 2003, my friend and colleague Ali Reza Eshraghi republished an old American cartoon in the Hayat No newspaper -- a cartoon the Special Court for the Clergy deemed insulting to the Islamic Republic's founding cleric Ayatollah Khomeini because they thought its character looked like him. The cartoon was actually an American satire of Franklin Roosevelt, drawn in the 1930s long before Iran was even an Islamic Republic, but that made no difference. Ali Reza was sent to Evin Prison where he spent two months behind bars; the Hayat No was banned and dozens of journalists lost their jobs.

Three years earlier, in January 2000, another cartoonist friend of mine, Nikahang Kowsar, drew a cartoon depicting a crocodile whose name rhymed with Mesbah Yazdi, an extremist cleric in Qom. The cartoon angered the powerful cleric's supporters to the point where they took to the streets. Mesbah supporters gathered for three days in Qom and other cities and did not end their protest until Nikahang was arrested and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement ordering the end of the gatherings.

Ministry of Culture authorities, Iran's security apparatus, and extremist conservative media could not tolerate even the vague similarity of cartoon characters to the country's officials, much less an attempt to actively caricature them. Both of my friends received death threats, though thankfully both escaped that fate.

For me, these two incidents illuminated the power of political cartoons: the depth of their penetration, the breadth of their reach, and their capacity to cause a cartoonist or editor to face the prospect of death.

Monday, 17 December 2012

MesoCity Tehran Workshop: Art, Ecology and the City

Photo courtesy of Tavoos

by  Sara Kamalvand, Universe in Universe

Tehran is the biggest city between Istanbul and Mumbai, a city of 13 million in the desert. Like all other cities in Iran it was positioned strategically at the foot of a mountain in order to source water. But all this is forgotten today, and the urban sprawl has come to erase the memory of the underground water irrigation network: the qanat. It isn’t surprising that this organic water infrastructure was disregarded in the sixties when models of western modernization were pasted for the growth of Central-Asia’s capital. But today’s numbers are shocking: over six hundred abandoned underground galleries flush two hundred million cubic liters of wasted water annually.

HydroCity, an international research lab at the intersection of art, ecology and the city recently led a workshop on Tehran’s qanats at the University of Tehran, School of Architecture. HydroCity has a mandate to offer visionary proposals for real time challenges. The workshop was in partnership with Paris’s Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, through French philosopher Chris Younès’s Sustainable Development Project for Cities program. The question wasn’t how to re-vive Tehran’s qanats in their traditional form, but to imagine what place this infrastructure can play in a contemporary context.

Iran is a desert but with mountains, a condition that allowed the Iranian civilization to invent the qanat, an ancestral underground irrigation infrastructure that led to the invention of the garden and by extension the city. The qanat directs water from the underground aquifers deposited at the foothill of a mountain by infiltration of melted snow. Seventy percent of all cities in Iran are thus by a mountain. Imitating the movements of water on soil, an underground gallery is dug directly in the bedrock, with a well every twenty or so meter. So the qanat is basically an invisible line punctuated by dots. Relying purely on gravity, the natural slope of the ground is used to distribute fresh water to lower sources. When it makes surface, the water is generally distributed in the city through a network of open-air canals. In fact in Tehran, the historic city starts exactly where the qanats end, where the water makes surface.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

On Iranians, Drinking Wine, and Cultural Stereotyping

by Touraj Daryaee, Tehran Bureau

Foreign fantasies of excess versus a tradition of moderation.

From archaeological excavations that suggest northwest Iran was one of the earliest places where wine was produced -- more than 6,000 years ago -- to the tale of medieval French knights bringing grapes from the city of Shiraz, where the great Persian poet Hafez lived and wrote about his love of drink, there are many historical associations between wine and the land of Iran. In more recent times, Chateau Sardasht is still remembered by those who lived in Iran before the 1979 Revolution. Nowadays, visitors to Napa Valley can view the Persopolitan-looking Darioush Winery, one of California's leading vintners.

But there are other, more fanciful observations that inform the Western notion that Iranian culture was veritably drowning itself in wine in antiquity. Athenaeus, a Greek author who wrote about all things related to food, mentions that the Achaemenid king Darius the Great had the following inscription on his tomb: "I was able to drink a great deal of wine and to bear it well." Such an inscription is nowhere to be found. A similar picture is painted of Xerxes the Great in the biblical Book of Esther (1:10), where we read that the "heart of the king was merry with wine." Some commentators have suggested that the Achaemenid ruler was drunk when he ordered the beautiful young girls brought before him, so he could choose a new queen.

The fifth century BCE historian Herodotus claimed not only that the Persians were very fond of wine, but that they routinely made important decisions while drunk on it. According to Herodotus, the day after such a drunken deliberation, the Persians would reconsider their decision and if they still approved, adopt it. This is, to put it mildly, a highly unlikely image of a group of people who were able to carve out one of the largest empires in antiquity and sustain it for two centuries. Are we to think that they just got lucky over and over again when they were drunk out of their minds? This is certainly the view that the Greeks promoted and Iranian irrationality remains a topos in Western culture. A striking recent example comes in the 2009 movie by Bill Maher, Religulous, in which as soon as Iranians are mentioned, there is a scene of a party and people drinking alcohol out of the bottle in a frenzy.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

A Gulf, a Strait, and a Sea

Images of Bandar-e Abbas, Chah Bahar, Hormuz, and Qeshm. 

by Riccardo Zipoli, Tehran Bureau

In January 1975, having left Tehran and my university lessons for a short vacation, I set off on my first journey in the Persian Gulf. My destination was the island of Hormuz, where I wanted to see the colored mountains, which some friends had described to me.

I arrived around noon and rented a scooter to tour round the island. This trip was to deeply influence my subsequent experience of Iran. I discovered a set of very suggestive forms and colors: crusts of brilliant white salt, iron-rich red soil, dark volcanic rocks, springs and ponds with transparent water colored by minerals, some bushes, isolated trees, jagged hills, at times rising up sharply, and an intense blue sky.

My initial impression was that I had been plunged into a world of unreal landscapes. Now, so many years later, I understand the reason for this better. Those landscapes rich in forms and colors were as if stripped of that third dimension which usually characterizes our everyday world. Perhaps it was the strong, very clear light, the incredibly bright hues, the limpidness and almost complete absence of shadows, the deep silence and the total solitude, but those scenes seemed to be contrived. They appeared to have been portrayed on a canvas, but with no perspective, in a style reminiscent of miniature painting.

Since then that type of landscape has stuck in my mind as a kind of ideal model that I have always sought to find again and to photograph on my many trips to Iran. At that time, however, photography had not yet become a predominant part of my education, a part that eventually coincided with my way of observing the world. So I took only a few shots and was more interested in admiring and trying to understand rather than record my feelings for aesthetic purposes. I am particularly fond of some of those photographs (shot in Bandar-e Abbas and Hormuz), which are now included in an exhibition that opens this week on Hormuz itself.

I returned to the area twice: in 1980 (the photographs of the island of Qeshm and some photographs of Bandar-e Abbas are from that time) and 1995 (when I visited and photographed the area of Chah Bahar). In those circumstances, too, I only made brief trips, characterized more by the pleasure of the experience than by my efforts to take photographs. Inspired by the idea of the current exhibition, I searched my archives of these two last journeys for some images to set beside those of Hormuz. The aim was to construct a small collection that, apart from being my own personal travelogue of those three distant journeys, would also convey an idea of the places in a blend of memory and documentation. At that time I was still working with slides which, because of the many years that have elapsed, now inevitably show signs of aging (especially the grain and the colors). But overall the material is in a satisfactory condition.

Friday, 14 December 2012

From Kiarostami to Panahi: The spellbinding films of Iran

The following article is based on a reproduction of a piece by Vaibhav Vats from 2009, published in the op-ed pages of the Indian Express. It was written at the height of the Green Movement; often politics does lead to the production of spellbinding art.

Through an astute lens

As the crisis in Iran escalates, the pictures of protests and unrest would not have surprised those who follow Iranian cinema closely. Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian cinema has developed a subtle language of dissent, circumnavigating the dreaded censors of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture and holding a mirror to the country’s fissures. Film critic Godfrey Cheshire wrote in Newsweek, “Iranian films show us a society struggling with itself, trying to reconcile cultural traditions with political choices, vaunted ideals with thorny realities.”

The most visible struggle, for those of us who view Iran from the outside, is the issue of women’s rights. Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, a film about the forced confinement of two women, and Jafar Panahi’s Offside, which trained its lens on the exclusion of women from football stadiums, are among several such acclaimed films.

But to understand how Iranian cinema articulates its political protest, Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten is particularly revealing. In the film, a dashboard cam eavesdrops on a divorcee’s impromptu conversations with fellow passengers in car journeys across Tehran which bring Iran’s sexual and social policies into sharp focus. In one scene, a camera focusses on a character as she scratches wildly around her hijab in the summer heat. In another, the veil drops in a moment of catharsis but is quickly put back on — Kiarostami has made his point by showing us the exhilaration of the unlocked genie. In an environment where dialogue can swiftly be clamped down upon, Iranian cinema has mastered the art of subversive suggestion, without leaving any footprints.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Impact of Sanctions on Iranian Society and Artists

Economic sanctions are not only shattering the lives of the Iranian people but also strangling Iran’s social and cultural development. Iran is headed for a humanitarian catastrophe unless steps are taken to avert it. 

by Mehrnaz Shahabi, Fair Observer°

For 33 years now, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran has been the target of US economic sanctions, which have increased in scope and severity over time. The impact of sanctions on populations is not always quantifiable and can be contradictory. Despite their negative impact in isolating and hindering Iran’s economic progress, and the tragic loss of life due to the boycott of spare parts for the aging Iranian airline, in so far as necessity is the mother of invention, sanctions in many instances have acted as an impetus for technological progress; and the experience of success and survival through adversity has infused a collective sense of empowerment and self-confidence.

When I was asked in July to talk about the impact of sanctions on Iranian society, the idea was to place some emphasis on the arts and artists. Since then, the reality of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding as a result of the economic warfare on Iran has shifted the emphasis, by necessity, from the artists to their audience, since it is inconceivable to think of arts separately from the audience at which it is directed.

The current sanctions by the US and the EU, under the pretext of a manufactured dispute over Iran’s civilian nuclear programme, are comprehensive sanctions against Iran’s economy for inflicting intentional collective punishment. The damage to the economy and the injury inflicted on the lives of the population in all respects is unambiguous and lethal.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces

An Interview with Jennifer Heath, Writer, Activist and Curator

by Valerie Behiery, Islamic Art historian, Ph.D., IAM

"My motivations are complex, even somewhat convoluted, but in a nutshell, I grew up in veiling cultures –both heavily Roman Catholic and Muslim– and thus know from experience that what the West perceives as the whys and wherefores of veiling –primarily oppressive, antiquated customs of the “Other”– are often distorted. I wanted to dispute those notions." (Jennifer Heath)
Jennifer Heath is an independent scholar, award-winning cultural journalist, critic, curator, and activist. Her most current exhibitions are “The Veil: Visible & Invisible Spaces,” which has been touring the United States since 2008 and “Water, Water Everywhere: Paean to a Vanishing Resource,” which began traveling this year. Others include the renowned “Black Velvet: The Art We Love to Hate.” She is the author of eleven books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics and Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women (with Ashraf Zahedi) both published by the University of California Press. Children of Afghanistan: The Path to Peace (with Ashraf Zahedi) is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press, and her collection, The Jewel and the Ember: Love Stories from the Islamic World, is currently under consideration. Future art exhibitions include “The Map is Not the Territory: Parallel Paths-Palestinian, Native American, Irish,” to launch at The Jerusalem Center Gallery in September 2013.
The exhibit, The Veil: Visible and Invisible Spaces, is part of a larger project of yours to unpack the veil which also includes a book. Why did you find it important to address what has become a charged symbol of supposed cross-cultural conflict with both words and images? Tell us also bit about what made you want to address the veil.
I love that you say “unpack the veil” – because that is precisely what we’re doing. Unpacking the history and the universality of the veil and veiling practices, so as to bring it to light, engage received wisdom and challenge stereotypes. My motivations are complex, even somewhat convoluted, but in a nutshell, I grew up in veiling cultures –both heavily Roman Catholic and Muslim– and thus know from experience that what the West perceives as the whys and wherefores of veiling –primarily oppressive, antiquated customs of the “Other”– are often distorted. I wanted to dispute those notions. This is also why I wrote The Scimitar and the Veil: Extraordinary Women of Islam. In order to understand the multiple truths inherent in any issue, and speak those truths to power, we must contextualize. The book, The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics (University of California Press, 2008) tackled the veil from as many cultural and historical angles as possible –Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, various secular and pagan and pre-Abrahamic points of view, male veiling, mourning, the arts– by writers who approached the topic via personal, political and/or scholarly paths. Having had a visual arts, as well as a literary background, I wanted also to see what artists were thinking and doing. And since I am interested in issues of social and environmental justice, I wanted to combat what I perceive as violations of civil liberties and discrimination against veiling practices, particularly in Europe.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Iranian unconscious

Is psychoanalysis possible in the Islamic Republic of Iran? This is the question that Gohar Homayounpour poses to herself, and to us, at the beginning of “Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran”; a memoir of displacement, nostalgia, love, and pain.

by Christopher de Bellaigue, TLS

Freudian psychoanalysis may have lost ground in the West, but not, according to Gohar Homayounpour, in Tehran, where “today’s sexuality is still Freud’s sexuality”. Over the past five years of ushering patients on to her couch in the Iranian capital, Homayounpour has analysed more than enough Oedipus complexes and incestuous dreams to inspire this short, perky, Persian-hued homage. Indeed, as she notes, Freud’s sexual theories have a distinctive strain in Tehran, where the collective fantasy is “anchored in an anxiety of disobedience that wishes for an absolute obedience. The sons, while desiring to rebel, know unconsciously that if they do so they might get killed, and so in a way they settle for the fear of castration”.

Is Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran the novel that Homayounpour, as she tells us, promised her own father? The diary he recommended she write instead? We are never quite sure, but whatever the precise blend of fact and fiction, as the book advances and an agreeably varied selection of Tehranis troop through – a combative francophone painter; a butch lorry driver who is scared of the dark; someone’s moll who informs her, “I have a very analyzable character” – it becomes clear that Homayounpour’s literary goal is less to map the Freudian unconscious of her patients, their repressed wishes and memories, than to shine a light on a subject that interests her even more. The book, as she writes in her introduction, is “a note to myself”.

The author takes an original approach to the ruling theocracy: ignore it 

Much of what Homayounpour has to say about her own story, as an Iranian exile who returns home from America to find that she feels like a stranger, is interesting and revealing. There are a few awkward notes, such as her repeated low bows to eminent Freudians (“as Julia Kristeva tells us so elegantly”) and an ill-advised detour into literary criticism. Mostly, though, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran uses the interaction between analyst and patient to administer a laudable corrective to received wisdom. The image of Iran nurtured by most of our media consists of an unspeakable government bent on destroying Israel and repressing ordinary Iranians. This is not to say that the image is without truth – only that it is incomplete to the point of travesty. Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran features no nukes and Homayounpour’s account of her patients’ neuroses concedes little to cultural specificities. Hers is an original approach to the ruling theocracy: to ignore it. One foreign friend to whom she showed an early draft wondered where the ayatollahs were. “How about you change your title to Going Crazy in Tehran?”

Friday, 7 December 2012

Life's pain and beauty written on the wall

Parastou Forouhar is channelling her art through elaborate calligraphy.

 Parastou Forouhar at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: Paul Harris. Image courtesy of The Age

by Linda Morris, The Age

FROM her vantage point on a ladder against a wall in the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Parastou Forouhar is applying paintbrush fragments of Farsi script.

Unrestrained by paper, lines drift down walls and cross the grey floor. The effect is tendrils of tree roots and branches reaching for sunlight. Standing in the centre of the installation, The Written Room, the gallery's acting director, Suhanya Raffel, thinks of it as ''stepping into music. It's a unique piece of work. It's truly wonderful.''

The intricate calligraphy carries no literal meaning, its intentionally figurative and ornamental abstractions drawing on the ancient heritage of text and decoration in Persian culture, and personal trauma in the region of modern-day Iran.

The Written Room is one of the most arresting of the new works commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the ground-breaking Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, a celebration of contemporary artistic life in Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

Forouhar's growing international reputation includes two New York exhibitions: Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum of Modern Art (2005) and Iran Inside Out at the Chelsea Art Museum. She has previously shown in Melbourne and her Swanrider (2004) photograph was acquired by GOMA in 2009 after its showing in the exhibition 21st Century: Art in the First Decade.

''The work is like a second skin for the architecture,'' Forouhar says of The Written Room. ''It uses the architecture to spread itself in the space, but at the same time breaks the rule of architecture because it is not obeying the up-down direction that architecture might have. It's got a lot to do with me as an immigrant trying to redefine the space for myself, but also dealing with the situation that my mother tongue loses its function in everyday life … it becomes a memory, it becomes a kind of ambiguity between sadness and injury and open to other kinds of perceptions.''

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Iranian Writers, Poets Call For End To Book Censorship

"Iran is one of the rare countries at the beginning of the 21st century where authors have to ask for a license from the state in order to publish their books, even though the requirement is not stated in the constitution," the letter says.
by Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL

More than 100 Iranian writers, poets, and translators have called for an end to book censorship.

The call was made in an open letter published on December 2 on the Pendar website that calls for an end to the requirement that writers obtain authorization from the Culture Ministry before publishing.

The needed authorization is increasingly difficult to obtain, according to writers and publishers, who say censorship has intensified in the Islamic republic in recent years.

The group of intellectuals  -- some based inside and some outside Iran -- includes prominent poet Simin Behbahani and writer Mohammad Ghaed.

In the letter, they write, "Iran is one of the rare countries in the beginning of the 21st century where authors have to ask for a license from the state in order to publish their books, even though the requirement  is not stated in the constitution."

The letter says increased censorship in Iran has led to a decrease in the number of books that are being published.

It goes on to say, "In reality, this method amounts to hostage taking of freedom of expression, creativity, and the livelihood of writers by the government in order to impose its ideas on the authors."

Writer and poet Farkhondeh Hajizadeh, a signatory, told RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Mohammad Zarghami that the situation had led to self-censorship among writers and publishers.

Currently the publishers have turned into censors because if their books have issues, it is considered negative for them. Only two pages of my last book got a license for publication. We've all turned into censors in a world where nothing remains secret. Those who are censors have no understanding for books. It's also worth noting that fortunately some of the censors have become writers.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Taking Back the Streets: Iranian Graffiti Artists Negotiating Public Space

Icy and Sot; “The Old” Tehran, Iran, Image courtesy of Ajam

by Rustin Zarkar, Ajam Media Collective

On the eve of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, the Iranian public sphere was transformed into places where information could be exchanged verbally, textually, and visually. The walls came alive with opinions and the chants of the masses. After revolutionary forces under Ayatollah Khomeini triumphed and became institutionalized, these same walls became the space for the dissemination of new revolutionary values. This co-optation, however, meant silencing other views from finding space on the walls. Despite this, since the late 1980′s Iranian street art culture has emerged again and has refused to be silenced. Today, Tehran’s walls are the site of competition between the messages of government murals, graffiti artists, Green movement political activists, and pro-government Basiji groups.

During the 1970’s, a sizable percentage of the Iranian population was illiterate. Printed literature were of little use to the masses of urban poor, thus increasing the role of visual and audible revolutionary sources. Ideologues soon realized the power of pictorial imagery and dramatically delivered anti-Pahlavi sentiment. Since then, Iranians from all walks of life have been bombarded with revolutionary slogans, themes, and motifs represented by images. The public square and open street have served as living canvases for artists– whether state-sanctioned or independent– to express emotion and ideas through the art of persuasion.

Since the 1960’s, visual street art in North America and Europe has traditionally been associated with youth, counter culture, and bohemianism. However in the Iranian case, the revolution and subsequent events led to the eventual domination and co-optation of the public sphere by the state, and thus was utilized by the government to display aspects of the ideological grand-narrative of the Islamic Republic. While the city was not entirely devoid of independently produced visual art, the most visible forms of graphic representation were articulated by the powers-that-be to instill the populace with mobilizing conviction. The most apparent expressions of this tactic were produced during the Iran-Iraq War, where buildings and walls were covered with the faces of Iranian youth who lost their lives in the 8-year-long bloodshed.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Mémoire d’Éléphant

Memory, Martyrdom, and Mourning in the Land of the Noble
Sayeh Sarfaraz, mémoire d'éléphant, 2012, exhibition view, Image courtesy of Galerie Antoine Ertaskiran

by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT

Looking out the window of a decrepit Peykan taxicab cruising through Tehran, inhaling a noxious medley of exhaust, esfand, and Bahman cigarette smoke as your sweat-soaked shirt melds with disintegrating faux leather and the late summer sun singes your brow, a truth dawns upon you: the martyr lives. No, you think to yourself, as you stare into a pair of youthful, forlorn eyes on a decaying edifice, he is not dead. He did not willingly walk over an Iraqi mine in vain. He did not give his childhood hopes and dreams to the wind. Regarding him and his fallen brethren whose faded, ever-present faces adorn almost every other wall and building, you realise that in this moribund, ashen city, he is more alive than ever. He is not dead, he doth not sleep. He hath awakened from the dream of life – or so Shelley once remarked.

Like the proverbial murals and posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, the shahid (martyr) occupies a central, unflinching position in the Tehran cityscape. His solemn, almost omniscient gaze follows you everywhere. Virtually every street, passage, and alleyway is named after him or one of his fallen brothers in arms. The tulips sprouted from his blood are strewn everywhere, it seems, embellishing the otherwise drab and industrial complexes dotting the city with an aura that is as romantic as it is banal. You can run, but you can’t hide. The martyr doesn’t want you to forget him. His mother, who visits the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery every week to wash the dust from his grave doesn’t want you to forget him. The authorities don’t want you to forget him, and in your heart of hearts, neither do you; although, with a presence like that, is there any way you could forget him?

The martyr in question made his sacrifice during the Iran-Iraq war (1980 – 1988) – a scathing memory which ever remains burned in the modern Iranian psyche, and a lasting reminder of Iran’s unlikely victory against all odds. The ‘imposed war’, as it is still popularly referred to, was yet another violent, bloody episode in Iranian history, which occurred only a few decades ago. Having been invaded myriad times by neighbouring nations and foes – Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, and Turks, to name a few – and having had its fair share of tyrants recline on the imperial throne, the martyr has always been a familiar face among the Iranian people. Among its many resplendent sons, it is perhaps the wronged heroes of a bygone age that have tenaciously endured in the hearts and minds of Iranian everywhere. The legendary Sivayash, the brazen patriots Babak-e Khorramdin and Mirza Kuchak Khan, the visionary Amir Kabir, as well as the Shi’a Imams Ali, Hossein, and Reza are but a few martyrs whose exploits are ever praised, and their tragic fates lamented. Since time immemorial, the land of the noble has been a nation of martyrs and mourners.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Reports from Tehran

Aerial view of Tehran, 2012. Photo by Mohsen Shahmardi. Image courtesy of ArtAsiaPacific

from Issue 81 (Nov/Dec 2012), ArtAsiaPacific

On June 14, 2009, the municipality of Tehran stated that three million protestors had taken to the streets. This number was unprecedented in recent times. People marched against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, his failed economic programs and his strict upholding of barriers on freedom of speech. He had, in the first four years of his presidency, faithfully continued the Islamic Revolution’s restrictive cultural agenda.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s policy toward art and culture was indomitable from the start. The definition of arts in primary and secondary school curricula was, and remains, limited to calligraphy, still-life drawing and graphic-design fundamentals. The word “music” is completely absent from school texts. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance keeps a tight rein on all exhibitions, events and performances, displaying extreme sensitivity to nudity, political remarks or anything that might capture the public’s attention.

After a phase of “social realist painting” in the 1980s came a protracted tendency toward abstraction in art practice and art education. Perhaps the form made it easier to evade official constraints, or maybe it was an attempt to stay up-to-date with Western trends, of which abstraction was considered an outstanding achievement. At the turn of the millennium, however, strategies of visual representation underwent a crucial shift. In a sweeping movement, the art scene of Tehran embraced new artistic media and began to reflect on sociopolitical topics and everyday issues.

This tendency received support from Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which in its heyday from 1998 to 2005 under director Alireza Sami Azar hosted several “New Art” exhibitions as well as retrospectives of Iranian modernists. This ambitious program culminated in 2005 with an exhibition drawing on its extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century Western art.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Iran’s push into Egyptian film?

by Michael Rubin, AEI

The Islamic Revolution in Iran ushered in a period of enmity between Iran and Egypt. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader, made enmity toward and a firm belief in the illegitimacy of Israel a pillar of the new regime’s ideology. He put Egypt—the only Arab country to recognize Israel—in Iran’s sites. Relations deteriorated further after the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat: rather than condemn Sadat’s murder, the Iranian leadership celebrated it, even naming a Tehran street after Khalid Islambouli, Sadat’s assassin. Over the next three decades Iranian leaders regularly belittled Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, as a “pharaoh,” castigating both his dictatorial ways (Iranian regime rhetoric regularly depicts the Islamic Republic as a democracy) and implying that he belonged to the pre-Islamic world of the jahaliyya, the age of ignorance. Efforts at rapprochement between Iran and the largest Arab country repeatedly fell flat as Iranian hardliners castigated their reformist counterparts’ calls for improved relations with Egypt as a betrayal of both basic Islamic principles and Khomeini’s vision. Mubarak’s fall, however, coupled with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, led to hopes—at least in Tehran— for a renaissance in relations, if not a new Tehran-Cairo axis.

It is against this backdrop that this short excerpt from the semiofficial, hardline Fars News Agency, is interesting. While Tehran and Cairo have yet to re-establish full diplomatic relations— probably because of objections from Riyadh and Doha, both of whom are major donors to the faltering Egyptian economy—the Iranian Interests Section in Cairo is becoming increasingly more active and taking a far higher profile.

The Iranian encouragement to the Egyptian film industry is important. Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arab world. From Tangiers to the Tigris, Arabs watch Egyptian soap operas and full-length comedies. It is the Egyptian dominance of film that has led to the Egyptian dialect of Arabic becoming the most widely understood, perhaps even more so than the stodgy and formal “Modern Standard” dialect taught at most universities and in diplomatic parlors. Throughout the Mubarak years, Egyptian cinema has also been political. The Egyptian leadership used films like “Al-Irhabi” (The Terrorist) and “Al-Irhab wal Kebab” (Terrorism and Kebab) to satirize and ridicule Islamist groups. Having taken control, the Muslim Brotherhood sought its own revenge, trying and sentencing Adel Emam, the star of the films and Egypt’s best known comedian of the silver screen, to three months in prison for insulting Islam.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Innovator

Iranian Singer-Songwriter Mohsen Namjoo

Mohsen Namjoo's visionary musical style has struck a chord with audiences both in Iran and beyond. Not only does the music break with tradition, it also reconciles Iran's young generation with the nation's classical musical heritage.

by Marian Brehmer,

Mohsen Namjoo was born in Torbat-e-Jam in the Khorasan region. This area in northeastern Iran, which used to include parts of modern Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, occupies a special place in Iranian history. It was here, on the outskirts of the Islamic empire, that Persian Sufism first blossomed. Later, Ferdowsi, regarded as the father of Persian poetry, wrote Iran's national epic Shahnameh in Khorasan. He was succeeded in the centuries that followed by many other lyricists writing verses and melodies in Khorasan.

Every classical musician in Iran is aware of the legacy of these great masters. They were the ones who once penned mystical lines in florid pictorial language, thereby creating the Dastgahs. These sophisticated melodic systems form the basis upon which the Ostad (master) improvises his song. The tradition has remained intact to this day.

Mohsen Namjoo began taking tuition in classical Persian music at the age of 12. He later learned to play the setar, or Persian long-necked lute, and studied theatre and music at the University of Tehran. His teachers included some of the great masters of Persian vocal tradition.

He engaged with the classical poets, but also questioned his own culture. "I was thinking about why Iranian music is constantly criticized by the intellectual community for being behind the times," says Namjoo in an interview with the exiled Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. For example, if a poem by Hafiz is sung, then the singer takes both text and melody in its centuries-old, traditional form. "The question for me is, where is the art happening in all of this?" says Namjoo.

It was a question that the young musician could not ignore. He wanted to take his nation's rich treasure and create something new from it. Namjoo's interest in western music grew during his military service. He read the history of blues and rock, and developed plans for his own musical projects.

Clearing censorship hurdles

When he later found a producer who liked his visionary ideas, the first recordings came about. With a poem by the Iranian contemporary poet Ahmad Shamlu, the Persian tonbak drum and a guitar, Namjoo invented a fusion of eastern and western elements. He produced two albums in this style, but soon found himself up against the constraints imposed on musicians in Iran. If an album doesn't clear the censorship hurdles, it won't make it onto the market. It's a process that can sometimes take months, even years.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Taking Risks in Art and Politics

Shirin Neshat: An Artist — Iranian, Muslim and Female — Engages
Image courtesy of Scene in NY
by Aysegul Sert, NYTimes

Over the past two decades, Shirin Neshat has drawn on her personal experience of being an artist at home in the West with roots in Iran to illustrate her creed: “People should be free to choose what they want to do with their lives, what they want to wear, what religion they want to believe in; this is not something a government or a community should impose.”

Perched in her spacious studio in downtown New York, she added: “Globalization is happening, and the world is becoming more homogenous. We have to accept that we are not going to be all the same; we have to tolerate each other’s differences.” 

Born in 1957, Ms. Neshat left Iran before the fall of the shah, settling in New York after a short stay in California. “I will never belong to anywhere completely,” she insisted. “I will never fit in anywhere completely.” Although if Iran were to become democratic, she allowed later in the conversation, “then maybe one day I could go back.” 

Ms. Neshat has exhibited at the Tate in London and the Whitney in New York, and she earned a Silver Lion at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. She first gained attention in the mid-1990s, with “Women of Allah,” a series of photographs depicting women in veils, their skin covered in calligraphy of Islamic poetry. It was a meditation, she said, on the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran — on martyrdom, patriotism and religion. 

That revolution, she asserted, led to many Iranian women becoming “brainwashed and submissive.” In recent years, first with the opposition protests in Iran in 2009 and then with the Arab Spring, “we see a generation of women and men no longer divided but equal. They are educated, they are not ideological, their interest is pure and positive, which is change, democracy and freedom.” 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

'Patience Stone' Star: In Iran, You Have a Choice - You Can Stay Alive, or You Can Die

by Jordan Riefe, The Wrap

“The existential question in the west is to be or no to be; in our country it’s to say or not to say, that is the question” says exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, star of “The Patience Stone” -- a movie that sheds harsh light on the treatment of women in much of the Muslim world.

The result is a choice: “You can stay alive, or you can die,” Faranhi told the rapt audience at a screening at L.A.’s Landmark Theater, part of The Wrap’s Award Screening Series.

“Patience Stone” is part of a growing mini-genre of movies about the plight of Middle-Eastern women -- which also includes 2008’s “The Stoning of Soraya M.” and HBO’s “For Neda,” about Neda Agha Soltan, who became a symbol of protest when she was gunned down during the unrest surrounding Iran’s 2009 election.

In it, Farahani plays a young wife caring for her older, catatonic husband, wounded in a war that rages around them in a desolate Afghan city.

Her work becomes cathartic as she pours out her woes on his deaf ears, investing him with her sorrows as in the Afghan folk tale about a “patience” stone that soaks up tribulations until it shatters.

And tribulations she has, as Farahani paints a portrait of the sexual humiliation her character has endured in order to stay in the good graces of a rough and indifferent husband.

“It’s a woman that wants to be free, free of the chains of tradition, free of all these pressures they were putting on her,” Farahani told the moderator, The Wrap’s Awards Editor Steve Pond, about her character. “This was really important for me.”

Thursday, 22 November 2012

See the Light

Documenting the Sociopolitical Upheavals in the Middle East through Photography

Abbas – ‘Rioters Burn a Portrait of the Shah as a Sign of Protest Against his Regime. Tehran, December 1978′ – Images courtesy the Art Fund Collection of Middle Eastern Photography at the V&A and the British Museum

by Sophie Kazan, REORIENT

London has been undergoing its own Arab Spring of sorts in the past months, as a steady flow of exhibitions and cultural events focusing on the Middle East have been flourishing around the capital in rapid succession.

In the summer of 2011, Shubbak, London’s first festival of contemporary Arab arts & culture was launched by mayor Boris Johnson, and was quickly followed by the city’s second Nour Festival of Arts in October of that year. In January, just a few months later, the British Museum launched its Hajj exhibition, and in almost no time, an assortment of similarly themed exhibitions blossomed around London.

This November, less than two weeks after Edge of Arabia’s dazzling #COMETOGETHER exhibition in East London’s Truman Brewery warehouse, the Victoria and Albert Museum opened the Light from the Middle East photography exhibition. This major museum exhibition, running until the spring of 2013 celebrates the photography of 30 artists from 13 countries, both within the Middle East and the diaspora. While some of the works in the exhibition are to be expected – veiled women, dramatic 60s Orientalist images courtesy Youssef Nabil, and the like – others are representative of the discontent felt by many Middle Eastern artists and young idealists in countries that are at war, under occupation, or facing political turmoil. A rather eclectic assortment of works, the spellbinding photographs vary wildly in their subject matter and style, and on viewing them, one can’t help but wonder if the paradox of the mysterious, beautiful, and yet dangerous Middle East is what keeps London audiences coming back for more.

‘The emphasis is on how the medium of photography is being used, interrogated, and even undermined by Middle Eastern artists’, says Marta Weiss, Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as of the exhibition itself. ‘This is exciting, because this is the first exhibition to look at a wide range of work from this vast and diverse region, while focusing exclusively on photography’. While it is definitely the first of its kind in that respect, the exhibition is also unique in terms of its curatorial approach. ‘This exhibition presents the work in a new light (excuse the pun) by looking carefully at the choices artists make about how to use photography’, Weiss explains.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

'The Skyless City' and What the Media Misses

"These women have stories that you do not hear about in the media."

by Correspondent, Tehran Bureau

Iranian director Kiomars Moradi has completed rehearsals for The Skyless City, written by Pouria Azarbayjani in collaboration with Moradi, which made its American debut at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. The multimedia stage production premiered in Tehran in late 2009 to enthusiastic audiences, but was ultimately banned at home by the Iranian government over concerns about its subject matter: the international trafficking of women from the Middle East. (In June 2010, Tehran Bureau reviewed the Iranian production as part of a survey of the Tehran theater scene.) At the 2010 Avignon OFF Festival, critics chose The Skyless City as Best Foreign Theater. Moradi also presented the play at the Laboratory Theater Festival in Italy this past summer. He spoke with Tehran Bureau about the show and his experience preparing for its first performance in the United States.

Tell us about the story.

The Skyless City tells the story of four women from different parts of the Middle East and what they encounter trying to build new lives for different reasons. In order to do so, they have to escape their current situations.... Nasrin, from Iran, and Alma, from Afghanistan, are in an abandoned subway station in Paris. They are waiting to receive their passports from the human trafficker who smuggled them from the Middle East. They remember other women from other countries in the Middle East who were with them on this difficult journey and didn't make it. The women who disappeared are present too.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Iranian Art That Transcends Politics

Parvis Tanavoli's 'Heech' means nothing, or null in Farsi. He writes the word in the Farsi script and places it in different positions and forms. Image courtesy Al-Monitor

by Roshanak Taghavi

For a mystic like ancient Sufi poet and philosopher Jalal al-din Rumi, the progression toward “nothingness” — known in Persian as “heech”— is spiritual.  No matter what one’s external circumstances may be, self-awareness is an art to be realized personally, deep within oneself.

“Since you are more than tongue can tell, behold how eloquent I am without a tongue,” he wrote almost eight centuries ago. “Like the moon, without legs, I race through nothingness.”

Iranians have, throughout their history, engaged in this pursuit of spiritual progression — both during Iran’s millennia-long institution of monarchy and also after the country’s 1979 Revolution, which brought with it the establishment of an Islamic Republic.

Through it all, they have adapted to the challenges that came with new shifts in rule, infusing the realities of their external circumstances into personal rituals (such as holidays or prayers), and saturating their poetry and art with symbolism. Through the written word, the creation of art and an inherent flexibility, Iranians have always managed to communicate “without a tongue.”

Rumi, whose 800 year-old poems are, coincidentally, the most widely read throughout the United States, remains deeply revered within all strata of Iranian society. His teaching of humanity as Heech, or nothingness, is most prominently conveyed through the work of contemporary Iranian artist and sculptor Parviz Tanavoli.

Tanavoli’s sculpture, Poet Turning into Heech, which depicts the body of a man turning into a poet, is the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection of contemporary Iranian art in New York.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Beauty Regime

by Tori Egherman, Tehran Bureau 

When I first started living in Iran, I was a kind of an illiterate, exotic creature who had to learn the alphabet from scratch and could have meaningful conversations only with toddlers. I was tolerated and coddled in equal measures, which made life easier for me. My mistakes were cute and lovable instead of breaches of protocol that could cause catastrophic rifts in the delicate political balance of the family.

It wasn't just language that messed with me. I was a fashion disaster, ill-mannered and coarse. I must have seemed an oaf to people who'd practiced good manners for millennia.

Nothing made me feel more oafish than the women surrounding me. Most wouldn't dream of leaving the house looking less than perfect. Their nails were exactingly manicured, their hair straightened and dyed, their bracelets gold, their eyes carefully outlined. At parties they wore low-cut, form-fitting dresses. They danced with flair as though their hips were unhinged, while my moves had been learned in proto-mosh pits. I could slam with the best of them, but anything more refined required concentration.

On top of that, my eyebrows had never been trimmed and my hair was unruly. I had never quite outgrown my tomboy phase and the longest time I'd spent in heels was about two hours: long enough to dance at a friend's wedding.

In the cafés in North Tehran, women let the obligatory headscarves slip to their shoulders, making a great show of lifting them up over exquisitely coiffed hair. They balanced on heels high enough to make me dizzy, navigating the uneven pavement with grace.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Rhino Season

Bahman Ghobadi’s Latest Film, Featuring the Return of the ‘Hero of Children’
(L-R) Caner Cindoruk, Monica Bellucci, Yilmaz Erdogan & Behrouz Vossoughi. Image courtesy REORIENT

by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT

Under a starry sky, on a typically warm and humid September night in the heart of Toronto, throngs of giddy Iranian filmgoers (with, of course, the odd exception here and there) formed a serpentine queue outside the historic Elgin Theatre, full of hope and great expectations – and understandably so; for they were a privileged few, who would not only witness the world premiere of a film from one of Iran’s most celebrated directors, but also the performance – and presence – of an Iranian icon. After apparently denying countless other offers for lead roles in other films, Behrouz Vossoughi – perhaps the most beloved and celebrated Iranian film star from pre-Revolution Iran – chose Ghobadi’s latest cinematic venture to make his long-awaited comeback.

Undeniably the star of the evening – far overshadowing even Ghobadi himself – Behrouz was given nothing short of the red carpet treatment, as ecstatic, ogling fans cheered and applauded at his every word, and presented him many a standing ovation. If not for the ‘hero of children’, as Ghobadi referred to him throughout the evening, then for whom else would they do so? For who could ever forget the brazen avenger that was Gheysar, the tragic Reza Motori, the naïve and foolhardy Mamal Amrikaee, or the tough-nosed brawler in Kandoo? It would be perfectly plausible to surmise that on September 12, Iranians stormed the Toronto theatre for little else than to catch a glimpse of that hero of children, and perhaps revel in the memories of Iran’s golden years.

Rhino Season, Ghobadi’s latest film set in Turkey, starring alongside Vossoughi the Italian actress Monica Bellucci and oddly, Iranian pop sensation Arash (as well as a cast of Turkish actors including Yilmaz Erdogan), is based on the story of the ill-fated Sadegh Kamangar, an Iranian Kurdish poet, and draws upon true events, as well as Kamangar’s diaries and collection of poems for its basis. Seen through the lens of Ghobadi, whose direction of the film was based on his personal interpretation of Kamangar’s poetry (as he later revealed after the screening), Rhino Season is at once a love story, a surreal exploration of one man’s soul and poetic vision, and a depiction of the tragic consequences of the Islamic Revolution.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Moments of truth

An exhibition of Iranian art
Pouya Parsamagham's CCTV-like Chase installation. Courtesy Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde

by , The National

Farrokh Mahadavi is a painter and a boxer. He says that he hears nothing when he fights because his entire being is focused on moving and weaving about the ring.

He brings a similar tautness to his canvases, too; images of bare torsos that he has worked and pummelled into a paired-down pink mass against a white background. The flesh is raw and tenderised, it slopes to indecorous contours and sinewy folds.

“The thing is crystal clear,” says Rokni Haerizadeh, one of Iran’s most eminent contemporary artists, who has selected works by Mahadavi for a group show – What Lies Beneath, Second Edition – of emerging Iranian talent due to open on September 10 at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.

“There is no spirituality or spiritual meaning around his bodies: if he shows a heart, for instance, it’s just the heart that is inside your body. It is rough, tough work,” he says.

What Lies Beneath, Second Edition has been conceived – not curated –by Haerizadeh and is a continuation of a project that was initiated last year.

Haerizadeh makes a clear distinction on his role because the exhibition seeks to present the development of a group of six young artists that he, together with his brother, the artist Ramin Haerizadeh, has provoked and challenged since their last showing.

Rather than individual works curated for the show, the second edition of the project features, with the exception of two, the same artists presented at the gallery in February last year. “I don’t believe that you should keep on introducing new artists all the time,” says Haerizadeh. “There have been so many new names passing through galleries here that you can’t necessarily trust them on just one exhibition. It’s important that the audience see the evolution of an artist’s work.”

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Savushun: A Novel about Modern Iran

Published over 40 years ago, Simin Daneshvar’s masterpiece shows no signs of wear

by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT

This March, Iran lost one of its most beloved writers. Simin Daneshvar, one of those rare, exceptional talents from the country’s literary renaissance of the mid-Twentieth Century – a period from which only vestiges now remain – produced one of the most widely read and printed Persian novels of all time. Since its initial publication in 1969, Savushun has sold over half a million copies in Iran alone, has gone through roughly 16 printings, and has been translated in over 15 languages. Indeed, from both a literary and commercial perspective, the novel was nothing short of groundbreaking.

Simin Daneshvar & Jalal Al-e Ahmad, Image courtesy REORIENT

Set in Shiraz during the period of the Allied occupation of Iran (1941 – 1945), which saw Iran at its most abject state in decades, Savushun brilliantly captures the essence and spirit of the era, as seen through the eyes of Zari, a young wife and mother. After deposing of Reza Shah, the then-ruler of Iran, for his unwillingness to provide support against the Germans, among other things, the Allied forces – particularly Britain and Russia – placed the young Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah) on the throne, and for all practical purposes, occupied the country. While the Russians exercised their influence in the North, the British took control of the oil-rich South.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

I Dream of Jeannie: I See Demons

Iranian-American Artist Eric Parnes Dreams of “Jeannie” in His Middle Eastern Solo Debut
  "Dreaming of Jinn I," 2012, photographic print. Image courtesy of Artinfo

This fall the Iranian-American artist Eric Parnes will be granted his wish, premiering new works inspired by the Orientalist 1960s TV sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” in his first solo show in the Middle East at Doha's Katara Cultural Village. The exhibition, “I Dream of Jeannie: I See Demons” (October 23-November 24), takes its cues from the same-named Barbara Eden star vehicle, which ran from 1965 to 1970 on NBC and shaped the way American audiences thought about the Middle East long before the war on terror and the Arab Spring.

Parnes, whose work often applies Iranian iconography, text, textile, and ceramic patterns to incongruous mass-produced objects like soccer balls, deck chairs, or cars, coined the term “Neo Orientalism™” to describe what he calls in his artist's statement “a specific notation of aesthetic exchange between the East and the West within the framework of popular culture.” It refers not only to Westerners' enduring habit of seeing the Middle East as an otherworldly and exotic place, but also tracks the effects of this apparent exoticism when it is seen by Middle Eastern audiences.

In a variation on the Neo Orientalism theme, his Doha exhibition will include “Dreaming of Jinn,” an image of a Middle Eastern woman wearing the same hot pink veil donned by Eden as the show's main character, Jeannie, whose name in turn is a pun on the mystical, wish-granting character of the genie, a deformation of the Koran's supernatural Jinn. The seductive image's winking substitution highlights the distorting effects mass entertainment can have on intercultural perception. An installation of Barbie-style dolls sporting veils, miniature designer clothes, and boutique shopping bags will similarly underline the two-way flow of consumer goods and their embedded cultural values.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

"Made in Iran" and a Studio Visit with Icy and Sot

Iranian Street Artists Step Into New Territory as they prepare for US Debut
 Icy and Sot (photo © Jaime Rojo)

by Steven P. Harrington and Jaime Rojo, The Huffington Post

Both born in the 1980s, Iranian Street Artists Icy & Sot are equally fans and loyal students of all the stencil techniques that have characterized the western scene in the last decade. What's fascinating in this story is that, despite creating work on the street since 2005, neither brother has been able to attend their own gallery show in person outside of Iran until this week in New York.

With a new sense of freedom and some new works for "Made in Iran", the self taught Tabriz-based artists are riding the momentum that will take this show to Amsterdam, Berlin and Milan. The gallery work on display is similar to the variety of styles they have experimented with in streets of cities like Tehran, Paris, Turin, Istanbul, and even the rural Mazichal forest in Northern Iran. Thematically they wrestle between oppression, celebrity, freedom, war, and daring to dream.

Hitting the well promoted New York opening will be an eager audience of curious fans who have been waiting to see in person the svelte guys who have become a bit of an Internet sensation because of their origin, and because being caught painting in Tehran is more severe than most illegal street artists in the west would care to imagine.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Underground Iranian Band Steps Out Of The Shadows

Making music is tough in Iran, the regime censors everything from lyrics to instruments. That's why the underground band Kiosk has brought their work to the U.S. Their sound is influenced by Gypsy jazz, Iranian folk, blues and rock. Jacki Lyden speaks with lead singer Arash Sobhani about their latest album, 'Outcome of Negotiations'.

by Jacki Lyden, NPR

Recently, a friend handed me an Iranian music CD and said you have to hear this. My friend is an Iranian filmmaker and once, long ago, he took me to an underground jazz concert in Tehran. It was dramatic traveling through back alleys to get to the gig and I did a story on it for NPR then in 1997.

One of the musicians I met that night was a bass player named Marob(ph). Speaking through a translator, he mentioned the freedom music creates, even in an authoritarian society.

MAROB: (Through translator) I won't do anything that doesn't give me a sense of freedom. I feel freedom in the music and I think there will come a time when we will be able to perform for the public.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Iranian art analysed from a different perspective

 A view of Tehran from Pantea Rahmani's art exhibition Seismic Sanctuary. 
Image courtesy Pantea Rahmani / Salsali Private Museum

"Seismic" is a good word to describe the enormous uncertainty in Iran right now. Not only does it resonate with a country that sits on one of the world's most restless fault lines - which reared its head recently with a devastating earthquake in the north-west of the country - but also sabre-rattling from Israel, obstinance on the part of Iran's top brass over its nuclear programme and a lot of hand-wringing in the West is being compounded into daily, nervous tremors.

Yet this fault line is plumbed in a more introspective way by the artist Pantea Rahmani in her solo show at the Salsali Private Museum from September 10, with three works drawn from the private collection of Ramin Salsali. She's titled the show Seismic Sanctuary and it includes works of both self and city analysis.

Rahmani last exhibited in Dubai in 2009 with her Expose series; self-portraits with every line and facial crease rendered with unabashed exactitude. On the unprimed reverse of a piece of canvas, the artist uses gesso and white paint to create monochromatic works of self-analysis.

The effect is often mistaken as pencil work, with its ashen inflections of light and the yellowed hue from working on unprimed canvas. Her work is an intensely laborious process: "For just a five-centimetre-by-five-centimetre section, I'm going over it again and again, maybe 100 or 50 times," says the artist, smiling and looking rather less fierce than she etches herself in portrait. "I do the priming, painting and drawing all at the same time. Working in gesso means that I need a surface that can absorb a … lot of liquid and the primed side of the canvas doesn't do that. The effect is that when you touch the canvas there's no texture - it's completely smooth. If you close your eyes you can't feel that it's a painting."

This, Rahmani says, is attractive for her as it allows the canvas to "inhale and exhale" the image that she's working into it.

Seismic Sanctuary includes a piece from the Expose series, which depicts the artist lying in the corner of a room and staring at the viewer from across the reflected surface of a mirror. Cradling her head slightly, her legs bent foetal-fashion, the vulnerability of her pose is offset by a stark fixedness in her eyes and a mesh of lines across her brow. The background is a tonal mingle of greys, with a darkening pitch to the right of the canvas that creates an almost enveloping, shielding effect around the subject.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

London Calling: Tehran

The first in a series of exhibitions fostering dialogue between Iranian & British artists

by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT 

Between July 21st and 25th at Tehran’s 7Samar Gallery, Yashar Samimi Mofakham and Tarlan Rafiee, an Iranian artist/curator couple, hosted a unique art exhibition aimed at fostering artistic and cultural dialogue between British and Iranian artists.

Curated by John Phillips, a prominent British artist whose works have been exhibited at such institutions as the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Liz O’Sullivan, an art consultant, who among other establishments has lectured at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London Calling: Tehran was conceived at their artist-run, nonprofit organisation/gallery, londonprintstudio. It marked the first in a series of collaborations which seek to further acquaint British audiences with contemporary Iranian art, and vice versa.

I, along with REORIENT’s Tehran correspondent, Fatemeh Kavandi, recently had the chance to speak with Yashar, Tarlan, Liz, and John about the exhibition and its significance in promoting cross-cultural dialogue, as well as the relationship between Iranian and Western artists in general.

What was the motivation behind organizing London Calling: Tehran? How did you come to be in touch with londonprintstudio?

Liz – It never ceases to amaze me how londonprintstudio is like a magnet for the most extraordinary people. They just appear. I would say that John Phillips is the real magnet, actually. I adore contemporary Iranian art, and when John telephoned me to talk about this interesting artist, Yashar, I joined them for lunch. Our lunchtime conversations about art, commerce, visionaries, censorship, and representation were fascinating and enlightening, and I knew immediately that I wanted to work with Yashar. That could have been working on anything — making sandwiches, fixing a car – anything. Developing this show with John, Yashar and Tarlan has been amazing. Incredibly open people. What a privilege.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The tortured face of Iran

A banned novel by Iran’s greatest living writer and a collection of poetry from the country and its exiles give voice to the terrible cost of oppression. 

By Arlice Davenport, The Wichita Eagle

This is how the world ends.

An old man, drenched from relentless rain, having just buried his teenage daughter – who was tortured to death for distributing anti-government pamphlets – meditates on the horrid fate of his five children – three dead at the hands of successive, oppressive regimes; one driven mad in prison and now hiding in his father’s basement; one surviving through marriage to a profiteering sycophant, who props up whichever corrupt despot is in power.

At the same time, the old man reviews the shame and humiliation of his mortal sins – murder and military insubordination. He dons his dress uniform, stripped of its insignia, takes down the gleaming saber from his living-room wall – the saber he ran through the heart of his adulterous wife, then eviscerated her with – feels the edge of the blade, runs his thumb across his jugular vein, steps out into the courtyard, crowded by the specters of his past, and takes his own life.

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Golha Programmes

These programmes covered the entire history of classical as well as contemporary Persian poetry, giving marvellous expression to the whole gamut of traditional Persian music and poetry.

‘Flowers of Persian Song and Music’: the Story of Digitalizing the Golha Archive

by Jane Lewisohn

The Golha (‘Flowers of Persian Song and Music’) radio programmes were broadcast on Iranian National Radio for 23 years from 1956 through 1979. They comprised approximately 850 hours of programmes made up of literary commentary with the declamation of poetry, which is also sung with musical accompaniment, interspersed with solo musical pieces. The programmes themselves were the brainchild of Davoud Pirnia, a one-time Assistant Prime Minister, who in addition to being a well-known politician and judge, was an enthusiastic patriot and scholar who harboured a deep love for Persian culture and its rich literary and musical traditions. When he retired from political life in 1956, for the next eleven years he devoted himself tirelessly to producing of the Golha programmes.

Pirnia persuaded many of the foremost figures in classical Persian studies in Iran to work alongside him, so that the most formidable literary, academic and musical talents of his day offered him their collaboration and support. These included professors of Islamic Studies like Jalal al-Din Homa’i, Sa‘id Nafisi and Badi‘ al-Zaman Foruzanfar, the writer, scholar and senator ‘Ali Dashti, Iran’s poet laureate Lotf ‘Ali Suratgar, the historian Rezazada Shafaq, and the great song-writers and poets such as Mu‘ini Kermanshahi, ‘Emad Khorasani, Rahi Mo‘ayyeri, Toraj Negahban, Shahriyar, Simin Behbahani, Hushang Ebtehaj (Sayeh) and Bizhan Taraqqi. All the most eminent literary critics, famous radio announcers, singers, composers and musicians in Iran also participated in them. These included the likes of musicians and composers such as Abu’l-Hasan Saba, Mortaza Mahjubi, Ruho’llah Khaleqi, Habibo’llah Badi’i, Lutfo’llah Majd, Mortaza Naydavud, Hasan Kasa’i, Jalil Shahnaz, Reza Varzanda, Hasan Kasa’i, Ahmad ‘Ebadi, Farhang Sharif, Husayn Tehrani. The greatest Iranian vocalists of the twentieth century such as Banan, Marziya, Humayra, Qavami, Golpayegani, Iraj, ‘Abd al-Wahhab Shahidi, Sima Bina, and Puran were also featured in the Golha programmes. Even Iran’s supreme virtuoso singer—Mohammad Reza Shajarian—saw his career launched on these radio programmes.