Iran is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a burqa. In the West, it's a nation defined by stereotypes of religious fanaticism, female oppression and human-rights violations. Yet the latest cultural evidence coming out of Tehran would have you think otherwise.
Art, a window into a society's heart, is thriving in the Iranian capital and the West is taking notice. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is now showing work by modern Iranian artists and one of London's Asian art specialists, Rossi & Rossi gallery, held a show by Iranian women last year. In Sydney, the largest exhibition of contemporary Iranian art in Australia opens on Thursday at New Albion Gallery, covering themes of identity, the pull of modernity against tradition and female independence.
Iranian artist, critic and university lecturer Behrang Samadzadegan says: ''I can see a sort of anarchistic art in this new generation of artists … I call them the Tehran hip-hop generation.
''You see the very beautiful pop-art image but with a lot of radical and anarchistic context in it,'' he says.
''They are always narrating stories about politics and the social situation of life and all the stories you hear in the news about Iran right now.''
Samadzadegan's video Lost in Highway II, part of the Sydney show, is an analogy for life in Iran today. Shot in a CCTV-surveillance style, it shows a man dancing up and down a street. ''He thinks he is doing his daily exercise but he is doing nothing, actually … and that is exactly what it is like for an Iranian citizen,'' Samadzadegan says. ''I never know what is the benefit of an act … or what is the result.''
The original idea for the exhibition came from Australian artist eX de Medici, who is showing one large Iranian-inspired work. De Medici's travels took her to Tehran a couple of years ago and, captivated by the city of 8 million - more than half of whom are under 35 - she kept returning, meeting many artists.
Her friendship with Asian art expert Doug Hall, a former Queensland Art Gallery director, led to Hall curating the New Albion show. It features more than 33 works by 13 Iranian artists, half of whom are women, and stamps out any notion that Iranian culture is hidebound.
''It is a very urbane and sophisticated society,'' Hall says. ''But the political hyperbole gets in the way.''
Nazgol Ansarinia, speaking from Tehran, agrees. She is known for her representation of Persian rugs, using modern objects such as computers in the design. In Sydney, she is showing a black-on-white ink drawing resembling the ghost of a Persian rug - with tiny human figures among the delicate floral pattern.
In one of the most poetry-literate nations in the world, it is no surprise to find an artist influenced by a poet. Twenty-eight-year-old Shahrzad Changalvaee's duel interests in typography and Persian poetry led to the photographic series Body Composition Remaining Within Limited Domain. It shows people standing in the street at twilight holding one of three illuminated words made of plexiglass and written in Farsi script.
''The words come from an Iranian poet, Yadollah Royaee,'' Changalvaee says from Tehran. ''These three words, 'I', 'body' and 'motherland', are the three key words for our life today because … we don't have any belongings to I, and our body is controlled, and our motherland is taken.
''When you[place] these big, shining words into people's arms, they have to face the meaning of the words … and their faces change.''
Changalvaee says few people chose to hold the word ''motherland''.
When we think of our view of other cultures, superiority remained a lingering post-colonial relic and it took some time to shed. Paradoxically, the idea of modernity and urbane sophistication in Europe happened, in part, through importing the arts from other places. Take East Asia and Persia, for example – from Chinese export ceramics of the late 16th century to Persia’s representation in London’s Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition of 1851. The latter’s influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement was considerable: in 1882, William Morris wrote: ‘To us pattern-designers, Persia has become a Holy Land.’
The change has been remarkable. Major art museums – public and private - collect the art of our time in a far more panoramic way than they have ever done. Biennales and art fairs have grown at a phenomenal rate and now take an interest in cultures that, until recently, were active yet peripheral to our thinking. The British Museum and Louvre have established a presence in Abu Dhabi – the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is presenting an exhibition of contemporary Iranian art until September this year; next year the seventh Dubai Art Fair will be held. The world has seemingly shrunk yet become vaster.
Until the 1990s modern and contemporary Iranian art, like other Middle Eastern countries, received a distant interest from the West. And, Iran – Persia until 1935 – was rugs, miniatures, calligraphy and great architecture. Each is brilliant in its own way but, historically, has been used as a stylistic source for appropriation, where its intrinsic and deeply-set cultural characteristics were applied as style.
From the late 1940s the tensions between embracing western capitalism and religious conservatism have been well documented. What marks contemporary Iranian art is that it’s known and admired as the expression of individuals, not a megaphone for regimes. That’s not to claim that each artist is blithely uninterested in issues of national identity, gender, social conduct and the circumstances of contemporary Iranian life. But above all, it’s personal - distinctively individual. Tehran is a sophisticated city of millions with the majority of the population under 35 years of age. Its art world is active and connected with a lively museum and gallery scene.
The 13 artists represented in this exhibition work across media with which we are familiar. They are engaged locally and speak to us with a visual language which is universal. The subject matter might be specific but we see it through the lens of individualism. There’s a poetic transcendence in perpetual play, often quietly witty, but never gratuitously flippant.
The Australian artist, eX de Medici, is included in the exhibition. She is best known for her large watercolours which synthesise direct experience and become emblematic of social and political circumstances; they are usually laden with historical references. eX and I have a mutual long-standing interest in non-western cultures. The idea for the exhibition was developed in the wake of her visits to Iran – her love of Persian history, its art and the people she met; she will return to Iran soon.
This is an important exhibition and we are honoured that galleries and artists responded with great enthusiasm to participate. The Middle East has been subject to typecasting, often suggesting that cultures are somehow mass-subservient: recent events disprove that. And as this exhibition reveals, the individual’s expression over notions of a doctrinaire collectivism are clearly manifest.
Via New Albion Gallery and SMH