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.