Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Pulling Bahman Mohassess from history's tide

Mitra Farahani's documentary film "Fifi Howls From Happiness" captures the last two months in the life of Iranian artist Bahman Mohasses. Farahani talked to DW about the film, the man and his legacy. 
Bahman Mohassess, Smoked Out by Mitra Farahani. Courtesy Artinfo

by Helen Whittle, DW

DW: How did you first learn about the work of Bahman Mohassess?

Mitra Farahani: Strangely enough, Bahman Mohassess had a kind of physical absence within the contemporary art scene in Iran - partly because of his disappearance. This absence was always striking to me because of the sheer power of his works. There was a kind of paradox between the fact that he's rarely mentioned and rarely present in history, and the force and the power of his works, paintings and sculptures. One of my objectives was to try to find out how to explain that paradox.

Why did Bahman Mohassess leave Iran?

The very first time that he left Iran was during his artistic formation in his youth during the 1950s, when the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh, who was famous for wanting to nationalize oil, was overthrown in a coup d'état orchestrated by the US and Britain. At this time, like many other artists, he had the opportunity to benefit from scholarships and funding for young artists to go and be trained in Europe. We're talking about the coup against Mossadegh, who most of the artists supported and were committed to in this political context. Obviously the defeat gave them the desire to leave, the disillusionment - that's the very first time he left Iran.

He came back to Iran in the 1960s and 70s and was really productive during this time and acquired some famous commissions from the wife of the Shah. This was the period when he translated and staged important works of theater in Iran by Jean Genet, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene Ionesco. He really flourished during this time. After the Iranian Revolution, he continued to travel in secret between Iran and Europe, especially Italy. Then 2006, the year when his brother died, was a kind of symbolic moment when Mohassess decided he could no longer stand the state of culture, and, let's say, the social environment in Iran. He left the country for the last time and remained in Italy.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Mirror, mirror

The Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian's dazzling work shines in Dubai
Breaking the Waves, 2008, Mirror and reverse glass, 135 x 86 cm, by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Courtesy The Third Line Gallery

by , The National

In twinkling tones over a crackling line from Tehran, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian smiles almost audibly as she talks about mirrors. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the prettiest of them all," she lilts. It is no wonder she lights up on the subject: mirror mosaic forms the basis of her work and it is through large installation works such as Flight of the Dolphin, part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and Lightning for Neda, six panels that hang in the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia, that this octogenarian has gained international recognition.

As the story goes, it was upon stepping into the shrine of Shah Cheragh in Shiraz in 1966 that Farmanfarmaian had her artistic epiphany. She saw the mirrors, which Iranian kings used to put inside the palaces for their wives (sometimes 20 to 30 in number) to see themselves and to feel less constricted by the walls, and described it as a living theatre. From then on she began her decades-long fascination with mirrors.

"The mirror is so old; in Iran we used them 3,500 years ago," she says. "But they were often broken, so craftsmen would put them together piece by piece in geometric shapes. Together they make a beautiful reflection."

Friday, 22 February 2013

Can a text from ancient Persia break down mistrust between enemies?

The 2,600-year-old Cyrus Cylinder is embarking on a first US tour with a message of tolerance from Iran's past
The Cyrus Cylinder. Photograph: British Museum. Courtesy Guardian

, Guardian

Thirty-plus years of mutual suspicion, demonization and hostility separate the United States from Iran, so it would be naive to hope for any sudden change — on the nuclear front or on any of the other thorny issues that divide Washington from Tehran. But an innovative exercise in cultural diplomacy might, just, make a small dent in the wall of prejudice.

Hopes rest on a rugby-ball sized object whose permanent home is in a glass case in the magnificent Iran gallery of the British Museum. It was there that a modest send-off ceremony was held the other day for the Cyrus Cylinder, heading off on a US tour to give American audiences a glimpse of an ancient civilization whose heritage is too often masked by contemporary clamour and aggression.

The cylinder, one of the most famous objects to have survived from the world of antiquity, is a clay tablet inscribed with Akkadian Cuneiform script. It was made shortly after the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great of Persia captured Babylon in 539BC and records how he allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands. In the words of the Iran Heritage Foundation:
"It tells how the god of Babylon – the conquered land – has chosen Cyrus to improve the lives of the Babylonians, and it talks about Cyrus's efforts in repatriating displaced people and restoring temples across Mesopotamia, letting them worship the god of their choice, not the god of the conqueror. It tells the story of letting people living their lives even after their country was conquered, something that was not heard of at the time."

Thursday, 21 February 2013

A Report from The Assar Gallery: Contemporary Art in Iran

by John Seed, The Huffington Post

I have recently been in touch with Orkideh Daroodi, a native of Iran who returned home several years ago after attending high school and college in California. Orkideh serves as the gallery manager of the Assar Gallery, one of Tehran's leading galleries in the field of contemporary art. I was surprised to learn -- among other things -- that there are some 150 galleries in Tehran that show the work of living Iranian artists. In my correspondence with her, Orkideh has opened my eyes to the vitality of Iran's contemporary art scene.

John Seed Interviews Orkideh Daroodi of the Assar Gallery

JS: What can you tell me about the Assar Gallery? How did you become involved with the gallery?

OD: The Assar Gallery first opened in 1999 under the direction of its current owner and director, Omid Tehrani. The gallery's mission has always been to promote the art of Iranian artists through a wide program of national and international exhibitions and fairs, collaborative projects and publications.

As for me, when I started 3 1/2 years ago, I didn't know anything about contemporary Iranian art. My involvement with the gallery sort of just happened, at first as an assistant, then as the auctions coordinator and now as the gallery manager. So it's been a journey, a learning experience in fact and there have been plenty of hills to climb but I was hooked the moment I found myself inside the gallery space on the day of the set up of an exhibition.

The simple idea that you are entrusted with somebody's creation: that you are to install, show and sell works of art. Well, I decided to make this my profession in hopes that one day I would open my own gallery (fingers crossed!). It's just a very evolving profession and there are many intriguing factors: everything that goes on even before a show, in terms of studio visits, talks, advertisements, press, cataloging etc., are all truly fascinating.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Call to Arms

Only you, O Iranian woman, have remained in bonds of wretchedness, misfortune, and cruelty; if you want these bonds broken, grasp the skirt of obstinacy - Forough Farrokhzad, Call to Arms

Mona Shomali and Haleh Jamali Explore Female Iranian Identity in a Joint Exhibition

by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT

Opening February 19th at Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative is That Person Who is Your Creation, an exhibition of the works of two female Iranian artists, Mona Shomali, and Haleh Jamali. A collaboration between From the Mouth of the Lion, Sara Zia Ebrahimi’s US-based non-profit organisation dedicated to showcasing the works of emerging Iranian artists in the diaspora born on the cusp of the ’79 Islamic Revolution and artclvb, an online platform for contemporary Middle Eastern art, the exhibition will feature five paintings from Shomali’s Naked Folklore series, and two video installations by Jamali.

Taking its title from Call to Arms, a poem by the late Iranian poet (and director) Forough Farrokhzad (1935 – 1967), the exhibition explores the subject of female identity from the perspective of two Iranian women living in the West. Through the medium of painting and film, Shomali, an artist born and raised in the United States, and Scotland-based Jamali, curator of the Edinburgh Iranian Festival, examine what it means to be an Iranian woman, challenging both Eastern and Western perceptions and notions in the process.

Last week, I talked to Mona, Haleh, and Sara about some of the ideas and themes of the exhibition, the works on display, and naturally, the connection with Forough Farrokhzad.

Despite having passed away at an incredibly young age, leaving behind a relatively small body of work, Farrokhzad’s influence and impact on Iranian artists of all mediums – female artists in particular – has been immense. How, nearly 50 years after her death, has Farrokhzad inspired you as artists?

Mona: When I was a teenager, my mom talked quite a bit about how sexuality was different for women in America than it was for her in Iran. For example, she told me that no one ever said ‘vagina’ in front of her when she was younger, and she didn’t really know what the proper word was in Farsi, because it was so often referred to as ‘down there’. She made it seem as if Iranian women between the 50s and 70s were dispossessed of their own bodies. She was the first person to tell me about Farrokhzad. Her description of the poems was special, because she believed they were the first widely-read poems where an Iranian woman was talking about her own sensuality and sensual feelings in a way she saw fit for herself. Her excitement over Farrokhzad’s poetry was palpable, as if it were something rare and exotic, and she saw Farrokhzad as taking a stand and owning her sexuality in a way that hadn’t been done before. I continued to read Farrokhzad’s poetry in college when I took a Farsi class and studied with a Farsi tutor. I gained a deeper appreciation for her when I realised she was not just a pioneer when it came to sensuality, but also that her criticism of Iranian culture was very illuminating and truthful.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Berlinale — Odes to Banned Iranian Work

Panahi Returns, an Artist is Re-Discovered
The Iranian Director Jafar Panahi. Courtesy Artinfo

by David D'Arcy, Artinfo

The Iranian director Jafar Panahi was back at the Berlinale this year, or at last his new film Closed Curtain was. Last year Panahi was a member of the jury, represented by an empty chair – a tribute, but this was the chair B.C., Before Clint, before Dirty Harry weaponized it as an insult prop at the Republican Convention.

Panahi is under house arrest in Iran for making propaganda against the Islamic regime. He is lucky that he is not in prison. His international reputation and the support of admirers outside Iran is largely responsible for keeping the regime from locking him up.  He is still banned from making films for 20 years. We’ll see what happens to him now that Closed Curtain is being praised.

Panahi’s new film is set in an apartment facing what looks like the Caspian Sea. They call it a lake in the subtitles. A man is hiding there, with his loyal dog, who steals the show. The dog watches television sadly as images show the government that mistreats its people killing dogs in the street and piling up their bodies. The man shaves his head, perhaps in the hope that he won’t be recognized if the curtain is pulled back. He attends to his work, yet there’s a constant temptation to leave the house and walk into the waves of the beach across the road, ending it all. The threat of suicide can rightly be seen as something special in Iran, where bombers do it as a service to God, or pay people around the world to do it.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Attempts at Cultural Transfer

Portrait of the Artist Anahita Razmi

In her work, the German artist Anahita Razmi deals with both political and social issues, ones in fact that are often related to Iran, the homeland of her father. 
Anahita Razmi, The Paykan Project, 2010/11. Courtesy of Anahita Razmi and Qantara.

by Daniela Gregori, Qantara.de

Anahita Razmi has a special relationship with the homeland of her father. She connects with it on the level of a stranger, as she explains, "Somebody who is on the outside, but who at the same time finds herself in some kind of indefinable relationship with this alien place."

As the daughter of a German mother and an Iranian father the artist has in the meantime decided to take on the task herself of projecting this relationship in her work – using all kinds of approaches and often coming up with astounding results. Most of the time the focus is on the question of what happens when everyday objects, actions and familiar images and sounds are transplanted into a different cultural, as well as aesthetic, context.

It is these semantic shifts and their consequences that often form the basis of the artist's works that are being exhibited in Stuttgart.

Driving back to Germany in a Paykan

Although the Paykan is the most common and most inexpensive car in Iran, they are only ever rarely seen outside the borders of the country.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Other Modernism: Rediscovering Iran’s Avant-Garde

Overshadowed by revolution, sanctions, and outdated notions of the Modern, Iran's vibrant postwar art scene is coming into focus at the Asia Society

by , ARTnews

Back in the 20th century, everyone was talking about how New York wrested the status of modern-art capital from Paris. Nowadays, curators in the U.S. and Europe are vying to share the spotlight.

Shows this season at MoMA and the Guggenheim explore Japan’s postwar avant-garde. The Rubin is doing Indian Modernism, Part 3. In Madrid, the Reina Sofía has Latin American abstraction from the ’30s to the ’70s, part of a multifaceted collaboration with the Cisneros Foundation that launched with a conference on Latin American Modernisms. And this summer in London, Tate Modern will open a retrospective of Sudan-born painter Ibrahim El-Salahi; this too is part of a larger initiative to globalize art history.

Amidst these efforts, Iran has remained the Other Other Modernism.  Though Iran was very much part of the conversation in the in the postwar era, when its artists studied abroad, traveled freely, and gallery-hopped at home, the Islamic revolution moved the conversation elsewhere. Aside from NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, whose founder, Abby Weed Grey, purchased hundreds of Irani modernist works during the ’60s and ’70s, few U.S. institutions have committed to exploring the diverse, hybrid, idiosyncratic productions of pre-Revolutionary Iran.

“There was this kind of blind spot,” says Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society Museum in New York, who describes the era as transitional, influential, and overlooked.  In September the museum hopes to change the equation with “Iran Modern,” an international loan show uniting more than 100 objects from the ’50s to the ’70s. Curated by Fereshteh Daftari and Layla Diba, it’s the most ambitious survey of Iran’s pre-Revolutionary art to be staged outside Iran. Spread over two floors of the museum, the exhibition will explore the ways these lesser-known Middle Eastern modernists forged their own version of an international style, borrowing liberally from Western-art traditions as they inventively updated their own.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Iranian Dream of Emigration

Can a novel in which nothing is said about politics and which does not focus on society as a whole still have a political dimension? Having read Fariba Vafi's novel, My Bird, the answer is most certainly "yes".

by Volker Kaminski, Qantara.de

It is only on a superficial level that Fariba Vafi restricts herself to the day-to-day problems of the female protagonist, to the same old difficulties faced by this mother of two, to the marital quarrels with her husband. Right from the opening chapter, the seemingly naive narrative contains a subtext that runs through the whole microcosm described in the novel and brings it vibrantly to life.

A young Iranian woman, who remains nameless throughout the story, tells of the residential area in an equally nameless large Iranian city to which she and her husband and children have moved. Everything is new and strange to her. The book opens with the sentence: "This is the People's Republic of China." In reality, however, the woman has never been to China; it is just the way she imagines China to be: loud, confusing, and "full of people". However, the comparison with China (and two pages later with India) is anything but coincidental.

A huge, insatiable desire

As exotically distant as these lands seem to her, she feels equally foreign and at the same time heteronomous in her role as mother and wife. Inside, she feels a huge, insatiable desire – a desire for freedom – that ultimately destroys her marriage.

Because of the quiet, restrained way in which the story is told, the reader initially has the sensation of observing the family's conflicts through the wrong end of a telescope. Events like the death of the father and the loneliness of the mother are related almost as asides. Moreover, while the sisters' regular visits and the way they sit together create the impression of happy families, appearances are deceiving; in reality, the world from which the narrator comes is a world full of violence and horror.

She grew up filled "with a thousand fears", the permanent fear of being abused by her uncle and the fear of the frequent punishments meted out to her as a child when she was forced to sit alone in the dark cellar. The death of her father was also a traumatic experience for her. The old man, who was suffering from dementia, was brought down to the cellar on his bed, where his daughter heard him wailing and crying four hours on end without anyone paying him the least bit of attention.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Art Beyond Borders: Edinburgh Iranian Festival 2013

The third Edinburgh Iranian Festival promises a re-examination of the culture, history and art of a much-misunderstood country

by  Bram E. Gieben, The Skinny

From 1 to 16 February, the third Edinburgh Iranian Festival comes to the capital to celebrate the history, culture, language and art of Iran. Often, the portrayal of Iran in the media focuses on the negative – Iran's policies on censorship and its political situation are the subjects most often addressed, but the rich cultural heritage of Iran, not to mention its thriving contemporary cultural life – both in Iran itself, and in the expatriate Iranian community – are often passed over.

The Edinburgh Iranian Festival seeks to redress this balance, and to expose the expat Iranian community in Scotland, and Scottish audiences, to a wide array of Iranian culture, history and art. Sara Kheradmand set up the first festival in 2008, after founding the Edinburgh University Persian Society, and the first season ran in 2009. “Doing something like this – which is about culture, about giving something back to both the Scottish and the Iranian community – is something we are all passionate about,” she says.

This year's festival is dedicatedv to the Persian poet Ferdowsi, who wrote Iran's 'national epic,' The Shahnameh. It celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2010. “There is a long-standing tradition of people – usually men – acting out the stories from The Shahnameh. People will gather around to listen,” says Kheradmand. Xanthe Gresham will be performing an English-language version of some tales from the epic: “We've never seen anyone doing this before,” says Kheradmand. “She has taken the translations and applied her own twists.” There is also a lecture from Professor Ali Ansari about the relationship between The Shahnameh and modern Iran.

While talking about life and culture in modern Iran, both Kheradmand and her colleagues are keen to dispel some myths. Haleh Jamali, the curator of the festival's visual arts strand and a featured artist, says: “You rarely see programmes on Iran's culture or history, so we would like to focus on that.” The film strand engages directly with life in present-day Iran, and the hardships that are entailed: “Modest Reception touches upon life in villages; Orange Suits is about street-sweepers,” says Kheradmand. The films are intimate: “You get to know their lives.” The lecture programme explores contemporary life in Iran from different perspectives: “We have a lecture about tribal life in Iran with Professor Borbor – a completely different lifestyle than you would encounter in Tehran,” she says. “The photographer James McGachie's lecture is about his travels in Iran – he presents an outsider's perspective.”