Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Taboos Become Toxic

An Interview with Mark Cousins

by Roland Elliott Brown, IranWire

Edinburgh-based filmmaker and film historian Mark Cousins is one of Iranian cinema’s most enthusiastic advocates. He drew attention to Iranians’ cinematic achievements in his 2004 book The Story of Film, and his 2011 documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey. He first traveled to Iran by road from Scotland in 2001. When he visited again in 2005 to make two documentaries, Cinema Iran and On the Road with Kiarostami, he met artist, actor, and director Mania Akbari, who was best known for her performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, and for her own film, 20 Fingers. In 2011, Akbari fled to London after Iranian authorities arrested crew members working on her film Women Do Not Have Breasts. Last year, Cousins and Akbari began exchanging “cine-letters” about life, art, and the human body, which comprise their new film, Life May Be.

How did you become acquainted with Iranian cinema, and with Iran?

I saw Abbas Kiarostami's Where is the Friend's House in the late 1980s, and read about the Iranian films that the Locarno film festival was showing. In the early 1990s, when I was director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival,  I wrote to the Iranian government's film agency, asking if they would send me films.  A few months later, a shoebox arrived.  It contained videotapes of about 10 films, gems like Mohammad Ali Talebi's The Boot. The films were revelations, paradocumentaries, human, sincere, uncompromised by commerce. I fell in love.

Life May Be draws its title from Forough Farrokhsad’s poem Another Birth. What role has Farrokhsad’s poetry played in your friendship with Mania Akbari?

I first met Mania in Iran, and we went to Forough's grave together.  I loved Forough's courage, her sass, her beauty.  For me she was like Blondie meets Virginia Woolf.  As a non-Iranian, I didn't understand a lot of things about Forough, but Mania's passion for her has helped me understand more.  She's the third part of our triangle.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

From institution to Iranian revolution: Unedited History 1960-2014

A new exhibition in Rome charts the enduring artistic life of Iran over the turbulence of its past fifty years
MAXXI Rome, 11 December 2014 – 29 March 2015
Behdjat Sadr at work in her studio. Photograph: Courtesy of Sadr family and the Guardian
by Natasha Morris for Tehran Bureau, Guardian

For the exiled and disenchanted figures of Iran’s recent history, Rome has served as a place of refuge. Following the 1953 coup d’état that overthrew prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the troubled sovereign Reza Shah Pahlavi took flight to the Italian capital. Within the same decade, his wife’s favourite artist, the notoriously irreverent painter-sculptor Bahman Mohasses, traded Tehran for Rome, where he lived in self-imposed seclusion for the next 50 years. His legacy presents him as a cigarette-puffing enfant terrible, who had a complex relationship with the authority of his royal Pahlavi patrons: he was once ordered to add underpants to his puckish Flute Player sculpture commissioned by the empress to stand outside the State Theatre in Tehran. The oeuvre from his years as an émigré in Rome forms the introductory sequence of the exhibition Iran: Unedited History, which opens from 11 December at the National Museum of 21st Century Arts in the Italian capital.

An impressive curatorial team is behind what is an extensive chronological survey, headed by Tate Modern’s Morad Montezzami. An ambitious feat by any measure, Iran: Unedited History showcases over 200 works by 20 artists, charting Iranian visual culture over the turbulence of the past half-century. The catalogue opens to a dazzling cross-section of modern Iranian art: Mohasses is here, as is his illustrator brother Ardeshir, minimalist contemporary Behjdat Sadr and new-wave film director Parviz Kimiavi.

What makes Unedited History so truly redolent of its time-span, however, is the inclusion of the peeling and scribbled paper spoils of popular culture and domestic life, from student-crafted agitprop posters to children’s drawings and a family photo album.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian's mirror sculptures dazzle during Prospect.3

Monir Farmanfarmaian has created work over the past fifty years that reflects the dichotomous nature of her two homes: Iran and New York City, and the dualities of her successes and devastations (during Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the 1970s, most of her work was confiscated or destroyed). Her sculptural mosaics, featured here, marry traditional Persian design motifs with elements of Western modernism, combining mirrored pieces and reverse painting on glass in striking geometric frameworks. The glass and mirrors she uses put the world’s reflection front and center, but their arrangements also explore potentially mathematical concepts of infinity, bursting with an internal light that enhances their own physicality.
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Porto 24.
by Doug MacCash, The Times-Picayune on NOLA.com

Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian's sculptures at the Newcomb Art Gallery during New Orleans' international art festival, Prospect.3, are like giant gemstones. She creates abstract geometric shapes based on traditional Persian architecture, then encrusts them with reflective mosaics made from thousands of small, precisely cut mirror fragments. On one hand her sculptures have the cool cerebral quality of minimalism, but their glimmering surfaces lend them an irresistible gaiety as well.

Born in 1924, Farmanfarmaian has seen a lot of history go by. According to Internet references, World War II prevented her from traveling to Paris to study art as she had hoped, so she attended art schools in New York during the advent of the abstract expressionist movement, becoming friends with avant-garde stars such as Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock and eventually Andy Warhol. By 1958 she was a star herself, representing Iran in the Venice Biennale, the international art event that is the model for Prospect.3. Her career flourished in Iran until the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when much of her work was destroyed and she returned to New York.

Mirrored geometric sculptures by Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian (L: Instagram photo by Doug MacCash / NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune; R: Courtesy Newcomb Art Gallery)

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Persian Letters

The allure and enduring legacy of Persian Nasta’liq calligraphy
Detail of a work from Sadegh Tirafkan’s ‘Body Curves’ series. Courtesy REORIENT.
by Kevin Schwartz, REORIENT

When the famed calligrapher Mir Emad was murdered at the Safavid court in 1615 – perhaps on account of artistic rivalry or perhaps because of his religious affiliations – an important chapter in the history of the calligraphic script known as nasta’liq came to a close. Mir Emad was not the originator of nasta’liq, which emerged in 14th century Iran as a likely marriage of two other styles (naskh and ta’liq), but he was nonetheless largely regarded as its undisputed master, attracting admirers among his Safavid patrons, Mughal emperors in South Asia, and countless others even long after his death. His demise brought to end a prolific period of nasta’liq production that witnessed the rise of an unknown script to one heightening the sensory reception of Persian verse to an artistic end in itself, often overpowering the meaning of the texts it was used to write with its visual appeal. In but a few centuries, nasta’liq had triumphed as the premier style for artfully presenting the words of poets and authors writing in Persian, both major and minor (in addition to occasionally being used for Ottoman Turkish, and in rare instances, Arabic). This rich period in the history of the script, the study of which is at times relegated to an afterthought compared to other Persianate arts such as poetry, painting, and architecture, is the subject of a new exhibition entitled Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. On display there are single folio pages and books featuring examples of nasta’liq in jali (large) and khafi (minute) scripts, as well as the calligraphic implements employed, making for an altogether admirable overview of a script that shot across the Persianate world between the 14th and 17th centuries and set the artistic standard for Persian calligraphy.

The Genius of Persian Calligraphy charts the emergence and proliferation of nasta’liq through the exploration of four of the style’s most preeminent exponents: the presumptive inventor, Mir Ali Tabrizi (active between 1370 and 1410); the exemplar of the classical style, Sultan Ali Mashhadi (d. 1520); the large-format specialist, Mir Ali Haravi (d. 1550), and the aforementioned Mir Emad al-Hasani (d. 1615). Each of these calligraphers’ artistic output mirrors an important phase in the development of nasta’liq, and lends insight into a specialised world of calligraphic expression. Beginning with the mastery of Mir Ali Tabrizi, whose talents and instruction led to the consecration of a number of selselehs (lineages) in eastern Iran and beyond, and continuing onwards to the peerless works of Mir Emad at the court of Shah Abbas the Great, the exhibition considers how the calligraphers honed their skills through long hours in their ateliers and raised nasta’liq to the highest reaches of aesthetic delight for patrons, kings, and connoisseurs throughout the Persianate world, from Anatolia to South Asia. The end result was the creation of a style equally attractive for calligraphers crafting the looping letters and diamond-shaped diacritics of the delicately curved script as it was for the connoisseurs left in awe of its artistry.

Iran Mourns Lost Youth in Thousands

The coffin holding Morteza Pashaei's body was carried through a large crowd on Sunday in Tehran. Photo by Saeed Faramarzi. Courtesy Nasimonline and The Huffington Post.
by Tara Kangarlou, The Huffington Post

For the first time in nearly three decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian people and the government were in unison to mourn a pop singer's death -- a 30-year-old singer and songwriter who died after a year-long battle with stomach cancer last week.

According to participants and the Iranian media that covered the events, thousands of people took the streets of Tehran and other major metropolitans including religious cities like Mashhad to mourn the death of Morteza Pashaei -- the pop singer whose romantic, emotional and mostly melancholy melodies touched millions of hearts inside the country of almost 70 million, but also other Iranians around the world.

Since 2009 and the aftermath of the much-disputed presidential election where hundreds of thousands of Iranians came together to march, cry, and stand in unity for what came to be known as the "green revolution" -- last week's unexpected public gatherings were not stifled by government forces and to much surprise, were in fact supported by some Iranian officials including the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance who released a message of condolence after Pashaei's death.

"It was an incredible scene, I've never seen such coverage for a young pop singer in Iran; it was as if you're watching a western news coverage after a celebrity's death," said Hoorieh Rahimi, a middle-aged mom of three who lives in the United States and spends winters in her hometown of Tehran.

Surprised by what she saw on the national broadcasting channel that's monitored and controlled by the Iranian government and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Rahimi added that "the news would go back and forth between shots of Pashaei singing in his concerts and then show live shots the thousands of people escorting his coffin to the grave-site also known as Behesht-e Zahra."

In Iran -- a young nation, where the majority of its population is under the age of 40 -- the government only allows and propagates such public grievings to mourn the death of a cleric or to commemorate a religious figure's martyrdom or death.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night'

Interview with Sheila Vand 
Image via SpectreVision. Courtesy Complex.
by , Complex

Sheila Vand knows she's about to confuse the hell out of you. Her two breakout acting roles are dropping this week—State of Affairs hit NBC last night and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is in theaters Friday—but they couldn't be farther apart. The former, led by Katherine Heigl, is a political drama that deals with the inner workings of the CIA, while the latter, directed by newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour, is an Iranian vampire western. For State, Vand is a brainy CIA Secretary of Defense briefer who plays BFF with Heigl; for Girl, Vand is a centuries-old vampire who sucks the life out of misbehaving men and avenges scorned women. So, you know, this week is pretty clutch for Vand's acting reel, which also includes a small part in Argo.

But Vand knows exactly what she's doing. The 29-year-old Palo Alto native is all about defying expectations and breaking free from any pigeonholing. As you'll see, she's not "Iranian-American actress Sheila Vand." She's just Sheila Vand—complicated, "new age-y," and optimistic. Should she be anything else?

What drew you to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night?

I knew Lily [Amirpour] from before. We had done a couple short films together, so I already loved working with her. When she offered me the part, the script wasn’t written yet, but she had a pretty good sense of the world she wanted to create and knew that I wanted to live and play in that world. I was down right off the bat; she’s like a soul sister to me.

Did you have any input into your character?

Yeah, there were tons of conversations. It was a long process. On one hand, Lily’s an auteur, so she has a very clear vision of what she wants and where it’s headed, but she is also really collaborative in that she loves talking about ideas and giving you lots of resources to enrich your performance. Also, our shoot date kept getting pushed, so then we’d have another few months to go even deeper. But she wrote the part for me, so my spirit is in there more than I ever talked to her about what I wanted The Girl to be like. She already knew, and she molded it to who I am.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


Film Review: 
This remarkable debut from Iranian director Nima Javidi transcends cultural barriers with its compellingly universal and thoroughly engrossing premise.
Melbourne (2014)
by Peter Debruge, Variety

Why give an Iranian film an Australian title? In the misleadingly named “Melbourne,” the distant city is but an abstract idea — like Michael Haneke’s “The Seventh Continent” — of a new life far removed from the hassles and stress that hound its central couple. Set almost entirely in a Tehran apartment, where the action unspools virtually in real time, Nima Javidi’s unnerving debut takes an incredibly relatable premise (impossible to discuss without revealing the surprise) and invites auds to speculate what they might do in the characters’ shoes, effectively minimizing the distance that can sometimes limit Western interest in Iranian cinema.

“Melbourne” debuted at the Venice Film Festival, where it kicked off the Intl. Critics’ Week sidebar, but has since managed to confuse potential champions as it travels the circuit, the title inadvertently disguising its true cultural identity. Fest programmers are constantly on the hunt for strong new Persian voices, and Javidi demonstrates enormous potential, judging by a feature that makes such strong use of its script and two central characters, Amir (another gripping turn from “A Separation’s” Peyman Moaadi) and Sara (Negar Javaherian, every bit his equal).

This seemingly ordinary middle-class couple have one foot out the door when we meet them, via a somewhat clunky introduction: The film opens on a flustered female census worker who arrives at Amir and Sara’s flat just as the two are packing their bags to leave. (The credits unspool over a hypnotic montage of clothes being vacuum-sealed into plastic bags, which might have been a wiser way to begin the picture.) She interviews them briefly — just long enough to establish that they are on their way to Melbourne, where the couple intends to spend three years — before disappearing.

Perhaps Javidi needed a device to distract us during the film’s opening reel, which focuses on the relatively normal confusion one might expect to find in an apartment whose residents are trying to juggle the last details before a major life change. Characters come and go, including a young woman (evidently a family member, though her connection isn’t clear) who fusses with a baby sleeping in the back bedroom. And the baby? Well, she belongs to a neighbor, whose nanny asked Sara to watch little Tina for a few hours on a day when her attention is clearly elsewhere.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

‘Thunder’ Rocks Iran

Rouhani Era Gets Guitar Soundtrack as ‘Thunder’ Rocks Iran
The Iranian band Thunder perform live in this photo taken from their promotional video. Courtesy Thunder and Bloomberg.

In the 10 months since his band was given official permission to perform, Iranian rock singer Ardavan Anzabipour has learned when to cool things down.

“People want to see some action on stage but we must be careful not to overdo it,” Anzabipour, the 40-year-old lead singer of Thunder, said in a Dubai hotel last month before its debut show in the United Arab Emirates. “It’s a challenge. We bring the excitement up but they’re not able to move” as dancing in public is banned, he said.

Since the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani last year, the number of Iranian bands allowed to stage concerts has surged. The post-revolution era, during which live western-style music was restricted to underground events or impossible to find, is fading. Yet all public performances still need to be sanctioned by guardians of the Islamic Republic’s officially ordained values.

Sanam Pasha, Thunder’s 36-year-old female vocalist, is careful to style her image appropriately. She has to respect Iran’s dress code for women -- a headscarf and loose-fitting coat -- and appear, by local standards, neither too passionate nor sultry.

“Stepping right and left if it appears too rhythmic is no good. Sometimes it’s preferable to not even smile,” Pasha said. “Making sure my scarf isn’t sliding requires energy, too.”

And while her voice can be distinctly heard on stage, she must make sure it doesn’t rise above Anzabipour’s -- or at least only very briefly.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Repatriating The Yellow Dogs: what happened to Iran's rock stars slain in New York?

The band left their homeland to pursue their artistic dream, but it came to an end in tragedy in a New York neighbourhood. Their families then faced a fight to bring their bodies back 
Yellow Dogs memorial. Courtesy Golbarg Bashi and the Guardian.
by John Albert for the Tehran Bureau, Guardian

On a bright and cold morning on 16 November 2013, a funeral procession left Brooklyn for John F Kennedy airport. A hearse carried the body of Soroush Farazmand. Behind him in a black mini van was the body of his brother Arash, who was taller.

NoorudDean Abu Ibrahim, a Brooklyn funeral director was driving the mini van. The brothers were being flown back to Tehran for burial.

At the rear of the tragic motorcade was Peymaneh Sazegari who had driven overnight from her home in Toronto as soon as she heard the terrible news.

Sazegari was a cousin, and close to Arash and Soroush’s mother Farzaneh who was in Tehran. The two were like sisters. She had spoken frequently to the brothers about making a trip to New York to visit. She was their only family living in north America, and only an eight hour drive away, at that. But plans had always fallen through.

When Sazegari did finally visit the city, it was to help make their funeral arrangements.

Through five days of stress and uncertainty, Sazegari had kept her composure. She had navigated an unfamiliar city and handled all the necessary arrangements. But when she saw the signs for JFK, she broke down into tears.

“This is the funeral procession,” she sobbed. “This is it.”

Just a few years earlier, guitarist Arash and drummer Soroush had arrived at that airport with their instruments, excited about a future in a new country.

On 11 November 2013, just after midnight, they were shot dead in their Brooklyn home along with a close friend and collaborator, Ali Eskandarian. Their killer, Ali Mohammadi Akbar Rafie, or Rafi to the others, a fellow musician and expatriate with a history of mental illness, then shot and killed himself.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Sex, Drugs, and Gol-o-Bolbol

‘If Iran ever had a rock and roll dynasty, it belonged to the Qajars’
A Qajar belle given the Warhol treatment by Hojat Amani. Courtesy REORIENT.
by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT

It’s a stiflingly hot and humid morning in New York City. Though I probably shouldn’t, I pour myself another dose of crimson Persian chai in a kamar-barik teacup amidst a din of blaring sirens, whiny horns, scratchy radios, and Manhattan chatter steaming forth from the dirty boulevard below. I’ve got fuzzed-out riffs bouncing about in my head, and am picturing myself sauntering down St. Mark’s Place later in the afternoon before ambling into the seedy corner bar, just like Mick and Keith in Waiting on a Friend. Happily daydreaming whilst timidly sipping my tea, lest I scald my tongue, my cousin and I decide to while away the time by browsing through a mishmash of old, yellowed photo albums, lavishly-illustrated books about Iran, and some artefacts unearthed from her dusty closet of curios. My eyes glance over the panoply of pictures, ceramics, folios, and metalwork arrayed before me, none of which particularly pique my interest; I’m 16, and all I want to do is fall in love, start a rock and roll band, and bury my high school days in the dust. Khayyam? Ferdowsi? Give me the New York Dolls any day.

Just as we’re about to head out to bite the Big Apple, my cousin remembers an old oil painting tucked away somewhere she thinks I’d find interesting. As she blows away the dust accumulated over many moons from its ornate frame, my pupils dilate, and I feel the hair on my legs stand erect; I am, after all, face-to-face with the Pivot of the Universe, God’s Shadow on Earth, the King of Kings, Fat’h Ali Shah-e Qajar, in all his bejeweled and bearded glory. Though I can’t tell my Pahlavi from my Safavi, and have scarce turned a page in the annals of Iranian history, I find something alluring about this figure nonetheless. His look is sinister and haughty, his countenance overbearing and imposing; and, eyeing this hirsute sovereign (Billy Gibbons, go home) with one blessed palm resting on the hilt of a glittering dagger, and the other clutching the tortuous pipe of a gaudy ghalyan, the words on Keith Richards’ now-iconic 70s t-shirt resonate as true as ever: who the fuck is Mick Jagger?

Iranians scream into pots at new contemporary art center

 The screaming pots of artist Babak Golkar are seen at an exhibition in Tehran October 17, 2014. Credit: Mehdi Bolourian-Sazmanab. Courtesy Reuters
by Michelle Moghtader, Reuters

A contemporary art gallery in central Tehran is giving Iranians a chance to let out their frustrations by screaming into clay pots sculpted by a Vancouver-based artist, exhibiting in the country of his ancestors for the first time.

The earthen pots, some of which resemble traditional water jars, are designed not for containing liquids but to relieve the stresses of urban life - noise, traffic and pollution - if only for a moment.

"When logic fails to explain, it becomes natural to scream. The (pots) reflect many conditions that we are faced with, often unexplained with logic," artist Babak Golkar told Reuters by e-mail from Canada last week, shortly after his exhibition opened.

Gallery creator Sohrab Kashani said it has been packed with stylish Iranians screaming into vessels of various shapes and sizes. Some are designed to amplify sound, some to mute, but all made with the same clay that is typical of parts of Iran.

Golkar said he had decided the time was right to return to Tehran after years of avoiding exhibiting there.

"I was physically gone for a long time but mentally never left. To come back and engage actively and not as a passive tourist was a true privilege," he said. 

He, like many contemporary artists who have departed from traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture, had difficulty finding a place to work with experimental and performance-based mediums until Sazmanab, a privately funded art center founded by Kashani, stepped in.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Iran native eyes Schenectady café as venue for conversation

Dr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak, stands in front of 703 Union Street in Schenectady Wednesday, November 5, 2014.   Photographer: Peter R. Barber. Courtesy Gazette.
by Bethany Bump, Gazette Reporter

Fifteen years ago, Iranian officials raided Mahmood Karimi-Hakak’s sold-out production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and shut it down.

The Islamic regime in power at the time had been sending censors to observe Karimi-Hakak’s take on one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and they objected to a scene in which an actor made a pushing gesture toward an actress from 10 inches away. Men and women were forbidden from touching on stage, and from a certain angle an audience member might think the actors had touched, the officials told him. Karimi-Hakak increased the distance.

But on the fifth night of sold-out performances, officials raided the show, shouting violent threats and calling the women on stage whores. With hundreds of people in the audience, Karimi-Hakak urged the raiders to sit down with him on stage and discuss their concerns with the audience. If the audience believed them valid, he would happily shut down, he said.

“I said, ‘Look, theater is an art based on dialogue; therefore, stage is the most appropriate place for opposing forces to sit down and have a conversation,’ ” the Niskayuna resident and Siena College professor recalled 15 years later. “Of course, they did not do it, because they knew if there was a dialogue, they’d have no legs to stand on.”

Now, Karimi-Hakak has a new plan to foster dialogue, right here in Schenectady. He’s asking the city for approval to open a café at 703 Union St., a two-story building across from Union College, to host film screenings, poetry readings, arts and crafts exhibits and plain old conversation.

Café International would offer coffee, pastries, Persian teas and sweets. With some minimal renovations and city Planning Commission approval later this month, it could open by March, right in time for the Persian New Year.

“I want to gather people under the same roof for tea and conversation,” Karimi-Hakak said. “All kinds of people: academics, artists, students, people from all walks of life. As a theater artist, I sincerely believe that the only way to survival as human beings is to have conversations with one another to understand that we can live in this world together and we don’t have to think the same way to do it.”

Friday, 7 November 2014

"In Iran, art fills a void"

Interview with the Iranian theatre director Amir Reza Koohestani
A photo of Amir Reza Koohestani's production of Chekhov's "Ivanov" (photo: Mani Lotfizadeh). Courtesy Qantara.
Interview by David Siebert, Qantara

Amir Reza Koohestani is currently the most sought-after theatre director in Iran. David Siebert talked to him about censorship, the enthusiasm for theatre among young Iranians and the new cultural freedom under President Rouhani

You began studying in Manchester in 2007. When the Green Movement emerged in Iran two years later and tens of thousands of Iranians began protesting against suspected fraud in the re-election of President Ahmadinejad, you immediately returned home. Why?

Amir Reza Koohestani: I had the feeling that this was a historic moment not to be missed and that I couldn't just sit around idly. When I returned to Iran in July 2009, the government and the authorities had already quashed the Green Movement. The whole country was suffering under a massive depression. Everyone had lost hope, especially artists and intellectuals. I made reference to these events in my stage play "Where were you on 8 January?" and shortly thereafter encountered problems with the authorities. But only indirectly – public funds for my theatre company "More" suddenly dried up.

In 2011, you staged Chekhov's drama "Ivanov" in Tehran. Iranian critics named it "best stage play of the year". Why did you decide to stage one of the classics of European theatre?

Koohestani: The censors were watching me. It was clear that I couldn't stage any of my own works anymore. So I chose Chekhov's "Ivanov" in order to hide behind it, so to speak. The play initially comes across as a simple, harmless love story.

Chekhov's tragedy from 1887 tells the story of Ivanov, a depressive Russian landowner, who falls in love with the much younger Sasha. On the surface, it is a play about a mid-life crisis, but what it really does is satirise the apathy and stagnation of Tsarist Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. You adapted the play to mirror the current situation in Iran. Was this an attempt to describe the lethargy and hopelessness in Iran after the failure of the Green Movement?

On the surreal in contemporary Iranian cinema

Surreal images permeate FAT SHAKER
by Travis Bird, Shotgun Cinema

Contemporary Iran is one place where the very fact that a film is made is just as vital as what’s in it. It defies the comfortable notion that art can exist in an idealized vacuum. Art is made by and experienced by individuals, and in the case of Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, cinema in particular sends filmmakers and cinephiles on their own strange trips.

Cinephilia and filmgoing is something Americans can take for granted (maybe too much so), but in Iran, it ranges from difficult to ridiculous. As Azadeh Jafari and Vahid Mortazavi detail in this piece for Reverse Shot, encountering movies in Islamic Iran has often involved black-market VHS peddlers and non-subtitled material, in addition to dubbed and censored versions of more generic fare. As the authors suggest, encountering non-standard cinema was (and is) often an individual exercise, both empowering and isolated.

Independent filmmaking, similarly, has become an isolated exercise in Iran. Actually, most of what Americans hear about contemporary Iranian cinema revolves around its not being produced, mainly due to individual bans on filmmaking doled out by the Iranian government. Jafar Panahi has been perhaps the most notable cause célèbre, in part because of his success before receiving a 20-year ban and six-year jail sentence in 2010, but also because he has in fact managed to defy the ban by making (to date) two powerful feature films, This Is Not A Film (2011) – which was smuggled out of the country to the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake – and Closed Curtain (2013).

Panahi was and remains a genuinely significant filmmaker, and his post-ban films can be read as evidence of the psychological deterioration he’s endured as an ideological target: as desperate as they are defiant, as much therapy as protest. The cake story in particular adds a darkly surrealistic element, showing just how extreme the measures must be taken in order to avoid being caught, which in turn suggests just how nightmarish it would actually be to get caught.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Republic of Imagination

Azar Nafisi’s latest is an ode to literary America, from Iran, with love
by Robert Fulford, National Post

In the fall of 1979, during the early days of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the 24-year-old Azar Nafisi was teaching her students at the University of Tehran the virtues of two American books, Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. At the same moment, in the courtyard below, Islamists were shouting, “Death to America!” and the nearby U.S. embassy was under siege by screaming, murderously passionate anti-Americans.

“The new regime,” as she remembers it, “was leading a bloody crusade against Western imperialism, against the rights of women and minorities, against cultural and individual freedom.” That was the program of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And she, through literature, was doing her best to teach the reverse.

“Suddenly a new regime had established itself, taking hold of my country, my religion, my traditions, and claiming that the way I looked, the way I acted — what I believed in and desired as a human being, as a woman, a writer and teacher — were all alien.”

Under pressure at the university, she continued her classes at home, meeting discreetly with a few students who weren’t worried about official dogma. Eventually Nafisi left Iran and ended up in Washington as an American citizen and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University. Her experience with private teaching in Tehran led eventually to Reading Lolita in Tehran, published a decade ago, in which she described what free literature meant to women living sharply circumscribed lives. She imagined that with luck her book would sell 9,000 copies; it sold 1.5 million, in 32 languages. It outraged Iranian critics and made her famous.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The fine line between what is permitted and what is not

Ramin Sadighi, the founder of Iranian world music label Hermes Records, talks about the constraints on artists in the Islamic Republic, the battle against copyright infringement and what international sanctions mean for his record label 

Interview by Shahram Ahadi, Qantara

Mr Sadighi, let's imagine the following situation: your label comes to an agreement with an artist, and nothing stands in the way of producing a record. But there's still the matter of obtaining the necessary permit from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad). Have you encountered problematic cases like this before? 

Ramin Sadighi: I completely disagree with artists having to get a permit from the ministry because things like that are not only directed against the work of an artist, but against society as a whole...

Excuse me for interrupting you at this point, but what official channels does an artist have to go through in order to finally obtain the necessary permit? 

Sadighi: There are three hurdles: if the type of artistic product we're talking about is song, then the whole thing first has to be passed by a so-called "song panel". They won't permit anything that insults Islam or any political content.

And therein lies the problem: a lot of artists in Iran today want to use their songs to address social problems in their country, and if the song panel doesn't agree with certain points, you don't get a permit. The decision also depends on which "evaluation team" the panel assigns. You can never say exactly where the boundaries between what's allowed and what is forbidden are going to be.

What about classical songs? Do you encounter similar problems there?

Sadighi: Yes. There are some songs about love, like for example some works by Molana (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi). It's often ruled that one verse or another has to be left out.

And what happens once you have actually managed to get a permit from the song panel? 

Sadighi: After that, the musical product as a whole has to be approved in order for it to be released. The entire artistic endeavour is gone over by the "music committee". If you get over that hurdle, the music can finally be produced. But in the course of production, there can also be personal checks on the artist.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Dancing around clichés

The film "Desert Dancer" tells the story of an Iranian dancer in a land where dancing is not permitted. Audiences are once again presented with a biased picture of a complex country. This review questions the tendency of filmmakers to portray Iran in an exclusively negative light

Still from the film "Desert Dancer" (photo: Senator). Courtesy Qantara.
The opening scene is of a boy sprightly dancing in front of his jubilant classmates. Moments later, he is caught by his glaring teacher. Switch to the next scene: on the way home from school, the boy tells his mother that he was beaten by his teacher. The background setting is arranged down to the smallest detail: behind the pair, a propaganda mural featuring soldiers can be seen on a wall. Off to the side, a market scene is being acted out: a handful of women, all of whom are shrouded in chadors, are clamouring around a vegetable stand.

The concerned mother, who is the only woman in the scene wearing a loose-fitting headscarf, explains the nature of the world to the young would-be dancer. "Do you see those men over there?" The camera pans to a group of young men with beards and white shirts. "They are the Basij, the morality police. If they see you dancing, you will suffer a lot worse."

Every cliché within the span of two minutes

It doesn't even take two minutes for "Desert Dancer", a new film set in Iran by the British director Richard Raymond, to serve up all of the popular clichés about Iran. The set pieces are so tightly packed together that anyone in the audience who knows Iran will feel their stomachs churning. In order to avoid any misunderstandings, let us be clear about a few things: a good deal of what is portrayed in the film is reality in Iran. But, as is so often the case, the greater part of reality is simply filtered out.

The plot of the film, which is based on a true story, can be quickly summed up: the young Afshin has a dream; he wants to become a dancer. But, dancing is frowned upon in his native Iran, and a career as a dancer is impossible. When Afshin moves to Tehran to study, he sets up an underground dance group.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The godfather of Iranian hip-hop wants grassroots change

Being a hip-hop artists in a country where the genre is banned, comes with many challenges.

by Mari Shibata, Index on Censorship

I’m a hand that has become a fist…
I’m a Shia in Bahrain, I’m an Armenian in WWI
I’m the one who is starving, with ribs obvious from starvation

They are raping someone and I am the sound of the agonised screaming
When they tell him or her “relax, so that we can enjoy it, whore”, I’m that tense muscle
I’m an Afghan homosexual woman that lives in Iran

Iranian rapper Soroush Lashkari, aka Hichkas, is sharing extracts from an unfinished song for his new album Mojaz, translating the lyrics into English on the spot. Hichkas (Nobody) has been called the godfather of Iranian hip-hop, which seems fitting for a man who turned the local calling code for Tehran — 021 — into song and a sign language that became the symbol of the Iranian hip-hop movement and its followers. But being a hip-hop artist in a country where the genre is banned comes with many challenges.

“When we made physical copies of our first album Jangale Asphalt in 2006, we were arrested whilst selling it on the streets of Tehran,” Hichkas, now in his late twenties, tells Index on Censorship. “You can’t just sell records in Iran, you need to seek approval from the authorities before you release anything or perform concerts. There is no structure or support system for musicians to perform freely, and in particular for hip hop artists.”

Anyone who wishes to publish, distribute or perform music in Iran is required to submit their work for review by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), which is guided by Islamic law in force since the country’s 1979 revolution. The MCIG operates under the influence of the minister of culture, who is chosen by the president and the parliament. Even if the amount of freedom artists may experience varies under each presidency, all recordings submitted are archived to ensure the authenticity of Iranian musical culture is maintained. Exposure to Western music is also heavily scrutinised with genres such as hip-hop banned altogether. The implication is that musicians adopting traditional Iranian standards are favoured over artists incorporating external sounds tainted with “decadence”. The name of Hichkas’ upcoming album Mojaz -– meaning an album or artwork within the mojavez, the seal of approval required from the MCIG to sell records in the country.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Simin Behbahani: National Poet, Nation's Mother

Behbahani at a Glimpse
Image courtesy of Tavaana
by Tavaana

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran’s most prominent poets, was born to a cultured family and raised amongst the literary elite. Behbahani published her first poem when she was only 14 years old, and in the years that followed, she gradually developed her own style of writing as she became a renowned poet. Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, Behbahani worked as a songwriter for the Iranian National Radio. She was also a member of the Iranian National Radio and Television Council for Music for some time.

Alongside her career as a poet, Behbahani was always involved in social and civic activism. In her youth, she was a member of the Tudeh Party of Iran’s Youth Organization, and later on, she helped found the Iranian Writers’ Association. In later years, Behbahani became known as a women’s rights activist respected by the young members of the Iranian feminist movement. Even though her poetry mainly touches on personal themes, socio-political concerns, too, played an important part in informing her vision. Social justice, poverty, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and resisting censorship are all central themes in many of her poems.

In recent years, the Iranian government had imposed restrictions on Behbahani’s activism, and the authoritarian voices in the media attacked her character. Nevertheless, Behbahani continued to express herself and chose to address these attacks from a compassionate perspective. She passed away at age 87 in August 2014.

A Poet Raised from Her Mother’s Bosom

Simin Khalili, better known as Simin Behbahani, was born on July 20, 1927 in Tehran.[1] Her father, Abbas Khalili, wrote poetry in both Persian and Arabic. He was the editor-in-chief of Nedaay-e-Islam’ newspaper before starting his own paper, Eghdam.[2] He translated over 1,100 stanzas from Ferdowsi’s mythical epic poem, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). Behbahani’s mother, Fakhr-Ozmaa Arghoun, was erudite and progressive: she was born in 1898 in Tehran and had learned Arabic and Persian in elementary school alongside her brothers before continuing her education in French and English at the Joan of Arc French school and the American School.[3]

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Rediscovering Iranian Artist Bahman Mohassess in Fifi Howls from Happiness

Bahman Mohassess. Image courtesy of Music Box Films and The Huffington Post.
 by , The Huffington Post

To most, the name Bahman Mohassess will not mean much. I know it didn't to me at first, before coming across a wonderful new documentary titled Fifi Howls from Happiness.

The film, directed by Mitra Farahani, is a very personal, insightful, intimate look at the exiled Iranian artist's last few months, living in self-imposed reclusion in a small residence hotel in Rome. An openly gay artist known as the "Persian Picasso", Mohassess left Iran in the late 1950s when the attention bestowed on his talents turned from praise and adoration to persecution and censorship. It was the era after the fall of Mossadegh and the incoming regime performed its own brand of cultural revolution, making artists the scapegoats.

As is often the case.

If my own ignorance was betrayed by my lack of awareness of this spectacular, satirical, utterly irreverent and unapologetic genius, the film thankfully caught me up on all I needed to know. Farahani gently introduces the audience to his work and character, while letting the artist think he's dictating the direction the documentary should take. But the director's intent is not to be manipulative, in any way, she's simply living a magnificent moment in time with the larger-than-life Mohassess, just before he's about to leave this world. The sky, quite literally, is the limit.

Farahani is ever present, her voice heard off-camera softly prodding the artist in Farsi to reveal more and more of himself; during a meal out, at a local restaurant, her salad sits untouched in front of the camera, her work to capture everything about Mohassess for posterity clearly overtaking those more mundane needs, like eating. She's teased by Mohassess, asked for cigarettes, bargained with and throughout the film, her grace shines the light on one of the great minds of the 20th Century.

The true brilliance of a documentary filmmaker lies in the editing, the way the narrative is put together to create a story worth watching, one that entertains and enlightens at the same time. As you can tell, I wish to laugh and cry, not just watch a doc to be instructed. And Farahani achieves that so seamlessly, perfectly, dancing a sultry tango with her subject. Yet she never oversteps her boundaries, she's always the student, Mohassess ever the Maestro. She intersperses her video diary with clips from the artist's favorite film, Luchino Visconti's classic Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), and statements by other artists like a favorite quote from Marino Marini: "We built, we destroyed and a sad song weighed on the world."

Sunday, 27 July 2014

An Iranian artist has just one day to save her artwork from being destroyed by Canadian customs

Iranian artist and Canadian permanent resident Sadaf Foroughi is fighting to get her artwork back from Canadian customs before it is destroyed

The design of Sadaf Foroughi's Shahre Farang, a traditional Iranian peep box. Picture courtesy of Sadaf Foroughi and CBC Radio.
by CBC Radio

Iranian artist and Canadian permanent resident, Sadaf Foroughi, has spent the last two years trying to build an authentic shahre farang, essentially a traditional Iranian peep box. It's part of a project funded by the Canada Council for the Arts. After Ms Foroughi went to Iran to help build the box, that's when things got complicated.

On her arrival back in Montreal, Canadian customs held the artwork. Officers claimed it contravenes Canada's trade sanctions with Iran. And now the piece is slated to be destroyed in a matter of days.

Shahre farangs are traditionally made of thin tin, are delicate objects and date back centuries. According to Ms Foroughi the peep box was used to show pictures to children in Iran and give people a glimpse around the world -- places average Iranians would likely never visit. Ms Foroughi's installation is a modern interpretation of the shahre farang where she shows videos instead of photographs.

Ms Foroughi tells guest host Helen Mann, she doesn't understand why her work violates Canada's so-called "Special Economic Measures Regulations for Iran," because she says her piece has no commercial value.

Ms Fourghi tells Helen she told the customs agent in Montreal, "I'm an artist and I had the grant of Canada Council for the Arts and they only support independent and personal projects." But according to Ms Foroughi, the official shouted at her.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Tehran Bazaar

Untitled, 2009 (Rostam II Series), by Siamak Filizadeh. Courtesy of Aaran Gallery.
by Joobin Bekhrad, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs

In discourses revolving around Iran’s tumultuous history, particularly that of the last thousand years, a comparison has often been made between Iranian culture and the mythical phoenix. Following the decay and decline of the Sassanian Empire—heir to the legacy of the Achaemenids and Parthians, whose influence not only reached the far-flung corners of the then-known world politically, but culturally as well—Iran was plunged into a dark era that would radically alter the course of its culture, history, and identity for centuries to come. The arrival of the Umayyads and Abbasids saw not only the eradication of Zoroastrianism, the indigenous Iranian religion dominant at the time, but also the widespread suppression of the Persian language and Iranian culture, which culminated in what is now referred to as the dreaded “two centuries of silence.” And, just when the newly humbled Iranians—who had only a short while back given the Romans a run for their money—thought they had seen the worst, the Mongols, following the course of their Seljuk brethren who had recently swept through Iran and laid the foundations for modern-day Turkey, razed the land of the noble to the ground, laying once-proud Persia to waste.

Of many of the countless peoples and places Herodotus documented in his colossal Histories, only names and vestiges remain. Despite having been in the epicenter of a region continuously subject to invasion, bloodshed, intercultural tensions, and religious strife (to name a few malaises), Iranian culture has always managed, somehow or other, not only to survive, but to proudly flourish, despite various changes in its outward appearance and form. From the ashes of the remnants of the House of Sassan, and from the depths of the two centuries of silence emerged the voices of Rudaki, the first major poet to write in modern-day Persian (i.e., the Dari variant), and Ferdowsi, who, in a labor of love composed the triumphant Shahnameh, Iran’s national epic celebrating pre-Islamic Iranian mythology and lore. Later, though Iran found itself yet again under foreign occupation—this time by Turco-Mongol dynasties from the East—Iranian art and architecture flourished and adapted itself to its new surroundings. Iran later enjoyed a lavish renaissance at the hands of the first indigenous rulers of Iran since the Sassanians, the Safavids. Despite their religious zealotry and fervent promotion of Shi’ism (by sometimes questionable means), they ushered in a golden age of Iranian art and culture still looked upon with reverence and longing today by Iranians and non-Iranians alike.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

An Iranian dissident returns home

Popular filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof has returned to Tehran from exile. In an exclusive interview, he explains why.
A scene from "The White Meadows", 2009, Dir. Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran. Courtesy The Global Film Initiative Blog
by , Al Jazeera America

Friends and family warned Mohammad Rasoulof not to return to Tehran. The award-winning director still had a prison sentence looming over his head after being arrested during a shoot in 2010, charged with threatening national security and making propaganda against Iran’s Islamic state.

Rasoulof’s friend and collaborator, the renowned director of “White Balloon,” Jafar Panahi, who was arrested at the same time, is still under house arrest. Further, Rasoulof had just released his most uncompromising film to date. “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” — which won the International Federation of Film Critics Award at Cannes and is currently screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art — is an undisguised criticism of Iran’s feared security services, and Rasoulof’s most overtly political work yet. Still, he ignored the advice and came home.

He arrived in Tehran in September 2013, a month after the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani. The police confiscated his passport, but have otherwise left him alone so far. Rouhani has promised to bring change to Iran, and although that change is moving slowly, things are certainly different from when Rasoulof lived here four years ago.

“When I was arrested, I was saying the exact same things as Mr. Rouhani is saying now. I wonder why nobody arrests him,” Rasoulof says with a laugh.

The 42-year-old filmmaker shuffles around his backyard in a washed-out black sweatshirt, dragging his plastic slippers along the ground with every step. When he sits back in his chair at his small working table, shaded by a tree, he can enjoy something close to silence. This is the only interview he has agreed to since his return, but he does not seem nervous. Here, sheltered from the frantic noise of Iran’s capital, Rasoulof has room to breathe. And that is exactly what many Iranian artists hope to get under Rouhani’s government.

“Of course, one has to be very stupid to think that after Rouhani’s election, the entire Islamic Republic will change,” Rasoulof says. “The important thing is that we can help move things slowly in the right direction.”

Friday, 27 June 2014

Iranian Director Flouts Ban on Filming

For two decades, Jafar Panahi has offered a window into contemporary life in his native country despite pressure from the government
PET PROJECT: Iranian director Jafar Panahi's 'Closed Curtain' examines his country's ban on walking dogs in public.
by Tobias Grey, The Wall Street Journal

In Jafar Panahi's new movie, a writer in Iran smuggles his pet dog into his home inside a tote bag. The film, "Closed Curtain," addresses Iranian lawmakers' recent ban on dog-walking in public, part of an effort to curb perceived Western influences including keeping pets. For two decades, Mr. Panahi has captured such vagaries of life in his native country.

"Closed Curtain," which won the best screenplay award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013, opens at New York City's Film Forum on July 9. It is Mr. Panahi's second film since December 2010, when Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Court banned him from making movies for 20 years. 

The 53-year-old director has flouted the prohibition and continued to expand a body of work that has earned him critical acclaim around the world—and scrutiny at home. He first piqued the ire of Iranian authorities with "The Circle" (2000), which assailed the treatment of women under the country's Islamist regime. Six years later in "Offside," he mocked a law prohibiting Iranian women from attending professional soccer games.

As jury president of the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival, Mr. Panahi persuaded fellow jury members to wear green scarves to support Iran's pro-democratic Green Movement.

More than three years ago, Mr. Panahi was accused of spreading propaganda and undermining national security. He was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison—time he hasn't yet served—and forbidden from traveling abroad or giving interviews. 

Mr. Panahi's previous project, the documentary "This Is Not a Film" (2011), was shot almost entirely in his Tehran apartment. "Closed Curtain," which blends fiction and autobiography, was shot exclusively in his beach house beside the Caspian Sea. While the director is free to move throughout Iran, he isn't allowed to make movies.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Arts renaissance in Iran, where criticism is expressed in metaphors

Art market took off under Ahmadinejad; and Rouhani has eased conditions 
The figure of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran who was overthrown by the CIA and MI6 in 1953, continues to haunt Iran, as in this painting by Farideh Lashai. Photograph: Nazanin Paykar-Ara. Courtesy The Irish Times

by , The Irish Times

A tall, ravishing brunette with a superior air, drenched in Chanel 5, greets visitors to a gallery opening in north Tehran. Women flaunt their long tresses, wear stilettos and show their legs. Men and women shake hands, even kiss one another in greeting.

One might find the same crowd in London, Paris or New York – all cities which hosted Iranian exhibitions this past year. The art is “threaded through with human drama and composed of work that is both cosmopolitan and like no other art”, the New York Times critic wrote.

Tehran’s flourishing arts scene is a reminder that many westernised, upper middle-class Iranians have stayed – or returned – through 35 years of Islamic revolution.

“Iranians love their country regardless of who is in power,” says Nazanin Paykar-Ara (34), a professional photographer of contemporary art. “I have a British passport, so I can live anywhere I want to, but I would rather stay here . . . These artists create because it’s difficult. This Islamic period is an amazing part of our history. I want to see what is going to happen.”

Safe art

Affluent Iranians flock to the vernissages every Friday afternoon. Most galleries show safe, decorative abstract art, still lifes or calligraphy. But close to one third of an estimated 150 galleries show socially and politically charged art, says Aria Kasaei, who designs a monthly guide.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Paris gives voice to Iranian cinema

Kami’s Party (Mehmouniye Kami), 2013, Dir. Ali Ahmadzadeh.
by euronews

The second edition of the Iranian film festival in Paris was a chance to find out more about the many faces of contemporary Iranian cinema.

Arthouse theatre Le Nouvel Odeon played host to the event, screening a wide variety of feature, documentary, animation and shorts films by Iranian directors.

“There is an ‘S’ on the word cinema in the title of the festival because from the beginning our main goal was to promote films both from within Iran by showing independent Iranian cinema, but also films produced abroad over the past decade. So the idea was to create a dialogue between cinema from within and without Iran,” said the festival’s director Bamchade Pourvali.

Young Iranian filmmakers were invited to come and show their works to the Paris audience. Among them was Ali Ahmadzadeh with his first feature film ‘Kami’s Party’, a road movie about Iranian youngsters wandering from one party to another – the kind of content which prevented the film from obtaining an official screening permit.

“For me, a film becomes underground when the director decides to shoot without applying for an authorization or when he tries in vain to get one. I mean when the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance doesn’t allow us to shoot using the script that we have submitted, the film goes underground,” explained the young film director.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

In Focus

Shiva Ahmadi Animates Tales of Violence and Beauty

Shiva Ahmadi, Pipes, 2013, Watercolor, ink and acrylic on Aquaboard, 40 x 60 in  101 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
by Sehba Muhammad, BlouinARTINFO

“Sugarcoating a grotesque mess age” is how Detroit-based Shiva Ahmadi, in her strong Farsi accent, describes her aesthetic trickery. Populated by folkloric creatures, the artist’s pastel-hued fantasyscapes in watercolor on Aquabord—a textured hardboard panel coated with clay—reveal dark undertones that assert themselves in washes of blood-red ink and carefully rendered grenades.

Ahmadi’s recent work addresses ideas she has been toying with for eight years: the selfish motives, masked in moral ideology, that drive armed conflict; the pervasive nature of corruption; and the political dynamics of social injustice. Lotus, 2013, portrays, on a wildly patterned pistachio ground, an enthroned leader, turbaned and faceless, his body dissolving into velvety maroon abstraction. His ornate throne, inscribed with Allah, sits on a bed of lotus flowers similar to those found in 18th-century Tibeto-Chinese Buddha statuettes. An array of underlings—horses, birds, and monkeys—surrounding him make offerings of ticking time bombs. The turmoil and fantastical use of animals in the three-panel work echo both the Garden of Earthly Delights of Hieronymus Bosch and the ancient Persian epic Hamzanama.

After completing Lotus, Ahmadi came to feel that transmission of her message—unchecked political power backed by dogma inevitably ends in social destruction—was restricted by the static quality of painting, so she decided to convert it into animation. The resulting 10-minute film, Lotus, 2014, is on view through August 3  at the Asia Society in New York. “I don’t consider myself a digital artist,” she declares, “but for the sake of my concepts, animation is the perfect medium.”

Ahmadi’s notions of violence and armed hostility, along with her stockpile of conflict imagery, are drawn from tumultuous life experiences. When she was four, the Islamic revolution ravaged Iran, culminating in the overthrow of the secular and corrupt Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Soon afterward, the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq broke out, marring her formative years. “It was as if a black funerary fabric covered the country. There were bombings all the time. Women were screaming, and people were struggling,” Ahmadi recalls. “When the war was over, I tried to put it behind me, but the post-traumatic stress stays with you. I don’t notice it until I’m in a creative space, then it pours out.”

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Fetish of Staring at Iran’s Women

A woman in colourful chador against the Eiffel Tower, photographed by Haleh Anvari. If the chador is the icon for Iran, let it meet the icons for some other nations. Chado- dadar became a live installation in every city it was photographed and ultimately revealed as much about the nature of the people it visited that it did about itself. Courtesy of the artist.

by Haleh Anvari, The New York Times

I took a series of photographs of myself in 2007 that show me sitting on the toilet, weighing myself, and shaving my legs in the bath. I shot them as an angry response to an encounter with a gallery owner in London’s artsy Brick Lane. I had offered him photos of colorful chadors — an attempt to question the black chador as the icon of Iran by showing the world that Iranian women were more than this piece of black cloth. The gallery owner wasn’t impressed. “Do you have any photos of Iranian women in their private moments?” he asked.

As an Iranian with a reinforced sense of the private-public divide we navigate daily in our country, I found his curiosity offensive. So I shot my “Private Moments” in a sardonic spirit, to show that Iranian women are like all women around the world if you get past the visual hurdle of the hijab. But I never shared those, not just because I would never get a permit to show them publicly in Iran, but also because I am prepared to go only so far to prove a point. Call me old-fashioned.

Ever since the hijab, a generic term for every Islamic modesty covering, became mandatory after the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have been used to represent the country visually. For the new Islamic republic, the all-covering cloak called a chador became a badge of honor, a trademark of fundamental change. To Western visitors, it dropped a pin on their travel maps, where the bodies of Iranian women became a stand-in for the character of Iranian society. When I worked with foreign journalists for six years, I helped produce reports that were illustrated invariably with a woman in a black chador. I once asked a photojournalist why. He said, “How else can we show where we are?”

How wonderful. We had become Iran’s Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Enchanted by the Myth of the Orient

Max von Oppenheim was an astute observer of the Near East. He was also captivated by its history, culture and way of life. In fact, Oppenheim's entire adult life is an illustration of how difficult it is to reconcile the captivating dream of the Orient with the sober political reality of the region – a difficulty that remains to this day. 
The German archaeologist and explorer Max von Oppenheim. Courtesy Qantara.
by Kersten Knipp, Qantara

In the days when Max von Oppenheim lived in Cairo, relics of past ages – carpets, wall hangings, old chests, vases and dishes – could be picked up quite easily in the bazaars of the Egyptian capital. Such charming works of art and craftsmanship, which were no longer used in the large cities of the Arab world at the close of the nineteenth century, were very popular with historians and explorers, who sought to answer the tantalising question as to what life must have been like in the Orient before the arrival of the Europeans; when life in Cairo, Beirut and Damascus moved to a completely different rhythm. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was very hard to imagine what things must have been like in that period.

In his book "From the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf", the archaeologist Max von Oppenheim (1860–1946) wrote that although there was no European theatre in Beirut, one could find "numerous café chantants, where guests could listen to balladeers, French chansonettes and Bohemian ladies bands."

Although he felt that all of this was undoubtedly pleasant and a sign of progressive modernisation, he knew that it was simply another time, a period of transition leading into a new epoch, an era in which the old one would be lost.

"It goes without saying, of course, that there is no lack of Oriental coffee houses where Arab music is played." Yet, things were not as they once had been. At the time he wrote the above lines, Arab music had become merely one form of entertainment among many. The residents and guests of Beirut had a choice and could freely decide what they want to hear. This meant, however, that the days when only Arab music was performed, were gone forever.