Art Aware is a non-profit-making blog that monitors all that’s interesting in the world of contemporary art, literature and culture in Iran and in the Iranian worldwide diaspora.
It is a review and commentary of new exhibitions, events and developments in art media in Iran and in the West. I am a working artist and also an academic art historian.
Every individual carries with themselves memories, which give shape
and foundation to their identity, behaviour, and perspective; but what
happens when memories and experiences are recognised not only by one
person, but also by many? When instead of an individual, a group
of people with a collective consciousness recall and recount the same
memories they all have in common? And, during the process of
recollection, what other phenomena occur, and – perhaps most importantly
– why and how does such widespread collective recollection come about?
Not long after the 1979 Revolution and the demise of the Pahlavi
regime and the Iranian monarchy, Iran was at the peak of post-Revolution
chaos, immersed in an eight year-long war with Iraq (1980
– 1988). The new government set a very different tone for, and adopted a
new strategy with respect to its internal and external policies, during
a time when a new generation was growing up in a society that was
learning to adopt itself to its surroundings. As a result of a bloody
war, and the establishment of a new Islamic Republic, the lifestyle many
Iranians were used to was radically altered.
In the meantime, the expansion of the population became a part of the
national agenda, with rewards being given to families based on the
assumption that more children would eventually translate to more
soldiers in the future. As a result, a baby boom occurred, which
occurred in tandem with sanctions imposed by the West, which wreaked
havoc on the lives of ordinary Iranians and the economy. Everyday life
was loaded with surprises, to say the least.
L-R: A woman producing clothes for soldiers; children carrying donations
for the war effort; a popular poster of a young soldier; soldiers
during the war. Courtesy REORIENT.
The new generation of children went to school to join what was popularly
termed by the government the ‘trench of science of knowledge’, a phrase
repeatedly used to signify for children a holy duty in acknowledging
the importance of education in the fight against the enemy. However, the
nascent Islamic educational system was not without its flaws; after the
Revolution, the system went through massive waves of change and
experimentation. Religious elements slowly morphed into courses in their
own right within schools’ agendas, Koranic studies and prayers became
obligatory, and in many cases, how students were evaluated depended on
their adherence to religious standards of behaviour. The European model
in place prior to the Revolution was modified and stripped down of
remaining Western ‘influences’, with a model of religious socialism
later taking its place.
The contents of children’s schoolbooks also began to change on a yearly basis; every day, something or somebody
was selected as a new ‘target’, whether it was the Shah and the Pahlavi
regime, or other ‘oppressors’. Television channels, radio stations, and
journals were all highly monitored and scrutinised, and were all aimed
towards promoting the war effort as well as governmental ambitions.
However, while a more traditional, masculine, and fundamentalist
atmosphere began to emerge in the public sphere, another form of life
was thriving beneath the surface. Not everyone was a fan of the new
prescribed lifestyles, and as a result, unwritten ‘codes’ emerged in
society, which would soon become part of a common, shared experience.
During these tumultuous times, a ‘unified’ standard of living came into
play, as did many elements that came together in a new form of popular
culture. Due to the population boom during the period, this new form of
pop culture had such a significant impact that its influence can still
be witnessed today.
Girls in a classroom during the 80s; teachers during the 80s; an ad
supporting widespread literacy; a stamp printed during the war. Courtesy REORIENT.
The end of the war in 1988 and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini a year
later signalled the end of an era. Fast forward some 20-odd years or
so, and again, Iran was witnessing yet another crisis with the rise of
the Green Movement and the dispute of the presidential elections in
2009. It was then that I began to recognise a great deal of visible
collective longing for, and nostalgic recollections of the shared
memories of the 80s and early 90s among individuals of my generation,
which incited me to study the meaning of nostalgia itself. ‘Nostalgia is
something of a bad word, an affectionate insult at best’, once
said the scholar Svetlana Boym. Likewise, Woody Allen had little good
to say about it. ‘Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present’ he
remarked in Midnight in Paris, bringing to mind the atmosphere of the 2009 elections. It was these two remarks that made me suspect that there might be a relationship between the memories, hopes, and common wishes of my generation that could be worth exploring.
Ultimately, I came to believe that my generation was, and is
going through a process of ‘conscious longing’, as I call it. In order
to answer some questions I had facing this conviction, I made two
Internet questionnaires, in which I asked people of my generation how
they viewed the nostalgic elements and ideas from the 80s and early 90s.
I focused on lifestyles, websites revolving around nostalgia from the
era, social media discussions, modern reproductions of mementos from the
80s, and everything else that was related in some way or another to a
nostalgic longing for the 80s and early 90s in Iran (e.g. stationery,
children’s television programmes, etc.). The answers I received were
very much in line with my predictions.
L-R: Kolah Ghermezi (Red Hat); Asemoon va Rismoon featuring Iraj
Tahmasb; Ali Kuchulu (Little Ali); Elaheh Rezaee, children’s television
programme hostess. Courtesy REORIENT.
Children’s television programmes from the era are still strongly visible
in the collective memory of those of my generation. For instance, many
characters and images from the programmes of the 80s have been
reproduced in the forms of tangible mementos, and dozens of sites and
online archives exist that sell cartoons broadcasted by Iranian state
television during the 80s and early 90s. Facebook pages revolving around
these shows also abound. In fact, the nostalgia for that era is so
strong that Iranian state television recently broadcasted special
programmes (later during the evening) such as Yesterday’s Kids, which featured the same programmes from the 80s as well as their [much older] original hosts.
First grade Persian schoolbook; ‘Egg’ shampoo produced by Daroogar;
Adams Khersi (Bear Gum); notebook; Pelikan pencil and pen eraser. Courtesy REORIENT.
The mass production and distribution of goods – especially stationery
items from the 80s – have also played a particularly strong role in
this collective longing. Though the stationery products produced were
few in variety, they were widely distributed and accessible, and thus
became instantly recognisable symbols and icons of that era. One example
is a certain notebook, mass-produced in the 80s, which was in reality
the only one available in the market; and, to add to its singularity,
the design on the cover was always the same: a flower motif from a Persian carpet.
While researching the history of these notebooks, I was surprised to
find out about a very popular book published recently with the same cover design and aesthetics, filled with stories about the era in question. The book, entitled Do You Remember!??, was
designed and written by Mehdi Montaseri, and had sold around 215,000
copies when I interviewed him last April. How does Mehdi view the
success of the book, and could he ever imagine it would sell so many
… By the time I found out that
there were already such activities going on in the virtual world and on
television, I realised that there was a ‘wave’, which had risen a few
year before; and, when I released my book, the wave had turned into a
mighty storm, which led to this enthusiastic demand for the book.
Images courtesy of REORIENT.
It is possible that the confrontation of my generation with this ‘reminder’ somewhat represents a new
sort of pop culture in itself; perhaps one that has risen from the
ashes of an older one, a collective and selective one. The coming about
of this new pop culture has been an unconscious, collective process with
conscious ‘goals’. A storm (or ‘wave’, as Montaseri puts it) such as
this, to my understanding, is something quite powerful, since it has
been able to form itself within the mould of a newer pop culture, or at
least stimulate demand and production. This new pop culture, however,
does not necessarily deal with happy memories, but rather unhappy
outcomes, and a joyful reminder of moments from a collective memory.
‘Nostalgia is to memory as kitsch is to art’, noted Boym in her book, The Future of Nostalgia, quoting
her colleague Charles Maier. With respect to nostalgia in the case of
my generation, one could say that nostalgia is actually kitsch itself,
as this nostalgia has found a place for itself within the realm of a
new pop culture. While the artistic quality of reproduced materials such
as Montaseri’s book may not be particularly noteworthy, the interaction
between this pop culture and the art associated with it is still
incredibly interesting. That being said, though, as beautiful and
creative as this interaction with nostalgia may seem, it cannot be
denied that the tragic experience of war and the exhausting
post-revolutionary process have cast a shadow over the hearts of the
children of my generation. Such is our collective experience that we
shall always remember.
This article is a shortened, modified version of a thesis written
by Pendar in the spring of 2013 in The Hague. The thesis was written
under the mentorship of Doreen Mende as a research project for the
Master of Fine Art in Artistic Research programme at the Dutch Art
Institute / ArtEZ MFA.
About Pendar Nabipour:
Born and raised in Tehran, Pendar Nabipour
is an artist and curator working and living in The Hague, who focuses
on interactive situations using sculptures, installations, and
performances. He also has a strong interest in social phenomena and
memory, and the role of artists in their process.