Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Persian nightingale and the flowers of hope

Shahram Nazeri is the undisputed master of setting Rumi's poetry to music. At a recent concert in Tehran, the renowned musician sang his audience into a state of ecstasy and gave voice to the Iranians' hopes for a brighter cultural future. After several barren years, the cultural scene is indeed showing tentative signs of change.
Iranian musician Shahram Nazeri. Courtesy Qantara.
by Massoud Schirazi, Qantara

It is midwinter in Tehran, and the concert season is underway. For two long months there were no large concerts – or at least no joyful ones – anywhere in the country. In the month of Moharram, during which Shia Muslims mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, happy occasions and music for entertainment purposes are not deemed appropriate. Traditional restaurants refrain from live performances and teahouses turn the background music down. The month after that, Safar, is the time of Arba'een, the fortieth day after Hussein's passing, and the anniversary of Mohammed's death, which makes such musical events equally taboo.

Among the big names in Iranian music who have started announcing their concerts again in newspaper ads and on posters is Shahram Nazeri. Alongside Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Ali Reza Ghorbani, Nazeri is one of the most popular classical singers in Iran. The "New York Times" once called him "the Persian nightingale".

The cultural face of Iran

Shahram Nazeri's benefit concert for victims of leprosy in the festival hall of the Milad tower is soon sold out. Audience numbers at performances by popular singers like Nazeri are very high in Tehran. For the size of the city, Tehran's concert scene is rather meagre, as most of the artists left the country after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Others – like Shahram Nazeri – stayed and continued to lend Iran a cultural face, even under the difficult conditions of censorship.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Noted Iranian filmmaker makes first US visit

Still from Nedamatgah (Women's Prison), Dir: Kamran Shirdel, 1965. Courtesy of the artist.

by Kevin Begos, The Associated Press

Kamran Shirdel's films have been censored, banned and celebrated for documenting hidden parts of Iranian society — the plight of Tehran's prostitutes, the desperation of female prisoners, and the reality behind false heroes.

Now he's visiting the U.S. for the first time, speaking about his art and what it took to make it as a filmmaker, first under the Shah then under Islamic rule.

Shirdel, 75, began filming poor and working-class Iranians in the 1960s. Early documentaries such as "Women's Quarter" established Shirdel as an uncompromising artist — and got him fired from a job in the Shah's Ministry of Culture.

Shirdel spoke to The Associated Press at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, which invited him to America and sponsored the trip. He's also scheduled to talk at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and at Columbia University in New York.

Educated in Italy under legendary filmmakers Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini, Shirdel worked as an assistant on John Huston's epic film "The Bible." Although he could have made his career working abroad, he said he couldn't forget "the harsh reality of life" among Tehran's poor and returned home and produced work that in spirit resembled documentary rabble-rousers such as Michael Moore.

Shirdel was at first given the opportunity to work within the system. In the mid-1960s the Ministry of Culture gave him a job and "wanted the propaganda films," Shirdel recalled, yet also allowed him to film inside a women's prison and at a reform school for prostitutes.

Seeing the tragic situations of the women firsthand, Shirdel knew immediately what he wanted chronicle, and knew it wouldn't be acceptable to the authorities, since the Shah was trying to promote an image of a modern, prosperous Iranian society.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Iranian director returns from artistic exile to stage classic tale

With 22 students in tow, husband-and-wife team make journey from Vancouver to a Tehran stage

Stained glass display at Vahdat Hall. Courtesy Guardian.
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, Guardian

“These ... these are the men of Iran ... and they say with a heavy heart: ‘What can we do now? For our bows are broken, our arrows have no place and our hands lie trembling.’ It was exactly as they described. For they had returned from a long war.”

So begins the tale of Aurash, as told by writer and director Bahram Beyzaie. The legend of Aurash the archer is woven into Iranian folklore; among the various texts in which it is mentioned is the Shahnameh, the national epic written more than 1,000 years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. In 20th-century Iran, two men brought the legend back to Iranians’ consciousness: Siavash Kasrayi, with a poem in 1959, and the following year by Beyzaie, then just 21, with a script – more precisely, a barkhani: a story to be read aloud.

Despite his wishes, Beyzaie never got to direct a version of his Aurash barkhani for the Tehran stage, but Ghotbeddin Sadeghi finally did in 1999. Sadeghi, given the smallest space in Tehran’s City Theatre complex, the Chahrsou room in the basement, masterfully brought the sweeping story of war and its aftermath to life.

In Beyzaie’s telling of the story, Iran has been defeated in a long, wearying conflict. Bruised and broken, the country must send an archer to shoot from the highest summit of the Alborz mountains. The spot where his arrow lands will mark Iran’s new border. Aurash is a simple stablehand who, through a series of misadventures, is compelled to take on this great duty. As he makes the gruelling journey to the Alborz, the storyteller declares, “It is your soul that will throw the arrow, and not the power of your arms.” When the time finally arrives, he and the bow become one, disappearing over the horizon. Iran gets back every inch of its land but Aurash is never seen again. The barkhani concludes with the line, “But I know a people that still say Aurash shall return.”

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Images of the Prophet Muhammad In and Out of Modernity

The Curious Case of a 2008 Mural in Tehran: 
Q&A with University of Michigan art history professor and muralist Christiane Gruber
Mural of Muhammad’s ascension, located at the intersection of Modarres and Motahhari Avenues, Tehran, Iran, 2008. Courtesy Jadaliyya.
In 2008, a five-story mural was painted onto the wall of an apartment building in the northern section of Tehran. The mural represents the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension into the heavens, as well as an inhabitant of Paradise offering a flower to a man in the lower right corner. While the composition is based on a 15th-century “Book of Ascension” manuscript, it nevertheless has been altered in two significant ways: first, a man painted in a hyper-realistic mode has been inserted into the composition and, second, the facial features of the Prophet have been removed. Tracing how the original painting has been pictorially augmented and edited for the public sphere, this talk offers some new ideas on how images are received and updated in modern Islamic artistic practices. It will do so by paying special attention to the mural’s symbolic position within Iran’s Shi‘i-Islamic politico-cultural agenda and oppositional responses to the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy of 2005-2006.

by Sarah Vassello,

Christiane Gruber, an art history professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Michigan, will speak at Hanes Art Center today about her work on a five-story mural in Tehran, Iran, painted in 2008, that represents the Prophet Muhammad and the changing visual representation of Islamic tradition. Sarah Vassello spoke with Gruber about the ways in which changes in the Iranian political, artistic and cultural spheres are shown in the painting and how the Dutch cartoon controversy of 2005, in which the Prophet Muhammad was depicted, prompted such a strong response from Iranians.

Daily Tar Heel: What first made you interested in the lecture topic?

Christiane Gruber: I’ve been researching this topic for about a dozen years — images and texts of the Prophet in Islamic devotional traditions — so, for me, what is interesting as an art historian is the way in which Islamic religious cultures and political cultures use images to make certain claims or to send message.

DTH: This mural is relatively recent. How did you come to hear about it?

CG: I drove right across it when I was in Tehran and it caught my eye. I’ve been working on images of Muhammad in Islam across the board and also mural arts in Iran for the last 12 years. I typically do go around Iran and look at the murals — I’ve studied them, I’ve written about them — and when I found this one, which captures both my interest in images of Muhammad and mural arts, and I saw what was happening in the mural, I decided I should really set myself to the task of understanding what was happening with that mural.

Monday, 17 February 2014

From Tehran to Newcastle

“I Am Nasrine” and the Politics of Telling Migrant Narratives
I Am Nasrine
“I Am Nasrine” is the first feature length-film from Iranian-British Director Tina Gharavi. Newly available on DVD, the BAFTA-nominated film follows two Iranian siblings as they struggle to make new lives for themselves in the UK. It can also be watched online here.
, Ajam Media Collective

Iranian-British director Tina Gharavi’s new film I Am Nasrine is a groundbreaking tale of the lives of an Iranian brother and sister (played by Micsha Sadeghi and Shiraz Haq) who flee to the United Kingdom and find a world that looks very little like anything they expected. Ajam Media Collective sat down with Gharavi in Paris to discuss the film and the difficulties involved in giving a complex account of an Iranian immigrant story for a British audience.

From the outset, I Am Nasrine defies stereotypes and simplistic explanations of the motives and desires of migrants. The main character Nasrine’s parents force her to leave Iran against her will after she has a nasty run-in with the morality police, and she is accompanied by her brother, Ali, to start a new life abroad.

Relocation by immigration authorities to the public housing projects of an industrial northern English town, however, shocks the two middle-class siblings, as they find themselves isolated in a dark, impoverished and unfriendly new setting. The pair eventually find love and opportunities in their new home, as Nasrine befriends a girl from a local English Traveller community and Ali finds companionship, work, and romance in the city center. But the spate of Islamophobia that overtakes the town following September 11 combined with a pervasive and violent homophobia, leads the duo to a tragic end.

 “England is portrayed in a very brutal way”

Director Tina Gharavi, an Iranian immigrant to the UK herself, has few delusions about the realities of modern working-class British life, and the film spares no punches to reveal the unforgiving realities facing the young siblings both before and after their flight abroad.

“England is portrayed in a very brutal way,” she explains. “You almost feel like the Iranian government could show this film to potential immigrants and be like, ‘This is what happens to you if you go! You end up in a rubbish house, people are racist and they’re not very nice!’”

Friday, 14 February 2014

'Art doesn't have a border'

The artist, Hadi Hazavei, discusses freedom, growing up with cows and responsibilities that limit art
Hadi Hazavei’s brick structure: crude organisms and formal abstractions. Courtesy Shirin Gallery.

by Tara Aghdashloo, Tehran Bureau, Guardian

An exhibition of 49 works by Hadi Hazavei at New York City’s Shirin Gallery shows the artist’s material range and conceptual progression. An array of colours, lines, and layers come together in his older series, while his fingertips and palms have left their imprints amid the chaotic aesthetics of his more recent pieces. One wall is filled with minimalist geometric sketches reminiscent of glassworks from his Iranian homeland.

Hazavei’s oeuvre revolves around the duality of crude organisms and formal abstractions. This interplay is evident more confidently than ever in his new brick sculptures, a series both primal and prim. The bricks – some of them from around his current home in New Jersey – seem to hover, dancing in different directions. Some, around 150 years old, appear on the verge of crumbling, highlighting the artist’s fascination with the tension between organic and inorganic processes. He describes them as self-portraits.

TA: So tell me about this exhibition and how the works were chosen.

HH: Some of the works you see in this exhibition are from 1982, but most are from 2005 onwards. The brick works are from 2011 and 2012.

TA: Where did these bricks come from?

HH: Historically brick was the most fundamental unit in Iranian and Middle Eastern architecture and buildings. At some point clay was heated and made into bricks. As early as the time of the Achaemenian dynasty, they used bricks that were 30cm or 50cm thick. These were glazed, had 3D designs on them, with abstract natural figures; you can see examples of this in Persepolis – such as [the carvings of] soldiers, which are a masterpiece in colour and execution ...

I wanted to get to the foundation of it. Like how the foundation of the rug is the knot, bricks are architecture’s foundation.

TA: Have you had a deep interest in and attraction to architecture?

HH: Always. You know art doesn’t have a border. Painting, architecture, music, poetry, literature, and visual arts in general ... they are all summarised in one concept and that is the spiritual expression of people, articulated through different forms and mediums. Yet architecture has an additional function, which is that we live in it. It’s a space that we try to be happy yet also physically active in.

I took the purpose of the brick from that simple foundation of buildings and changed it to my own artistic expression. When I look at a brick, it is sitting there, all dignified, polite and proper, like how our parents always ask us to be! And I hate all these words ... Some suggest the same words to describe works of art. They want art to follow certain national traditions or to be “honest.” These are stupid responsibilities that limit art.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Persian Visions exhibition to shed new light on Iran

Bahman Jalali, Image of the Imagination series, 2002/7, Digital print on paper, 65 x 65 cm. 
by Tyler Murphy, The DePauw

Walking through the Persian Visions Exhibit in the Low Gallery of Peeler Art Center, visitors are invited to look at a less-explored side of Iran. High contrast prints and mysterious videos contrast the war-torn Iran the media shows with a more beautiful version.

The exhibition, which illuminates 20 Iranian artists and 58 original works of art, was made possible in part by the Ilex Foundation, the University of Minnesota McKnight Arts and Humanities Endowment and the Department of Art and Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota. These institutions have been working with DePauw University since February 2012 to bring the exhibit to campus.

Though the artists come from different parts of Iran, the works seem to flow as one consistent show that brings together black and white prints, color prints, video and audio elements.

Craig Hadley, curator of exhibitions and university collections, hopes the exhibit will shine a new light on Iran that many students are unaware of.

“For many Americans, our familiarity with Iran is colored almost exclusively by conflict, political instability and the threat of nuclear weapons,” Hadley said. “The photography and film in Persian Visions provides a completely different perspective on how we might come to try and understand life in Iran.”

The sound of a man walking over crunchy gravel can be heard throughout the high-ceilinged room, matching the footsteps of those observing the pieces.

Many of the works feature high-contrast black and white colored pieces such as those by artists Ebrahim Khadem Bayat and Koroush Adim.

 Their pieces feature up-close views of Iranian people, as well as panoramic views of urban landscapes. Their works also overlap different photos to create multi-layered prints.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Islamic Revolution Can't Upstage Iranian Cinema

by Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL

When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in Iran 35 years ago on February 11, Iran's filmmakers had good reason to worry.

The strict code of censorship ushered in by the Islamic Revolution convinced many that creativity and film were no longer compatible in Iran.

Yet today, despite the continuing strict censorship rules governing them, Iran's artistic films -- as opposed to the country's commercial-release films -- are universally acclaimed as among the most innovative and important participants in international film festivals.

The filmmakers' ability to overcome the suffocation of censorship, while still working under it, is one of the rare successes in the daily struggle ordinary Iranians wage to have greater personal freedom under an authoritarian regime. At the same time, the battle against censorship has had a great influence in forging the look and style of Iranian art films, which have earned a place of distinction in the eyes of film lovers worldwide.

Many authoritarian governments impose strict political restrictions on artists. But the Islamic republic's censorship code is unusually strict because it includes social restrictions as well. The social restrictions particularly limit how relationships between men and women -- one of the most fundamental subjects of the arts -- can be depicted.

The red lines forbid almost all physical gestures of romantic love, limit the kinds of issues that can be discussed, and bar women from singing or dancing on screen. They also require actresses to wear the hijab -- clothing that masks the figure and covers the hair -- for indoor as well as outdoor scenes, even though in reality Iranian women generally dress at home as they wish and don't cover their hair.

Jamsheed Akrami, a professor of film at William Paterson University in New Jersey, says that the censorship code is so burdensome that the first talent any serious filmmaker must possess is the ability to get around it.

"Whenever you are under strict restrictions, you try to find out ways of getting around them to still communicate your messages. To the credit of the Iranian filmmakers, they have become very adept at skirting the censorship codes," Akrami says. "In fact, as an Iranian filmmaker your most prized possession is your ability to undermine the censorship codes and find ways of getting around them. Your artistic gift is like a secondary requirement."

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Women’s Role in Iranian Cinema

'You all have lost a woman, you all are looking for your lost one.'
(B. Beyzaie, Fath Nameh Kalat)
Dir. Tahmineh Milani, Yeki Az Mā Do Nafar (One of Our Two), 2011.

by Niloofar Beyzaie, IranDokht

In February 1994, Ms. Niloofar Bayzaie gave a lecture titled “A Look at Women’s Role in Iranian Cinema” in Frankfort. Ms. Beyzaie graciously provided us with a written version of her lecture. Due to limited space in the magazine, we will provide only parts of her text here. Another friend and colleague, Jamileh Nedaee, also discussed women's cinema in the same seminar, and we hope to publish her lecture as well in the future.

The movie camera is a tool to record images. It searches the world to find and select particular subjects. The camera focuses on personal problems and displays what it finds to the audience, which. Is then obligated to see what the camera shows. With that in mind, when a male filmmaker directs a female actor, he focuses only on those aspects of women that are important and worthwhile to him. Therefore, the female character is influenced by the director’s own stereotypes. Now let’s look at a female filmmaker directing a female actor. Under this theory, a female director would portray women differently than a male director. Does this actually occur?

In reality, not every woman filmmaker is capable of creating work that truly defends women’s rights. Additionally, most movies made by men are extremely anti-feminine, since our patriarchal society emphasizes the power and capabilities of men and the weakness and incapability of women. Studying the roots and causes of this problem is not within the scope of our discussion.

A Brief Look at the Post-Revolutionary Cinema

The dominant image of women in post-revolutionary cinema is that of a tempting, seductive and dangerous person.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Strange Fruits of Fascination

Exploring the mutual fascination between Iran and Europe through art in Switzerland
Still from Hamed Sahihi’s ‘Observer’. Courtesy REORIENT.

by Natasha Morris, REORIENT

Though the German word sehnsucht is often translated as ‘fascination’ in English, it also carries with it connotations of longing and desire. Between September 2013 and January 2014, the concept of sehnsucht was explored, particularly with respect to the longstanding relationship between Iran and Europe. Focusing on the threads of contact woven between the 1600s to the present day, a rich and thought-provoking dialogue of aesthetics, politics, and identity was presented, which featured some 200-odd works from both Persian and European classical artists, as well as some of Iran’s most important contemporary artists.

Nestled in a park below the Alpine mountains, Museum Rietberg is widely known as Switzerland’s sole museum dedicated to the showcasing of non-European art. For the exhibition, the building’s transparent façade was covered with confetti of green geometrical shapes that implied a sort of serendipitous Islamic minimalism, while the work chosen for the poster of the recent exhibition, Sehnsucht Persien – roughly translating to The Fascination of Persia – was one of a series of towering late 17th century Safavid oil paintings depicting quixotic characters amongst ornate backgrounds. Although thought to have been decorated for the interiors of Isfahan’s wealthy elites, the subjects in the paintings were devoid of any concrete identity or attribution, thus presenting an immediate allure for the beholder. An older enigma in the series, that of a blonde, blue-eyed man in flowering Turco-Georgian robes stood out particularly luminescent beneath the dim lighting inside the museum.

The exhibition itself, housed deep within an underbelly extension of the building, presented an admixture of the grace and delicacy of classical Persian and European works with the beauty and brutality of ones by contemporary Iranian artists. The curation by Axel Langer and Susann Wintsch was sensitive in its display of a refreshing departure from the usual narrative of trade in an exhibition hinged on cross-cultural exchange. Speaking with Langer, he told me that the link he drew between his curated works became increasingly conceptual rather than formal, which resulted in comparisons between the pieces that were at times more subtle than straightforward. Langer and Wintsch didn’t shirk from past-present dialogues either, although the works by the contemporary artists in the exhibition seemed to be more influenced by modern-day Iran, their historical ties and connections with a Perso-European past being largely formulated through the curation. Also present there, sprinkled throughout the impressive and varied exhibition catalogue, were black and red caption boxes presenting a tripartite and trilingual dialogue between the works from Baroque Europe, Safavid Persia, and contemporary Iran.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Our House Is On Fire

Exiled Iranian artist Shirin Neshat looks at the Egyptian revolution

Hassan, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. Via W
by Ruth Tam, The Washington Post 

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist who was born in Qazvin, Iran, educated in Berkeley, California and is currently based in New York. Her earliest work as a photographer was born out of a trip back to Iran in 1993 where she explored concepts of exile and identity under a feminine lens. In the late nineties, she devoted herself to a series of stark, black and white video installations that referenced contradictions of gender in society. Breaking away from photography, she turned to cinema and directed her first feature-length film, “Women Without Men,” which won the 2009 Venice Film Festival Silver Lion award for best directing. Most recently, Neshat was honored by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland with a 2014 Crystal Award. The award is given annually to artists who have made contributions to improving the state of the world. On January 21, she shared the stage with fellow recipients actor Matt Damon, singer Juan Diego Florez and conductor Lorin Maazel. She spoke to She The People from New York after her return from Davos.

Congratulations on winning one of this year’s Crystal Awards.

Thank you, I was so nervous. The awards ceremony was in front of political and economic leaders who have never heard of me before. Matt Damon is a known figure but I’m a visual artist; I don’t have that kind of familiarity. To go and leave an impression for two minutes was very challenging.

What does it mean for an artist like yourself to win an award that is not necessarily for art but for cultural leadership?

This was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in my artistic career. Very often, I talk about politics in my work but in an artist’s community, people are distant from those issues. At Davos, I participated in a couple panels where the audience was not from the art world. I felt like an oddball but to see that they were listening and were interested in the role of an artist was really meaningful to me.

You directly addressed Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in your acceptance speech and “passed him the torch to be the nation’s saving grace.” Rouhani was also at the forum. Did you get to meet with him afterwards?

I am supportive of him but critical of the government and past administration. A director of the forum asked me if I wanted to request a meeting, but it would have been very awkward because he was surrounded by people from the administration. For him to acknowledge and talk to me, who has been blacklisted, it would look like he was endorsing me. And to be honest for myself, I don’t think it would have been a good idea to meet him. I have very mixed feelings about it.

What inspired your latest body of work, Our House Is on Fire?