Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Portrait of a Nation

From the harems of the Qajars to the Iran-Iraq War – a history of photography in Iran

Image by Bahman Jalali. Courtesy REORIENT.
By Sanaz Jamloo, REORIENT

The emergence of photography in Iran dates back to the mid-19th century, shortly after its invention in Europe in 1839. There have been academic debates regarding the exact date, but according to the remarkable collection of historic photographs in the Golestan Palace in Tehran, the very first photographic images taken in Iran can be dated between 1839 and 1842. The Iranian Qajar monarch, Mohammad Shah (1808 – 1848), was the first person to be gifted a camera by Queen Victoria. After a few training sessions with the instrument, the monarch’s young son – 11-year old Nasereddin Mirza – showed great enthusiasm for it, and became passionate about learning everything about the magic box that captured light.

In the following years, the young prince mastered the technique, and took his camera everywhere with him in the palace, capturing pictures mostly of himself, his jesters and clowns, members of the harem, his servants, royal events, and local monuments, in addition to people of lower social ranks serving the royal family. With his photographs, Nasereddin Mirza brought a certain personal and candid quality to the art of portraiture and self-portraiture in Iran. The future Shah’s passion for photography and documenting everyday life played a crucial role in promoting modern art and the science of photography in Iran as a new form of visual contact with the rest of the world. Not only did Nasereddin Shah promote a new ‘magic’ art in Iran, but also embraced photography’s power as a limelight for his social status as a ‘modern’ monarch.

Since the development of photography in Iran, the camera has been loyal as a means towards political ends. The Qajars relied deeply on the visual arts to confirm and solidify their new positions, and also tried to create an identity for themselves as modernisers and reformers, as well as give a completely new picture of Iran to the Western world. Nasereddin Shah established a contemporary iconography of Iran through his own actions and imagination, drastically different from what European travellers to the ‘Orient’ usually depicted. Although the photographs taken by the young monarch did not portray a genuine image of Iran, they introduced to viewers the dominant visual traditions of the long-ruling Qajar dynasty, and also opened a dialogue between two different representations of Iran and the surrounding region: one presented by local artists, and the other depicted by European travellers.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

An anthology of the final decade: exploring Iran's past through art

A series of exhibitions from curator Vali Mahlouji examine the ‘lost decades’ of pre-revolutionary Iran
Polaroids by Kaveh Golestan Photograph: Kaveh Golestan/Courtesy of Vali Mahlouji and The Guardian.
by Natasha Morris for Tehran Bureau, The Guardian

Polaroids by Kaveh Golestan

A lizard-headed strongman and a nineteenth-century noblewoman pose together on a chaise lounge. Outstretched before a crowd of Qajar dignitaries lies a nude woman. A monstrous birdman clutches a bunch of bloodied and shrivelled heads, which dangle from his fist like a cluster of screaming mandrakes.

Such are the surreal and provocative scenes in the sepia-hued Polaroids by Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan, who entitled these collages Az Div o Dad (Of Beast and Wild, quoted from the classical Persian poetry of Rumi). Golestan – a figure who lived and died by his photojournalism, killed in 2003 while documenting the Iraq war for the BBC - created this innovative series in 1976 by moving collaged fragments in front of an open shutter under long exposure. The images are experimental visions of modern and later Qajar-era (c.1844-1925) photography spliced with the tails and heads of wild animals and the curved flesh of nude figures.

These images are just some of the artistically radical - and temporally pre-revolutionary – materials recently recovered from Iran’s “lost decades”, rarely glimpsed or even known by those both inside and outside the country itself. This spring, three exhibitions reveal the photographic evidence of Iran’s largely forgotten cultural climate of the 1960s and 70s to audiences in London and the UAE. The first show takes place this March, as Golestan’s Az Div o Dad Polaroids are unveiled at Art Dubai, and will expand on the exposure of Kaveh Golestan’s diverse oeuvre. It is a significant moment to premiere these photographs, which have been unseen for over forty years since Golestan first debuted his surrealistic series at the Seyhoun Gallery in Tehran.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Home of My Eyes: An Interview with Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat, Soliloquy, 1999. Copyright Shirin Neshat. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York, Brussels and MutualArt.
by Natalie Hegert, MutualArt.com

On March 24, at the inaugural exhibition of YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan, visitors will undoubtedly cluster in front of a grand series of black-and-white portraits, rendered with fine ink and stark contrast. In them: the faces of their fellow Azeri countrymen. Acclaimed Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, commissioned on behalf of YARAT, set out to make a “portrait of a country,” reflecting a unified vision of diversity, in the heterogeneous citizens of a city at the crossroads between contemporary Turkey, Russia, Iran, Armenia, and historical Persia, Albania, and the Ottoman Empire. The result is a tapestry of faces, portraits of over 50 individuals of varying ethnicities, from two to eighty years old. Neshat interviewed each subject about their connection to Azerbaijan, their concept of “home,” and their heartfelt responses are written in lines of detailed calligraphy overlaying their portraits.

The first contemporary art center of its kind in Azerbaijan, YARAT opens with “Shirin Neshat: The Home of My Eyes,” as well as an exhibition of its permanent collection, running from March 24 to June 23. The not-for-profit center has commissioned over 80 projects since its founding in 2011; its new permanent space will serve as project space and exhibition hall, as well as offering a library, auditorium, and study center focused on art education for the region.

Neshat’s work will also be the subject of a major exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Park in Washington D.C., from May 18 to September 20, where her video installations and photographic series will be displayed along with contextual information of historical events, from the Islamic Revolution of 1979 to the Green Movement of 2009.

While her studio was abuzz preparing for a studio visit from members of the board of trustees from the Hirshhorn Museum, I spoke with Neshat over the phone about Azerbaijan, her upcoming retrospective at the Hirshhorn, and the influence of political and historical events on her work.

'The glances they withstand': inside the lives of Iranian women

On a small stage in Tehran, three nameless women tell tales of love, loss and solitude
Hamhavaie is a play written by Mahin Sadri and directed by Afsaneh Mahiyan Photograph: Azadeh Moshashaie. Courtesy The Guardian.
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, The Guardian

Darkness overtakes the room, as the air fills with the sounds of bubbles popping or small objects smashing. Something has fallen, but the echo does not stop. A tragedy is about to unfold, yet as the lights come on and actress Elham Korda is revealed gathering walnuts from the floor, we have no clue as to its depths.

Three women, each with her own story. None has a name, but their identities emerge from the tales they tell. Each narrates a monologue, never acknowledging the others. But they have common memories - of childhood, of war - and when their stories cross, one stops and another picks up the thread. They cook as they speak, each in her own kitchen corner, chopping, cutting, mixing, and sometimes pausing to reflect. The small Shams theatre allows intimacy between viewer and actor.

This is Hamhavaie (acclimatising), one of the most celebrated dramas on the Tehran stage in recent years and which is now being prepared for Europe and possibly the United States. Written by Mahin Sadri and directed by Afsaneh Mahiyan, Hamhavaie had two consecutive sell-out runs to rave reviews, and in February won Elham Korda and Setareh Eskandari the best actress prize at the annual Fajr theatre festival. “So pure and so perfect was this play that I had to take pen to paper and let the world know,” wrote actress Pantea Bahram in Shargh newspaper.

On the programme were written three lines: “We looked at the people of this play, those present and not. We are not to judge, to give out convictions, or take sides. We mean neither to glorify nor belittle them. We wanted only to peek at their lives.”

Hamhavaie adopts a vivid, almost documentary approach to these women, the love that failed them, the pain they endured. It takes the audience to every corner of their solitude. Hamhavaie is a story of three women, but also the story of the society in which they live, the neglect they face, the glances they withstand. It is bold, daring and deeply tangible to audiences across age and gender.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Break the Deafening Silence

The declaration of the Director of the Malek Museum and Library, Tehran, about the barbaric vandalism against Iraqi museums and archaeological sites 

Please distribute to encourage others to be more vociferous against such sickening cultural crimes. Bokova has been shouting to a deaf audience. Where is the outrage of those who were walking down the Champs-Élysées just a few weeks ago? 

یادداشت مدیرعامل کتابخانه و موزه ملی ملک درباره کتاب‌سوزی و تخریب آثار تاریخی موصل در عراق


جوانمرد فرمود: حکمت گمشده  مومن است. و جوانمرد حکیم بود و تمامت عمر را به کسب حکمت گذرانده. تا آنروز که قلم برگرفت و (به بهانه ی فرزند نیکوی خود) برای فردا نوشت: من اگر چه به درازای تاریخ نزیسته ام اما چندان در آن نگریسته ام که گویی با آنها زیسته ام .

جوانمرد، همیشه در جستجوی حکمت بود و جهان را سراسر حکایتی حکمت آمیز  می دانست. جوانمرد، آدمیان را خردمند می خواست و انسان را شایسته ی دانایی.  و در این پهنه تاریخ هرکه باشی و از هر کجا رسیده، اگر ترا دلی باشد و جانی سلیم، تو نیز جویای حکمت خواهی شد و می دانی که کتاب اگر حرمت دارد و منزلت، از اینروست که امین حکمت است و راوی حکایت.

جانم سراسر اَلم می شود و دلم می گیرد. وقتی به همین دو چشم می بینم که کسانی در هیات آدمی، نه تعریض و تعرض که  (زبان قلم لال)  قصد جانِ کتاب و کتیبه و اثر می کنند، می اندازند، می کُشند، می شکنند، می سوزانند و باک ندارند.

با خود می گویم: معذورند. که اگر خانه  ذهنشان این گونه برهوت و تهی نبود دست کم می دانستند که حکمت و معرفت با مرگ کتاب نمی میرد، بلکه تاریخِ آزموده و شرزه با آیندگانِ فردا خواهد گفت: قومی آمدند که هیچ نداشتند، نه عقلی، نه شرفی. قومی که با کتیبه و کتاب و اثر دشمنی کردند، قومی که موزه آرام موصل را بانگ رسایی یافتند که جهلشان را فریاد می زد قومی که به نام پیامبر رحمت، زحمت افزا شدند و امروز جز عبرتی از جهل، هیچ نیستند، هیچ.

سید محمد مجتبی حسینی
مدیرعامل موسسه کتابخانه و موزه ملی ملک

Monday, 9 March 2015

Iran in Photographs

Beautiful Photos of Everyday Life in 19th and 20th Century Iran
Girls Weaving a Carpet. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.
by Ali Breland, NPR

Since 1979, tens of thousands of Iranians have lived in exile in the United States. The Iranian Revolution forced large numbers of the population out of the country, and many have never returned. As Persian New Year, referred to by Iranians as Nowruz, approaches, many look back on old photos and remember an Iran they used to know. The holiday happens annually on the spring equinox and symbolizes a rebirth in Persian culture. Iranians in the U.S. now experience new lifestyles and culture that make Nowruz's themes of rebirth more real than they had imagined.

The Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian are giving Iranian-Americans in exile access to a rich history that they left decades ago. The gallery is home to hundreds of photographs by Antoin Sevruguin, a late 19th and early 20th century Iranian photographer. It is one of the most prominent collections of Iranian works in North America. Some of the photos will also be on display during the Freer and Sackler's Nowruz celebration. The entire collection is also viewable online.

"[Nowruz] is something that I grew up with in Iran," said Massumeh Farhad, chief curator at the galleries and an Iranian-American. "I think [the event] is a wonderful way to celebrate the beginning of a new year. You realize how important it is to have something to look forward to and to celebrate the idea of renewal."

In addition to giving Iranian-Americans a space to connect with their past, the event also benefits the Freer and Sackler Galleries' research.

"During Nowruz, we display the images on a large screen and we frequently get people telling us they recognize people and places that help the museum with research," said Allison Peck, head of public affairs at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.