Friday, 30 January 2015

Iran’s Underground Art Scene

Most art forms in Iran are heavily censored. So many artists chose to perform underground

In a story rarely told before, this is an invitation to discover a different and surprising Iran, and to experience its dynamic art scene. Most art forms in Iran are closely monitored and artists have to perform discretely, staging shows in caves, private art galleries or isolated fields where officials won’t see them.
“AV” performs its play “Melpomene” in some old underground thermal baths in the center of Tehran. The AV theatre method is based on music, movement, dialogue and close relationship with the audience. “Gardzienice,” a Polish experimental theatre, inspires their theater. Courtesy Jeremy Sukyer and Washington Post.
by , Washington Post

Tehran is the seat where most of Iran’s artistic community resides and hopes to one day thrive, despite the tremendous censorship restrictions regarding who can perform and under which circumstances. Navigating these restrictions has become an art form itself, while social media sites (at least those that are allowed) are continuously monitored. Iran has very strict censorship rules regarding women’s appearance, and which topics are permitted to be discussed openly. Anything cultural or artistic that has the intention of being presented to the masses must first receive authorization and approval from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance before it can proceed into production. Plays, novels, videos, films and songs all are subject to scrutiny, and which ones are ultimately approved or dismissed is often decided by an arbitrary stroke of an official’s pen. Any plays that relate to politics or religion or refer to sexual issues are not allowed. Women vocalists are not permitted to sing solo in front of a male audience or make records, in part because of a long-standing idea that a woman’s voice will incite sexual excitement among men. Many artists have been forced to pursue their creative freedom by traveling underground (and in some cases quite literally), staging shows in tunnels, caves, homes or isolated fields where officials won’t see them, more so as an act of self-preservation rather than of rebellion. Iranian artists can navigate between the more mainstream and underground scenes as well. For example, it is possible for an artist to take part in an official performance while working on different underground/illegal projects.

Iran has seen faint promises of more civil freedoms since the arrival of newly elected president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate politician said to be in favor of promoting more arts. In January 2014, the band Pallett famously played to a live nationally televised audience, and in April of this year pop star Xaniar Khosravi performed on stage after having been previously rejected by the Ministry of Culture for having a Western sound, leading many to feel that change — albeit a slow drip — may be imminent.

Photographer Jeremy Suyker spent several months in the country following an underground culture of young dancers, painters, performing artists, musicians and vivacious creatives resilient in producing their passions outside the confines of censorship. In early 2013, while doing research on Iranian culture, Suyker received a tip from an Iranian friend in Paris that a dynamic art scene was unfolding in Tehran. He spent months with dozens of artists who welcomed him, not as an outsider to their secret society but as a fellow creative and storyteller reflecting the narrative of their intimate lives and struggles. The vision of what Iranian culture should appear to be on the surface — particularly among the younger generation — is turned on its head and rendered myopic through Suyker’s images.

Iranian culture to be celebrated in new UK season of events

Didgah – New Perspectives on UK-Iran Cultural Relations. Courtesy The British Council.
by Danny Whitehead, The British Council

The cultural links between the UK and Iran will be explored and celebrated in a new series of events across the UK, launched January 28 by the British Council.

The ‘UK-Iran Season of Culture’ will feature three months of events which aim to promote, and develop the cultural relations ties between the UK and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Building on long-standing links and contemporary collaboration, the British Council’s UK-Iran Season of Culture will strengthen opportunities for greater cultural engagement, improve mutual understanding, and increase trust.

The British Council has brought together a number of major partners for the Season, including the V&A Museum, the British Library, the Southbank Centre, Asia House, Magic of Persia Foundation, Forest Fringe, the Edinburgh Iranian Festival, theatre groups 30Bird and ZENDEH, Wales One World Film Festival, Modern Poetry in Translation, and publishers IB Tauris.

The UK-Iran Season of Culture will see performances, talks, discussions, and exhibitions across the UK highlighting the richness of Iran’s heritage, the dynamism of its contemporary culture, and the strength of and potential opportunities for UK audiences and organizations in engaging with Iran. The Season comes at an important time in UK-Iran relations.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

V&A in row over self-censorship after Muhammad image is taken down

Poster removed from museum website – but scholars of Islamic art fear ‘terrible loss for shared global heritage’
The Victoria and Albert museum is one of a number in the UK whose collections contain images of Muhammad. Photograph: Alamy, courtesy The Guardian.
Warning: this article contains the image of the prophet Muhammad, which some may find offensive.

by , The Observer

The Victoria and Albert museum has attempted to conceal its ownership of a devotional image of the prophet Muhammad, citing security concerns, in what is part of a wider pattern of apparent self-censorship by British institutions that scholars fear could undermine public understanding of Islamic art and the diversity of Muslim traditions.

Similar images have been shown in exhibitions across Europe and America without prompting outrage, much less protests or a violent response. Made by Muslim artists for fellow Muslims, they come from a long but often overlooked tradition.

British museums and libraries hold dozens of these images, mostly miniatures in manuscripts several centuries old, but they have been kept largely out of public view. Fear of displaying them is apparently driven by controversy about satirical or offensive portraits of Muhammad by non-Muslims, despite the huge difference in form and purpose.

When the V&A was asked if it held any images of Muhammad after the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it said there were none. A US expert later provided a link to a poster in its collection, with the inscription “Mohammad the Prophet of God”. That page in the database was deleted last week, but can still be found in a cached version. A spokeswoman said their original response was “an honest error”.

“Unfortunately we were incorrect to say there were no works depicting the prophet Muhammad in the V&A’s collection,” a spokeswoman, Olivia Colling, said in an email, adding that the image had subsequently been taken down because of security concerns. “As the museum is a high-profile public building already on a severe security alert, our security team made the decision that it was best to remove the image from our online database (it remains within the collection).”

The museum has many items that are not on display but form an important part of its educational and cultural mission. Colling declined to say whether the museum had consulted Muslim communities about who might consider the image offensive, or whether it had received any threats directly related to the poster, created in Iran around 1990.

There was not a single complaint when another contemporary Iranian image of Muhammad was included in a 2013 exhibition in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, hung next to a Christian icon, as part of an exhibition on cross-cultural encounters.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Barbad Golshiri's Boneyard

Reflections by the artist:
Golshiri explains his focus on obsequies and grave markers. He reflects upon politics of hallowed grounds with examples of his grave markers, both in cemeteries and white cubes. 
Image 7. Dr. Mossadeq’s fallen memorial. Êbn-ê Bâbêvayh cemetery. Photo by the author, 2013. Courtesy Universe in Universe.
by Barbad Golshiri, Universe in Universe

No other human activity is as rich and old as the obsequies and making of grave markers. Nearly all that we know from old ages we know from the graves and, say, the urns; it is mostly through these human manifestations that we understand what ruled peoples’ minds, for instance, what prehistoric religious beliefs and practices were. Where there are no historic records, obsequies speak: the way people buried the dead, the orientation of the corpse, the grave goods they buried along with the dead, how did they mark the graves and so forth. Art history thus is but an infant when compared with this history.

But one must be blind if one does not see the things these two fields share. Cemeteries could be perceived as "highly educational" places, as education lies in remembrance and knowledge in accumulation. In no other place than in cemeteries one can take a one-hour tour and skim through a vast history of architecture. These architectural phases are not necessarily bounded to their geographical contexts; Greenwood Cemetery, for instance, was founded in 1838, yet gathers centuries of diverse forms of architecture and art. Cemeteries also encapsulate misfortunes and calamities of societies and host memorials for national heroes and figures. These spaces are heterotopias of time for they enclose objects and people of all times and of diverse artistic and architectural styles in one real space. There’s only one other architectural space that functions as such: the museum. Museums too enclose all times and epochs in one immobile space and it is custom that the objects a museum holds, again like in a cemetery, shall remain intact. Cemeteries and museums are public spaces and most recently, in many countries they have turned to green open spaces. This though is not the case in Iran.

Like many other public spaces cemeteries are highly legislated, both written and unwritten. A close historical example is Bêhêsht-ê Zahrâ, located in the southern part of metropolitan Tehran, the largest cemetery in Iran. This cemetery plays an unrivaled role in Iran’s contemporary history and politics. On 1 February 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned victoriously to Iran, he went straight to this cemetery and addressed the nation amongst the revolutionaries, martyrs, the dead and gone, unblemished mausoleums, broken tombstones and unmarked graves. It was among those grave markers that he rejected Shah’s regime and the new prime minister and his administration. Apart from Ayatollah’s followers, Iran’s history lies beneath the cemetery’s soil: It hosts corpses of martyrs of Iraq-Iran war to dissidents such as Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas (image 1), a radical Marxist-Leninist movement formed in 1971, an organization that fought both against the Shah and the Islamic Republic; members of the Tudeh (= masses) Party of Iran; The People's Mojahedin of Iran, Sakineh Ghasemi aka Pari Bolandé, the legendary prostitute of Shah’s time, cinema superstars, athletes, Ahmad Shah, the Qâjâr king and his wife, Reza Shah’s last wife, Sa’eed Emami, one of the master minds behind the serial killings of intellectuals, and most recently, martyrs of the Green Movement. No other space embraces such diversity. Though one can add to this list infinitely, there are those expelled from this hallowed ground, for the reason that infidels and apostates shall not contaminate the resting place of Muslims.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Koran Does Not Forbid Images of the Prophet

The Charlie Hebdo killers were operating under a misapprehension. Courtesy

In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam.

The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.

Moreover, the Hadith, or Sayings of the Prophet, present us with an ambiguous picture at best: At turns we read of artists dared to breathe life into their figures and, at others, of pillows ornamented with figural imagery.

If we turn to Islamic law, there does not exist a single legal decree, or fatwa, in the historical corpus that explicitly and decisively prohibits figural imagery, including images of the Prophet. While more recent online fatwas can surely be found, the decree that comes closest to articulating this type of ban was published online in 2001 by the Taliban, as they set out to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

In their fatwa, the Taliban decreed that all non-Islamic statues and shrines in Afghanistan be destroyed. However, this very modern decree remains entirely silent on the issue of figural images and sculptures within Islam, which, conversely, had been praised as beneficial and educational by Muhammad 'Abduh, a prominent jurist in 19th century Egypt.

In sum, a search for a ban on images of Muhammad in pre-modern Islamic textual sources will yield no clear and firm results whatsoever.

Everything and Nothing: A Meeting with Parviz Tanavoli in Tehran

Poet of Persia
Parviz Tanavoli as a student at Tehran’s Honarestan-e Honar-haye Ziba in 1953, and at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrerra, Italy, in 1957. Courtesy Maryam Eisler and Shiva Balaghi respectively, and REORIENT.
by Joobin Bekhrad, REORIENT 

After taking a final swig of doogh, haphazardly gathering my sundry belongings into my weathered canvas satchel, and kissing my friend three times on the cheeks, I rush down a rickety flight of stairs to a picturesque summer scene in Deh-e Vanak, a sleepy hamlet but a short drive from the mania of Tehran’s Vanak Square. Brushing shoulders with a covey of weary-eyed mechanics, their gasoline-smeared faces wisened by the beating sun and heartache in equal amounts, and traversing the pothole-laden thoroughfare with a characteristically Western trepidation, I struggle to find my taxi driver amongst the scores of moribund Peykans and sooty Peugeot 206s. By a stroke of ill luck, the traffic today is unusually awful, and I’m already half-an-hour late for another get-together with an artist. This artist, however, is somewhat different from the others I know, whom I usually meet in the tawny-hued lobby of the Hotel Homa – or rather, the ‘Old Sheraton’, as those from the pre-Revolution days are wont to call it – or in the frieze of cozy coffee shops clustered together in the Sayeh Tower opposite the Mellat Park. He’s somewhat of a legend, venerated both abroad and at home: a reality that comes as a welcome surprise in a nation whose artists usually enjoy iconic status posthumously. I had spoken to him at length over the phone towards the end of his winter ‘migration’ in Vancouver a few months ago, and he’s certainly no stranger, although I’ve yet to meet him in person. The stifling heat is certainly not making the situation any more relaxing, and, as I finally manage to furl myself in the backseat of the tiny Peugeot, I feel a tepid patch of sweat underneath my arms. ‘Agha,’ I say with diffidence, ‘can you please turn on the cooler?’. He casts a sidelong glance in the rearview mirror, flicks a switch, and we head for the dusty foothills of the Alborz mountains.

As soon as we find our way onto the highway, we hit a gridlock. While the synth-soaked sounds of a maudlin pop song set to the proverbial 6/8 rhythm continue to emanate from the car radio and we find ourselves in a midday jam, the driver decides to while away the time by striking up conversation. ‘What do you do?’ he asks. Not having the patience to get into any details, I provide a desultory response. ‘I’m in the arts business’. ‘Ah, are you a singer? A wedding singer?’ comes the reply. For God’s sake, move! I shout in vain in the recesses of my mind, looking ahead worriedly at the swarm of white and grey cars embellished with religious slogans and Zoroastrian icons. To add to the drama, the artist in question isn’t picking up either of his telephones, and I wonder whether he’ll be in his studio at all by the time we finally reach it.