|Nicky Nodjoumi, Going Back Home, 2014, oil on canvas, 20h x 24w in / 50.8h x 61w cm. Courtesy Taymour Grahne Gallery.|
Generations of Iranian artists who have emigrated have struggled with a dualism. On one hand, they want to make art speaking to universal issues. On the other, the market may expect their work to reflect a homeland where they no longer live.
As the country’s geopolitical isolation grew after the 1979 Revolution, Iranian art became sought after by European or American art buyers seeking to enhance their worldly image as collectors. They wanted pieces that would appear Iranian to someone who had never been to the country.
The image of a struggling Iranian artist making work about his tough life makes for “a sexy story,” explains Iranian-American artist Amir Fallah. “It’s exciting for [collectors]. They have been doing that with African-American artists for decades. I’ve tried to resist it as much as I can.”
Some artists navigate this dichotomy well, securing their place on the world art scene. Last year three major museums on the east coast of the United States held exhibitions of Iranian artists. Shirin Neshat had her retrospective at the Hirsh Horn Museum in Washington DC. Parviz Tanavoli’s sculptures were displayed at Wellesley College in Boston. Monir Farman Farmaian had a solo show at the Guggenheim in New York.
These and other artists face a market that expects their work to reflect today’s Iran. It is difficult to identify the degree to which any of the emigre artists profiled below conform to these expectations. But all of them admit to grappling at some point with the issue as artists with an Iranian past.
Nicky Nodjoumi, New York, NY
The surreal paintings of Nodjoumi (pictured below), who left Iran in 1980, have sociopolitical themes. A recurring element in his work is the figure of the businessman, portrayed as a conspiring praetor:
“The problem now about working in the US is that you are faced with this duality, with this dilemma. Either you are truly an artist without the notion of being from Iran; but at the same time if you are Iranian you have to show some symbol of identity in order to be accepted in the art scene. Not as a universal artist but as an Iranian artist.”
|Nicky Nodjoumi. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Neshat is considered a pioneer of a new kind of oriental art for her famous depictions of Iranian women. Critics of her work say she caters to western views by promoting a clichéd image of Iran. Neshat has been outspoken against the Iranian government’s policies towards artists and women, but rejects the responsibility of talking on behalf of the women of an entire country:
“I’m not an ambassador of the Iranian society, the people of Iran, or the Muslim world. This is about one single person’s perspective who’s lived abroad whose point of view has been shaped by her own experiences, and here it is. This is my point of view, this is what it is, and I take responsibility for this one single thing.”
|Shirin Neshat. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Bassiri moved to Rome in his twenties to go to art school. His life as an artist changed when he took a walk on the crater of Mount Vesuvius with a classmate. The strength and power of the volcano has inspired his sculptures ever since. In the art world, Bassiri is recognized as a sculptor who has completely avoided the Iranian label. Speaking Italian with a slight accent, Bassiri sees Iran as a remote past:
“When you are on the path of art, you can only move forward, purify yourself and grow in that [process]. You cannot stop a second to look back.”
|Bizan Bassiri. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Born in Oregon to Iranian parents, Talepasand expresses the displacement of being an Iranian woman living in America. With politically charged titles like: “Westoxicated” or “The corrupt minority,” Talepasand’s miniatures project the image of an Iranian-American woman who flaunts sexual freedom and independence:
“I never used that Iranian card to get into shows but I do think it has piqued people’s interest in my work that I am an Iranian woman living in the United States and there is nudity in the work.”
|Taravat Talepasand. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
An artist, curator and collector, Ave has lived in the United States, Iran and France. He saw the Iranian art scene grow under Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi’s patronage in the 1970s and witnessed the global art market gaining ground among Iranian artists. A western taste in art has monopolized the Iranian art market since 2006, when Sothebys and Christies opened in Dubai, he says:
“The big change came when Dubai became Dubai. In other words, the crossroads where western companies and countries could meet eastern countries and companies on no man’s land.”
|Fereydoun Ave. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Despite living in California for over thirty years, Hemami focuses on modern Iranian history in her work. In her sculptures and paintings, she alludes to elements of Iranian political propaganda. After curating an exhibition of works by Iranian artists living in the San Francisco Bay area, she realized that galleries, as well as the media, were interested in a certain kind of Iranian art:
“There were over thirty Iranian artists in the show and two of the works had women in veils. We had several journalists who were interested in doing newspaper features about the exhibition. Every single one wanted images of those two works.”
|Taraneh Hemami. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Since his early New York shows in the late 1980s, Kami has been focusing on portraiture. From the beginning of his career, he has approached his craft without clearly referring to his Iranian heritage:
“The role of an artist is be true to himself and mirror whatever view he has of the world. Artists from Middle East who focus on political work have been very successful with galleries and the art market.”
|Y Z Kami. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Mitra Fabian is a sculptor and installation artist working almost exclusively with manufactured materials: the leftovers, the by-products, the remnants of human industry:
“Some people that I’ve worked with wished it would come through a bit more [that I am Iranian]. It’s sexier if you can have a cultural concept coming through in your work that’s non-American in America. I think that’s kind of a hot sell.”
|Mitra Fabian. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Golkar was born in Berkeley, California but spent his formative years in Tehran. Though he doesn’t consider himself a political artist, his practice is informed by politics. Retaining aspects of nomadic culture in his work, he says that many collectors and gallery owners see his works as specifically from Iran. This is contrary to his aims of producing nomadic art that transcends geographical borders:
“It has a lot of benefits for artists to be labeled Iranian...I am not opposed to that approach. People have to make a living. We live in a capitalistic society. However, I don’t sit in the studio and think, oh I’ll make this carpet because it’s going to sell.”
|Babak Golkar. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Fallah was born in Tehran and raised in Fairfax, Virginia. After graduating college, he says it was clear that branding himself as an Iranian artist could have helped him financially. But he resisted.
“It’s exciting for [collectors] - ‘oh, you know Iranian artist making work about such a tough life he’s had’. It’s a sexy story. They have been doing that with African-American artists for decades. I’ve tried to resist it as much as I can because I don’t think it makes for very interesting artwork.”
|Amir Fallah. Photograph: Matteo Lonardi. Courtesy the Guardian.|
Also in this series: The Highrise Collector, The Collectors, Inside the studios of Iranian artists, and Art Diplomacy
Alexandra Glorioso, Joao Inada, and John Albert contributed reporting. ReframeIran published in partnership with The Tehran Bureau.
Via The Guardian