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Postcard from Tehran

by Daria Kirsanova

Tehran is a strange city: a huge metropolis of 12 million people with an impressive network of highways hosting overwhelmingly unruly traffic, it is at the same time the capital of a religious state hell bent on restraining its society with the straitjacket of tradition. Contradictory and against the odds are terms that can be equally applied to Tehran as a city, Iran as a country and the Iranian contemporary art world as a social phenomenon. A multitude of difficulties – lack of funding, lack of public institutional structure, unpropitious university curricula (neither contemporary art nor related theory are welcomed as topics of academic research), have not prevented the emergence of a vibrant and diverse contemporary art scene, including a growing gallery system that aspires to the ‘professional’ status it holds in the West.

Mural on a street in Tehran

I first went to Iran in 2010, after having heard a lot about the censorship and other troubles that artists and filmmakers encounter in the country, and was surprised to discover a number of galleries showing interesting and sophisticated conceptual art works charged with a political message. It was exactly a year after the suppression of the groundbreaking ‘Green Movement’ uprising of 2009 and artists including Amir Mobed, Shahab Fotouhi, Barbad Golshiri, Neda Razavipour, Mahmoud Bakhshi and Rozita Sharafjahan were trying to make sense of what happened during the months of protests. It was a moment both of reflection on the events and mourning for the individual victims, though not for the Green Movement as a political force.

This freedom of expression was – and very much remains – possible because of the marginal position of the visual arts in Iran; it is pretty much a world of its own. The galleries’ audience consists primarily of people involved in the arts in one way or another. Even now, the general public remains unaware of the existence of the galleries and to a large extent finds conceptual art practices unapproachable. Oddly, this position of contemporary art within the Iranian social context has been a huge advantage; it has allowed artists and galleries to work with degree of creative freedom. But things are changing.

My most recent trip to Tehran, last autumn, was my third and the longest so far. I stayed for a month and had a chance to observe the art scene in action. Though the political and economic situation in the country was noticeably more difficult, and Western media hysteria meant there were fewer foreign visitors, there as still a lot going on. In the two years since my first trip there, Tehran’s gallery scene had become both more prominent and more bourgeois.

Artist talk by Anahita Razmi at Sazmanab Platform for Contemporary Arts

The artist community’s response has seen a rise of not-for-profit project spaces, workshops and lively panel discussions. One of the oldest artist-run project spaces is Parking Gallery, which was founded by artist and curator Amirali Ghasemi. Since opening in 1998, it has become active internationally as well as in Iran. Another independent art space, Sazmanab, established in 2009, has developed a very strong programme of exhibitions, talks, screenings and international residencies. Its programme indicates a clear commitment to keep Tehran connected to international art networks and vice versa. One of the latest projects at the space was the exhibition ‘Hidden Screenplays’, put together by a young curator in residence from Turkey, Nesli Gül, with works by Kardelen Fincanci and Ismail Egler. The works specifically produced for this show were focused around the notion of obedience within different social structures, including the art world itself.

Daniel Kötter, ‘state-theatre Lagos/Tehran/Berlin’ (2011), installation view, Raf Gallery

The newly opened Raf gallery’s second show was an exhibition by German video artist and experimental filmmaker Daniel Kötter (also an artist-in-residence at Sazmanab). His three-part film state-theatre Lagos/Tehran/Berlin (2011) considered the architectural structures and uneasy histories of the spectacular opera theatre buildings in these three cities. During the exhibition, the gallery also hosted a talk on the role of cultural institutions within the urban context.

Rybon International Artists’ Workshop

Another fascinating collaboration, the Rybon International Artists’ Workshop, saw a commercial gallery – Mohsen Gallery – assume some of the features of a public space. This initiative, organized by Rybon Art Centre in collaboration with Sazmanab, saw artists from Iran, India, China, Lebanon and South Africa work together, buttressed by a series of talks, artist presentations and open studios. All this work culminated in the final two-week show. One of the most surprising works produced during the workshop was a minimalist painting collage by a photographer Katayoun Karami who until now has worked mainly in self-portraiture. It was refreshing to witness all these events and initiatives happening in Tehran in an attempt to fill the vacuum left by the lack of appropriate institutional structure.

Any conversation about art institutions in Iran is impossible without mentioning the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which holds a great collection of Western art from Post-Impressionism to 1970s Minimalism and also used to be involved in the development of contemporary art practices in the country. Inaugurated in 1977, two years before the revolution of 1979, the museum was the first purpose built contemporary art museum in the world. In recent years, however, its activities have been curtailed dramatically and at present it seems to have no interaction with the actual contemporary art scene in Iran. At the time of my visit, the museum was showing a major exhibition of Günther Uecker, organised in collaboration with the German Embassy.

Sara Asefi, installation view of the group show ‘Out of Time’, Azad Gallery

The gallery scene in Tehran is tremendously dynamic, with the shows changing every one or two weeks art spaces here work at a different pace comparing to their Western counterparts who rotate their exhibitions every six or eight weeks. One of the highlights of my trip was seeing a solo show by Shahla Hosseini, a female artist not widely known internationally and who doesn’t show frequently even in Iran, but whose practice is fundamental to contemporary Iranian art discourse. Hosseini’s mixed media paintings and Joseph Beuys-inspired collages in glass vitrines were filled with personal, even sentimental, narratives. One of the most beautiful spaces in Tehran, the Aun Gallery, had a group show entitled ‘Extraterrestrial’, curated by Bobak Etminani and focused on painterly and sculptural abstraction.

‘Extraterrestrial’, installation view, curated by Bobak Etminani, Aun Gallery

Politics is present in every aspect of the urban life in Iran and artists are constantly seeking new points of engagement with political debates. Mojtaba Amini takes as his starting point the deeper controversies of Iranian society, looking beyond the most prominent issues of gender relations, war and nuclear ambition. His first solo show, at the Aaran gallery, reflected on the current situation in the country in work charged with anxiety about the future. The Azad gallery is probably the most experimental and open-minded commercial space in Tehran. I couldn’t help coming back there again to see, first, a brilliant exhibition by photographer Mehran Mohajer, whose practice is an ongoing enquiry in the possibilities of the medium. Just few hours before I left for the airport, I stopped by the gallery again to see ‘Out of Time’, a group show of exceptional quality by 18 recent art graduates. The exhibition asserted that the new generation of artists in Iran has a potential to take this art scene further, to develop more sophisticated language of artistic expression while keeping loyal to the social commitment. I look forward to be back in Iran to witness this happening.

About the author

  • Daria Kirsanova's photo

    Daria Kirsanova is an art historian and art theorist based in London.

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