Thousands of young painters and sculptors in Tehran are turning contemporary art into a powerful social force.
More than once I have heard it said that Jackson Pollock, not Reagan, won the Cold War. After all, in those first two decades, when it was a matter of deciding which regime best symbolized the future, Pollock's abstract expressionism showed America to be a reactionary force capable of forging ahead. On the crucial front of the imagination, the Soviet Union could only retreat.
With these thoughts in mind, I headed to see one of Pollock's masterpieces now being shown in Tehran to find out how this exhibition came about and what subtle impact it might have.
Contrary to what some international media outlets have claimed, it is not the first time that the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art has shown Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, one of the great works of American contemporary art in its collection. The museum also hasn't refrained from showing its Warhols, Oldenburgs, and Lichtensteins. That particular revolution happened 15 years ago. The only requirement that the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance seems to pose is that curators find an appropriate context for showing these works. In this case, the paintings serve as counterpoints to the work of Iranian artist Farideh Lashai (1944–2013), a modernist of prodigious imaginative powers, who is the main focus of the exhibition.
When I meet the Iranian curator, Faryar Javaherian, I tell her that I am particularly impressed by Lashai, especially some of her video art, both lyrical and surreal. But, it turns out, those videos were neither as short nor as surreal as I had thought. They had simply been clipped under censorship instructions. One of them was a particularly beautiful rendition of the classical poem "Layla and Majnun." Since, in Lashai's video, Layla appeared most often unveiled and even undressed, the public version had to be reduced to about 20 seconds, and it made very little sense. Something similar happened a few years ago, when one of the panels of a Francis Bacon triptych had to be removed for supposedly depicting a homosexual scene. The triptych became a diptych.
I comment to Javaherian that in both cases completely new artworks have been created. Perhaps there is some kind of silver lining in that. She smiles but looks pained.
Contemporary art in Tehran is experiencing a boom, both artistically and commercially. Javaherian notes that, 20 years ago, Iranian art had regressed almost to the basic function of all art—that of being the heart of a heartless world—as it helped exorcise the horrors witnessed during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Coming back from the front, the young men who had some talent for drawing and painting produced tepid images of ideal landscapes and flowers. No one who has been through hell wants to relive it, Javaherian argues, something I could confirm after meeting with war veterans in Tehran. Perhaps the first contemporary art gallery of the Islamic Republic was the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where martyrs' photographs are covered with simple decorative elements.
Today, things could not be more different. Young Iranian artists are full of blast and thunder. They gather every evening in the courtyard and cafes of the Artists' Forum in Honarmandan Park, around which a distinct art scene has been developing. The forum has become a sanctuary for artists. It is also a meeting point. With so few outlets for expressing their irreverence and creativity, young Iranians have turned contemporary art into a powerful social force.
Later that day I visit one of the best galleries in Tehran. Etemad is located at the very edge of north Tehran, where the city climbs up the snowy mountains. Everything is different in north Tehran. The air feels incredibly pure, especially if you've been exposed to the dangerous pollution levels downtown. Tiny streaks of snow water create an enchanting atmosphere. And then there is money, or rather opulence, which stands out in the fancy restaurants, sports cars, and luxurious condos all around you. At Etemad, I am entertained with tea and cookies while looking at metal rods that reveal themselves as "portraits of famous people"—including, rather scandalously, Ayatollah Khomeini himself—if seen from the right anamorphic perspective.
Upstairs, I meet Arefe Arad, one of the best young artists in Iran. She was born in 1983 in Sari, a small city on the other side of the mountains. This is her first significant exhibition.
When I meet her she is saying goodbye to a family of prospective buyers, an affluent family from north Tehran. The daughter is dressed in the mandatory headscarf, which she combines with a suit not too different from a Pollock painting. When they leave, Arad guides me through her work. She is dressed just as unconventionally: all in black, from the headscarf to the Doc Martens, heavy makeup and a long gothic cape.
Arad had worked on metal sculptures before. Now all works on display are made of velvet, satin, termeh (a type of Iranian handwoven cloth), and organdy. She makes bodies by patching different fabric pieces together. If the result evokes different kinds of human-size alien creatures and monsters, that is very much deliberate. She tells me she wants to create monsters—textile models close to mythical characters with no identity or individuality. These sculptures are flexible, viscous, patched together in deformed shapes. She says they are a reflection on the everyday life of Iranian women.
It is very late when I leave. Stopping at Tajrish Square in north Tehran, where young people converge, I see immediately what Arad means when she speaks of women as patchworks. One young woman goes up the Tajrish escalator wearing a black headscarf covering all her hair, a very proper hijab few women in north Tehran are keen on, combined with knee-high pink stiletto boots. The whole square turns to watch her walk. Such extravagance is all too obviously a reaction against the mandatory dress code. As Javaherian had put it to me, "This is how you defy the law. It is the same with parties. When these young people throw a party, it's not a party, it's an orgy."
Later, when I talk to a group of university arts students, two things become clear. First, the famous Tehran parties are a class privilege. They are something allowed only to the "bourgeois kids" in the north, who have the money and the influence to wiggle themselves out of any possible trouble with the morality police. A sure indication that this is true is the way the only cars pumping pop music out of their windows in Tehran are very expensive sports vehicles, a useful indication to the authorities of who is driving them and how to react.
I also return to my argument that the stringent legal code mandating headscarves and baggy overcoats for women are perhaps being appropriated by young women in creative and ultimately empowering ways.
The reaction mirrored the pained expression I had seen from Javaherian earlier. These are not creative cultural hybrids, but distorted chimeras. The authorities want a token of subjection and that is why every woman in Iran must carry her headscarf, wherever she is, as a public proclamation that her choices are in the end worthless. The humiliation is powerful and deliberate. At the same time, they fight back by blemishing in every way they can the almost aesthetic dreams the clerics have developed for Iran. The result is not creative but destructive, just as the parties in north Tehran are less festive celebrations than distorted affirmations of the will against a stunting force.
The next day I visit a second gallery and am again confronted with monsters and chimeras. The Aaran gallery, near Honarmandan, has just opened a solo exhibition by Mehran Saber. Both the gallery and the artist had a clash with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance a few years ago, involving long discussions about the possible copulating intentions of some abstract shapes on a painting. Mehran left Iran, but now he is back, perhaps trusting that there is a new openness from the censors. His most recent work depicts "shapes that are stretched, distorted, and caught in suspended situations," as the exhibition catalogue puts it.
Hybrid creatures, often twisted and pressured, push and pull. These are not aesthetic ideas, but the very nature of life in Tehran. That is why, as so often in Persian history, art offers us the best window into Iranian politics and society.
If there is one person who has navigated these troubled waters with aplomb, it's Sami Azar. As director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, he made it worthy of the name for the first time since the beginning of the Islamic Republic. He then worked for Christie's as its Iranian representative. He has recently founded his own auction house in Tehran and is, according to everyone I talk to, doing extremely well.
Why has this become a city of monsters, I ask. Sami Azar is also an art theory professor as well as a businessman, so he tries to put it a bit more theoretically. "Monsters" is perhaps not the best word, but he agrees that the grotesque has become the predominant category for Iranian artists. "Many young artists create a monster-like grotesque and present it as the catastrophic result of identity crisis."
But Sami Azar is also optimistic. Tehran has a very large art community and is certainly taking advantage of scale. There are thousands of very good young artists and hundreds of galleries, some already world class. That makes the future of contemporary art here very promising, he tells me. The connection to social and political life is now stronger than ever. Artists use art to express their most serious concerns and this is turning contemporary art into a powerful social and political force, perhaps for the first time in modern Iran. What will all the monsters become when they grow up? My impression is that we will soon start to find out. A new Iran is in the making. That was already the case before Geneva and the lifting of sanctions, but the process will now be much faster.
It was getting late, so I left the arts quarter and headed north. I had a party to attend.
Follow Bruno Macaes on Twitter.