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Why Iran's First Contemporary Arab Art Exhibit Was Important

A bizarre void in a dynamic Iranian art scene was filled this spring.

From photographer Arwa Al Neami's 'Never Never Land' series, which exhibited at the Spheres of Influence show in Tehran last month. Image by Arwa Al Neami

Photographer and filmmaker Arwa Al Neami concealed her camera as she sank into the driver's seat of a bumper car on a gender-segregated ride at an amusement park in southern Saudi Arabia.

With a rainbow of other cars whirling to life around her, she, too, accelerated. Steering with her left hand, and clutching her camera with her right, she discreetly focused the lens on the other women drivers and their black burkas. Instead of ramming into one another, these Saudi women seemed to be coasting aimlessly—indulging solely in the raw and simple pleasure of driving. But the fleeting moments, captured by Al Neami, are more eerie than euphoric.

"The women don't like to bang into one another," Al Neami told VICE over Skype from Saudi Arabia. "They don't like to bump. They just want to drive. They don't want you to bang into them—they tell you off when you bump into them."

The photographs and videos provide an unsettling portrait of life in Saudi Arabia, a country where women are, of course, effectively prohibited from driving actual motor vehicles. The images come from Never Never Land 2, a larger photography and video series by Al Neami that uses Saudi Arabian amusement parks as a backdrop. That multimedia project was featured in a recent landmark art exhibit in Iran, the first in the modern history of the Persian nation to feature strictly contemporary Arab artists.

Spheres of Influence: Codes and Conducts Across Structural Landscapes was the first purely contemporary Arab art show to take place in Iran. Photo courtesy Mohsen Gallery

Spheres of Influence: Codes and Conduct Across Structural Landscapes, which ran in April and May at Mohsen Gallery in Tehran, did not include the work of a single Iranian artist. Instead, the works came from the neighboring countries of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. Alongside Al Neami's work was that of Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, Kuwaiti artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Emirati photographer Lamya Gargash, and Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal.

At its core, the exhibit offered a window into how Arab cultures create identity using social codes and physical structures, while also highlighting how people and artists must take care to change their behavior in certain regimented contexts.

"Art is a part of Iranian culture, and in the process of researching this show, what became shocking for me [is that] in modern times, there has not been a show of artists from our neighboring countries," said Iranian-born Lila Nazemian, Spheres of Influence's curator, who now lives in New York. "That's crazy."

Iran's contemporary art scene is prospering, and the country has a long history of exhibiting Western art. But even if Nazemian doesn't claim to know exactly why the country has been reluctant to peruse the cultural offerings of neighbors, she suspects it might have to do with the long shadow Western art has cast on the Muslim world.

"The cultural hegemony exerted by the art world in the West has established a hierarchy where Western art is considered the canon of good taste," she said. "Most international arts communities are acutely aware of Western art because of this and subsequently refer to it as a standard to strive towards. I wanted to take Western art out of the picture."

Tarek Al-Ghoussein, a Kuwaiti visual artist of Palestinian origin who is based in Abu Dhabi, was the only artist in the show was actually able to attend the exhibit. He describes a success that felt like something of a cultural turning point.

"It was great—it was flooded with people," he said of the exhibit over phone from Beirut, where he was traveling. "No one had thought that work would sell, but a lot of the work was bought."

Of course, one can't help wonder if the region's rocky geopolitics might have had something to do with the delayed arrival of contemporary Arab art to the country.

Kuwaiti artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein places himself in and around urban landmarks, such as the National Parliament, the Stock Exchange, and the Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium (pictured here). Photo by Tarek Al-Ghoussein

In recent years, the country's continuing support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have strained relations with Arab neighbors. And although much closer now, Iran battled out a bloody war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Tehran has also engaged in territorial disputes with the United Arab Emirates.

Then there's the thorny relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular. On January 2, the Saudis killed 47 people, including influential Muslim Shiite cleric Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, in a state-sanctioned mass execution. In protest, Iranians to stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, forcing the Sunni kingdom to shutter its embassy, and diplomatic ties were quickly severed. In support of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait also reduced its diplomatic ties to Iran. Days later, Iran's embassy in Yemen was nearly hit by Saudi fighter jet missiles during a bombing coalition targeting rebel militants in the region.

All of which is to say the show made its debut at a tense moment.

"Persian cultural chauvinism toward Arabs has percolated over centuries, and likely been exacerbated by recent geopolitical tension," Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, said via email. "When Iranians think of art, high culture, and history, they usually look to Europe, America, and the far East, not their Arab neighbors."

According to Sadjadpour, a greater emphasis on East-West dialogue, rather than East-East, has left a regional void in communication, and may be the root of the bizarre absence of contemporary Arab art in Iran.

"It's extremely common to meet Arabs and Iranians who speak fluent English," he explained. "It's rare to meet an Iranian who speaks fluent Arabic, or an Arab who speaks fluent Persian. East-West understanding often exceeds East-East understanding."

For Nazemian, the curator, that was the ultimate and simple point: starting a conversation.

"There's such an emphasis on West and East, Europe, the US, and the Middle East, and I think that's it's time to start dialoguing with people who are neighbors," she said.

Still, Iranian artists must constantly navigate and test the limits of their artistic freedoms, often self-censoring so as not to upset the powerful Religious Establishment for fear of arrest, flogging, and possible imprisonment.

Part of Saudi Arabian artist Ahmed Mater's Deserts of Pharan series, which showcased at Spheres of Influence. Photo by Ahmed Mater

And if the show represented a shift in the regional cultural dynamic, it wasn't exactly revolutionary. According to Christiane Gruber, an expert on Islamic art at the University of Michigan, some of the show's themes and subjects perfectly align with Iran's traditionally critical attitude toward its Arab neighbors.

"Many of the images—for example, of Saudi women driving bumper cars— nevertheless level an open critique of the Saudi regime for its infantilizing and control of women in various spheres of social and political life," Gruber said. "These uncanny conjunctions of the holy and mundane, of the serious and ludic, yield tantalizing visual images. While these images may craft an 'East-East' visual conversation within Tehran, they nevertheless fit smoothly within a larger Iranian political discourse that—often rightly—lambasts Saudi Arabia's appalling treatment of the its female citizens."

For her part, Al Neami, the Saudi photographer, is less concerned with the nuances of geopolitics underpinning the exhibit, and more focused on celebrating its very existence.

"The show was trying to bring us all together," she said.

Dorian Geiger is a multimedia journalist based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York Times, TIME, Politico, Narratively, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.