Art and Revolution

A new exhibition explores Iranian modern and contemporary art, shining a spotlight on visual culture in the region and examining the impact of historical events on artistic production.

No matter how comprehensive a collection or survey of modern and contemporary art may be, there will always be omissions and overlooked areas. One such blind spot in many Western European and North American museums is the hitherto little-explored area of art in Iran since 1960. A new exhibition, Unedited History, Iran 1960 -2014, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, attempts to redress this omission by focusing on more than 200 works, – many of them never before exhibited in a major museum.

One reason for the lack of awareness of Iranian contemporary art is the specific political conditions in the country leading up to and following the events of 1979. The lasting impact of the Iranian Revolution in the same year in which the Western-backed Shah was deposed, to be replaced by an Islamic republic led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, has continued to dominate the country’s political situation, both internally and in terms of its relationships with the wider world. However, in which the revolution and its legacy of dramatic social change, not to mention the bloody war with neighbouring Iraq, had on the culture of the country is less well understood, as co-curator Catherine David explains: “It’s never politics alone. The revolution was very significant for society and for culture too.” For this reason, the curators of Unedited History  have decided not to frame the revolution as the sole focal point of the exhibition, but rather to give a wider sense of the political, social and cultural situation in which new forms of art have developed in Iran.

The title, Unedited History, refers to a stage in the filmmaking process when all the material has been shot but the editing process hasn’t begun and the film has not yet been viewed by the public. The suggestion is that the history of present day Iranian art has not yet been seen or interpreted in many cases either inside or outside of Iran and therefore there hasn’t been a process of “editing the history.” This helps to contextualise what the curators are aiming to achieve in the show, which is to begin the process of exploring the possible “edits” and interpretations which could be applied to the wealth of artistic material that this exhibition has gathered together.

The show is presented in three main strands covering the periods 1960-1978, 1979-1988 and 1989-2014. The first period is thought of as the “years of modernisation.” The artists covered in this period include Bahman Mohasses (1931-2010), who is a central figure in Iranian modern art whose relentless, demanding and unwavering practice influenced and inspired many of the artists who came after him. Referencing classical mythology in his works and the history of classical sculpture, he developed a thoroughly original style that bordered on caricature and the grotesque, and expanded into theatre-directing and painting. An elusive and solitary figure who felt as though he was in exile for much of his life, he is in some senses a talisman for the myriad ways in which art can transcend, react against and reflect the complex politics of any particular society at any one time.

Iranian filmmaking has long been respected and recognised around the world. Among the New Wave auteurs who are featured in Unedited History is Parviz Kimiavi (b. 1939). His work is represented by some recent re-edits of his films from the 1970s, a period in which he produced such works as Gowharshad Mosque, P Like Pelican  and Bazar-e mashhad. He lent his partly ethnographic films a singular and often impressionistic style, resulting in a compelling combination of documentary and fiction, of magical realism and surrealist elements. P Like Pelican, for example, is focused on the character of Aqa Seyyed Ali Mirza, a reclusive hermit who is encouraged by nearby youths to engage with a mysterious creature: the titular pelican.

The period from 1979 to 1988 is dominated by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988. Culture and the arts play an important part in the history of the revolution. During the pre-revolutionary era, the Shah and the Empress were important patrons of art and culture. They saw it as significant in developing a sense of Iranian national identity and redefining a non-Western strand of modernism, supported through biennials and other support networks. However, also during this period when the arts were regarded as increasingly important, there was also a marked awareness of cultural and social inequalities within the country, which ultimately gave rise to the revolutionary protest movement.

The revolution involved numerous developments in the nature in which citizens engaged with their public spaces and the very notion of being in public. Naturally, this has implications for artists and how they approach their work. Given that the uprising was followed by eight years of bitter conflict between Iraq and Iran, there is also a backdrop of extreme bloodshed and loss during this period. David, as co-curator, is keen to make it clear that the revolution and the war are deeply connected and that therefore they should be seen not as distinct events but as constituting one political and social period. The art, and more generally the artifacts of visual culture of the time, provide a counterbalance to the more official representations of what happened, the details of which are little known even now.

The work of the photographers Bahman Jalali (1944-2010) and Rana Javadi (b. 1944) is extremely significant in providing documentary evidence of what took place leading up to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. The shots were taken during the concentrated and heady period of 1978-1979 and they were published in the book Days of Blood, Days of Fire. This collaboration is perhaps their most significant contribution in terms of providing both a document and a response to the events of the revolution. Having been previously censored, these works have rarely been shown. Until his death in 2010, Bahman Jalali was also an influential teacher, who taught many of the artists included in the contemporary section of the exhibition.

A very different response to the revolution is represented in the work of Kazem Chalipa (b. 1957). Born in Tehran, he was one of the most prominent painters of the revolutionary generation. His work combines both religious references and echoes with the potent symbols and political vocabulary of the revolution. His work was frequently reproduced as posters during the Iran-Iraq War, and therefore is an ideal reflection of the conjoining of art and politics during this period because it recalls so vehemently a certain era.

Also included in the exhibition is significant supplementary work such as films, posters, photography, ephemera and other documentary materials relating to the cultural and social climate in which the art was produced. Thus the show attempts to give a sense of the local situation of the artists. In practice, these images sometimes give very different and differing accounts of the same person’s work, which suggests the contested and unsettled environment in which many of these pieces were produced. As David explains, the materials are intended to give a sense not just of the social and political context but the visual impression of the country from a specific time, she says: “It was important to include documentary materials not only to create the context but also to give a sense of the many layers and dimensions of Iranian visual culture. It is very difficult to understand any modern movement in Iran if you don’t have this comprehension in the first instance.”

The strand of the exhibition that covers the period 1989-2014 represents a fascinating cross-section of different styles and approaches currently being adopted and adapted by contemporary Iranian artists, many of whom have studied abroad and combined much of their international learning with the specific history of social conditions in Iran. Chohreh Feyzdjou, an installation artist who died young in 1996, produced installations and assemblages of objects that are a comment on the commercialisation of contemporary art and the global art market. She often used materials that related to the Iran of the past, but the techniques were both demanding and startlingly contemporary and included using vegetable fibres, crushed walnut husks and rolls of her own canvases over painted in black. Inspired by Feyzdjou, the work of Barbad Golshiri (b. 1982), whose father Houshang Golshiri was a notable Iranian writer, is both poetic and unquestionably political. He often uses guerrilla tactics in his work. For example, in a tribute to Feyzdjou, he constructed a sarcophagus-shaped tomb over Feyzdjou’s unadorned grave in the cemetery at Pantin. The stencilled tomb presented in the exhibition evokes the anonymous graves of the martyrs, who were forbidden any inscription on their graves by the regime.

Among the photographers included in the show whose pieces most reflect the influence of Bahman Jalali, are Mazdak Ayari, Behzad Jaez and Tahmineh Monzavi. Their work connects with the tradition of modern Iranian photographic techniques, while exploring their own distinct subject matters and concepts. Ayari concentrates on his domestic life and family, a subject he has been capturing for over 10 years. By narrowing the core of his practice to his closest circle he gives a vivid and in-depth insight into contemporary life, and his familiarity with all his subjects lends his work a rare warmth and depth. A frequent theme is the boundary between private and public existence. This is sometimes blurred in contemporary Iranian society.

Taken in the early 2000s, Behzad Jaez’s photographs depict religious schools in Tehran and Qom depicting the day-to-day life and activities of the students. The images demonstrate the diversity of different social backgrounds of pupils, and they correspondingly give a vivid and dynamic picture of life in contemporary Iran. Similarly, the work of Tahmineh Monzavi is also influenced by diversity. Monzavi’s photography centres on those individuals who flaunt and transgress convention and included in the exhibition is a series of pictures relating to Tina, a transvestite who lives in a refuge. These works explore social exclusion and the pains of being an exception to cultural normativity. Born in 1988, Monzavi is one of the most vibrant and exciting of the young Iranian creatives whose photography is on display. While demonstrating a clear commitment to social documentary as a visual language, he is an artist whose work is utterly fearless and compelling.

The artist Arash Hanaei uses digital techniques to reimagine and re-contextualise the Iranian capital city. He creates digital erasures of Tehran starting from a source photograph. Hanaei’s work might seem at first to be a negation of or resistance to the city and its history. However, as with many psycho-geographical approaches to art, Hanaei’s pieces, in fact, reveal so much more through the process of erasure than they cover over or omit. By isolating certain elements and erasing others, he draws the viewer’s attention to poetic and unexpected similarities between, for example the murals of the martyrs and advertising hoardings. His practice is an exploration of Tehran, its history and also its present, in which his unwavering eye for the subtle juxtaposition enlivens his distinctive works.

By presenting such a broad cross-section of Iranian art and visual culture from the period 1960-2014, Unedited History  draws attention not only to the breadth of techniques and art forms practised across this significant period but also crystallises the ways in which culture and politics intersect. This highlights the nature of contemporary society and particularly in a period that communication technologies and the art market have altered how artists reach a global audience. Above all, the exhibition addresses the process of “editing”, which now must begin to recognise and acknowledge the significant achievements of Iranian artists from this period. The almost overwhelming diversity of artists and artworks presented in the show is both pertinent and of paramount importance: these are works that demand to be looked at and interpreted within both local and international contexts.

Unedited History, Iran 1960 -2014  continues until 24 August at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,

Colin Herd