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Harun Farocki

Tehran’s art scene is permeated with a deep sense of its own history, which is marked by foreign domination and interference as well as almost four decades of Islamic rule. A visit to a comprehensive, lively and fully connected art scene.

The first impression of Tehran – an intriguing urban mix of Persian, Eurasian and modernist influences – is primarily determined by towering portraits of the country’s religious leaders. It comes as no surprise that the independent art scene here seems withdrawn from the public realm. But, restrictions or not, within the confines of the scene, artists and curators bring up topics touching the heart of the socio-political situation in Iran and the surrounding region. They are well informed, connected, and find themselves more and more in the centre of attention of the international art world.

One of the first things the artist Mohamed Eskandari mentioned during my visit to his studio is that ‘you have to relate to the situation’. Eskandari comes from a family of artists; he has been working for several years now with the reputable Aaran Gallery and exhibits internationally; soon he will have an exhibition in Antwerp in a gallery that sought contact with him on Facebook. In his paintings he builds upon classical masterpieces, works by Gericault or Delacroix, giving the well-known and to social issues related scenes and titles a meaningful twist, although never making unequivocal statements. Above all his ambition is a ‘good painting’; he finds unambiguous political art uninteresting. It is an attitude widespread amongst his colleagues.

Photobook Tehran

Tehran’s art scene is permeated with a deep sense of its own history, which is marked by foreign domination and interference as well as almost four decades of Islamic rule. Within this context the impressive artistic and intellectual tradition is considered a continuing Persian line, in which an intellectual orientation and a predominantly autonomous conception of art find its roots. Mohamed stresses the resilience of this long artistic tradition, in which diverse influences – whether from the in- or outside – have been assimilated again and again.

‘There is no cultural invasion’, emphasized Nazila Noebashari. Noebashari has run Aaran Gallery since 2008. During the first years, under the conservative Ahmadinejad regime, she was constantly being surveilled and sporadically pressed to close an exhibition. When I asked her about current restrictions – since 2013, under Rohani, there has been more latitude – she replied somewhat impatiently: ‘What remains hidden is not important. What matters is what is made visible.’ In 2012 Noebashari curated the group show America the Beautiful. It is about the ways we conceptualize the other. ‘It was not so much about America’, she says, ‘it was about us and our assumptions.’ Recently Aaran Gallery has opened a new project space, in addition to the gallery.

Artist and curator Behrang Samadzadegan made Less is More in 2015, an exhibition of works by three generations of Iranian artists. Iranian art using minimal visual means is too often conceived as ‘minimal art’ in a historical sense and through a Western perspective, he argues in the accompanying essay. ‘Storytelling and the use of metaphors are deeply rooted in Iranian culture’, he said to me when I met him. Work that appears minimal often does have a narrative thrust. That what is omitted in a specific context has meaning. It can only be perceived in the light of the tradition and the current situation. This strategy of ‘narrative by elimination’ might also be motivated by a need for self-censorship.

Film poster

In June it was Ramadan in Tehran and many of the interesting venues I intended to visit, like Ab/Anbar, Lajevardi Foundation, Azad Art Gallery, Emkan and O Gallery, had limited opening hours or were completely closed. ‘Sazmanab is on break’, the website of this internationally renowned project space for contemporary art read. Launched in 2008, initiator and artist Shorab Kashani has realised a program including exhibitions, performances, lectures and publications for eight years. The same topics, like ’translating the other’ and ‘historical memory’, were addressed. In 2015, Metaphor and Politics: The Retrospective Tehran or Harun Farocki was the last exhibition held. Due to the non-profit approach Kashani was urged to close Sazmanab down. At the moment, he is looking for other ways to continue his work. Sazmanab focused from the outset on cooperation between artists and curators, both local and international. Kashani’s residency program – the first in Iran – was instrumental in developing those contacts. From 2011 onward, Sazmanab organized the annual Tehran Video Forum – building up a database of historical and contemporary video work – and for three consecutive years it brought Sazmanab TV, giving information about current exhibitions and artists [2]. Whereas Nazila Noebashari pointed out that the scene is lacking good art criticism, Kashani’s situation painfully shows a lack of financial resources for an independent program without a commercial approach.

Harun Farocki on view in gallery

Another important venue within the circuit is the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), at least potentially important. It houses the most important collection of Western art outside the US and Europe, but barely shows it; some also criticize the program as being out of touch with current developments. In June however, Karnameh Visual Culture of Iranian Children 1950-1980 was on show, an exhibition about the impact of the various spheres of influence on Iranian visual culture for children. Amongst a wealth of great visual material – illustrations, comic books and films – the artistic quality of the work made by Farshid Mesghali and Abbas Kiarostami popped out. In the late sixties, the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children worked with leading artists; now this period is perceived as ’too intellectual’. Nevertheless the artistic quality of the masters in the exhibition was astonishing. Curator Ali Bakhtiari said to me, after I had suggested that the exhibition was maybe critical about this: ‘What is important is that the broad concept of “propaganda”, combined with a wide time span and the visualized social context, make it possible to look at all the material with an analytical eye. If there is an unspoken exhibition strategy, it relates to other issues. For the curatorial and design team, the (implicit) proposal to adopt archiving as a task of the museum was the motivation to present their research in TMoCA.’

Augustas Serapinas, '20 Apartments', installatie overzichten en details, P/////AKT, 2020. Foto's door Rob van de Werdt en Valeria Marchesini, courtesy P/////AKT Amsterdam

Concepts like ‘cultural invasion’, ‘self-orientalisation’ and ’the Persian tradition’ were recurring during my encounters; hinting on an identity discourse taking shape. This is surprising in an environment where cartoonists and filmmakers tend to clash with the regime, and where musicians and theatre makers are hampered in exercising their professions. It happens, although not fully out in the open. The many openings and performances are modestly made public outside the own circle; exhibition spaces are rarely visible from street level, and websites are mainly written in English.

Nevertheless, this intellectually oriented circuit provides a reflective environment in which social and political issues are being addressed alongside artistic concerns. You might say they are withdrawn from public life, or in-crowd, but they constitute a public sphere in themselves. Using subtly the language of visual art – ambiguous by nature and accessible to few – is highly regarded, making things even less legible. This raises questions about the resonance of the issues and approaches in a wider circle. Yet, great importance is attached to it, as ‘there is something more at stake for the younger generation than making a career’, as Samadzadegan said to me. ‘It is going to resonate. There is no doubt about it.’


Mariska van den Berg is art historian, publicist and lecturer at the Master programs of Photography and Visual Arts at the Academy for Art and Design St. Joost in The Netherlands.

Behrang Samadzadegan has written about Iranian artists organizing themselves in recent decades of on-going political changes. His essay appears in 2017 in a book by Necmi Sönmez (ed.) published by Skira.

Golnar Abassi was until recently resident at the Jan van Eyck Academy (Maastricht, The Netherlands). His research on the gallery and art scene in Tehran will be published in Urban Underground Processes in Cultural Spaces (working title) by S.H. Moeini (ed.) by the end of 2016 at Springer Verlag.;;;;;;;;;

Mariska van den Berg

is curator bij SKOR (Stichting Kunst in de Openbare Ruimte) en was in 2011 betrokken bij de oprichting van Platform BK

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