Tehran reinvented by contemporary art
Hatice Utkan ÖzdenIranian culture according to many people in Turkey is exotic and one that needed to be discovered. The latest articles written in the newspapers open an angle, yet not enough to discover the contemporary art scene in the city. Going to Tehran and visiting the exotic Farah Diba Collection at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art or attending the parties are among the things one must do in Tehran.
However, little did anyone know, there is a vibrant and lively contemporary art scene in Tehran and there are about 200 art galleries in the city. Some parts of the city are exclusively allocated for art galleries; every Friday night there are art gallery show openings and every month collector groups from abroad visit the city to buy or see art. Tehran is also a city full of cultural goings on.
“There is a very active cultural life in Tehran and not only in Tehran, but Shiraz and Esfahan are right now having the [opening of] branches of art galleries,” said Maryam Majd, the owner of the Assar art gallery. “We are hosting different collector groups in Tehran and we can say that everyone is coming to Tehran to buy Iranian art.” Noting they will be hosting a collector group first from Hong Kong and then from Belgium, Majd also added the local art market is so good in Iran they do not need to visit art fairs.
According to Nazila Noebashari, the owner of the Aaran Gallery, a very active art gallery that hosts as many as 16 art exhibitions in one year, this busy and vibrant art market is not a coincidence. “This has been like this since the beginning,” she said, adding that the beginning was the modern era of Iranian art. The modern art era in Iran had its rise in the late 1940s and 1950s. These years were the times that Iran increased its contact with the West. In terms of art, this was the period of Kamal al-Mulk, who died in 1940 and left many art students behind him. Al-Mulk’s students continued the modern era. After the active 1950s era, the 60s and 70s followed the modernism with the vibrant international art scene, as local artists participated in fairs and founded galleries, while the interest of foreign collectors rose. As a result, with the support of the government in 1977, the Tehran Museum for Contemporary Art, which is a still very active institution in Iran in supporting art, opened its doors.
“The area is currently one of the richest cultural areas of Tehran. This area is full of art galleries and there is a vibrant local art scene there,” said Noebashari. The Iranian Artists’ Forum is also the reason for the city’s rich cultural background. Even though these venues come to the fore in terms of promoting art, only the museum’s hidden Farah Diba collection is known by the people who visit Tehran.
The rarely shown Farah Diba Collection
Modern day articles on Iranian contemporary art always refer to the Farah Diba Collection, which is indeed the collection of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art and is home to the world’s most valuable collection of western modern art outside of Europe and the United States. This collection includes works by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon. The collection was bought under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran who fled the country along with the late Shah during the turbulent events of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“Even though the collection is known as the Farah Diba collection, it is the museum’s collection,” Maryam Majd said. The collection was made by Kamran Diba and Farah Diba together for the museum, she added. While some Turkish professionals have had the privilege to see the collection, Rabia Bakıcı Güreli, the vice chairperson of Contemporary Istanbul, said, “This year as part of the Contemporary Istanbul’s program, CI Focus will be hosting a section titled ‘Contemporary Tehran.’ As part of this program we visited Tehran. The museum was designed by Kamran Diba. The architecture of the museum is fascinating. The works have been kept in the cellars and store rooms.”
Güreli added it was known that with the increase in oil reserves during the 1970s, the museum was made with the support of Pehlevi. Güreli also noted the collection consisted of many Iranian artists. “However, the western artists in the collection are really fascinating and worth seeing. The largest [Mark] Rothko work I have seen is [in] that collection,” she said. Works by Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp have also fascinated Güreli. This also makes Iran special, she added and said, after the Islamic revolution in 1979, “I have heard that a work of Willem de Kooning was exchanged and the rest of the collection kept as it is. This is an important thing.”
Even though the collection is a world-renowned mystery for contemporary art lovers, for some Iranian art professionals it is just another exotic thing to see in Tehran. To open a new dimension on Tehran’s growing face, this year, as part of its 10th year, Contemporary Istanbul is bringing Tehran galleries to the fair, added Güreli. It will be possible to see works by emerging and established artists such as Nasser Bakhshi (Aaran Gallery), Babak Roshaninejad (Assar Gallery), Ali Akbar Sadeghi (Shirin Gallery), Moreshin Allahyari (Lajevardi Foundation – New Media Society) and Houman Mortazavi (Dastan’s Basement), she said.
Expectations of Iran versus the real Iran
There is a certain expectation from Iran or from an Iranian, said Behzad Khousravi Noori, an artist, academic and writer. “Where is Iran and who is Iranian? There is a certain expectation on that and people come to Iran with an expectation and when they come they see something completely different,” Noori said.
“However, people encounter normal life, and of course there is art and there are parties; people are living normally and creating art,” added Noori.
There is a real difference for visitors between the Iran that is expected to be seen and the real Iran. The expectation in fact goes beyond the realness. “Every single thing that you are doing in Iran has been colonized by the grand political agenda.
In this case there is a dark expectation for the people coming to Tehran. And after that they realize there is something different. They have the knowledge of this discourse but they cannot really experience that knowledge or this dark discourse. But this creates the superficial and shallow writings on Iran and also on Tehran. People would like to follow exotic things in Iran,” Noori said.
However there is much more to see in terms of art, according to Noebashari. “Journalists coming to Iran, they do not want to see us; they don’t want to see the normal. For us art in Iran is a normal thing. They want to show the extreme things from Friday prayers to mad parties. But we are living normally in Iran,” she said.
It is a reality that Iran has not presented itself well in recent years, said Majd. “However, this era has ended and now there is social media. It is possible to find different and varied information with the exposure of social media.”
According to Nic Newman’s paper written in September 2009, titled “The rise of social media and its impact on mainstream journalism,” (University of Oxford, Reuters Institute for the study of journalism), social media became a major component of the overall narrative, with around one in every twenty mainstream stories about Iran dominated by social media footage or news lines about social media.
It is known the reason Iranian art has evolved in the world contemporary art world is because its own collectors collect Iranian artists, even though they left the country after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Saeed Kouros, a second generation Iranian collector, said this was true.
Many families have been collecting Iranian art for many years. Kouros is a collector and a painter who has been continuing this practice. “My family has a private collection, which consists mainly of Islamic art in Tehran. I am the second generation. My father was a collector and my mother was a painter,” Kouros said.
Kouros has many works from calligraphy to oil on canvas paintings. As a collector, Kouros also supports young Iranian artists. “We need to support them for them to continue collecting art,” he said. According Kouros, Islamic art can be collected from the Islamic land.