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Despite Tightening Up Of Society, Iranian Art Sees A Boom

An artwork by Nikoo Tarkhani, titled "This Is Not A Woman"
An artwork by Nikoo Tarkhani, titled "This Is Not A Woman"
The Persian word for "love" is spelled out in Swarovski crystals and glitter, with a small footnote from the artist: "A picture is worth a thousand words and a word a thousand pictures." The estimate wasn't high enough.

When the acrylic painting on canvas sold at Bonhams in Dubai two years ago for a historic $1,048,000, the Iranian creator Farhad Moshiri became the first artist from the region to break the $1 million price barrier at auction.

It was a breakthrough moment -- not just for Moshiri, but for Iranian art, which for the last few years has been experiencing what experts say is a "golden age." Largely attributable to the stabilization of the Dubai art market and strong ties between the United Arab Emirates and Iran, the boom is also being fueled by a younger generation of artists attempting to push the boundaries of freedom of expression.

Lebanese-Iranian Rose Issa, a gallery owner and art dealer, has spent the last 30 years championing artists from Iran and the Arab world. These days, she says, there's "a real buzz" in Tehran.

The mass demonstrations that broke out following the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad last June are related to a growing demand for self-expression among Iranians, Issa says. She says it is no coincidence that since the protests "many new galleries have opened" in Tehran, calling them "even trendier" and "more luxurious" than before. These galleries, she says, have started publishing catalogues, something she hasn't seen "for decades."

For Iranian artists, the growth of the Dubai art market over the last five years has been a boon. Iranian artists working inside the country now have the ability to network, exhibit, and sell their works in a fine-art market much closer to home. As a result, they have seen the value of their works steadily appreciate.

Sales of Arab and Iranian art in Dubai increased from $2 million in 2006 to $35.7 million in 2008. Iranian artists now represent 74 percent of artwork sales in Christie's Modern and Contemporary Arab and Iranian auctions and 64 percent of sales at Bonhams.

Edward Lucie-Smith, a curator of Middle Eastern art (a category in which Iranian works are often mistakenly placed), writes in an e-mail interview that currently Iran boasts "more artists [and] bigger talents, many [of them] still firmly rooted in Tehran despite the current political situation."

Dubai's high prices for contemporary Iranian art "obviously find an echo in Europe," Lucie-Smith writes, "not least because collectors feel that there is now an established market if they need to sell," but also because "Iran has the richest contemporary visual-arts culture in the region."

Forty-six new galleries have opened in Iran over the last two years -- 26 of them in Tehran, says Mahmud Shaloie, the director of the office of visual arts for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. There are about 300 art galleries in all of Iran.

Postwar Generation

Some of the artists now achieving success are part of Iran's burgeoning younger generation born after the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many of these young artists came of age under the 1997-2005 presidency of Mohammad Khatami, a relatively moderate leader who allowed greater freedom of expression and promoted cultural and artistic dialogue between Iran and the West.

'Iranian Bodies' Art Exhibition In Berlin
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(Gallery Walkthrough: "Iranian Bodies" exhibition in Berlin's "Werkstattgalerie," featuring figurative art from five Iranian artists.)

Hamid Dabashi, a culture critic and award-winning author who was born in Iran, says the young generation of artists is bringing something new to the contemporary art scene.

"The impact of the revolution, eight years of war, and the subsequent theocracy is the political and social context in which the current generation of Iranian artists define their own particular mode of artistic expression," Dabashi explains.

Compared with the previous generation of Iranian artists, the works coming out of Tehran today "have aspirations, they have frivolity, playfulness," he says. He also sees a new trend in their work: disillusionment with ideology. "Ideology is no longer as valid, significant, as it used to be," he says. Among young Iranians, "ideological differences have come to a dead end."

The recent boom is also providing Iranian artists who gained notoriety in the 1960s or 1970s, in the years that Iran first opened up to the international art scene, with something of a renaissance. "Finally," Issa says, "credit is being due to people like [Mohammed] Ehsai, like Monir Farmanfarmaian, who is now in her mid-80s and yet is [still] doing fantastic work that she was doing in the late 1960s and early 1970s." Issa calls Farmanfarmaian "the Louise Bourgeois of the Mideast."

Or 73-year-old sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, who made a record-breaking Dubai auction debut in 2008 with the $2.8 million sale of "The Wall (Oh Persepolis)" at Christie's. There is also renewed interest in 69-year-old Tehran-born abstract expressionist Kamran Katouzian, some of whose paintings are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Iranian artists of this generation remember the 1977 founding of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art at the initiative of the last empress of Iran, Farah Diba Pahlavi. The museum houses valuable collections of post-Impressionist, and modern and contemporary art -- some of the finest outside the West.

The interior of S.M.'s studio in Tehran
In 1979, two years after the museum opened, Iran's newly installed Islamic leaders said the works of art symbolized the shah's obsession with the West. The collection has since been opened only rarely to the public. (Watch a rare tour.)

During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, most galleries and museums closed in Tehran. The art scene turned its attention to "survival," Issa says, "but the years following the war were highly productive for documentary arts."
"The film industry moved forward, the photographers moved forward," she adds, explaining that the emphasis was on loss: Eight years of war cost the country at least 300,000 lives and left some 500,000 injured.

By the mid-1990s, the art scene in Iran was slowly opening up, helped along by a more moderate cultural policy on the part of the government. In 1991, Iran held its first painting biennale since the revolution. Galleries reopened and started holding exhibitions, the private sector started to invest, and artists started to form unions. The Iranian Graphic Designers Society first formed in 1997, and is now known as one of the largest in the region.

Political Dilemma

Life in Iran today is much harder on artists. The government responded to the demonstrations last June with a severe crackdown, and artistic activity is now closely monitored.

The combination of an artistic boom and renewed government interest in the art scene has brought new dilemmas. S.M. is a young artist living in Tehran whose work is frequently exhibited in the city as well as galleries in Europe. (Because her artistic credentials inside Iran prevent her from using her real name, she asked to be referred to by the pseudonym S.M.)

She says many artists in Tehran face hard choices over the best way to remain true to their work, seek international recognition, while still being welcome in Iran.

"The question becomes whether I should do some very simple works -- ones that are not socially or politically provocative -- and have the advantage of being able to come home to my country," she says, "or do the works that I want, deeply, to do myself, but be unable to come back home."

Iranian artists who have produced more socially or politically provocative works while living inside the country face a host of problems. Many are unable to show their work, and some are harassed or even imprisoned. Others resort to smuggling pieces across the border in order to exhibit them in the West.

The authorities typically ban works on subjects the Islamic republic finds offensive -- anything from showing kissing or nudity to works treating Islam, or the politics of the Islamic republic, in a critical manner. Despite the restrictions, artists continue producing such work. Often, a gallery will exhibit an artist's moderate works and keep the more controversial pieces out of sight, to be discreetly shown to interested buyers and collectors.

One prominent Tehran-based artist, who has been politically active since June's disputed election and who wishes to remain anonymous, says that he perceives art "as a form of resistance." Now, he says, artists like him are "back to work, holding private gatherings to see what we can achieve [in the country] through art," since it is a medium that "can suggest and point to overlooked sociopolitical issues." He says every time he organizes an exhibition in Tehran, it is closed down or some pieces are removed by the government.

But some art critics say artists are producing overtly political works in order to take advantage of the international attention focused on Iran following its internal turmoil last summer.

Culture critic Dabashi warns that Western observers risk overly politicizing or "anthropologizing" the work of Iranian artists. He says their work "is being taken as an indication of social, political, or ideological aspects." "It is not that their art does not represent those aspects -- it does -- but...there's a difference between a work of art and a political manifesto," he says.

Nasim Manuchehrabadi, a young Iranian artist now working in Berlin, says "the fact that I'm Iranian" makes her works political "whether I like it, or not." She thinks the work of the younger generation reflects the difficulties it faces in Iranian society, as modern ideals face off with conservative values promoted by the Islamic government.

Iran's 2,500 years of artistic history does influence her work, Manuchehrabadi says, but "it's not only [traditional Persian paintings of] flowers that we've grown up with," it's also the fact that "we are the MTV generation."

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