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Interview: Longtime Art Advocate Rose Issa Discusses Iranian Art 'Boom'

An auction of contemporary Iranian art at the Magic of Persia art gallery in Dubai last year.
Lebanese-Iranian gallerist Rose Issa, 61, has spent the last 30 years championing artists from Iran and the Arab world.

She has curated numerous exhibitions and film festivals, leading efforts to introduce the West to international stars such as filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Bahman Ghobadi or artists Farhad Moshiri and Shadi Ghadirian. She serves as an adviser on Middle Eastern art for the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and the National Gallery of Jordan, among others.

She is the author of "Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema," and the founder of Paris's first-ever Arab Film Festival. She has sat on the jury for the Venice Biennale and advised the Berlinale film festival, among many others.

Issa, who now runs her Rose Issa Projects in New York, told RFE/RL why Iranian art has experienced a boom in recent years.

Rose Issa: There was always an art market [in Iran], of course, not a boom. The boom happened, yes, with the first art sale of Christie's in Dubai five years ago. And before that I did a major exhibition in the Barbican [Art Center in London] in 2001, and there was a fantastic interest in [the] contemporary art scene, and that's when it started, you know, the interest, lots of Iranians discovering that you can, you know, access those artists and that people are alive, and they're still working. And there is still a production, hence people could invest and start collecting.
There is a buzz everywhere about a culture that was ignored for the last 30 years, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The market in the last five to six years has been fantastic, thanks to the exhibitions that have been happening at the British Museum and in Dubai, with the auction houses opening in Dubai, and Sotheby's in London being interested in contemporary Iranian and Arab art.... All these exhibitions have contributed toward the awareness of the Iranian art scene. Hence, also, awareness of acquisition and [interest in the] collection of this market.

Of course, first the initial buyers were Iranian, but now it has moved. Many of the foreign galleries, European galleries, have been interested in the artists and are signing them up. In Austria, in Germany, in France, in America -- people who have never even, even Iranians who have never even promoted Iranian art are now promoting Iranian art. So there is a buzz everywhere about a culture that was ignored for the last 30 years, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The generations [of Iranian artists who are doing well now] are very mixed. People who were famous in the '70s...these people are doing quite well thanks to the recent boom, Mohamed Ehsai, although in Iran there is hardly any publication of these artists, you know? Only in the last years Alireza Sami-Azar, who was the director of the Iran Museum of Contemporary Art, published catalogues about the pioneering art in Iran or people who were quite important before the revolution.

Of course, after the Islamic Revolution, for eight years we had war between Iran and Iraq, therefore the curriculum of the universities changed, the museums closed, many galleries closed, and the priority was on survival and war. And then, later on, it was on documenting the country, really. The film industry moved forward, the photographers moved forward, and so on.

I think, from the older generation, finally credit is being due to people like 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 60s and early 70s when she was commissioned to do huge mirrors, with mirror mosaics, and finally, now, in her 80s she has been recognized internationally. And museums are acquiring her work, showing her work, and commissioning her. ... She's a bit like the Louise Bourgeois of the Mideast. But we also have younger artists, like Farhad Moshiri, who became in the last four-five years one of the best-selling artists, everyone compares him to the Jeff Koons of the Mideast.

But there are lots of the young generation who are famous. A young photographer I can quote, Shadi Ghadirian, whose first exhibition I did here 10 years ago, was only 24. And subsequently she became a well-known artist and who still lives in Iran. So not everybody lives outside Iran.
Everybody is expressing through the loopholes of the system -- no matter what the restrictions are within Iran or outside Iran, we're going to produce artwork.

I will say that all the Iranians today, like Bita Ghezelayagh, a young unknown artist who moved into visual arts and is doing pieces with felt and guns and slogans from the streets of Tehran, where it says, "our breasts are like shields, your bullets have no effect," and these are vernacular texts that everybody is writing on the text, and you know, "from the blood of the martyrs the tulips blossom" -- tulips are symbols of martyrdom in Iran. And there are, from the most unknown people to the most famous one, everybody in Iran is now reflecting the crisis. The crisis within what is happening in the state of Iran, but also the double standards of the West. And that is what is fantastic about what is being produced now in Iran.

For centuries, our references were our poets: Sa'di, Hafez, Rumi. And this culture, [which] is based on poetry, always finds loopholes in which to express itself though poetry and through visual arts.... Everybody is expressing through the loopholes of the system -- no matter what the restrictions are within Iran or outside Iran, we're going to produce artwork.

RFE/RL: You were in Iran just last year. Can you talk about the artistic environment of Tehran?

You know, there is a real buzz. The buzz is that, how can you have a country that has been sort of closed, where you don't have, really, a public library without millions of censorship, we don't have so many public institutions that...[allow]...people to express themselves.... What is happening is that people are referring to their daily life, and getting inspiration from life itself in order to produce art.

And this, actually more than 10 years ago, in 1999, I published a book called "Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema," that the success of Iranian cinema in the '80s proved that you don't need high technology, a lot of money, freedom to express yourself. Despite restriction, despite financial restriction, censorship and everything, you can say what you want if you find the right aesthetic language.

And this is something that I think Iranians have to say. I think, unfortunately, even as Orson Wells says, you know,... the Italians were in civil wars and tension and they produce Michelangelo and all these fantastic artists, and Switzerland was at peace and they produce cuckoo I think also the tension in the country, the fact that there is always this threat [from the authorities], and this frustration, this dissatisfaction, these injustices, like everywhere in the world, but particularly of what women want and what the public want to express and stolen promises, I think this is reflected in that people have something to say. And if you have something to say you find a way to say it. And they [the artists] are finding ways of saying it, you know, no matter how modestly. But they are finding the way....

The overwhelming luxury, the overwhelming number of museums, libraries, bookshops, show something, [about the West, it] is that people are saturated. There is saturation in the West, while there is hunger in the East. And that hunger, and that desire to express themselves, is that people find a way to express it. Hence the buzz.

You know the demonstrations in Tehran? Many new galleries opened, even trendier than before. More luxurious than before. And they are functioning and they are doing exhibitions and finally they are doing publications, which is something that has not happened in years, for decades, in Tehran. Now commercial galleries are doing publications.

RFE/RL: You have advocated for Iranian artists for many years. Do you have personal reasons for doing so?

Of course, at first because I'm half-Iranian. I went to Iran in the early '90s, in 1992, '93.... Through the film scene I discovered that there were fantastic artists that nobody knew about. And since I liked them, I wanted other people to also discover them and enjoy them, so I invited them. Ten years ago, I did the first solo show of people like Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Shadi Ghadirian, Farhad Moshiri, and many, many other people.... So I have always promoted those artists.