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Iranian Art: A Conversation With Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi: "Their ideas and thoughts and sentiments are not all frustration. They also have hope. They also have aspirations. They also have frivolity, playfulness."
Hamid Dabashi: "Their ideas and thoughts and sentiments are not all frustration. They also have hope. They also have aspirations. They also have frivolity, playfulness."
Hamid Dabashi is an internationally renowned culture critic and award-winning author on subjects ranging from Iranian studies, medieval and modern Islam, comparative literature, world cinema, and the philosophy of art. Born in southwestern Iran, Dabashi now teaches Iranian studies and comparative literature at New York's Columbia University. He has published more than 20 books translated into numerous languages and is a frequent contributor to CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and others. He lives with his wife, the Iranian-Swedish feminist Golbarg Bashi, in New York. He spoke to RFE/RL's Kristen Deasy.

RFE/RL: Do you see a generational difference among Iranian artists and can you describe what that might be?

Hamid Dabashi:
There is definitely a generational gap between the current generation of Iranian artists and the ones proceeding them and that has to do with 30 years of the rule of theocracy in the Islamic republic and the fact of the absence of any political organization or venue for them to be able to express their ideas. And as a result, art has been among the few venues through which they have been able to express their ideas. The impact of the [1979 Islamic] 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.

RFE/RL: Do you see art as being one of the few vehicles they have for expressing their frustrations?

It is not just frustration. Yes, art is one of the venues [in which] they express their ideas, but their ideas and thoughts and sentiments are not all frustration. They also have hope. They also have aspirations. They also have frivolity, playfulness. And all of those are evident in their art.

RFE/RL: Can you cite some characteristics that you're seeing in younger Iranian art that you're not seeing in the older generation?

For example, the frivolity or playfulness of Shadi Ghadirian and Sadegh Tirafkan or the eroticism in the work of Shirin Neshat. These are something that were not evident -- or as articulated, imaginable, perhaps -- in the previous generation.

RFE/RL: And do you think that some Iranian artists are frustrated by the politicization that some of their work gets treated to simply because they are from Iran?

Yeah. That is an excellent question. It is not just a question of politicization, it is also anthropoligization. Their work is being anthropologized. Their work is being taken as indications 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. And more than anything else, in a work of art you're looking for a change in the formal disposition of a work. And it is in the formal context that we need to consider what are particular...For example, the impact, the awareness of the global art scene through the Internet. This is one significant difference.

RFE/RL: Do you see any trends emerging out of the contemporary art coming out of Iran?

The trend that I think is evident in contemporary art is de-ideologization. Ideology is no longer as valid, significant, as it used to be. It doesn't mean that all the previous generation was ideologically motivated, but the scene of Iran in the early 20th century, the first part of the 20th century, was very much determined by social realism. Not entirely, but significantly. But one of the positive results of the post-Islamic Revolution is that precisely because ideological differences have come to a dead end...the new modes of art are expressions of hopes and aspirations beyond those ideological differences.

RFE/RL: And have you observed anything of note since the emergence of the Green Movement following June's disputed election?

Oh, absolutely. There is a great, absolutely extraordinary artist who goes by the nickname of Termeh. And her work over the last year has become definitive to the Green Movement, despite the fact that she is an artist that has been working for quite some time. But something has happened in the Green Movement that has been extremely conducive to her creative imagination. And her work, as a result, has become in a way definitive to this movement.

RFE/RL: Any other comments on Iranian art or artists?

Yes, I think despite the fact that your focus is exclusively on Iranian art, I think you also have to pay attention to underground music, to cinema, to photography -- that there is something, as I said in [my] essay, a systemic shift that is happening in Iran, not just in political and sociological and intellectual terms but far more significantly in artistic terms. We now need to go back and read, in a way, to see in what way they were anticipating the Green Movement.

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