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What everybody ought to know about Iranian contemporary artists

Bérénice Robaglia

9 min

shirin neshat

Introduction

Throughout history, Iran has often been referred to as the cradle of humanity and culture. Although its successive authoritarian regimes have inhibited artists’ development, especially after the 1979 revolution when most artists had to leave the country, the country’s geopolitical position has always fostered art. Nowadays, despite the economic crisis and the US government sanctions, more and more artists and galleries are participating in Tehran’s artistic scene. In the same way, many investors are encouraging production and exhibition. As many Western galleries such as Perrotin, Lisson Gallery, Thaddeus Roppac, Rodolphe Janssen or Gagosian are representing Iranian artists in response to a global growing interest in the artistic Middle East scene, we decided to explore the Persian historical background and a selection of ten contemporary artists from the region. 

History, Politics & Art

Iran is one of the most influential cultures in the world, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 7000 BC. The successive empires which governed Iran after Alexander the Great’s invasion in 330 BC encouraged art and trades, maintaining the cultural leadership of the territory whilst binding together the religions and scientific innovations of Europe, Asia and Africa. Following the Muslim conquest of Persia and the country’s independence in 1501, Iran went on to be ruled by emperors almost without interruption until 1979 when it officially became an Islamic Republic

After the revolution, Iran endured several conflicts, diplomatic tensions and popular rebellions. The ruling of an authoritarian and conservative government has often repressed freedom of expression, giving artists reason to revendicate their fight for freedom and their cultural heritage. If we consider the Iranian artistic production in the modern period, the academic practice ended in the 1940s with the death of the famous Persian painter, Kamal-ol-molk. The 1949 opening of the Apadana gallery in Tehran, and the emergence of artists like Marcos Grigorian (1925–2007) in the 1950s, signaled a commitment to the creation of a form of modern art grounded in Iran. Then emerged new artistic practices, characterized by the Saqqakhaneh school which grounded new fashions within Iranian history and islamic symbolism and initiated a great interest from the western world.

Galleries are opening in Tehran and artists are participating in art fairs. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in 1977, showing a great collection of Western and Iranian art. Art in the period following the 1979 Islamic revolution is dominated by Iran’s war with Iraq (1980–88), and the responses of many artists to its horrors with graphic art, such as photography and powerful posters (for example, Sadegh Tirafkan completed a series of photographs in memory of the many friends who died in the war). Outside the country, emigre artists addressed, among other topics, the “forbidden” subjects such as religion, revolution, women, and violence.

Currently the contemporary art scene in Iran is like the rest of the country - a mixture of many narratives. Despite its challenging socio-political position and the restrictions that have long ruled Iranian creativity, Iranian contemporary artists have been working to create a universal discourse to establish themselves within the global art scene. At the same time, they have to deal with major economic difficulties due in part to political repression and American sanctions.

10 contemporary Iranian artists

Iran, which is filled with so much political and social upheaval, in addition to having a long history and rich cultural traditions, also inspires its talented contemporary artists. Here we present a few of them:

1- Nazgol Ansarinia  (Born 1979, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran) leverages a number of diverse media for her art, such as video, 3D objects, street signs and drawings. In her practice, Ansarinia reflects upon tensions between private worlds and the wider socio-economic realm. She represented Iran at the 56th Venice Biennale, and at the 10th and 12th Istanbul Biennale. Ansarinia also participated to the Iran Inside Out exhibition at Chelsea Art Museum, New York, in 2009. Eventually, she was awarded the Abraaj Capital Art Prize in March 2009.

2-Avish Khebrehzadeh (Born 1969, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Washington, D.C.) Poetic, dreamlike, and full of ambiguity, the paintings, drawings, and animations of Avish Khebrehzadeh are born out of her experience as an immigrant and the contradictions between her western education and eastern heritage. She has exhibited all over the world in institutions such as Rhode Island School of Design Museum in the US, MAXXI in Rome, and the Museum of Old and New Art in Australia. She also took part in the Istanbul Biennale, the Cologne Kunst Film Biennale and the Venice Biennale in 2003. 

3-Shirazeh Houshiary (born 1955 in Chiraz, lives and works in London), is a sculptor that incorporates a strong Persian influence in her work. Her ideology draws on Sufi mystical doctrine and Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Persian mystic and poet from the 13th century. Her work has been shown in numerous institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Tate in London. In 2005, Creative Time commissioned her and Pip Horne to exhibit in public space in New York. In 2005 (Veil) and 2008 (Shroud)] she worked with the animation studio Hotbox Studios to create an installation for Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York and Lisson Gallery in London. 

4- Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar (Born 1977, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran) is mostly known for videos and installations where he reflects on and reacts to the recent history of Iran, especially through a recontextualization of the official symbolism of the propaganda art of Iran. He showed his work in European institutions (Tate London, Der Daimler Kunst Sammlung) and galleries (Thaddeus Roppac, Narrative Gallery, London) and also in several museums in India and Iran. He also participated in the 2013 Venice Biennale. 

5- Shirin Neshat (Born 1957 Quazvin, Iran, works and lives in NYC, USA) is mostly famous for her videos and photographs, where she reflects upon the notion of contrasts. Since the Islamic Revolution she claims that she has "gravitated toward making art that is concerned with tyranny, dictatorship, oppression and political injustice. Although I don’t consider myself an activist, I believe my art – regardless of its nature – is an expression of protest, a cry for humanity.” Shirin Neshat has been recognized countless times for her work, from winning the International Award of the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, to winning the Silver Lion for best director at the 66th Venice Film Festival in 2009, to being named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson.

6- Farhad Moshiri (Born 1963 in Shiraz, lives and works in Tehran), educated in the California Institute of the Arts, “overturns both pop culture and highbrow imagery by transforming it into figurative artwork.” His works are often hand-embroidered and sparkle with glitter, sequins, and crystals. Even though his shimmery works look playful, he is addressing “the flaws of contemporary Iran all while toying with its traditional forms and acknowledging the appeal of the western world in addition to its limitations.” Moshiri has a great international coverage; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the Farjam Collection in Dubai, and the British Museum in London; the Third Line Gallery in Dubai, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong, Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels, and Thaddeus Ropac in Salzburg and London.

7- Parastou Forouhar (Born 1962, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Germany.)Her works are politically engaged and witness the suffering she has endured since the brutal assassination of her well-known activists parents in 1998. In her work, she leverages traditional mediums such as calligraphy and persian symbols that are intended to convey a sense of liberation from restraints. Forouhar has exhibited widely in Iran and around the world at institutions and biennials such as MANIF D’ART in Canada, the Villa Stuck Museum in Germany, the fifth Moscow Biennale, and the Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art in Sweden. Her work has also been collected by major institutions such as the British Museum in London and the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia.

8- Y.Z. Kami (Born 1956, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in New York) has been working to communicate a philosophical message dealing with truth and humanity. Through all of his oeuvre - collages, sculptures, abstract paintings, and monumental photographs of Islamic sites - Kami invites his viewers to think beyond common knowledge of cultural contexts, religious doctrines, or geographical regions to find a universal discourse. His works have been shown in institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in NYC, and London’s Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art

9- Mohammad-Hossein Emad (Born 1957, Arak, Iran, lives and works in Tehran) engages with the philosophical implications of existence and our relationships with space through his multi-dimensional creations. Adopting a poetic gesture, he portrays the driving force of nature: the opposite ends of a cycle and the interconnection between contrary forces. Emad is one of the most celebrated Iranian sculptors and the recipient of many awards, including an honorary diploma from the fourth Tehran Contemporary Sculpture Biennial in 2005. He has been commissioned to create public art for spaces across Iran, including Tehran’s Gofteman Park and Shahid Beheshti University.

10- Newsha Tavakolian (Born 1981, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran.) began her career at 16 as a photojournalist shooting guerrilla fighters in the Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. Throughout her career, Tavakolian has covered events such as Iran’s 1999 student uprisings, the Iraq war, and presidential elections. Her work later shifted to a mix of art and documentary photography with a focus on societies on the verge of change. She exhibited at London’s Somerset House in 2014 (“Burnt Generation”), as well as at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tavakolian has earned many accolades for her work and became a Magnum associate photographer in 2017.

Conclusion

From the most underground artists to the more mainstream ones, the Iranian contemporary art scene breaks political rules and censorship. The works from Iranian artists give the audience an exciting vision of Iranian society and transmit the preoccupation both from the West and the East. Moreover, the melting pot of of persian traditions with the country’s past friendship with the western world add complexity and strength to the Iranian contemporary art production.

February 25, 2020

Bérénice Robaglia