Sunday, 20 September 2009





When the idea of ‘contemporary’ or ‘avant-garde’ art was first invented, it remained within the parameters of the Western tradition. That is, despite its desire to break with the past, one of its major points of reference was the technical and intellectual tradition that arists had inherited from the Renaissance.


This situation first began to change when the idea of an avant-garde in art began to take root in Latin America. Events such as the Semana de Arte Moderna, held in Saõ Paulo in 1922 and the foundation of the magazine Matin Fierro in Buenos Aires in 1924 marked a desire to come to terms with what was happening in Europe.


At the same time, however, there was often a desire to acknowledge the fact that Latin American culture had roots that were not European. This was particularly the case in regions that had a rich heritage from the Amerindian cultures that had flourished before Columbus. The result was a new kind of hybridity. The Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral made paintings which combine the influence of Léger, whom she had met in Paris, with that of ‘primitive’ Amerindian artifacts. Diego Rivera, after a period working as part of the Parisian avant-garde, went back to Mexico to make vast cycles of murals. These in theory referred to Aztec wall-paintings, but in fact were much influenced by the frescos by Piero della Francesca and Uccello that Rivera had seen in Italy, just before his return to his own country.


In a broad sense, the situation in Iran followed the Latin American pattern, though with special characteristics that reflect the events of recent Iranian history.


Before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian painting was very much in thrall to European modernism, and in particular to what was happening in Paris. Artists such as Cézanne and Bonnard had a belated impact. There was also and influence from Parisian post-World War 2 abstraction.  These influences inevitably continued to make themselves felt after 1979. They appear clearly, for instance, in the work of Bahram Dabiri, which shows the powerful spell that Picasso continues to cast over artists of all persuasions and all nationalities. European influences can also be found in work by established Iranian sculptors, such as Parviz Tanavoli and Behraz Daroush.


The Islamic Revolution brought with it a new popular art form – the propaganda murals that now play such a dominant role in the urban landscape of Tehran. These murals celebrate the personalities of Khomeni and other religious leaders, and they celebrate the deeds of Islamic ‘martyrs’, in particular the heroes of the bitter war between Iran and Iraq, which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and cost more than a million lives. I have noticed, on visits to Tehran, that these murals cause a certain embarrassment to Iranian artists and intellectuals, but they are in fact a significant cultural product. Their roots can be found in unexpected places – in American movie billboards [whose conflated, simultaneous presentation of different events they sometimes adopt], as well as in Russian Soviet-era official art. The super-realist styled of the main images seems to conflict with traditional Islamic reluctance to make fully realist representations of the human figure. This makes them a strange product of a devoutly Islamic regime. Yet another major influence, however, is traditional Iranian book arts. The images are often presented within borders that come directly from Safavid illuminated manuscripts. Other decorative elements come from the same source.


One striking feature of many of these murals – those that represent young and handsome men – is that they are, like equivalent movie billboards in the West, deliberately seductive. That is, to be blunt, that they reinforce their moral and political message with a unmistakable sexual appeal.


Though the Iranian mural movement declined in strength during the late 1990s it has been given a new impulse by events at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American guards caused outrage throughout the Islamic world, and sparked off a new cycle of murals in Iran.


It is, however, worth inserting a reminder here about the inherent ambiguity of all visual images. The original Abu Ghraib photographs had a strong homoerotic undercurrent mingled with sadism – in many of them, the theme was sexual humiliation. This eroticism, surprisingly but inevitably, survives in the versions of the Abu Ghraib images exposed to public view in Iran. In fact, if such images were shown in public places in any western society, the result would certainly be a wave of public protest because of their sexual content.


In apparent contrast to the brash modernity of the billboard-type murals has been the continuation, in new circumstances, of work directly derived from traditional Iranian book arts, as in the modestly scaled paintings by Farah Ossuli. Iranian abstract artists have also looked to the calligraphic forms of Arabic script as a basis for new invention – a notable example is the work of Mohammad Ehsai.


The Revolution, in addition to creating very different conditions for the making of art within Iran itself, also led to a diaspora of artists. Some of these artists of Iranian origin have become well-established members of the international avant-garde. One is Shirazeh Houshiary, born in Iran in 1955, but resident in Britain, where she trained at the Chelsea School of Art. Her work makes frequent reference to Iranian tradition, in particular to the mystical poetry of the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi. Even better known in the West is another woman artist, Shrin Neshat, who has lived and worked in New York since the Islamic Revolution. Neshat has attracted much attention in the West because her chief theme is gender relationships and the situation of Islamic women. Her series of photographs ‘Women of Allah’ [1993-7] depicts militant Muslim women and examines the Islamic idea of martyrdom. The theme of martyrdom, but largely confined to males, is of course also prominent in Tehran propaganda murals. More recently, Neshat has produced a series of beautiful split-screen video installations, filmed in Morocco, which are commentaries on the male/female dynamic in Islamic societies.


A special factor in recent Iranian art has been the debate about the position of women in an Islamic society. There is an interesting contrast here between the Iranians and the Chinese. China is a rigorously secular society, which, in theory at least, practices the fullest gender equality. Yet in it, only a very small proportion of the most interesting new art is made by women. Iran is a religious state, where women are often seen as disadvantaged, yet much of the most interesting avant-garde art is now being made by women.


Another series of very different videos has been made by the Iranian artist Ghazel, who lives and works in Paris. Self-portraits showing herself performing various unlikely actions when encumbered by an encumbering chador, they act out her feeling of alienation from post-Revolutionary Iranian society.


In fact, one has to broaden the question and ask if these diaspora artists can still be counted as Iranian, or whether they more properly belong to the western societies in which they now live. It is clear, for example, that the audience to which they primarily address their work is a western one. With the murals, the opposite is the case.


The theme of gender relationships and the position of women has, however, also preoccupied a number of artists who continue to live and work in Tehran. Perhaps most celebrated of these is the photographer Shadafarin Ghadirian. Using specially built sets which replicate an old-fashioned photographic studio of the Qajar period, Ghadirian portrays young women in Qajar costume, but always accompanied by an item or items which speak of their longing for the social freedoms of the West.


Another woman artist who has tackled this theme is Afshan Ketabchi. Her self-portrait in the manner of Warhol offers four images – in the first, at the top left, she is wearing the most restrictive form of Islamic dress. In the last, at the bottom right, she is dressed as she might be on a visit to London or New York.


In another group of works, Ketabchi refers to traditional Qajar images of odalisques, incorporating sly sexual references – in this case two melons. Interestingly, while the first image was exhibited in Tehran without problems, at the Golestan Gallery, it would not be possible to exhibit the second one in Iran.


Ketabchi’s post-modern use of pre-existing forms can also be found in the work of Iranian male artists, notably in that of Aydin Aghdashloo, who is also a distinguished commentator on art. His sources range from 19th century Qajar state portraits to painting by Raphael. Aghdasloo’s occasional ironic subversion of a revered Western original finds parallels in contemporary Chinese art, for example in works by the sculptor Sui Jianguo, who teaches at the Central Academy in Beijing. Sui’s series ‘Creases in Clothes’ features iconic Greek and Renaissance classical statues, such as the Discobolus of Myron, clad in flapping Mao suits. In both cases the artists concerned adopt a critical, distancing, deliberately ironic attitude when confronted with revered Western traditions. Or, at least, when confronted with the idea that non-western cultures must inevitably follow in the footsteps of the West.


Irony is combined with half-concealed eroticism in large scale photographs and collages by Fereydoun Ave. These offer images of traditional Islamic pahlavans or strong men – traditional Sufi wrestlers whom Ave equates with the legendary Iranian warrior heroes Sohrab and Rostam. In these, as in the Abu Ghraib images, the homoerotic undertone is unmistakable.


I would like to conclude by describing one more image that seems to me highly significant - a composition by Hossein Khosrowjerdi, who was the grand prize-winner at a recent Sharjah Biennial – this Biennial is perhaps the chief meeting place for artists of the Islamic world. It shows two apparently nude figures, half-submerged in water, playing with a paper boat. There are several things worth noting about this – first, that the image, like Afshan Ketabchi’s odalisques, is digital, a product of that most modern of imaging devices, the computer. Second, that the figures are of course not nude at all, but are swathed in mud-soaked bandages, in order to overcome official sanctions against the representation of the nude.


There are several points to be made here. The first is about the medium chosen. Iranian culture has been quick to adapt itself to the computer. This is true of other major non-western cultures as well – India, China and Japan. Images produced on the computer do not carry the weight of expectation that is aroused by using media traditionally associated with Western art – oil paint on canvas in particular. Essentially the computer arts offer a level playing field to non-western artists, when they attempt to compete with western counterparts.


The second is about sexuality and gender. Post-revolutionary Iran is commonly seen as a society in which discussion of such topics is discouraged, even when it is not actually repressed. Therefore it is fascinating to see how often these themes recur in current Iranian production.


Thirdly, though the vehicle through which the idea is expressed may often, in a purely technological sense, be very new, there is an increasing fascination with and respect for, the Iranian past. Traditional archetypes – the Qajar odalisque, the legend of Sohrab and Rustum – are used to express intensely contemporary meanings. 


This site was last updated 20-09-2009