To say that the Tehran art scene is booming would be an understatement. A veritable ‘renaissance’ of arts, crafts, design, and culture is sweeping the capital, with the city’s walls increasingly carrying artistic murals and decorative elements instead of slogans. For the second year running, an extraordinary project has taken over Tehran’s main thoroughfares: the municipal equivalent of a city-wide gallery where large-scale reproductions of hundreds of well-known artworks – both Western and Iranian – hang randomly along the city’s main arteries. These pop-up artworks have been criticised for being aimed at an audience without the educational background to appreciate or absorb it. And as precarious as it may be to slow down the car to read the caption, to the outside visitor it seems a far more refreshing alternative (whatever the shortcomings!) to its Western billboard equivalent of naked underwear models which have indeed caused car accidents, increased consumption of fizzy drinks and other equally poor consumption products.
Young Tehrani artists thirst for knowledge, education, exposure, and of course, sales. Everyone is invoking their inner artist, with the possible danger that a metier once reserved for the truly committed, passionate and bohemian, is now becoming almost pedestrian. That said, the exceptional growth in numbers of galleries (250 registered, at the last count), art graduates, and auction success is heralding a new age of creativity. And creativity is possessed by Iranians in spadefuls.
A brief stay in Tehran afforded me a special opportunity to engage with various art happenings. First, participation in a panel at Niavaran Cultural Centre on ‘Collecting Iranian Art in Context’, alongside Dr Khalil Arjmandi, Advisor to the Ministry of Culture, and independent curator Rose Issa. Dr Arjmandi applauded the growth of the art sector in Iran, and referred to the ministerial strategy for increasing infrastructure and support, expressing warm optimism for the future of the Iranian art industry – a few obstacles notwithstanding. The Sotheby’s presentation focused on contextualizing Iranian art within the framework of a near-Dhs23billion global industry which has seen a correction in 2015. The history of the auction trade in dealing with Islamic and Iranian art was outlined, and the primary/secondary market dynamic explained. Rose Issa moderated the session by pointing out general challenges, establishing connections between the two presentations, and referring to the size of the opportunity.
Right after this panel session, buses transported the audience to the opening of the ground-breaking Karnameh exhibition at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. This archival-style show focused on children’s publications from the 1920’s till the 80’s, revealing an extraordinary scope of educational work in this area and with it, a coverage of socio-historical issues that was essentially a corollary of the literary output. Curators Ali Bakhtiari, alongside Yashar Samimi Mofakham, and Peyman Pourhossein started a collective in 2013 (if it can be called that) under the name of Karnameh which has two main objectives: one, to engage in the historical-archival style of exhibition as opposed to the purely visual arts one; and two, to bring attention to the country’s growing need for documentation and research. The show itself more or less followed a chronological itinerary, winding through the museum’s galleries and tracing some classic themes of children’s literature such as ‘Cat and Mouse’ through the holdings of TMOCA (Ardeshir Mohasses). Gallery 4’s ‘Iran Between East and West’ portraying the effect of the Cold War on children’s book production – Walt Disney on one side and Progress on the other - was especially revealing. Highlighting ‘Kanoon’s’ role (the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults – an organization which nurtured such legendary talents as Abbas Kiarostami) was a major achievement of this show, with the great book The Little Black Fish by Farshid Mesghali – complete with the original printing block – stealing the show. Who does not remember this timeless Persian classic? The show ends with a survey of religious books for children, and also a section on war and revolution where children are portrayed as an active part of society. Works by Bahman Jalali, Rana Javadi and others delve into realism and the current times. This is a blockbuster show, not to be missed.
Last but not least, on May 27 Tehran auction brewed up a storm of record prices with its near-complete sales of Iranian artworks focussed mainly on modern masters. With a Dhs 25.7 million achievement, and a heaving roomful of bidders and art lovers, the Azadi Hotel witnessed another massive success which did, nevertheless provoke some controversy as to the nature of a market which is seeing such stratospheric growth. The top lot was a trophy Sepehri work from the Tree series, followed closely by works by Yektai, Mohasses, and the recently deceased Parviz Kalantari. A poetic performance by the auctioneer seemingly much appreciated by the audience set new precedents for auctioneering style, and a standing ovation for Parviz Kalantari drove home the emotionality of Iranians as an art-loving nation. Whatever the differences in global and regional market behaviour, it goes without saying that hopes are high for post-sanctions Iran which is taking strong strides towards regaining its lost platform.
This article was first published on Roxane’s blog Cultural Crossroads on the arts of the Middle East and North Africa.