Our hearts bound by the memory of the lambs of splendor, in the fields of empty days,
our swords rusty, worn out, and weary,
our drums, forever silent,
our arrows, broken winged.
We are the conquerors of the cities gone with the wind.
An excerpt from the Ending of the Book of Kings (Akhar-i Shahnama) by Mehdi Akhavane Sales (1929-90) summarises the elaborate exhibition In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Reaching back into history, bending time and obscuring place, the presentation spans the 16th century to the contemporary era, including 125 works by more than 50 Iranian and Iranian diaspora artists, to connect past with present, with a focus on commentating the political turmoil in the periods of the final years of the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah in the 1970s and the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Safavid manuscript illustrations of Shahnama (Book of Kings) from the 16th and 17th centuries; Qajar-era photographs from the 19th century; and documentary photographs of the 1979 revolution are not only the highlights of the exhibition, but also the primary source materials for the selected contemporary artists.
The exhibition is organised into two sections, Kings and Heroes and Saints and Martyrs. Most of the weight is placed on the former. One page attributed to Abdul-Aziz from the manuscript commissioned by Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76) is on display, and lavishly depicted on fine paper is the festive arrival of the warrior Sam at Shah Manuchihr’s palace. On the one hand, Shahnama annexed the Safavids (1501-1736) to a heroic and mythical pre-Islamic past to historicise the rules of then contemporary times. On the other hand, the illustrations demonstrated various global artistic influences from China to Europe, as well as Persian artists’ experimentation in style and formality. This practice, as the exhibition demonstrates, is utilised by Iranian artists today, who employ iconography from this national epic to commentate on present socio-political conditions. For example, Malekeh Nayiny and Siamak Filizadeh, among others draw upon the narrative of the hero Rustam in Shahnama to project their own ideas of good and evil.
Early Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848–96). circa 1850. Ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper. 60.96x 40.64cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by the Nasli M. Heeramaneck Collection, gift of Joan Palevsky. Photography © Museum Associates/LACMA
Several 19th-century portraits of Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848–96) are also exhibited. Nasir was the first shah to visit Europe in the coming age of photography, printed newspapers and telegraphic communication, which coalesced to enhance and disseminate his deeds and misdeeds. An ink and watercolour portrait of a young Nasir al-Din Shah (c. 1850) in realistic depiction exemplifies both the adaptation of Western portraiture style as well as the incorporation of elements from traditional miniature painting. In contrast to Nasir al-Din Shah’s self-dignified images, Siamak Filizadeh’s series of staged photographs produced in 2014 depict the final years of Nasir, who was assassinated in the midst of social and economic unrest. In the photographs, cosmetics are applied to Nasir and his entourage’s faces and bodies to make them look like zombies. Similarly, other artists exhibited also manipulate official Qajar-era photographs to suggest their skeptical attitude towards current affairs.
The most exquisite gem in the entire show is the humorous and absurd animation Prince Amir-Hamzeh (1977) by Noureddin Zarrinkelk. The film is a fine example of a continuation of stylistic elements from Persian manuscripts for character design and background layout today. The animated actions are simple and economically produced, while still being able to communicate movement and narration.
Siamak Filizadeh. Anis al-Daula from the series Underground. 2014. Inkjet print. 150.02 x 100.01 x 3.18cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Kitzia and Richard Goodman through the 2016 Collectors Committee © Siamak Filizadeh. Photography © Museum Associates/LACMA
The second chapter of the exhibition is based on the epic tale of the martyrdom of the Shi’ite Imams, most notably Husain, who is commemorated each year on the anniversary of his death through ta’ziya, a ritual theatre of grieving and mourning. Many artists create works to directly reenact the passion play of Imam Husain’s death, exemplified by Mohsen Yazdipour’s series A Play with Feelings (2008). Others depict various portraits of the mourner, exemplified by Shoja Azari’s 2010 series Icon. “Kings and heroes are used in subsequent contexts as paradigms of grandeur and virtue, or as objects of derision and malevolence, while long-gone Shi’ite saints and martyrs are evoked a champions of the poor and the oppressed,” says curator Linda Komaroff. This narrow, ideologically charged reading of history sets a disenchanting tone for the exhibition that leaves no room for Iranian artists such as Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Shirazeh Houshiary, Slavs and Tatars, and Tala Madani, among others whose works have significantly contributed to the global contemporary discourse on Iranian contemporary art.
Nearly all contemporary works selected resemble one-liner political commentary that employs propaganda techniques such as stereotyping as well as visual rhetoric. As a result, the artists are framed as exclusively neo-traditionalistic and politically possessed ‘others’, who share an introspective concern with their nation’s history, wear a collective biography on their sleeve, and offer no other dimensions of human experience other than oppression and suffering. A supreme example is Shirin Neshat, who relies on constructed mythology and identity for her portraits of men and women covered with tattoo-like Persian motifs to evoke fantasising about an Iran in opposition to the West. She has become the most celebrated contemporary Iranian diaspora artist in the West. The important role of the artists in this exhibition has been undercut at large. As the tension between the US, Israel and Iran escalates, this exhibition does not come without skepticism. A walk through the show is very much like watching a single-channel television that propagandises Iran with a deductive narrative to explicitly represent an “authentic” place of otherness where justice, freedom and democracy are yet to come.
In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art at the runs until 9 September at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Lacma.org