Karnameh: A Documentation Of The Visual History Of Iranian Children, 1950-1980

BY Roxane Zand / Jul 12 2016 / 20:20 PM

An exhibition curated by Ali Bakhtiari in Tehran looks at the visual output for children’s entertainment and education over the past five decades. Roxane Zand reports from Tehran

Karnameh: A Documentation Of The Visual History Of Iranian Children, 1950-1980

Installation view of the 'Karnameh' exhibition in Tehran, Iran 

In 2013, Karnameh was formed as a collective by Ali Bakhtiari, Peyman Pourhosein and Yashar Samimi Mofakham, with a mission to document oral histories, build archives, and record cultural, social and artistic events which today have become one of the main areas of interest for museums and academic institutions. Their first ground-breaking project, Karnameh (literally, a student’s ‘Report Card’) at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, has addressed the evolution of Iran’s visual output for children’s education and entertainment over the past five decades. The exhibition’s curators have offered the public a rich archival-style survey from the late 1920s through to the '80s, 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.  The show’s catalogue is nothing short of a reference book on the topic. We are taken through the pre-print era, all the way to the evolution of cinema — a scope of time through which we see the effects of the advent of publishing and how a nation’s folklore can be encapsulated in the teaching of children.

The exhibition itself more or less follows a chronological itinerary, winding through the museum’s galleries and tracing some classic themes of children’s literature, school books, magazines, newspapers, animation, film, audible tapes and so on, through 3,000 items from the holdings of Karnameh, TMOCA and other private and public sources. These holdings have played an important role in analysing the visual education of children in Iranian culture, transferring as they do the images that were once formed by individual perceptions but which have now become part of a collective memory, as well as the contemporary culture of the nation. Testifying to the commitment and passion of the curators, the exhibition goes beyond a display of visual items and includes a comparative analysis of cinematic concepts, theatre, music, literature, politics, culture and all else that went into these works – across the diverse media used.

True to its historical mission, the show first refers to the Qajar era during which children’s education was confined to the master-pupil set up, peppered with oral/folkloric parables and storytelling by minstrels and wanderers. The early perception was that formal education could be a threat to the control exercised by religious powers and the monarchy. After the Constitutional Revolution, education became a right so long as it didn’t challenge religious tenets, and the folksy approach of Maktab Khaneh books (Khaleh Ghoorbagheh, Amir Arsalan) which always opened with “In the Name of God...” was written in nasta’aliq script and produced only in black and white, slowly started to take a more formalised shape. Artists trained in the 1890s in the Kamal ul Mulk School, showed some European style in composition but used design elements that were highly influenced by Persian miniatures. 

By the turn of the century, visual artifice, melodrama and exaggeration — a part-import of Nassir-ul Din Shah’s European trips — can be detected in the visual aesthetic of children’s literature. An exaggerated visual sentimentality manifested itself as late as the 1920’s where books such as Haji Lak Lak illustrated by that most enduring of all children’s writers and educators, Feredrik Talberg, highlighted this trend, and Amir Arsalan movie featured monsters, frocks and top hats, singing heroes, and other over-the-top elements. Mouse and Cat (in its Iranian inversion!), the famous Mullah Nasreddin, and other stories of this period all belong to this style.

By the 50s, the budding phenomenon of Disney brought a whole new wave of influence into children’s materials. Keyhan Bachche Ha and Etelaat Koodakan, featured extensively in the show — the two well-known children’s magazines, reflected the pervasive reach of Disney. This was a time in history when the great powers (US and Russia) both had a policy of ‘breaking up’ a culture by influencing its younger generation, and indoctrinating it with a new culture. Communism on the one hand, and America on the other, created their own dialectics in a region that was experiencing the World Wars at second-hand.  Wartime notwithstanding, Disney’s classic period brought many well-loved characters into Iranian households: Cinderella (given the Persian name ‘Pari’), Alice (‘Soheila’) in Wonderland, Snow White (‘Farangis’) and the Seven Dwarves, TinTin and Snowy (‘Behrooz o Barfi’). The 1978 Islamic Revolution and the anti-American movement however, put a stop to the profiling of these favoured characters.

Comics as visual novels, where the storyline is narrated through consecutive images and text, were initially used for humorous purposes, but later became popularised as a genre. In the ‘Kelileh-o-Demneh’ of the 13th century Seljuqid School, some of the fables were depicted sequentially — a concept that can be found in many Iranian illustrations as they were used to narrate a story or a poem. The calligraphy version of A Thousand and One Nights illustrated by Abolhassan Khan Sani ul Mulk Ghaffari for example, includes images very similar to comic strips. This allowed a ready popularity for the genre that established Mollah Nasreddin (in this case illustrated by Talberg) as a first and firm comic book favourite of children’s literature in Iran. Even the Shahnameh’s Rustam o Esfandiar was produced as a children’s comic in 1978, allowing Ferdowsi to reach youngsters in popularised form.

By the 60s and 70s, with the growth of middle classes and the expansion of print technologies, a great variety of material was being produced for the young generation — from educational to the merely entertaining. Iran’s National Radio and Television, alongside the Ministry of Art and Culture began to aim publications at young people. It was a time when dedicated artists and designers such as Morteza Momayez, Aydin Aghdashloo, Parviz Kalantari and Mohamad Ehsai were collaborating on enduring projects. Shamloo’s Ketab-e Hafteh became a nationwide phenomenon.  The Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults was established in an attempt for Iran to present itself as an advanced country in contrast with its third world image. It is not always remembered that Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was translated and illustrated by Empress Farah Diba at around this time as the debut publication of the institute.  Firouz Shirvanlou who headed the Institute for a period said in a speech, “Familiarising children with reality will lead to logical thinking, understanding of scientific principles and relations, and constructive criticism." She added,

"A country that wants to grow and progress along with the rest of humanity requires such a worldview and cannot ignore the educational value of children’s literature”

Young artists, who later became known as the Saqqa Khaneh group, were revising and restructuring miniatures and calligraphy as a national vocabulary of art, with names such as Parviz Tanavoli, Hossein Zenderoudi, Jazeh Tabatabai and Faramarz Pilaram as its mainstays. Farshid Mesghali created the now-famous The Little Black Fish, a book that is featured centrally in the TMOCA exhibition, along with its iconic printing block. In fact, it was this very Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults that nurtured the likes of Abbas Kiarostami and the cinematic products that garnered international acclaim for Iran in various film festivals. By this time, children and young adults were seen as a population that would determine the future of Iranian society.  They were seen as a powerful segment of society capable of creating change, and during the Revolution years were used as a group that could be active without attracting the attention of intelligence agencies. Visual culture began to take into account revolutionary agendas aimed at this age. As we see in the exhibition, fairy tales give way to more realistic imagery and photographs of revolutionary events and child martyrs. In some ways childhood was brought to a close in this period, as children were asked to tap into their religious beliefs and patriotism for the benefit of the country.

By examining this history, viewers of this seminal exhibition are left to draw their own conclusions about the role and use of literature and visual culture aimed at children. Important questions are raised about the meaning and definition of childhood itself, but significantly, we look to the past for lessons for the future. Hopefully, the show will shine a light along that path. – Roxane Zand

Karnameh runs at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art until August 15, 2016. For further information on the exhibition, click here

Follow Roxane’s blog Cultural Crossroads on the arts of the Middle East and North Africa.