Dozens of school children are sketching inside the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA). Found squatting next to the building’s long circular walkway and seated quietly in each gallery room, each is intent on the subject of their gaze. The girls don light grey headscarves, perfectly fit to cover their head save for a few locks of escaping hair. Compared to these girls, I realized that the way I had draped mine was characteristic of a foreigner to Tehran – a woman not used to wearing the traditional headscarf. In a striking juxtaposition of conservative power and the avant-garde nature of contemporary society, with their pencil and paper the children re-appropriated works by Ad Reinhardt, Willem De Kooning, Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, and Iranian Modern and Contemporary artists Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Sohrab Sepeheri, and Farideh Lashai, the artist whose life and art graced the museum walls. Such a scene couldn’t be more indicative as to what Iran is facing now: reengagement with the world after decades of international sanctions.
It’s a crisp autumn day in late November and the museum is an oasis of tranquillity within the urban bustle that makes up Tehran. Home to 16 million people, navigate yourself through the traffic, smog, monotonous high rises and old palaces that make up this city and you will feel the incredible energy of a people and a culture on the brink of rediscovery. “There’s an opportunity waiting on every corner,” said a foreign businessman as we disembarked at the museum. The friendliness and passion of the Iranians marked a people eager for novelty. The opening of Farideh Lashai: Towards the Ineffable, which took place on 20 November 2015, saw a community of international art professionals flock to Tehran to behold, many for the first time, the wealth of art belonging to the museum coupled with the life and career of one of Iran’s foremost female artists: Farideh Lashai. Valued at $12 billion dollars, the collection, which has been hidden away amidst the shadows of the museum’s vault for decades, includes such works Jackson Pollock’s 1950 masterpiece Mural on Indian Red Ground. At 2.7 by 2.4 metres, it is one of Pollock’s largest paintings created in his drip style and valued by Christie’s five years ago at $250 million. Part of the exhibition along with two wall-size Rothko’s valued at $100 million and $200 million, respectively, these works are on display near the spiralling inner ramp reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York which takes the visitor down to a series of offices and conference rooms as well as the museum’s vault. With the dropping of Iran’s sanctions in play, many nations eagerly await to get their hands on the collection.
The tale of this treasure trove of art begins during Iran’s 1970s oil boom with the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi. During this time, Iran’s oil revenue had significantly increased and Pahlavi thought it was best to buy backs some of the country’s ancient works both internally and from the outside. She also thought it would be good to have a museum where works by the country’s Contemporary artists could be displayed. But even during this period most Iranian curators and collectors were interested in the country’s traditional art as opposed to Modern art. Pahlavi’s love for Western art is thought to have stemmed from her art education in Paris. The former queen had met artists such as Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore, and Salvador Dalí. Pahlavi then commissioned Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and her cousin, to design the museum in the center of Tehran. Much of the American art was purchased by Diba, who had studied architecture at Howard University, with the help of individuals, including presidents of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The Empress, who had a preference for European art, commissioned her own buyers to acquire Modern and European masterpieces, including works by Paul Gauguin and August Renoir’s Gabrielle With Open Blouse. But all of this art buying needed to be done in secret. The museum was inaugurated in 1977 and the works were put on display – much in the same manner of Farideh Lashai’s exhibition – eminent Western works were displayed side-by-side those by established Iranian names. Just two years later the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution and the Shah and his family fled in exile. The Empress, who is now 77, lives between Paris and Washington D.C. While her name remains publically unmentionable at the museum, the artwork that she amassed is still intact.
And here it was decades later aligning the lobby walls of the TMOCA when we arrived. The series of works by Post-War Western artists, part of Farideh Lashai’s retrospective, provided a sharp introduction into the exhibition. Also gracing the walls were works by important Iranian artists – Behjat Sadr, Bahman Mohasses and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, among others. The abstract language of the works spoke to each other – representative of the artistic dialogue Abstract Expressionism generated internationally during the Post-War period. However, I, as were others, was perplexed as to what role these works played in the retrospective of this prominent Iranian artist. Where were Farideh’s works?
Farideh Lashai, Untitled, 2009, Oil on Canvas, 200x200cm, Private Collection, Rome
Curated by Farideh’s long time friend Faryar Javaherian who conceived the idea for the retrospective, to stage the exhibition wasn’t an easy feat. Authorities were weary of the artist’s leftist political views, however, Majid Mollanoroozi, the museum’s newly appointed director, agreed to go ahead emphasising the importance of Farideh’s art. “In Iran the cultural and artistic scene has been quite patriarchal,” he commented. “The focus has been really on men. Hence, it was important for us to show what the women artists of this country have contributed to the artistic development of the scene. Farideh Lashai has been quite significant and contributed differently from many other women artists in that she had multi-faceted practices. She was also a translator and a writer. It was for these reasons that we chose to do this exhibition.” During the summer of 2014, Lashai's daughter, Maneli Keykavoussi, met Germano Celant, Senior Curator at the Guggenheim Museum and Director of the Fondazione Prada, and began speaking with him about the concept for the show. “I am not that informed about Iranian art so when Maneli approached me about doing a retrospective about Farideh I said I was not sure because I don’t know much,” said Celant. “But when she showed me the works, especially the last part encompassing video and painting, I thought it was very interesting. I was intrigued by the idea of turning off the light – how it relates to censorship, literal and metaphorical shadows, the complexity of the culture here and of being a woman. And so I agreed.” Celant apparently accepted to curate the show free of charge – astounding for a curator who was reportedly paid $1 million dollars for his Milan Expo 2015 exhibition. “I began to see the complexity of her life as a political person, an artist, and a mother,” he says. “I am increasingly interested in doing this type of show where one’s biography crosses with their art.” Celant did similar types of exhibitions with Louise Nevelson and Piero Manzoni at Gagosian Gallery’s New York space. “Then I came to the vault and realised I could take out some of the works and juxtapose them with Farideh's to give context to her life,” he adds.
Such an explanation makes the particular juxtaposition of Western and Iranian works throughout the retrospective more understandable. For example, in the first gallery we are at first awkwardly confronted with Farideh’s early Impressionist works – some that she made when she was just 16 – juxtaposed with paintings by Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pissarro – clearly artists that Farideh’s would have possibly studied for their technique. A few uncertain oohs and ahs were heard in this room as several art professionals pondered whether it was adequate to strike such a contrast. “The exhibition is about context,” said Maneli at several intervals. It clearly was and as Celant states, “I wanted to use the exhibition as a reference not as a way to put her in competition [with other artists] but in relation to her time.” He notes that the grey wall in each space refers to the context – the pairing of Farideh’s art with what was happening in her life and in the international art world. “You enter the first room from the walkway surrounding the exhibition where you behold American and European artworks from around 1949,” he says. “She was born in 1944 so I tried to contextualise culturally what was happening during her time. Here you can see Action painting, the explosion of Pop Art and also what Iranian artists were doing.”
Walking through the remainder of the exhibition, one can behold Farideh’s glass work, her writings – some of which are powerfully written as statements on the wall, her passionate nature filling the space with words – and also her translations of German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Her art lightens the museum that is, with its minimal lighting and worn pillars, like Iran an opportunity for renovation. Other rooms continue the intriguing pairing of Farideh’s work with those from the museum’s collection. “The juxtaposition of Pollock next to Seperhi?” exclaims Mollanoroozi “If an Iranian curator had done that we would have stopped him!” But here it has been deemed valid; it is reveals an international curator’s perspective. However, the inclusion of Sohrab Seperhi’s 1971 Tree Trunks can be understood. The artist was Farideh’s friend and mentor. But Pollock? That’s a tough relationship to ascertain. Context, context.
The exhibition ends with Farideh’s much-loved video projections on canvases. Here are the shadows that Celant mentioned. In works such the 2011-12 El Amal, which means “hope and desire”, which was created during the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring, featured is a Charlie Chaplin figure in a scene of his 1940s film The Great Dictator. Then the face of Um Kalthoum, the renowned Egyptian singer, in the shape of the moon, is seen on top of the painting wearing her hanging emerald earrings. Her eyes are closed as she ignores the Dictator below who is dancing to the tune of “El Amal.” Here the figure of Chaplin desires to eat the world. He wants to own it. He plays with it, bouncing it here and there and then reaching up to touch the moon. He thinks he has the world until it bursts before his eyes and Um Kalthoum fades gracefully away. It is in this last room that you can sit on the floor in darkness and relish in the lights that show up on canvas; the figures that move are at once dreamy, forlorn and passionate – but still lights in the dark.
It is hard not to think about Farideh Lashai: Towards the Ineffable within the broader strengthening of ties between Iran and the West. The priceless artworks in the museum’s vault have their own role to play in the saga. The treasure trove of Western art is one that hardly any Iranian will lay eyes on in its entirety – at least not while the current regime remains in power. The museum’s directors, all who report to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, are careful not to push against government conservatives through the display of indecent images. So each year, for several weeks, they display a selection of Western works from the museum’s vaults alongside the works of a prominent Iranian artist or artists. It wasn’t until 1999, 10 years after Khomeini’s death and 20 years after the Shah had fled, that the museum staged its first post-revolution Western exhibition – a Pop Art exhibition featuring works by Warhol, Hockney, Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein, among others. But in terms of Iranian artists, there is no problem in exhibiting the works of Iranian artists who no longer live in Iran. However, as Mollanoroozi states, “This museum is a governmental museum so any artist who is working with the government we would be open to exhibiting their work.” Upcoming exhibitions include a retrospective of work by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye opening on March 7.
On October 21 it was announced that the museum would lend works from its Western art collection alongside Iranian artworks for an exhibition in Berlin next year. The deal will see 60 artworks from Tehran (a reported 30 Western and 30 Iranian) loaned to Berlin for a three-month show late 2016. The Berlin exhibition will mark the collection’s first showing overseas.
“Now they are concerned about the value of the collection,” says Celant. “And everyone is trying to get the collection out of Tehran. Berlin is trying, I have tried for Italy, and Washington D.C. as well. All of this is political, of course. Obama wants to have the collection not because of the collection but to say that they are on better terms with Iran.” And this is ultimately where politics can meddle in art. Such a move might be seen as a form of cultural diplomacy. And for some, cultural diplomacy goes hand-in-hand with dropping the sanctions. There is also the possibility that a larger and more comprehensive show could follow in 2017 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. But this would only happen if political and legal circumstances enable it.
The school children are still in the museum. They sit transfixed as they transfer their perceptions of the art in the exhibition onto their sketchbooks. Perhaps these children have never been outside of Iran. Perhaps they have never been exposed to Contemporary works of art. “The collection has been locked away for so many years and many Iranians have forgotten that it exists,” adds Celant. Now the younger generation can learn from it. Here they are in silent dialogue with the world at-large – an experience that is as priceless as the works that they draw. — Rebecca Anne Proctor
For more information, visit www.tmoca.com