The biennial opened on 25 January at Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles—home to nearly half a million Iranian immigrants, the largest Iranian population outside Iran. The show, staged by the LA-based “non-religious, non-political and not-for-profit” Farhang Foundation, was welcomed by an exuberant crowd consisting of mostly Iranians and Iranian-Americans. When a woman spotted her mother’s image from decades ago in a photograph, the audience became even more electrified with nostalgia and affection. The artists whose works are included in the exhibition not only share similar concerns regarding social change, political conditions, cultural identity, gender issues, historical narratives, and stories of everyday lives, but also share a common humanitarian impulse to use their images to educate the world about Iran.
Their lenses capture ordinary young people, mostly, in public places: a boy selling lettuce at a street corner, a women’s volleyball team practicing in the gym, passengers sharing a hookah pipe between two vehicles in the slow traffic, and many other fleeting moments. Two of the three prize winning works are photographs that push the boundaries of stereotypical masculinity (The Brotherhood, 2018, by Hushidar Mortezaie and Jiyan Zandi) and sexual taboos (The Kiss, 2016, by Milad Karamooz). While subject matters are various, the unequivocal pride of the Iranian heritage is the heart and soul of each work selected for the exhibition. If one could look pass the excessively moralising tone and the paucity of nuances, one can catch a glimpse of reality in Iran through the candid eyes of Iranians, even if the artists only scratch the surface.
Hushidar Mortezaie and Jiyan Zandi. Brotherhood. 2018. Courtesy of The Farhang Foundation
Pouya Afshar’s animation Mourn Baby Mourn (2017), which derives from the Shi’ite’s mourning rituals and the theatre of ta‘ziya—the performance of grief—was previously included in the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA)’s Art’s In the Fields of Empty Days: The Intersection of Past and Present in Iranian Art, curated by LACMA’s in-house curator Linda Komaroff in 2018. Despite the awkward single channel display on a small monitor looping together with two other unrelated videos in sequence at Craft Contemporary, this time, Afshar’s animation surprisingly emits a sense of sincerity, as do most of the works on display at the biennial. Focus Iran, in contrast to LACMA’s Iranian art show, does not cast Iran as the primitive, violent, despotic and perverse ‘Other’ through the gaze of white Americans. Instead, it brings people together to celebrate Iran’s history, land, arts and its youth culture.
The biennial was initiated in 2015 by Farhang Foundation’s fine arts council, whose mission is to create a platform for artists, Iranian or not, to have a conversation about Iran. The foundation decided on the form of competition for the biennial to encourage not only established artists but also undiscovered talents. Farhang Foundation has been for over a decade the driving force behind many arts and culture projects that promote the Iranian legacy.
Linda Dorigo. Vollyball Iran. 2010. Courtesy of The Farhang Foundation
Collaborating with institutions and communities in South California, Farhang Foundation introduces Iranian arts and culture to a broad audience in the US. Eight years ago, the foundation began to sponsor the UCLA Film & Televisions Archive’s programme UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema, initiated in the 1990s. The partnership has secured a stellar lineup of new and classic films with a few premiered in the US each year. It has been one of the most critically acclaimed campaigns. In 2018, the Archive brought a handful of winning pieces from the 2017 Fajr International Film Festival to the West Coast, such as The Home, 2017, by Asghar Yousefinejad, and No Date, No Signature, 2017, by Vahid Jalilvand.
In a statement by the foundation’s spokeswoman Roxie Sarhangi and executive director Alireza Ardekani, the future looks even more luminous for their ambassadorial endeavor. “In 2018, the fine arts council was very busy with many projects, including the Iranian Urban Mural Project in Los Angeles and the Shirin Neshat and Mohsen Namjoo multimedia production On the String of the Tear’s Bow. In 2019, we will continue with presenting Focus Iran 3 in the city of Irvine for a second run of the exhibition. In addition, the fine arts council is currently working on a future fine arts competition, similar to Focus Iran, entitled ART IRAN, which we hope to launch very soon.”
If we could learn anything from Farhang and its cultural programmes, it is that arts have the agency to unite communities at a time of political division and diplomatic crisis. Some, like many Iranian cinematic works, for their intellectual bravura and transcendental wit will stand as enduring testaments to be the inspiration of a generation.
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