Over 200 works. Over 50 years. Over 20 artists. One hell of an exhibition.
Once hailed as ‘the most important performing arts festival in the world’*, the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts ran from 1967 through 1977, providing an innovative and international platform for visual and performing arts in both Shiraz and nearby Persepolis, capital of the Persian Empire in its heyday under Achaemenid rule. In a white corridor of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, posters that advertised the decade-long festival were plastered across the walls in swirling psychedelic aesthetics. On the covers of the event programmes, heads of Median nobles featured in the bas-reliefs adorning Persepolis turned in multi-coloured waves echoing the halcyon days of the seventies. Within, one could find details of concerts of traditional Persian music sharing the same bill with performances by the American choreographer Merce Cunningham, and a ballet inspired by Sa’di’s Golestan (Rose Garden). Further on in the exhibition, a glass box displayed black-and-white snapshots of experimental theatre, with actors veering from flurried gesticulation to corpse-like stillness. Two years after the last edition of the festival, there was revolution; a year later, in 1980, there was war.
The title of the exhibition, Unedited History, is a cinematic metaphor. The works on display were shown as honest ‘rushes’ that tangibly and visibly recorded the contemporary history of Iran from the emergence and endurance of the ‘modern’ in Iranian visual culture from the 60s to the present day. Partitioned into three sections, the exhibition chronicled the years that ignited, as well as those that have been deemed by some to have ‘halted’ the trajectory of 20th century modernity in the country.
Incidentally, perhaps, in the exhibition’s Parisian setting, resonance could be found between the ambition of the exhibition and the reflections of French intellectuals on the concept of modernity. The emphasis on the captured image – whether as a photograph or as an art ‘rush’ – as the honest document of Iran’s turbulent entrance into a period of modernity brought to mind Roland Barthes’ sentiments in Camera Lucida:
History is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse … the photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony … the age of the photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions …
Following state investment on the part of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi during his ‘White Revolution’, the growth and position of cultural activity in Iran came to be considered important to national prestige. Through these years of imperially-backed ‘modernisation’ (examined in the first section of the exhibition, spanning the years between 1960 and 1978), Iranian artists were challenged to redefine artistic modernism in a local vernacular, and their works were placed within a new an ‘universal’ dialogue through exhibitions and biennales such as the aforementioned Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts.
Dubbed the ‘Persian Picasso’, Bahman Mohassess was an artist who was often given the role of showcasing the zenith of Iranian modernism. Although he left Iran disillusioned in the late 50s, the work of the Rasht-born painter and sculptor (recently re-examined in Mitra Farahani’s documentary Fifi Howls from Happiness) has been seen as both an exemplar and a scapegoat of the products of Pahlavi cultural policy. Thick-boned and stone-fleshed skeletons populate his 70s oeuvre, made largely of sculpturally-smooth and earthy organic forms. At once grotesque and amusing, characters from classical mythology to housewives, and the ever-present, gaping Fifi shape-shift between abstraction and figuration. The Minotaur, ‘dying in front of the spectator’s eyes’, as Mohassess envisaged it, is tamed and feminised, its green flesh flaking off of its terracotta-coloured insides. Whereas the still-life paintings of Europe’s modern masters fizzed in a constant enquiry into how the kinetics of time affected objects, Mohassess presents one with a nature morte as solid as clay, and as dead as can be.
A series of untitled collages, produced intermittently between 1970 and 2008 feature off-kilter, woozy juxtapositions of the everyday. Mohassess created them out of necessity: unable to use chemicals after having been diagnosed with cancer, he turned to the surrounding media of his time and place. Whilst living and working in Rome, he cut and snatched his images from Italian lifestyle magazines with an irreverent touch. Taking place in the glossy spreads of luxury living rooms, a man made out of a thumb leans on a glass coffee table, whilst in another, a monstrous slice of skin growls at the television set from under the man’s chintz duvet. Mohassess also fashioned a fish from a crumpled Louis Vuitton purse sitting goggle-eyed at the edge of a holiday shoreline.
The works on display were shown as honest ‘rushes’ that tangibly and visibly recorded the contemporary history of Iran from the emergence and endurance of the ‘modern’ in Iranian visual culture from the 60s to the present day
Behdjat Sadr, a contemporary of Mohasses’, eschewed figural symbolism for abstract geometry. Her untitled works from between 1947 and 1977 are striking in their evocative use of lines. Sadr scraped oil into ridged contours like spinal cords over aluminium and paper; curves undulate slowly like monochrome waves, or quicken to television fuzz, each a pattern created out of that talisman of modern wealth: oil. The works bear a formal similarity to the mechanics that surround one in the architecture of consumerism; a canvas of shutters ascends like an escalator in orange, pink, and black. Away from the controlled movement of lines, Sadr also experimented with billowing squares and lattices of pure ink. Le Cadavre de Forough is a prostrate slick of black, with a title in reference to the influential Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, who died a tragic and untimely death in 1967. Here, Sadr indelibly correlated the spill of the ink with the inanimateness of the pen.
The son of a poetess himself, the eminent illustrator Ardeshir Mohassess (Bahman’s brother) once declared that ‘I am one of the few Iranians who don’t write poetry’. Ideal Library (1970 – 1990) presents a collection of public and personal publications tracing Mohassess’ illustrious (literally) career. His satirical cartoons and caricatures were praised for their wry socio-political commentaries. His sketchbooks reveal a game of exquisite corpse with surreal suited and robed figures of authority, who have more often than not been beheaded by the artist, and had their heads replaced by members of fish and scorpions. Elsewhere, inside his Heathen’s Notebook, soldiers gallop over rolling hills akin to the landscapes of early modern Persian manuscript paintings.
As a medium that is often confined behind a black curtain in a dark room, the curators of Unedited History presented video art commendably. A collage of screens by Parviz Kimiavi, compiled from excerpts of his new wave seventies films was presented in a tile-like wall of sound and vision, at once open, immersive, and dynamic. Over a pulsating soundtrack, the director invoked his recurring characters to re-enact their signature scenes. The Sufi-like shepherd figure of Darvish Khan from the 1976 film Garden of Stones appears dancing under his tree laden with dangling stones. The project is a labour of love for the deaf and mute shepherd, whose swaying movements and focused dedication to his arcane creation lend him the air of an ascetic. The stones, bleached white by the sun, have the smoothness of Bahman Mohassess’ corporeal fragments.
In an excerpt from Kimiavi’s 1979 OK Mister, a television set is paraded through the street. As the crowd slows down, a curtain is drawn across the flickering screen. The monitor evokes the modern objects emanating from the abstraction of Behdjat Sadr, while its concealment draws deeper comparisons with means of storytelling from Iran’s past. The gesture of the pulled fabric brings to mind the drapes that protected traditional murals in the public square of 19th century Iran, which were revealed when a nagghal (a traditional storyteller) roused a tale, most often from the Iranian epic tradition, or which revolved around popular stories in Iranian Shi’ism. The tradition of the mural appeared once more in the final section of the exhibition via a brick-red and pitch-black digital reproduction of Assyrian-Iranian artist Hannibal Alkhas’ 1980 work, Dédié à la Révolution.
In showcasing some 200 works of Iranian visual culture, the arts were not only represented in great breadth throughout Unedited History, but also lent new archival weight in having been included in the exhibition’s catalogue. Works from Kaveh Golestan’s 1979 Prostitute series, which captured life within Shahr-e No (lit. ‘New City’), Tehran’s former red light district, were documents of an era. The Tehrani prostitutes – the ‘stars’ of Golestan’s black-and-white pictures – appear strangely glamorous, as if they are actresses waiting backstage. There is a note in the catalogue mentioning that these images provide a rare record of female ‘bodies’ and life in Iran. The lone bedroom shot utilised here by Golestan, where the turmoil of Iranian femininity is revealed indoors, is a trope that continues in the works of contemporary artists such as Newsha Tavakolian (e.g. her 2013 Look series). Golestan’s series shows a domesticity that is chipped and peeling; these are houses, after all, albeit of ill repute. Bedroom walls are lined with posters of leading ladies and male heartthrobs – complete with 70s Afro hairstyles and flared jeans – who watch over each bed. As well, double-entendres are not lost in the décor of the bordellos: tissue boxes are omnipresent on each bedside table, pussycats are stroked in the laps of the belles, and cockerels strut in and out of brothel doorways.
The Prostitute series charts the tumultuous relationship between the city and its citadel of sin. The terrible fate of Shahr-e No, an environ completely destroyed in the throes of the late 70s, is itemised in cuttings from the Ayandegan (Posterity) newspaper that used Golestan’s photos. Although his pictures were embraced by mass media outlets at the time, the accompanying film project, Le Quatier des Femmes (1966 – 1980) was initially banned. As Golestan interviews the prostitutes on film and one experiences Shahr-e No in sound and vision, there is less glamour and more discomfort. ‘I keep coming back because I have nowhere else to go’, says a woman to Golestan after recounting her story of kidnap, abandonment, and abuse. ‘I beg you sir – I have no life left’.
This vast and complex exhibition, reassessed not only how the term ‘modern’ operated and continues to operate within Iranian art and society, but also how images function and exist as documents of collective current affairs and individual memories
On the other hand was the second section of the exhibition, which focused on the changing iconography of images during the years between the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Rather than providing any charged commentaries on the events themselves, a sensitive visual enquiry was presented; attention was given to the way in which people and pictures were mobilised across public spaces through protests, demonstrations, and conflicts, and how art both spurred and tackled such activities.
The photographs of Bahman Jalali and his wife Rana Javadi document the events between December 1978 and Feburary 1979 that ultimately led to the overthrow of the Shah. Originally published in the censored 1979 manifesto Days of Blood, Days of Fire, these photographs have rarely been seen by the public. Combined with unedited footage from controversial documentary filmmaker Kamran Shirdel (known for his biting critiques of the Pahlavi regime), this portion of the exhibition straightforwardly presented its most raw material. Conversely, the images from April 1, 1979 – the day on which the Revolution was announced – in Bahman Kiarostami’s 2013 video Flowers were the first to be shown on national television in Iran. In the exhibition, they were displayed on a small television monitor, in a manner similar to how they were first seen in Iranian living rooms.
A ‘revolutionary’ painter in subject and style, Kazem Chalipa presents the drama of real events with the gravitas and technique of 19th century oil painting from the tradition of the European salon to the Persian coffeehouse. Hung in gold ‘old master’ frames, Chalipa’s works inject modern contexts with religious and cultural symbolism. State organisations have translated many of his works, including his painting of Ali (the first Shi’a Imam) on his white horse, Doldol, into grassroots art via poster designs. As the eye of the visitor travelled from the posters of the Group 57 (1357 in the modern Iranian calendar corresponding to 1978) collective to Chalipa’s paintings, the tricolour of the Iranian flag was revealed as the most prevalent palette of the time. In his 1984 painting Desert, a woman cradles a bouquet of tulips (tulips being the symbol of martyrs in Iranian Shi’ism) in green-sleeved arms. At the heart of the bouquet is a circle of white flowers, with a single one glowing in its centre.
Throughout the exhibition, a selection of books also ‘distilled’ the language of the visual culture of the Revolution. Prevalent icons were borrowed from old upheavals and transposed to the conflict of the time. Across posters, banners, cartoons, and graffiti, one encountered the stencilled face of Che Guevara and images of frowning Vietnamese children grappling with guns in their tiny hands. Iranian school children scrawled the clashes, demonstrations, and incarcerations with black and red crayons in stark and chilling simplicity. The collection of posters from the student-led Group 57 displayed a mix of 18th century cartoons and the linear red and black aesthetics of Soviet graphics with raised fists clenching guns. Compared to the floral and psychedelic imagery of the promotional material of the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts, the development and reaction of post-Revolution Iranian poster art vis-à-vis the current events of the time offer a sharp stylistic contrast.
In the final portion of Unedited History could be found more contemporary perspectives, with works from 1989 to the present mainly comprised of photographs exploring themes of social space. Khosrow Khorshidi’s simple pen and ink drawings form his Good Old Days series (2009 – 2011) depict long-gone places that once stood on the streets of Iran from 1940 to 1979. Illustrations of bookshops and atmospheric shorts of café culture are laid onto paper as delicately as black lace. Narmine Sadegh’s ambitious 2004 installation Office of Investigation into Diverted Trajectories presents a multimedia interpretation of themes from Attar’s mystical 12th century classic Mantegh Ol-Teyr (Conference of the Birds). Visitors were invited to pull up a chair and gaze at a dead Simorgh, hoopoe, and bulbul lying together in a ring, as Attar’s text rolled up on the cubed screen of an 80s computer from behind.
Sets of photographs from between 2007 to 2011 by Tahmnieh Monzavi tell small and unusual stories from the outskirts of Tehrani society. A quartet of black-and-white portraits show Tina, a transvestite drug addict, visiting a market in her headscarf. Elsewhere, in Mokhberodowleh Tailors, a group of male tailors laugh as they try on white satin bodices for size in an inner-city bridal boutique. The autonomy of self-presentation was further explored in Mohsen Rastani’s Iranian Family Portraits, featuring photographs taken between 1991 and 2004. What are telling in these portraits, more than the expressions on the subjects’ faces or their clothing, are the objects they have chosen to hold. A group of men in 1991 cradle armfuls of traditional paintings and a boom-box. Other objects, from ID cards to cigarettes, teacups, and guns, also serve as tokens of identity in Rastani’s photos.
The closing series of digital drawings by Arash Hanaei – 2008’s Recreational Area and 2009’s Capital – utilised a ‘cleaner’ mode of graphical outline and approach to national colours relative to those encountered in Revolution-era posters. The vast prints possess the negative space of a colouring book, highlighting the details of social change by removing parts of the urban landscape of Tehran. Certain elements are isolated, such as large-scale brand logos that loom from billboards overhead, and framed portraits of men in family hearths that are resonant of martyr murals.
A remarkable and ambitious feat by any measure, Unedited History showcased a wealth of artefacts from Iranian visual culture from the past 50-odd years. This vast and complex exhibition reassessed not only how the term ‘modern’ operated and continues to operate within Iranian art and society, but also how images function and exist as documents of collective current affairs and individual memories.
* Excerpt from an interview with UNESCO’s Prof. Enrico Fulchignoni, first published in Il Tempo in 1975.