By Rachel Cooke
May 18, 2021
The drive from London to a certain nameless valley in rural Oxfordshire – a preposterously pretty realm of flint cottages, quaint pubs, willow trees and gentle hills – is always slightly unnerving. This part of the country is so close to London and yet the feeling is of stepping back in time, a remoteness that is sudden and unexpected. But today the experience is all the stranger, for I’m on my way to visit an institution I did not even know existed until a few days ago. Housed in a private museum whose location, hidden beneath farmland, I cannot reveal, the Sarikhani Collection is one of the most extraordinary and significant assemblies of art in Britain, if not the world. It comprises, in all its magnificence, some 1,000 items: ceramics, metalwork, textiles and manuscripts that together tell the long and wondrous story of Iran and its culture from 3000BC until the 18th century.
The driving force behind this collection is Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, the warm and curious person who greets me when I finally arrive (there is no mobile signal and I twice get lost). Her passion for Iranian art is, as I’m about to discover, disconcertingly infectious. Talk to her about an object for only two minutes and you will quickly be overcome by the feeling that you cannot possibly sit still until you’ve seen this inlaid candlestick or that turquoise ewer; an exquisite 11th-century fragment of the Qur’an written in a script called Eastern Kufic; a magnificent 400-year-old carpet on which, if you look carefully, you can see a bixie (a leonine animal) locked in combat with a qilin (in this case a type of deer with a dragon’s face). She knows a lot, but she makes her expertise so accessible you hardly notice the learning involved, let alone the fact that you left home without having eaten any breakfast.
Such a gift has its roots, perhaps, in the collection’s beginnings. “We went from being bumbling amateurs to initiating a full programme of education and exhibitions,” she says. “But I like to think that we’re still bumbling amateurs in a way, because then everything is possible, right?”
Her family’s story is an old one: painful exile, followed by a lot of hard work and, finally, immense good fortune. Sarikhani Sandmann’s German mother and Iranian father met in London as students in 1960 (“barefoot on the King’s Road”, as she likes to tell people). They married in Britain, she was born here and then her father took his family back to Tehran, where she spent her early childhood. “My memories are idyllic, until the last year,” she says. “We left during the revolution [in 1979, when she was nearly nine] with two suitcases, in the night, no papers. We were on UN refugee passports for the next eight years; it took us nearly two years to get leave to remain in Britain.” She looks around the room where we’re sitting, which looks out on to a courtyard whose design is reminiscent of those you might see in Isfahan or Shiraz. “This is beautiful,” she says. “But my childhood was extremely modest. The first years were very difficult.”
Her father, who trained as an accountant, has what she describes as a “driving entrepreneurial spirit”. But he is also family-oriented and, though the family have never been able to go back to Iran, his and their connection with the country remained strong: “A connection with its culture in its biggest sense. With its language, its food and its stories. My father is half Muslim and half Jewish, something that was rare in Iran, and we can trace his mother’s family back 500 years.” In 2001, following a family tragedy, they began to wonder what, having been for so long on “the treadmill of immigration, survival and work”, life was really all about. “We asked ourselves: what does it mean? How would we like to be remembered? What is involved in dying well?” And so the Sarikhani Collection was born. “I always say that we never meant to do what we have done. It just got completely out of hand.”
They began by buying things from what we in the west would call the medieval period: the first half of the second millennium. Anxious about provenance, they bought from old American and European collections. “Europeans have been buying Iranian art seriously for over 200 years,” she says. “There is a huge legacy of trade and these objects are so beguiling. But very soon, it snowballed.” These days, nothing is off-limits. Where, in context, would she place the collection? How important is it? “I would say…” – she wrestles with embarrassment – “… it is a uniquely important collection. The vagaries of European art history have meant that art in Iran before the seventh century exists in the part of the museum called Ancient and Near East and Iranian art from later than that [ie after the Arab conquest] exists in a department called Islamic Art. Separated like this, a narrative thread is lost. We aim to reconnect that thread.”
The collection has an artist-in-residence programme and it is translating key academic texts from English into Farsi in conjunction with the National Museum of Iran, with which it has established links. “These connections are really important,” she says. It is also deeply involved in the creation of the V&A’s next major exhibition, Epic Iran, the first British show in 90 years to present the story of Iranian art and design from 3000BC to the present day. Not only has it lent many objects; Sarikhani Sandmann, as associate curator, has also overseen the last of its 10 sections, Modern and Contemporary Iran, which will cover the period from the 1940s onwards and will include work by, among others, Parviz Tanavoli, the country’s most expensive living artist, and the late Shirin Aliabadi, whose photograph Miss Hybrid #3, in which a blue-eyed blonde in a headscarf blows a pink bubble with her gum as she nonchalantly tests government-decreed dress codes, will be a highlight (look closely: on her face is a plaster that speaks of a recent nose job).
After we finish talking, she takes me into the purpose-built museum that houses the collection, its entrance signalled by tile work and ancient wooden gates. In the west, Iran is too often perceived as a black space, literally and metaphorically; unknown, sealed off, frightening. But here the country appears before you in full colour, the objects on display influenced by a multiplicity of cultures: Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, Jews, Zoroastrians, Azerbaijanis… Does she believe that the V&A’s exhibition, years in the making, will change the way some think of Iran? She certainly hopes so. “It’s clear that there is a lot of misapprehension about it; that was true in the past and it is now. But it’s a culture that has humungous depths and it continues to live and breathe and to have something relevant to say. I hope the show will help people to see the nuances, how vibrant it is.”
We look at some of the things that will soon be on their way to South Kensington: a bronze cast of a man and woman from 1500-1100BC that may be a votive object (the female figure, in her fringed dress and bangles, is completely delightful); a silver gilt rhyton, or drinking cup, from 200BC–AD100 in the shape of a lion so naturalistic that it might be about to spring right out of its glass case. But for me, the high point is, as it surely will be for many visitors to the V&A, Qaran Unhorses Barman, a watercolour from 1523-35, from one of the most splendid copies ever made of the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, an epic poem by the revered Ferdowsi (according to legend, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni offered the poet a gold piece for every couplet he wrote). Under a moonlit sky, Iranian forces mount an attack on their Turanian enemies. In the picture, we see the moment when Qaran, the Iranian commander, forces his Turanian equivalent, Barman, from his horse. We see him flying from his saddle; in a moment, he’ll lose his head. It’s an amazing image. So much is going on – armies are massed on each side of the picture – and yet the eye is drawn irresistibly to the needle of Qaran’s lance, which he has somehow managed to tuck inside Barman’s belt.
All the way home, I will think of its colours: the startling brightness of its turquoise and orange; the lapis blue of the sky, dotted with stars like diamond studs on a jeweller’s velvet case. It is so lovely and I’m lucky to have it to myself for a few long moments during which I am transfixed by the four standards the artist has allowed to fly and flutter just outside its gold border: a modern, almost witty touch that brings to mind a comic strip.
Every blockbuster show is the biggest, the greatest, the most not-to-be-missed. We’re inured to the hype by now. In the case of Epic Iran, however, I think it’s hard to overstate its splendour and reach. Planned loans from Iran were not possible, thanks to worsening relations with Britain. But they’ll hardly be missed. Three hundred objects will be on display, in 10 sections, many of them hitherto unseen by the public. “We’re hoping to give people a really good picture of a culture, from 3200BC to the present,” says John Curtis of the Iran Heritage Foundation, one of its curators (he has overseen the pre-Islamic part of the show). “It has always been a kind of alien civilisation in the west, largely because classical authors painted a very unfavourable picture of it: democracy in Greece, a despot in the Orient, that kind of thing. This was the prevailing view in the 19th century and it still exists. Since 1979 [when the Shah was deposed] it has been very jaundiced. But I also think that people are hungry for information.”
Even the curators sound amazed by what they’ve brought together. “They’re enormous!” says Tim Stanley, a curator in the V&A’s Middle Eastern collection, of three 10-metre-long paintings that reproduce tile work patterns on the interiors of domes in Isfahan, the city that became Iran’s capital in 1598 (newly restored for the show, they were commissioned by the V&A in the 1870s, when the museum acquired many reproductions of global architecture). Stanley recalls his surprise as he and his colleagues unrolled these remarkable facsimiles in a store in Battersea and his excitement when he understood what they were: “They’ve been in storage for a century and may not ever have been displayed before.”
What’s his favourite thing in the exhibition? He doesn’t hesitate. “The star for me is a manuscript page from the poem Humay and Humayun. It’s just… astonishing.” The picture, from 1396, shows Prince Humay’s first encounter with Humayun, the daughter of the emperor of China, whose hand he will win in spite of her father’s hostility. “The setting is so complex,” says Stanley. “She’s on a balcony of her palace, which looks over a beautiful garden; he’s on his horse below, looking up. A couplet from the poem is dropped in. It talks of ‘the moon at the edge of the roof’, which is her face, and ‘the evening plaited around it’, which is her dark hair. The text tells you where the centre of the painting is and that’s the gaze between them.”
Those living Iranian artists whose work will be on display are also excited. “I am honoured,” Tanavoli tells me, in an email. “It’s a good feeling, to be in the company of my ancestors; to have such noble and civil lineage.” Tanavoli, who was born in 1937, is best known for his fluid, sculptural representations of heech, the Farsi word for “nothing”. But at the V&A, visitors will be able to see his The Poet and the Beloved of the King, a construction of 1964-6 in which Farhad, the architect hero of the Khamsa of Nizami, a series of narrative poems, snares his beloved Queen Shirin (Tanavoli’s is a daringly comical representation of the story, a fierce red arrow on Farhad’s body indicating his sexual excitement). “It was clever [of the V&A] to choose this piece,” he says. “The story of Shirin and Farhad is one of the most popular love stories in Iran and Iran is the land of great love stories.”
Tanavoli’s response is oblique when I ask whether Epic Iran will change outsiders’ perceptions of the country. “The language of art is way more efficient than any of the pronounced languages and, due to its incorruptibility, it is one that people trust,” is all he will say. But others are more explicit – and happy to be so. “My pictures are often to do with how east and west see one another,” says Khosrow Hassanzadeh, on the line from Tehran. “They ask the question: are we [Iranians] all terrorists?” The V&A will show his self-portrait Khosrow, from 2007-8, an image that at first sight looks pretty kitsch, adorned as it is with plastic flowers and a curtain of fairy lights. But its meaning is serious, because it harks back to an earlier portrait called Terrorist: Khosrow. Which is the real Khosrow, the artist asks. After all, in both images, the same gentle-looking man can be seen lovingly holding a portrait of his grandfather.
Hassanzadeh, who was born in 1963 and is from a working-class Azerbaijani family, was a conscript in the Iran-Iraq war and he likes to joke – he is a very smiling person – that it was this experience that made him into an artist: it was, he says, only by offering to make paintings of Iran’s martyrs during the war that he avoided martyrdom himself. As an artist – he went to university after the war ended in 1988 – he has always wanted to make work whose themes encompass the things no one in Iran likes much to talk about, even as his paintings and installations play on images of Islamic shrines and cemeteries. His view of post-revolutionary Iran, something the contemporary section of the V&A’s exhibition explores at an angle, may be surprising to some. “Sure, there are limits on our freedom,” he tells me. “But the revolution made an opportunity for me. Before, it was only the rich who could go abroad to study art. It opened things up, in that way.” What does he feel about his imminent appearance at the V&A? “I’ve been in lots of international exhibitions,” he says, rattling off a list. “But I’m still very happy and proud to be in this one. We have so much to show to the rest of the world.”