By Andrew Dickson
September 24, 2021
She looks directly out at us, her shoulders back. Her gaze is self-possessed, bordering on supercilious; her patterned headscarf is immaculately styled, showing off her bleach-blonde locks to best advantage. The balloon of bright-pink bubble gum floating in front of her mouth contrasts with her stonewashed denim jacket. She appears to be wearing blue contact lenses; her eye make-up is, of course, immaculate. On the bridge of her nose, a dainty little plaster is visible – evidence, presumably, that an expensive cosmetic surgeon is on speed-dial. Whoever this woman is, she is way more streetwise than most of us could ever hope to be.
The are many images of Iranian women on offer in the west, but not often ones quite like this. The international news media reliably prints photos of women swallowed by billowing coal-black chadors, who’d be impossible to tell apart were it not for the thin slivers of their faces. Even filmmakers and contemporary artists tend to serve up images of exoticised females, veiled and gowned and imbued with silent suffering, frequently shot in gritty black-and-white.
All of which makes this photograph, Miss Hybrid 3 by the contemporary Iranian artist Shirin Aliabadi – who died in 2018 aged 45 – so playful and arresting. Taken from a series of the same name made in 2007, which captures the fashion- and nose-job obsessed young women Aliabadi encountered on the streets of north Tehran, it appears in a new exhibition in New York (and featured in a show at the V&A in London earlier this year). Like that image, the show’s purpose is to expand the view of Iran many of us have in the west. Perhaps subvert it, too.
As the man behind the New York exhibition, the Iranian collector Mohammed Afkhami, puts it, “so much of what we hear about Iran is about conflict, history, religion, identity – nuclear arms, sanctions, fanatic militants, all of that. It’s important to highlight a different side”. Though the show, Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians, isn’t huge – 27 works by 23 artists – its range is impressively diverse, drawn from Afkhami’s collection of around 600 pieces. Some prints and embroideries on display pay tribute to traditional Persian and Islamic art and figurative painting. There are coolly abstract fibreglass and epoxy sculptures. There are also works touching on political history, including three orange-red neon tulips by the Tehran-based Mahmoud Bakhshi, whose “Industrial Revolution” series ironically repurposes propaganda from the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Others take direct aim at the stereotypes many Iranians endure. Not far from Aliabadi’s Miss Hybrid 3, a pastel-hued screenprint from Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s 2004 Terrorist series is installed. It’s a self-portrait: we see the artist clutching flowers and surrounded by family portraits and heirlooms. If we view this Muslim as a “terrorist”, the image seems to say, maybe it’s time to look again.
One facet of the show that Afkhami is proudest of is the strong presence of female artists, whose works give the lie to the myth that all Iranian women live painfully downtrodden lives, denied any meaningful form of self-expression. If we want to understand the range and variety of art being produced by artists in Iran, it’s time we looked past the Handmaid’s Tale-style cliches, argues Afkhami, whose great-grandmother, Effat al-Muluk Khwajeh Nouri, was the first female artist in Iran to set up a private painting school for girls in 1932.
“I’d estimate that 40 per cent of artists working in Iran right now are female, higher than elsewhere,” he says. “Nearly everyone I talk to in galleries is a woman. They’re driving the scene in Tehran in particular. And the diversity of work is amazing.”
This isn’t to say that making art – indeed, living life – in Iran is remotely straightforward when you don’t happen to be male. While the post-revolution constitution proclaimed equal rights for men and women, it also enshrined conservative Sharia law, reduced the age of marriage to 9 years old (later increased to 13) and restricted a woman’s right to divorce her husband. Conditions across the country vary greatly – north Tehran is liberal, compared with more conservative areas and cities – but women everywhere face tough restrictions on their movement and travel, enforcement of a “modest” dress code that includes compulsory hair covering (enforceable by the Gasht-e Ershad or “Guidance Patrols”), punitive legislation on custody of children, and many other limitations. Yet even here there are paradoxes: despite intermittent meddling by conservative politicians, education remains open to everyone, and women make up over 60 per cent of those entering university in Iran (a higher share than in a country such as the UK). In art schools, the percentage is believed to be even higher.
When it comes to the arts, the arm of the Islamic state is long. Censorship is enforced by the Ministry of Information, which regulates cultural output, requires that art works for display are pre-approved (though not all galleries comply) and retains the ability to remove images or shut down exhibitions if they cross a moral, religious or political line.
A longstanding participant in the Tehran art scene says that, while it sounds Orwellian, in reality there are ways of operating. “There is a sense from the authorities that art does its own thing,” she explains. “It’s about staying at the edge of the red lines. Everyone finds a way of coping with it. Yes, there’s the sense that someone is checking you out: someone can come in, even off the street, and they can be a hardliner and complain about the show and things can get nasty, but it rarely happens. For every piece that is not shown, there are 1,000 others that are.”
She adds that, as in many restrictive regimes, it’s a game of sorts. The Iranian government isn’t dumb: it realises that, just as it’s impossible to control what every artist is making, there are benefits to giving culture a degree of latitude. “It’s give and take. I think they’ve realised after 43 years that they cannot stop the flow of art – it’s so important in Iran. If they increase restrictions, the result may be that art will go underground, where it will be hard to monitor. So better to have it in view, in a way.”
A female photographer puts it more bluntly: “It’s not like we’re living in North Korea. It’s a big space.” She doesn’t want to be named in this article, she explains, partly because she doesn’t want to attract attention from the authorities that would make it more challenging to work. But, like many Iranians, she’s also weary of cliches trotted out in the western media. “We get disappointed at the way we’re represented.”
In this curious hybrid environment – where culture is both revered and strictly, albeit fitfully, regulated – there has been an extraordinary flourishing of contemporary art in Iran. Everyone I speak to offers a different number, but around 60 galleries have appeared in Tehran during the last 15 years, showing a huge variety of work, of which perhaps 50 are currently active. Though international sanctions have had a brutal effect on international art sales, and indeed the wider economy – and made it hard for artists to get materials – galleries are more than surviving, according to Nazila Noebashari, who has run the independent Aaran gallery in Tehran for the last 13 years.
“Galleries are a big part of civil society,” she says. “Every Friday, you can go to 10 openings. It’s not only producing art and putting it out and selling it, it’s being with each other and learning from each other. This happens with female artists even more so. They collaborate, advertise each other’s exhibitions on Instagram. There’s a lot of cooperation.”
“Female artists, particularly younger ones, make it work: they’re brave, they don’t complain,” she adds. “There are limitations, of course, but they’re smart enough to work with them.” She laughs. “Iranian women are very, very smart.”
Aliabadi’s Miss Hybrid 3 offers one image of that rebellious flirtation with the rules. Though the young woman in the photograph is notionally dressing “correctly”, she seems to do so with cool disregard for what anyone thinks – except perhaps her followers on social media. Another work by Aliabadi, created with her husband Farhad Moshiri, is entitled Hejab Barbie. A photograph of a blue-eyed Barbie doll wearing full black chador, it wittily satirises both identikit Sharia dress code and consumerist western images of female beauty – restrictive in other ways, it hints. In absurdist situations, humour is an eloquent response.
Elsewhere in the New York show there are two photographs by Aliabadi’s near-contemporary Shadi Ghadirian, who lives and works in Tehran. Both are sepia studio portraits inspired by the Qajar period of the early 20th Century. One shows a young woman in traditional dress astride her bike and wearing a motorcycle helmet, as if she’s just screeched in from the BMX track. Her companion, sitting cross-legged in front, gazes directly at the camera, a half-smile playing across her lips. She seems to be daring us to pity or patronise them.
People in the Iranian art scene talk dismissively of “chador art”, the anonymous photographer tells me with a sardonic laugh: the kind of art in which the garment figures prominently, to the exclusion of much else. Many western collectors seem to want to buy this image of Iran by the yard. “People outside want to see us as different, that Iran is a dark place, all the rest of it,” she says. “This way of looking at us is tiring.” Noebashari says, in a way, the irony is funny: “Poor us, we have one of the most vibrant art scenes in the world.”
Making it work
Eager to get a sense of how all this operates for someone actually making work, I call up the artist Azadeh Akhlaghi in Tehran, whose large-scale, cinematic photographs restaging key moments in Iranian history – often violent ones – have been exhibited both in Iran and internationally. On the one hand, she explains, she has to be cautious because of her subject matter. It’s feasible for her to portray, say, the shooting of the student activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie by the Shah’s secret police in 1974, hiring a cast of costumed extras and getting them to pose in the street. But depicting a comparable event that occurred after 1979, under the Islamic regime, would be impossible. “I need to be careful; I don’t want to get questioned,” she says.
By the same token, though, when Iranian gallery-goers look at Akhlaghi’s epic depictions of assassinations and massacres, they are free to see whatever parallels they wish, she says. “One woman who came to one of my shows was the mother of a martyr from the [anti-government] Green Movement protests in 2009, She said, ‘Just as you are remembering these things, maybe some artist will do this for my son one day.’… You have to be from Iran to understand some of the works we make in Iran.”
Akhlaghi’s major concern before the show opened was that because she portrays pre-revolutionary events, the women in her scenes sometimes show their hair. “I was really worried about this. I was ready to say, ‘Don’t worry, they’re wearing wigs, it’s not real hair.’ In the end they didn’t even ask.” So it’s a case of being clever about how you work? “You have to be clever about everything. It’s what we artists have to do.”
While many Iranian artists have emigrated or live in exile, Akhlaghi and others stay not because they have no other choice, she points out, but because they want to. “I have Australian citizenship,” she says. “I’ve worked in Melbourne, London, New York. But I prefer to work in Tehran. This is my country, the place that gives me ideas.”
What will happen next in Iran, which has been hit punishingly hard by Covid-19, is anyone’s guess. In June, the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi became president in an election that critics claimed was rigged, and there are fears that a crackdown on civil liberties, especially those of women, might result. It remains to be seen whether President Biden’s US administration will honour its pledge to restore the JCPOA nuclear deal and reduce the sanctions pummelling Iran’s economy. Even less clear is when, or even if, international travel – and international art loans – will resume at scale.
Akhlagi and others I speak to are pessimistic about the big picture, but say that art carries on as it always has done, even in the toughest times of the Iran-Iraq war or under the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime of 2005-13. “The people working within the government are Iranian, and Iranians are proud of their culture,” Noebashari says. “Even conservative politicians, they recite poetry in their speeches. Art has been in Iran for 5,000 years. It will survive.”
In the meantime, it’s up to us elsewhere to adjust our view – particularly our view of art by Iranian women. “We get understood in black-and-white terms,” says Afkhami. “And in Iran absolutely nothing is black and white.”
Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians – The Mohammed Afkhami Collection is at the Asia Society, New York, until 8 May 2022.