In preparation for a major exhibition focusing on the development of modernism in Iran scheduled for 2013, Asia Society launched its multi-year study of modern art in Iran with “Iran Modern” colloquium, and “Bridging the Modern and Contemporary in Iranian Art,” a discussion by esteemed specialists in the field on October 25, 2010. The colloquium began with Dr. Melissa Chiu’s, Asia Society Museum Director and Vice President of Global Art Programmes, introduction of the programme as part of the Society’s ongoing commitment to bringing a new perspective to modern and contemporary Asian art. Then Dr. Layla Diba presented an overview of the evolution of Iranian modernism and the current state of the field. The First session, Historical and Social Context, embraced Dr. Ehsan Yarshater with a paper entitled Early Modern Persian Painting; Kamran Diba with Two Decades Leading to the TMoCA; Dr. Hamid Keshmirshekan with Approaching Modernity: Iranian Socio-political Culture and Artistic Production in the 1960s and 1970s; and Nicky Nodjoumi with Reminiscences. The second session, Developments in the Visual Arts, presented Sohrab Mohebbi’s Iranian Modern Abstractions; Mitra Abbaspour’s The White Revolution Generation: Photography in Iran 1963-1978, Tiffany Malakooti’s The Animations of Ali Akbar Sadeghi for Kanoon and Media Farzin’s Cultural Diplomacy in Modern Iran. The last session, Curatorial Perspectives, brought Dr. Fereshteh Daftari with Exhibition of Iranian Modern Art at the Grey Art Gallery; Dr. Linda Komaroff, Collecting and Exhibiting Iranian Modern Art in America: What Isn’t and What Could Be; and Dr. Venetia Porter with Iranian Modernism and its Relationship to the Modern Middle East. After the sessions, the programme continued by a general discussion about the Asia Society’s 2013 project and all the panellists propounded their ideas about different aspects of the event, including curatorial necessities, limitations, scope of the works, symposium and publication essentials etc. Concluding remarks by Melissa Chiu and Layla Diba were the last part of this programme.
The second part of the event, the public panel discussion, brought together a panel of experts in the art world to discuss the lines of continuity between modern and contemporary art in the last half a century in Iran. The panel consisted of Mitra Abbaspour, Hamid Keshmirshekan, Venetia Porter, and Linda Komaroff, moderated by Layla Diba. The discussion examined contemporary Iranian art in relation to art movements before the Islamic Revolution, as well as in the larger context of the global contemporary art scene. In Diba’s introduction, she recalled the biennial in 1958 as a crucial moment, ushering in modernism in Iranian art. She pointed out that an increasing number of study materials have been made available in recent years through exhibitions and related publications. “Interest in Iranian modern and contemporary art has been intensifying among institutions and collectors alike, coinciding with a thriving art market in the Persian Gulf. Asia Society’s close examination of the unique contributions that Iranian artists have made in the past 40 years is timely.”
The first speaker, Keshmirshekan, emphasised the continuity between pre and post-revolutionary art. He observed neo-traditionalism in the art of the 1960s and 1970s as concerned with the question of imitation and appropriation in national art and consciousness. “While both pre and post-revolutionary artists have been concerned with identity, the new neo-traditionalism has been less homogenous in its approach. Artists are now more critical of their identity and conscious about how to present themselves, rather than simply celebrating their heritage. What we see as the anti-utopianism taken by contemporary Iranian artists, is in part a response to this question, and a position taken against the Orientalist look, as Iranian art attempts to lodge itself in the global art world.” In re-evaluating the effect and legacy of pre-revolutionary art on today’s artists, Abbaspour suggests that we should escape the clichéd approach of categorising today’s Iranian art either with western modernism or with contemporary Islamic art. Porter clarified the position that a preoccupation with traditional authenticity can be found widely in Middle Eastern art. “It is important to consider Iranian modernism within this international context. This too is evident, and especially so, in the contemporary artwork acquired by LACMA, the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Modern.” Komaroff introduced the collection of contemporary Iranian art at LACMA, as work made largely by women artists. She assigns great importance to the acquisition of works like these, which helps broaden expert’s perspectives on today’s art.
After the speakers’ presentations, Diba led a discussion with them on stage. She first posed a question about how to contextualise modern Iranian art in exhibitions. In Komaroff’s view, it is an exciting time to be dealing with the issue of contemporary Asian art in relation to contemporary art globally. Porter followed up by giving an example of the shift—or expansion—of interest within the United Kingdom. Diba also questioned the role of calligraphy in Iranian modern art. Keshmirshekan noted that the use of calligraphy in the modern context began in the 1960s in a kind of Dadaistic manner, in which calligraphy was practiced only as a kind of pseudo-writing. In the early 1990s, this approach was expanded with more specific attention to religious meanings. In addition, many artists today critically re-evaluate calligraphy through satirical deformations and by infusing it with humor. For many artists, Porter adds, perhaps calligraphy provides a comfort zone, and for uninitiated audiences, a gateway to contemporary art from this region. Other important issues brought up during the discussion were the role of women, plus the field of photography, film and, perhaps the hardest question posed, the future of Iranian art.
The programme ended by questions and answers by audiences and panellists. This event was attended by many key art figures of the New York and considered as one of the stimulating and pioneering ones in this growing filed.
1- Parts of this review have been drawn from notes by Miwako Tezuka, Associate Curator at the Asia Society.