Viewing Art from Inside Iran


Robert C. Morgan

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 123 in June, 2010.

On two occasions in 2007, I was invited to Iran as an American art critic at the invitation of the Cultural Commission appointed by the Municipality of Tehran. The purpose of my initial visit in March was to jury an international sculpture symposium, and the second in November was to judge an exhibition of young Iranian sculptors shown at the beautiful, though slightly rundown, Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran. My initial awakening to Iran came independently as I moved freely through the streets of Tehran in search of traces that marked one of the truly significant historical cultures of the world. During my visit, I sought out a wide diversity of both younger and mature artists, all working in a variety of mediums. In the process, I began to notice discrepancies between the kind of work I had seen in New York exhibitions and also the kind of low-key hysteria subsumed on life in Iran in the American media. While my invitation to this country was neither as a diplomat or a political journalist, I was invited to function as an independent art critic – one of the few, if not the only American art critic – granted an official visit to Iran in nearly three decades.


The invitation came by way of the Municipality of Tehran. I was asked to come and work with a jury of five delegates for the purpose of selecting work and giving awards to international sculptors, representing seventeen countries. During the week of the proceedings, the level of organization that took place in the discussions involved much translation, as the jury moved from Farsi into English into Chinese and French. The demeanor and focus of the translators impressed me greatly, as did the focus and generosity of the Iranian delegates who were openly committed to making the itinerary function according to plan. In the various meetings and dealings with various professional and governmental officials, I never felt vulnerable as a target of anti-Americanism, nor did I sense any form of religious intervention or discrimination. If anything, the organizers of the symposium focused on remaining as openly secular as possible. The jury met over a period five days prior to the awards ceremony at the conclusion. The discussions were filled with a balance of passionate intelligence and appropriate restrain throughout the decision-making process.


During the awards ceremony, held in a large tent in a park adjacent to the area the various works were installed, the speakers included various cultural representatives, organizers, who accompanied the mayor of Tehran. Each speaker, including the mayor, offered clear and concise arguments in support of public art and in support of those who had been invited to participate in the symposium. The audience was enthusiastic and gracious in their applause as artists from Peru, the Netherlands, Turkey, Iraq, China, Italy, and Iran, were being honored. The atmosphere of the event was exhilarating in terms of the questions and dialogue that followed the event. Recognizing that Iran is, in fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is important to acknowledge that in spite of this theocratic context, there have been on-going strides toward liberalization. For example, Hussein Mousavi who in addition to his political involvement as an oppositional candidate to President Ahmadinejad in 2009, is both an educated art historian with translations of books by Kandinsky and Klee into Farsi as well as the Director of an important art and cultural center in Tehran, dedicated to showing works of contemporary art and offering educational forums, similar in intent to P.S. 1 in Long Island City prior to its affiliation with MoMA. While conflicts exist through the imposition of religious values since the outset of the eighties in addition to the on-going necessity for modernization, the struggle of these various factions continues to be evident within the community of artists as well as within the society at large.

With some exceptions, the majority of artists I encountered in Iran were eager to have greater communication and access with the Western world, and with other countries in the Middle East. Persian art historians are seeking opportunities to study abroad to gain knowledge of international art and to acquire fresh theoretical perspectives on their own research. In spite of the resistance to this liberal momentum by members of the governmental theocracy, younger artists are seeking opportunities to participate in a global exchange with experimental artists from sectors outside of Iran. As a result, some have moved to Europe, particularly to Germany, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, in hopes of finding a better working environment with fewer social inhibitions and political restrictions. In essence, Iranian artists are looking for art-related careers within a broader, more open and diverse community. Concomitantly, there is eagerness among artists still living in Tehran to open the threshold to challenging new prospects, to encounter new ideas and forms of expression, and to locate their work within the global circuit. Like younger artists working anywhere in the world today, the Iranians are interested in connecting with current tendencies in art, especially those emanating from China and the West. Young women artists, in particular, are searching for possibilities in which they can express new ideas in their own political terms and thereby transmit their message outward to the global community.


The city of Tehran is a teeming and bustling metropolis, with areas in some sections that are somewhat rundown. While there is considerable building and construction going on, there are still buildings left half-finished the way they were left after the Revolution nearly three decades ago. Although there are close to fourteen million inhabitants in the Capital, there is no public transit system. Therefore, the traffic is intense, perpetually congested – to put it mildly. While the snow-capped mountains that border the city on the northern side are breath taking, the air pollution is a huge problem – similar to Bangkok, Beijing, and Los Angeles. The diversity of dress among the populace is fascinating to observe. All women, beyond early adolescence wear head coverings, but not all are covered in the black burqa. Many younger women, who do not consider themselves devout, wear Bulgari scarves, sweaters, and jeans. This appears acceptable unless too much of the hair is revealed in front of the scarf. The difference as to who is more fundamental between younger and older Islamic men is less a generational issue than an ideological one. It is more about those who think outside the current politics and those who are ensconced within it. In the outdoor studios on the grounds of the exhibition, I saw a young Islamic women donned in traditional garb, covered with dust, as she intently carved marble with a pneumatic tool. The artist works in marble and steel, using suspended linear abstract forms. She was awarded a prize, and her entire family showed up at the ceremony to see her receive it. The mother – who had worn a head covering for most of her life – proudly watched her daughter receive the award. Later I discovered that it was quite unusual for younger women to be admitted into such a competition, and still more unusual to win a prize, but the largely international jury fought to keep her in the running, given that her work was one of the best among the contenders.


Largely influenced by my insistence, the top prize went to an Iraqi sculptor, now residing in Copenhagen, named Ali Jabbar Hussein. However, due to the political difficulties of citing an Iraqi as winner, the Board of Directors decided to forego giving a First Place award, thereby designating Ali’s award, including the monetary stipend, as Second Place. Even so, among the serious contestants, Hussein’s work was clearly the best. His graceful architectonic sculpture was carved entirely in white and black marble and was accomplished over a duration of three weeks. While little known in the West, Iran has one of the largest deposits of first-rate marble to be found anywhere in the world. The quality of the stone is as good as anything found in Italy, except there is more of it. Hussein’s paradoxical sculpture was an abstract temple, landscape, and house – all in one. It had an arch at one end with a ladder, and a passageway at the other with a bifurcated mandolin in which a large bullet-like form was placed in-between. The overall affect of Hussein’s piece suggested a projection of a tranquility transformed in the realm of a dream, a classical moment outset the fray, an interstice where solace and solitude held within the premise of architecture and lyric form. The young Peruvian sculptor Marcelo Wong also worked in steel and stone, binding two monoliths or dolmens into a uniform space with encircling metal strands. Marovino Luca from Italy – another prizewinner – did a diagonally poised large-scale cube carved entirely in white marble. Varol Topac from Turkey carved a magnificent bursting sun from marble, and two other Iranian artists, Mohammad Reza and Sahand Hesamian, welded large dynamic abstract forms in steel. I was curious to discover, in a later discussion, that Hesamian was particularly interested in the work of Sol LeWitt.

What struck me about these artists’ works – given that most had carved white marble or welded in steel – is that they were all destined for some kind of relative permanence. The emphasis was not given to ideological, or conceptually oriented work. It was more materially based, and therefore, embedded ideas within the structure rather than overtly textualizing their work in the form of a provocation. The three-dimensional space of the object was given precedent over the virtual tendency to transfer information by way of ethereality. Given that many sculptors that I have encountered over the years on the biennial circuit are inclined to work with less permanent materials within the context of installations, I was curious as to the motivation behind much of this work. With enormous marble deposits, Iran could easily afford to provide this stone and therefore many artists gravitated toward an opportunity to work with marble that they would normally not be given. The works they made were destined to be sited in selected spaces throughout the city of Tehran. It was, in fact, a symposium of international sculptors – working in consort with Iranians – in order to give what I understood to be a more secular appearance to the city. Although this was never stated, the works that won awards were neither overtly political nor religious in content.

There is much to be said about placing sculpture in a city like Tehran, a metropolis that is attempting to revive itself, to come back into the Modern world, and to restore a sense of dignity and culture for the rest of the world to see. It will, of course, take time, but eventually it will happen. This is not to ignore the political and ideological struggles of recent months, where artists are being placed under scrutiny by the authoritarian devices and surveillance of the “culture police.” Without one or two exceptions, most of the younger artists I met through my earlier experience were eager and enthusiastic to understand what was happening in the art world outside of Iran. They were committed to improving their cognitive awareness, sensory awareness, and augmented perceptions, which are as much about politics as they are about art. This struck me as significant in terms of the divided circumstances, often verging on violence and lethal imprisonment, which have occurred since the June 2009 uprising. In our current market-driven art world, moving throughout the channels of economic globalization, we are losing site of the experiential domain that art can give us. In the Islamic Republic of Iran the component of experience is something that these artists are struggling to re-define in relation to what they see and understand not only in their immediate environment but in the mediated world around them. While fully aware of the political turmoil that has divided their country for many years, younger artists appear interested in the experimental domain of art making and in establishing their own interpretation of an avant-garde. The desire to communicate their feelings on a level that is not merely information is deeply profound. Here lies the foundation of what Iranian artists hope to achieve in the global environment.

Image Credits:

The two photos of the women in burkas were taken in Isfahan outside the Great Mosque, built during the Safavid period in the late early17th century. These photographs were taken by Hyun Soojung in March 2007.

The pholtos of the artists carving marble and/or working with steel were taken in a park on the outskirts of Tehran during the International Sculpture Symposium.These photogrtaphs were taken by Baback Mehrbany Irany, also in March 2007.