Participants follow the Tehran Art Auction at the Azadi Hotel in the Iranian capital on January 11, 2019. Photo: Rouzbeh Fouladi / NurPhoto

Much of what the global media report about Iran these days revolves around its unpopular nuclear program, its involvement in proxy conflicts across the Middle East, and its human-rights violations.

Yet the concealed face of Iran is that it is the inheritor of one of the most magnificent art heritages in the world history, reflecting a 5,000-year-old cultural tradition that many people are incognizant of as the nation’s artistic and cultural contributions are eclipsed by its political isolation.

The London-based Victoria and Albert Museum, which bills itself as the world’s leading museum of art and design, has announced that it will stage the UK’s biggest exhibition on Iranian art, design and culture in nearly a century next February. The exhibit will showcase some 300 historical objects including illuminated manuscripts, finely wrought carpets, ceramics and metalwork.

The announcement came at a fraught moment for Iran and the West, as they squabble over the fate of the atrophying Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the mushrooming US sanctions against Iran, British and other foreign citizens with dual nationality jailed by the Islamic Republic, and Tehran throwing a curveball at the stability of Middle East with its support of the Houthis in Yemen and activating modern centrifuges in an underground nuclear facility.

V&A possesses a striking collection of Iranian art, epitomizing at least 12 centuries of Iran’s sophisticated cultural history. The collection includes the Ardabil carpet, reputed to be the world’s oldest, ornamented tiles belonging to the early 19th century, paintings by Iranian artists dating back as far as 1644, vintage receptacles and vessels, ancient maps, candlesticks and mirrors from the 12th century and antique sculptures and jewelry.

Even though it’s not common to find references to Iranian arts and culture in the mainstream media, artistic productions from Iran are widely admired in the West. The Guardian reported in 2018 that Iranian artworks accounted for half the revenue generated at Sotheby’s Middle East auction in 2017, meaning that Iranian art is financially outpacing art from the other Middle East nations.

Universities, cinemas, cultural institutes and theaters across the world regularly host Iranian cinema weeks and public screenings of award-winning Iranian movies; Iranian painters, sculptors, calligraphers and photographers frequently hold exhibitions abroad, and cafés and think-tanks organize talks by Iranian cultural activists and craftspeople from time to time.

There are many galleries in Europe and North America that display Iranian artworks, attract big crowds and make remarkable profits as the Western audiences find the delicacy, complexity and mystic features of Iranian arts captivating and impossible to perceive in arts from other geographical regions.

A case in point is the CAMA Gallery in London, which was opened in 2018, and is exclusively dedicated to Iranian arts and regularly features miscellaneous works by Iranian artists including paintings, sculptures, photography, collages, prints, illustrations, calligraphy and jewelry.

CAMA (Contemporary And Modern Art) has showcased the creations of Parviz Tanavoli, the famed Iranian painter and sculptor, whose works have generated some US$6.7 million in international auctions, earning him the reputation of the most expensive living Iranian artist, and Sohrab Sepehri, the late Iranian painter and poet, believed to be one of the five main pillars of modern Persian poetry.

Iranian art market

Despite being shaken by the US economic sanctions, Iran’s art scene has been a pioneer in the Middle East for several years. Iranian artists continue to participate in top-notch international shows.

In June 2019, Paris’s Palais de Tokyo inaugurated the exhibition “City Prince/sses Dhaka, Lagos, Manila, Mexico City and Tehran,” which featured several works by Iranian artists. In May last year, Iran opened a pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, putting on display scintillating multimedia art by young Iranian visual artists, mesmerizing the international audience.

In the mid-2000s, Iran’s contemporary art scene began to prosper in the global marketplace. In 2008, Iranian painter Farhad Moshiri became the first Middle Eastern artist to achieve an auction sale of more than $1 million, at Dubai’s Bonhams auction.

Works by Moshiri, commonly referred to as the Middle East’s Andy Warhol, have dominated the London-based Christie’s auction house sales of modern arts, too. In its March 2019 auction “Modern and Contemporary Art in the Middle East” in Dubai, one of Moshiri’s works dubbed Golden Jar was priced at $80,000 to $120,000.

ArtTactic, an art market research company headquartered in London, affirmed in one of its latest reports on the Middle East that Iranian artists pocketed about £16.6 million ($22 million) in international sales in 2017, remarkably outperforming the second-placed Egypt, whose artists earned £5.4 million.

Iranian artistic productions have a passionate domestic audience, as well. At the 10th Tehran Auction hosted by the Azadi Hotel in January 2019, a work of the late Iranian sculptor and collector of traditional folk art Monir Farmanfarmaian, a 90-by-180-centimeter mirror mosaic, was sold for a staggering $952,381. An oil calligraphy work by leading Iranian artist Hossein Zenderoudi was also sold for about $845,000.

Since 2012, the Tehran Auction has taken place at least once a year and its customers are mostly well-off residents of Tehran’s lavish northern districts who revel in collecting paintings, calligraphy, sculptures and other artwork. According to Homa Taraji, the auction’s head of international relations, the value of paintings sold in the 2017 auction totaled $7 million.

Iranian arts and culture, however, have not been impervious to the chilling effect of the US sanctions. Art is classified as “informational material,” and as such exempt from the sanctions. Nonetheless, it’s exceptionally difficult to shield galleries and artists from the sting of the sanctions, including the impossibility of doing monetary transactions through Iranian banks and wiring money from foreign bank accounts.

This is what has made many cultural initiatives daunting. AB Fine Art AG, a Swiss gallery that has represented two Iranian painters, has announced that it will no longer work with Iranian artists because of the complications involved in paying them for their work.

Owing to the unprecedented plummeting of the value of Iran’s currency, rial, against the US dollar, the costs of traveling and selling abroad have tripled and Iranian gallerists, curators and art dealers are left with no option but to ignore attending international exhibitions, which means curtailed profits and less visibility for the artists.

Arts and politics

If it were not for the exhausting political debates that overshadow the coverage of Iran in the global media, and if there were greater public awareness of Iran’s cultural heritage and modern artistic life, the world could have been exposed to a humane portrayal of the country through the productions of its dynamic, talented artists.

Keyvan Shovir, a young painter and graffiti artist based in San Francisco, is one of several promising Iranian artists living outside the country laboring to make a difference in how their home country is viewed. Shovir has obtained a Master of Fine Arts in studio practice from the California College of the Arts.

“I think it is imperative to exhibit Iranian arts and culture, because what we see in the news represents an exaggerated and negative image of Iran. Iranian arts have a significant impact on Western arts, ranging from abstract arts to mathematics and philosophy, since Ancient Greece; however, as a result of the propagandistic nature of the coverage of Iran, we never explore and research these subjects,” Shovir said.

“Those running the anti-Iranian propaganda don’t want to show Iran’s history and culture to the public. They don’t want people to know about Persian poetry, about Hafiz and Ghazali. Iranophobia has always been in media and Hollywood movies since 1980s, and it makes people in the West ignorant and scared of people of color,” he told Asia Times.

Arts for making peace

In recent years, with the mounting of tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Iranian artists have assumed the role of unofficial ambassadors, endeavoring to bridge the gaps between their home country and the international community, undertaking a mission that diplomats and politicians have failed to accomplish.

At the same time, Iranian diaspora artists have increased their efforts to paint a more civilized and nuanced image of Iran before Western eyes, aiming to narrow down the differences between the two sides through festivals, exhibitions, shows, screenings and carnivals.

In July 2019, the Lake Ontario waterfront in Toronto hosted the Tirgan Festival for four days, featuring 200 artists and scholars who organized some 140 events of traditional dance, theater, music, colorful puppet shows and sharing of local Iranian cuisine.

According to the event organizers, more than 160,000 people, mostly from Canada and the United States, attended the festival and enjoyed the representations of Iranian culture.  

In August last year, The Washington Post published a report about a photo exhibition hosted by the Arthur M Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, titled “My Iran: Six Women Photographers” that was aimed at challenging the common stereotypes about Iranian women and their standing in society. The six photographers were Newsha Tavakolian, Gohar Dashti, Shadi Ghadirian, Hengameh Golestan, Malekeh Nayiny and Mitra Tabrizian.

Mehrdad Naraghi, an award-winning Iranian photographer living in New York, believes Iranian artworks have great potential for being the centerpiece of global media coverage.

“Iranian art is rooted in a deep, rich history, and some contemporary artworks coming out of the country today are increasingly dynamic. Thought-provoking international exhibits like previous ones featured at the Victoria and Albert Museum highlight what each artist has to say without boxing them in or isolating them under a restrictive label or category,” he told Asia Times.

Those who follow the developments of Iran closely agree that there’s a surplus of conversation about Iran’s politics that is often intermingled with clichés and tropes that contort the representation of the country.

The missing debate about Iran’s culture and arts and how they contribute to improved relations between the Iranian people and the international community needs to be encouraged.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.