Aerial view of Tehran, 2012. Photo by Mohsen Shahmardi.


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On June 14, 2009, the municipality of Tehran stated that three million protestors had taken to the streets. This number was unprecedented in recent times. People marched against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection, his failed economic programs and his strict upholding of barriers on freedom of speech. He had, in the first four years of his presidency, faithfully continued the Islamic Revolution’s restrictive cultural agenda.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s policy toward art and culture was indomitable from the start. The definition of arts in primary and secondary school curricula was, and remains, limited to calligraphy, still-life drawing and graphic-design fundamentals. The word “music” is completely absent from school texts. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance keeps a tight rein on all exhibitions, events and performances, displaying extreme sensitivity to nudity, political remarks or anything that might capture the public’s attention.

After a phase of “social realist painting” in the 1980s came a protracted tendency toward abstraction in art practice and art education. Perhaps the form made it easier to evade official constraints, or maybe it was an attempt to stay up-to-date with Western trends, of which abstraction was considered an outstanding achievement. At the turn of the millennium, however, strategies of visual representation underwent a crucial shift. In a sweeping movement, the art scene of Tehran embraced new artistic media and began to reflect on sociopolitical topics and everyday issues.

This tendency received support from Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), which in its heyday from 1998 to 2005 under director Alireza Sami Azar hosted several “New Art” exhibitions as well as retrospectives of Iranian modernists. This ambitious program culminated in 2005 with an exhibition drawing on its extensive collection of 19th- and 20th-century Western art.

Such initiatives did not last. With the return of the conservatives to power in 2004 and Ahmadinejad’s election the following year, MoCA wound down its progressive agenda, and many artists decided to boycott governmental culture programs. After the 2009 elections, this boycott became explicit and was published as a signed agreement in national newspapers. Now there was no interaction between practicing artists and formal institutions to facilitate the planning, organizing and support of events.

Tehran’s art scene came to depend on private galleries. Iran’s gallery culture is now considerably developed—at galleries such as Azad, Aun, Aaran, Etemad, Khak and Mohsen, Friday evenings are witness to plentiful openings, with multimedia group exhibitions, performances and happenings alongside more traditional media. This quantity does not always correspond to improved quality. A sense of hastiness and self-absorption, along with a lack of theoretical support, often prevails.

The emergence of a vigorous art market in Dubai in the late 2000s was a major driving force behind the growing number of galleries in Tehran. Works by Iranian artists achieved regionally unprecedented prices at auction in Dubai and, in the absence of a strong infrastructure or institutional support, these figures grabbed the headlines, coming to define Iranian contemporary art. It became clear, however, that the thirst for exotic materials, calligraphy and decoration would ensure that artists engaged with social critiques and political commentaries would never find their way to this market.

 “Exoticism,” a term frequently heard in debates, began to encompass not only Orientalist imagery but any rendering of local particularities. Some artists, dispossessed of attention at home, were driven to play victims to better sell their local “exotic” issues. And yet for most, wishing to reflect on lived experience, issues such as the compulsory wearing of the hijab—with its enormous impact on daily life and its determinative effect on any local event—could not be overlooked.

Despite its dynamism and abundance, the Tehran art scene has received little theoretical attention at home or abroad. Many artists and scholars are emigrating to find freer circumstances and a global audience, or to develop their critical frameworks. Yet this diaspora, spread throughout Europe and North America, suffers from the lack of a meeting place and a larger sense of community awareness. Archimedes said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the world.” The Iranian artistic and intellectual diaspora might have the lever, but they have no place to stand; the local artists have a place, but lack the lever. Therefore, nothing seems likely to move in Tehran anytime soon.