Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran
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University of Michigan Museum of Art—Off/Site
September 29-December 30, 2007
"One of the most striking aspects of the work in Persian Visions is that these photographers are obviously not isolated from the world of contemporary photography and art. On the contrary, it is obvious just how connected they are,” Robert Silberman of the University of Minnesota notes in the gallery guide that accompanies the exhibition, Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran, opened at UMMA Off/Site on September 29. The internationalism and sophistication of these 20 Iranian photographers shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it might: even engaged and educated Americans are at a disadvantage in approaching this work. Decades-old restrictions on trade and cultural exchange with Iran, coupled with a tradition of inattention to the history and cultures of the Middle East in American education, have isolated us from Iran. But Iran is not isolated from the rest of the world.
Persian Visions is the first exhibition of contemporary photography from Iran to tour in the United States since the 1979 revolution, although many of the artists have exhibited in Europe. The exhibit was organized despite U.S. government sanctions against official cultural exchange with that country—the fruit of an “unofficial” collaboration between Gary Hallman of the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota and Hamid Severi, the curator of the Tehran Museum of Art. The exhibition is an opportunity to view the work of artists who remained in Iran throughout the revolution and establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979, the cultural revolution of the early 1980s—a time when many of Iran’s cultural and intellectual elite fled the troubled country or were denied reentry following overseas travel or study—and the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war (1981-1988).
The artists included in the exhibit have witnessed Iran’s struggles with modernity from the inside. While profound dissatisfaction with Iran’s regime continues (and international outrage at its leaders’ incendiary rhetoric regarding the Holocaust and the state of Israel continues to mount), Iranians have seen a few improvements in their quality of life, and people there are generally healthier and more literate than a decade ago. The democratization of schools and universities, one of the central tenets of the revolution, has helped boost literacy rates to more than 80 percent, including among poor, conservative, rural women for whom the introduction of sexually segregated schools was an inducement to enroll. While the quality of once-elite Iranian institutions may have suffered, many more people are enjoying the benefits of education, and the majority of the content at state-run universities is secular. The arts are flourishing, although as in other repressive regimes where direct expression of certain ideas is prohibited, visual artists in Iran must contend with restrictions and censorship, particularly of material depicting nudity or criticizing the political regime. Topics such as homosexuality and drinking alcohol are taboo and can provoke violent public outrage. As is so richly illustrated by Iranian filmmakers, however, whose work has captivated international audiences, such constraints can often inspire artists to find inventive and alternate ways of expressing themselves.
Not every artist in Iran is yearning for western-style self-expression, according to Sussan Babaie, assistant professor of art history at the University of Michigan and an expert in Islamic art and architecture. She contends that artists play a central role in helping Iranian society negotiate its relation to modernity, and they are sensitive and attuned to local traditions and mores. “Many artists working in Iran after the revolution saw an opportunity to reclaim a uniquely Persian version of modernity. There was a sense that Iran had been overwhelmed by the imposition of American and European cultural forms at the expense of a very rich and ancient culture, and that some values, such as modesty and the role of Islam in society, needed to be accommodated moving forward.”
Although its history is little known to most Americans, various iterations of the Persian empire preceded those of Greece and Rome and rivaled the latter in scope and influence, sweeping from the Nile to the Ganges. The area we now know as Iran has been a crossroads and meeting place for thousands of years. Even before oil and natural gas made Iran one of the most strategically important countries in the world, the Persian language and culture were dominant influences; Persian was the court language of a vast region ranging from Turkey to India for 700 years. “Persian culture is very synthetic and adaptive. Despite catastrophic invasions—by the Arabs in the 7th century, the Mongols in the 13th, for example—it was never continuously overrun or dominated. Iran thrived through accommodation and the deliberate and selective assimilation of its invaders, conquerors, and neighbors. The idea of global culture is not new in Iran,” explains Professor Babaie.
The global culture of the internet is posing challenges to the political and clerical elite who seek to control the terms of contemporary Iran’s engagement with the world. Internet usage is extremely high, and blogging is widespread and difficult to control. Satellite dishes, although technically illegal, are omnipresent, bringing foreign movies and forbidden images and ideas directly into people’s homes. The eyes of Iran are on America, Europe, and Asia—and the majority of those eyes belong to young Iranians, who have no memory of life before the revolution. (The country’s population doubled between 1979 and 1999.) The schism between the generations who experienced the revolution and the bloody Iran-Iraq war and those who did not is a fault line through society, according to some experts, threatening to set younger people pressing for greater social, sexual, and intellectual freedom on a collision course with their elders. Anthropologist Roxanne Varzi (currently at the University of California, Irvine) returned to her native Iran to study the lives of middle-class, urban, 20-something Iranians and found ample evidence to contradict claims that strict Islamic values have taken firm hold in this generation—increasing rates of suicide, drug use, and sex outside marriage tell a different story.
Many close observers of Iran note with irony that, among Middle Eastern nations, Iran comes closest to an American sensibility. Babaie states that like its archenemy (the U.S.), Iran is polyglot. “Persian-ness is not an ethnic denotation but rather something accessible to those who embrace the Persian language and culture as their window onto the world.” There is an intensely felt cultural self-confidence among Iranians that is difficult to convey, she notes, something with which Americans can identify. “The artists in this exhibition are deeply convinced of their relevance, and they are taking pains to share with international audiences that they are a complex, modern, Persian (not Arab) people in the Islamic world, an ongoing part of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.” Subtle discussions that weave throughout this body of photography suggest that their makers are quite self-consciously engaging American viewers to consider what is seen and unseen, what is alien, local, familiar, old and new.
“This exhibition offers a corrective to the notion that expatriate artists practicing in the west have the final word on the culture—and also to the idea that the conditions in prerevolutionary westernized Iran define a healthy modernity and must be restored,” Professor Babaie argues. “The reality is more nuanced. Modernity—like democracy perhaps—cannot be imposed from without. It must have integrity and local character to endure, and that is what Iranians, painfully and step-by-step, are engaged in working out right now.”
Karen Chassin Goldbaum is Director of Communications, Museum of Art, and Executive Editor of Insight magazine.
The author would like to thank Professor Sussan Babaie for her generous assistance in providing background for this article in addition to her many helpful insights. Professor Babaie will speak to the public on November 4 at 4 pm in the Rackham Amphitheater. Please consult the Museum’s website for details: (http://www.umma.umich.edu/view/exhibitions/2007-persian.php).
Persian Visions was developed by Hamid Severi for the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran, and Gary Hallman of the Regis Center for Art, University of Minnesota, and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C. This exhibition was made possible in part by the ILEX Foundation, University of Minnesota McKnight Arts and Humanities Endowment, and the Department of Art, Regis Center for Art, University of Minnesota. Its presentation in Ann Arbor is made possible in part by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost, the University of Michigan Health System, and the University of Michigan Women’s Studies Program.