Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Closer Look Contemporary Iranian Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Essay

They despised the Shah. That’s the thing I remember clearly about the Iranian students I knew at my university in south Louisiana when I studied there
from 1973 to 1976. They cared not that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi granted Iranian women the vote in 1963, nor that his schemes to modernize Iran subsidized the Western educations of some of them. That CIA-propped up imperialist bastard, the Iranians told me, was a brutal despot who enriched his elitist cronies and unleashed the Savak secret police to torture and execute those who opposed his monarchist regime.

As Truman Capote reminded us, beware of answered prayers. An old woman I met in Ireland stated it another way, “the devil you don’t know is more scary than the devil you know.” Those students could not have imagined the fatwa-hissing murderous clerics who would commandeer the government just after the Shah split. The theocrats who ushered in the Islamic Republic of Iran and their fanatical goons executed, tortured and raped an indescribable amount of dissident detainees, if fact, according to United Nations statistics, the Islamic Republic has executed more prisoners than any other country in the world with the exception of China.

I think about my Iranian friends from school, and about my elegant friend Nima, a fashion designer, and Mostafa who repaired my Persian rugs and mentions Allah when he serves me tea, Mostafa rebuilt Iranian homes after an earthquake, and about my friend Moshen who calls me “Mrs. Virginia” surely out of deference to my advanced age, Moshen’s parents cancelled their visit because of the travel ban, and I find myself deeply moved by the changes in their country. The 1978 demolition of the Shah’s statue, and the return of Khomeini from exile were little appreciated forewarnings of the drastic political, economic and ideological changes that would take place in Iran. When Museum of Fine Arts, Houston opened its exhibition of Iranian contemporary art, "Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians - The Mohammed Afkhami Collection" through September 24, 2017, a couple of artworks turned my focus to Iran.

Nazgol Ansarinia’s "Pillars: Article 47" is a tantalizing reference to change. Scaled for a pedestal, the epoxy resin object in the form of a column and broken capital is inscribed with a line from Article 47 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, “private ownership, legitimately acquired, is to be respected,” and is meant as commentary on the economic reality in which Tehran’s nouveau riche decorate ostentatious homes with Persian/Roman hybridized architectural features. According to Fereshteh Daftari’s curatorial notes, Ansarinia associates the pretentious displays with “Iran’s financial corruption.”

The artist regrets the constitutional propping up of an economy in which new construction is drastically altering the face of Tehran and rich Iranians flaunt palatial residences. At the time of her 2015 Dubai gallery show she told Jyoti Kalsi of "Gulf News" that the exaggerated hybrid pillars, with no load bearing function, and dramatically lit at night, express wealth and power, and reference Iran’s economy and social structures, and that she intended their rotated text to allegorize the fact that the current economy is shaped and supported by the constitution.

I read Article 47 and several others to understand Ansarinia’s sculpture, and determined it is more precise to say Iran’s current economy is supported by today’s “interpretation” of the constitution. Article 47 indeed guarantees the right to own property, but Article 43 qualifies that right by banning “extravagance and squandering” in all areas of the economy, including consumption, and disallows concentration and circulation of wealth in the hands of specific individuals or groups, and also forbids “the economic dominance of foreigners.” Article 44 impacts Article 47 by declaring mines, banks, insurance, energy, media, transportation, and other sectors are state owned. Written in 1979, the year the artist was born, Iran’s constitution is today being interpreted in a manner which permits Iranians to be filthy rich.

This wasn’t always the case. In the early days of the Islamic Republic, to flaunt wealth got you arrested, imprisoned and executed for being “too Western,” or “decadent,” or monarchist or some other thing that threatened the regime. Those imprisoned naturally had their property confiscated. When Khomeini stole the assets of Iran’s richest people and of foreign investors, he said he was justifiably seizing the “illegitimate” property of immoral capitalists.

Inevitably economic reformists asserted influence, President Rafsanjani called for a free market, re-established foreign trade relations, re-opened the stock market, and encouraged privatization of state-owned industries. In 2003 "Forbes" estimated Rafsanjani’s personal wealth to be in excess of $1 billion. When he died in January 2017 the financial news valued his partial interest in a university at $20 billion, and according to a US congressional report, his family’s pistachio farm and trade monopoly is worth over $700 million. Rafsanjani’s empire is puny though compared to the assets controlled by Iran’s top banana. In 2013, "Reuters" reported that Ayatollah Khamenei oversees a business empire worth around $95 billion with stakes in every sector of Iranian industry, held within a charity organization funded by seized properties. Compared to the Supreme Leader, the Shah was a peasant. The point is, once the mullahs decided it was OK to be stinking rich, the judiciary and Revolutionary Guards and oversight committees came to interpret the constitutional prohibition of immodest affluence quite broadly.

President Rouhani’s 2016 address to the UN General Assembly reinforces this. Speaking from a podium in the New York assembly hall, the turbaned “moderate” assured nations that with the lifting of global sanctions, Iran’s economy is safe and secure, and has an impressive growth rate strengthened by reforms as well as fiscal and financial discipline. And don’t forget those oil and gas reserves. As I watched Rouhani talk-up Iran’s favorable investment environment, I noted the irony in the Islamic Republic being rich and decadent like the Great Satan.

Ansarinia’s sculpture instantly brought to mind the ancient citadel of Persepolis which Darius built in 515 BC as the seat of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty. One would expect rich Iranians to flash architectural features borrowed from ancient Persian palace ruins. Iranians are knowledgeable and proud of their pre-Islamic past, by 480 BC the Persian Empire was the largest in the world, until Alexander the Great relieved the Persians of their wealth and burned Persepolis (330 BC), probably to retaliate for Persia’s fifth century sack of the Athenian Acropolis. This is rich: in his "History of the Persian Empire" the scholar A. T. Olmstead discusses relief carvings in Darius’ audience hall which depict that some of the king’s more foppish subjects wore beards artificially curled with a “permanent."

Many years ago I marked in my Koran references to the veil, hoping to understand the scriptural basis for enforcement, as well as the veil’s importance to devout women. Surah 24 reveals that the Prophet should tell female believers to cover their head with a scarf that also drapes over their neck and bosom, except in the presence of male family, male in-laws, male slaves, male servants not having need of women, eunuchs one presumes, and males too young to have knowledge of women, and Surah 33 tells the Prophet to tell faithful men to tell their wives to wear an over-garment so they won’t be given any trouble. In March of 1979 it became unlawful for Iranian women to be unveiled in public, and at the time the veil was imposed it became dangerous to show hair and makeup. The morality police patrolled in cars and undercover decency fanatics assisted them by reporting violators. Women were arrested, jailed, flogged, the unmarried subjected to virginity tests, some executed. As stated in curatorial notes, the internet and liberalization during President Khatami’s term in office caused some loosening up. Now we see quite seductive emphasis on hair and makeup.

It would be simplistic to view the blonde hair, blue contact lens, and nose job in Shirin Aliabadi’s staged photograph "Miss Hybrid 3" as a statement solely against compulsory veiling. Back in 2006, Glenn Lowry described the art in "Without Boundaries," an exhibition of contemporary art from the Islamic world organized by Daftari at MOMA, as “fraught with tensions and contradictions.” Lowry’s words infuse Aliabadi’s photo. Its contradictions leave room for objection to Western stereotypical views of Islamic female subjugation, as well as the fact that Koran-waving men use Islam as an excuse to control wives and daughters.

Mohammed Afkhami hopes this exhibition of 27 artworks by 23 Iranian-born artists will help to dissolve stereotypes and further our understanding of Iranians. In a 2016 video interview for "The Guardian," Afkhami said Iran has thousands of years of history, and regardless of what happens politically, its culture cannot be suppressed. True. Repression expands the imagination, inner dreams become powerful. In the same manner in which Iranians became talented bootleggers after their government outlawed liquor, became highly educated and entrepreneurial after corruption and that idiotic war against Saddam destroyed their economy, bypassed the state’s filtering system when the regime blocked social media sites that frightened it, artistic and cultural expression will become more fertile.

I’ll end with a confounding story about Parviz Tanavoli, one of the artists in this exhibition, who is considered the grand seigneur of Middle Eastern art since his 2008 record breaking auction sale of the sculpture "The Wall (Oh Persepolis)" at Christie’s Dubai. In July 2016 Tanavoli was arrested at the Tehran Airport and prevented from boarding a flight to London where he was due to give a speech at the British Museum. Iran’s Culture and Media Court charged him with “causing confusion in the public mind and spreading falsehoods,” they took his passport and forbade him to leave Iran. Tanavoli’s lawyer now has the absurd job of proving that the artist’s sculptures, which are in the collections of the British Museum, Tate Modern, MOMA, do not confuse people and spread falsehoods.

Images - Nazgol Ansarinia, "Pillars: Article 47", 2015, epoxy resin and paint. © Nazgol Ansarinia. Courtesy: Green Art Gallery, Dubai, and Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.

Shirin Aliabadi, "Miss Hybrid 3", 2008, chromogenic print. ©Shirin Aliabadi. Courtesy: Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.