BARBAD GOLSHIRI, Sefid Châh Cemetery, Mâzandarân, Iran, 2014, C-print, 60 × 90 cm. Courtesy Aaran Gallery, Tehran.


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The historic nuclear accord reached between Iran and world powers on July 14, and the gradual elimination of international sanctions, will usher in what many hope will be a flourishing era for the cultural and artistic scenes in Iran. Although an optimistic breeze was blowing, people are still waiting to see actual shifts in governmental policies, in terms of both censorship and patronage, in the third year of the “government of prudence and hope,” led by President Hassan Rouhani. 

Iran maintains a strict policy on depictions of nudity, women without veils and, in particular, antigovernment sentiment, which can lead to imprisonment, as in the case of Atena Farghadani, who received a 12-year prison sentence for her cartoon depicting politicians as monkeys and cows. A low budget for cultural affairs, together with a shortage of state institutions, leaves support of the arts largely in the hands of galleries and artist-run initiatives. However, in early May, the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, stunned Iranians when all 1,500 billboards in the capital were covered with large-scale reproductions of artworks—including iconic pieces by Rothko, Munch, Rembrandt and Cartier-Bresson. 

Another welcome sign was Iran’s contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale. In the country’s largest national pavilion ever, “The Great Game” (5/9–11/22), curators Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia brought together nearly 50 artists from Iran, as well as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq and Kurdistan.

At home in Tehran, “Towards the Ineffable” (11/21–2/26/16) was a grand retrospective celebrating the life and work of the late painter and multimedia artist Farideh Lashai (1944–2013), curated by Italian critic Germano Celant and Iranian architect-curator Faryar Javaherian, and held in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA). The show also incorporated major pieces from the museum’s famous collection—by both Euro-American and Iranian artists—alongside Lashai’s works. Another major exhibition at TMoCA, “Comprehensible Mentality” (9/15–11/6), featured pieces by 23 influential artists from the Abstract Expressionist, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Art Informel and Art Brut movements. The works were displayed in a large, dimly lit gallery with bright spotlights on each piece, in one of the museum’s most-visited exhibitions. 

There are more than 80 active private galleries in Tehran, many in the city’s upscale northern districts. Aun Gallery presented the massive bronze, magmatic stone, steel and papier-mâché sculptures by Rome-based Bizhan Bassiri (9/11–11/6). With two locations,Etemad Gallery held a retrospective of pioneering modern artist Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam (11/6–12/1). In the affluent Elahiyeh neighborhood, Mah Gallery presented Farzaneh Hosseini’s figurative sculptures (5/22–6/16) and Dastan Gallery offered draftsman and conceptual artist Farhad Gawzan’s new series of drawings (11/27). 

Art Lounge Gallery was inaugurated with a show by Vancouver-based modern sculptor Parviz Tanavoli (11/20) and, later, a solo presentation of Mehdi Darvishi’s negative paintings and printmaking work (11/27–12/9). Mohsen Gallery organized the “5th Tehran Annual Digital Art Exhibition (TADAEX05)” (10/1–16), along with workshops, lectures and performances, and later presented Gohar Dashti’s new series of staged photography exploring themes of death and loss (10/30–11/11). Khak Gallery mounted highly intricate abstract paintings by Mehran Elminia (5/1–18). 

On view downtown, not far from the University of Tehran, at Azad Art Gallery, were Javad Modarresi’s new series of haunting, enigmatic drawings (11/28–12/8). Reza Lavassani’s huge installation comprising many of his papier-mâché pieces in the form of a dining table was shown at Assar Art Gallery (1/30–3/13), where later in the year Alireza Adambakan offered a wholly new, iconoclastic version of religious illustration based on Ashura iconography (10/30–12/1). A few streets over, Shirin Gallery held “The World Champion” (1/2–14), a major multimedia group show curated by Arash Tanhaei commemorating wrestling hero Gholamreza Takhti and later displayed Shirin Ettehadieh’s highly expressive mixed-media paintings (9/25–10/7). Pioneering artist Farshid Maleki displayed his figurative paintings at Hoor Gallery (11/20–12/8). After a period of seven years, Jinoos Taghizadeh presented a massive, politically charged project including drawings, installations, video pieces and appropriation art in O Gallery (11/20–12/2). The gallery also featured Shahab Fotuhi’s highly political work (10/16–28). Lajevardi Foundation’s two-part “Culture of Peace” exhibition (1/30–2/27) brought together artists from 22 countries.

Also downtown, newly opened Aaran Projects, a branch of nearby Aaran Gallery, presented “Curriculum Mortis” (10/2–25), a major solo show by Barbad Golshiri comprising a large, interactive installation, photographs and objects around the theme of gravestones and death memorials. Another newly opened venue downtown, Dena Gallery mounted “Different Strokes of Tehran” (11/27–12/7), a group show of works by celebrated international street artists. The photography-focused Ag Galerie presented views of contemporary Iran by Mehran Mohajer (1/3–28), austere images of paper and fabric by Ghazaleh Hedayat (4/11–5/6) and pictures by Abbas Kosari of temporary actors performing mourning rituals (10/30–11/26), as well as Czech artist Harun Farocki (9/5–30). Having opened in late 2014, Ab-Anbar Gallery organized “At 11:08 March 14th, 2006,” an exhibition of photo-based installations by Reza Aramesh (12/26/14–1/22), in collaboration with the artist-run initiative Sazman Ab. Later, Ab-Anbar hosted site-responsive installations by Mahmoud Bakhshi with digitally altered photographs by Arash Hanaei (10/2–22), and paintings and a film by Raha Raissnia, exhibited for the first time in Tehran (12/4–31), after premiering in the central exhibition “All the World’s Futures” (5/9–11/22), at the 56th Venice Biennale. 

FARHAD AHRARNIA, Variations on a Theme No. 2 [after Liechtenstein], 2015, Khatam (brass, bone and wood), 29 × 47.2 × 3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai.

Founded in 2012, the nation’s first auction house, Tehran Auction, hammered home more than USD 60 million of art at its fourth sale on May 29, with works by Bahman Mohassess, Aydin Aghdashloo, New York-based Manoucher Yektai and Parviz Tanavoli. The event attracted many overseas bidders who made offers via intermediaries.

On November 3, painter Pariyoush Ganji was honored with Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun (Kyokujitsu Chujyusho) for introducing Japanese ink-painting techniques in her classes. Self-taught photographer Newsha Tavakolian was the Principal Prince Claus Laureate and displayed her prints at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam (11/27–3/4/16). In April, the Iranian art community mourned the loss of painter and sculptor Nema Petgar, at the age of 69. 

Across the Gulf, in Dubai, Ala Ebtekar’s “Nowheresville \ ’nä-kōja,-abäd” (4/16–18), at The Third Line gallery, featured installations and drawings at the intersection of 12th-century Persian cosmic philosophy and contemporary scientific imaging of the skies. Green Art Gallery held Nazgol Ansarinia’s explorations of Iranian modernization in “Surfaces & Solids” (11/16–1/9/16). At Lawrie Shabibi, Farhad Ahrarnia looked at the 20th-century fascination with the mythology and imagery of Egypt in “A Dish Fit for Gods” (11/16–1/14/16). Total Fine Arts held a Fereydoun Ave-curated show dedicated to his mentor, “Cy Twombly and the Line Calligraphic” (11/16). 

Further afield, in London, Nader Koochaki was awarded the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize for 2015. Independent curator Vali Mahlouji organized a historical survey, “A Utopian Stage: Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis” (4/21–10/4) at Whitechapel Gallery about the Shah’s lavish avant-garde project that ran from 1967 until 1977. Gagosian Gallery featured the portraits of YZ Kami at its London gallery (4/9–5/30), and Shahpour Pouyan’s series of Persian miniatures stripped of their human figures were shown in “History Travels at Different Speeds” at Copperfield Gallery (9/23–11/13). The calligraphic abstractions of Pooya Aryanpour were seen at Kashya Hildebrand’s project space (6/10–8/31).

The United States witnessed many displays of cultural diplomacy. There was a retrospective of New York-based Shirin Neshat at the Hirshhorn Museum (5/18–9/10), in Washington, DC. Nearby, filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami showed Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), a single-screen projection of five extended shots in homage to Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, at the Sackler Gallery (7/3–9/13). Outside of Boston, on the campus of Wellesley College, the Davis Museum held a survey of Parviz Tanavoli (2/10–6/7) and displayed a multimedia work by Farideh Lashei (9/16–12/13). 

In New York, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum hosted Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s “Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings” (3/13–6/3). Shirin Gallery’s Chelsea space was active, featuring a collaborative pairing of Fereydoun Ave works on paper and installations by Shaqayeq Arabi (10/30–11/21). In Boston, brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh, and their collaborator Hesam Rahmanian, created one of their signature living-room-like installations at ICA Boston (12/16–3/27/16). 

Looking ahead, in March 2016, TMoCA will host Belgian artist Wim Delvoye, featuring 11 of the notorious artist’s major series—including controversial works such as his tattooed pigs. In New York, Grey Art Gallery will mount “Global/Local 1960–2015: Six Artists from Iran,” from January through April.