Can Art Save Iran?

On 14 June, Iranians will go to the polls to choose the successor to outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Against the backdrop of escalating nuclear posturing, and with memories still fresh of the popular disaffection embodied in the mass protests of the Green Movement, the world will be watching. Beyond the clichés, however, Iranian society is more complex than meets the eye. For Tehran’s artists and intellectuals in particular, each day is a delicate balancing act between freedom and subversion.

At the House of Culture at Park Honor el Mandan in the heart of Tehran, around 300 people are gathering for an indie rock concert. An hour before the beginning of the show, the entrance is already heaving. All up the narrow stairs, veiled women and men are squeezed together, clutching cameras – most are young and would not dare to miss the opportunity to attend a performance of this type. Farid, son of a famous Iranian actor and a musician since childhood, is the group’s lead singer. Dark haired, disheveled and bearded, he is, at 35, about to give his first ever public concert. “Without my father’s connections, I never could have organized such an event,” confesses the young musician, hovering at the door.

After the show, the sun disappears behind the towering grey skyline of the Iranian capital, as if melting into the smog. The early-evening March air is still chilly and the young musician re-buttons his coat before leaving the premises in a hurry. Farid later recounts how a mysterious man approached him, nagging him incessantly to rewrite his songs according to verses of the Qur’an. Farid nodded politely, replying he would think about it.

Two weeks earlier, a pair of thieves were hung in the very same park, found guilty of threatening a passer-by with a sabre. Many believe the choice of location for the executions – an area cherished by artists and intellectuals alike – was no coincidence, but instead a tacit warning from the government. For others, however, it was simply linked to the site’s proximity to the crime scene, the park being the closest open public space in the neighborhood.

Two months ahead of the Iranian presidential elections, the intelligentsia exists in a limbo between total liberty and perpetual paranoia. Few countries in the world project such a contested image of freedom of expression. For foreign civil society observers, the picture is clear – in the most recent Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran 174th out of 179 countries. According to the Paris-based NGO, not content with imprisoning journalists and bloggers, the Iranian regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also “harasses the relatives of journalists, including the relatives of those who are abroad.”

Yet, contrary to the image most commonly painted by Western media, the situation is not so black and white. The lifestyle of Tehran’s artists is highly representative of this continuing dichotomy between freedom and oppression. A group marginalized within civil society on account of their actions and free spirit, they at the same time represent the core of Iranian identity. If their position is sensitive, it is also because the cultural heritage of the country is one shaped by mixed values. Dating back to the fall of the Sassanid Empire at the hands of Muslim invaders during the 7th century, contemporary Iranian society is marked by a double belonging – the twin influences of ancient Persia and Islamic tradition.

Though not especially charming at first glance, Tehran bursts with often hidden cultural treasures, as if shielding the newcomer from the extent of the city’s true beauty. Strolling towards Engelhab Square – ‘square of the revolution’ and Tehran’s cultural heart – one would not expect a decrepit high-rise to house an art space in its basement. It is here, however, that Sarah opened her gallery five years ago.

The large paintings of nudes exhibited in such a minimalist setting are outwardly shocking given the context. Most are by famous artists who could not exhibit anywhere else in such a conservative society. Marjan, a divorcee in her early forties, welcomes us without a scarf. Her gallery – not officially declared – is ‘semi-illegal.’ Usually, before each exhibition, the works to be included must be sent to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for approval. Operating off the books, however, Marjan never complies. Advertisements for upcoming shows are disseminated via Facebook and word of mouth. On the flyers she distributes, there is no address.

Despite the difficult exhibition conditions, there are many galleries in Tehran, largely concentrated in the center and north of the city. The Gallery Guide provides the details of more than 30 art spaces that can be visited. All are more or less controlled and under the custody of the government, but content varies hugely from one to another. The pieces displayed in the House of Culture are more ‘politically correct,’ for example, than those in the Aaran Gallery, despite being situated a mere few blocks away.

Introduced to the visual arts early in her childhood, Marjan is not naïve and understands she enjoys special treatment. “The government knows me; they are watching me. But plastic arts are treated differently from other arts. And frankly, right now, the authorities have other priorities.” Recently, Marjan granted carte blanche to three artists from different generations, assuming all responsibility for their work if they were to produce any pieces that proved controversial. Ultimately, however, she was left disappointed with the lack of risk the painters took in their projects. Not a single subversive message emerged. “It looks like the limit is inside of them,” says Marjan, slowly peering into the distance.

Censorship is an inescapable theme on the Iranian art scene. After a year’s leave presenting in France and Switzerland, Rostam, a young artist, has returned home to Tehran for a new exhibition. “In Iran, the red line between what is allowed and what’s not is blurred. We navigate between absolute freedom and total paranoia.” During the event launching the exhibition, hundreds of visitors of all ages arrive. One corner of the room is enclosed by large windows, leading to a patio surrounding an empty swimming pool. Outside, from the small veranda, the skyline is visible. Women’s veils drape casually off their heads, lending an air of mystery and rebelliousness. Rostam estimates Tehran’s artistic community numbers no more than 1,000 individuals. “We all know each other. We go to the same exhibitions, the same restaurants.”

* Names have been changed to protect interview subjects.

Photo © Jonathan Braun