Ibraaz Talks: Global Art Forum 8
Shiva Balaghi: in conversation with Stephanie Bailey
In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum.
Stephanie Bailey: We are here with Shiva Balaghi, a scholar in Iranian cultural history who has just spoken at the Global Art Forum on her work with the collection of Mohammed Afkhami. Shiva, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the notion that you put forward: the collection as an archive. I wanted to ask you how this then relates to what you said about Mohammed Afkhami’s collection having the potential to show an alternative Iranian history.
Shiva Balaghi: Well, Mohammed has been collecting Iranian art in Dubai now for a decade, and he is particularly interested in Iranian politics and Iranian history, so in his collection he tends to gravitate towards those types of works of art. This book that Venetia Porter and I are writing about his collection – and the talk today was a little preview of that – really takes his collection as an archive of Iranian history, and says: what are the moments that Iranian artists from the 1960s to the contemporary period think are important? How do these artists reflect that history? And how does that history manifest itself in their artwork? So we really think of the art collection as an archive that presents an alternative history of Iran.
SB: This leads on quite nicely to a date that you mentioned in your talk, 1962, which was the year that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired – was it two works?
ShB: Yes, two works, and the artists were Pilaram and Zenderoudi. Alfred Barr collected them for MoMA when they were still young and in the early stages of their career; they are now both considered modern masters. The Afkhami collection has several examples from both artists – I chose to show just a couple of them – and so my theory is, why is it that when we go into MoMA and we look at the way they hang the canonical works of modernism these two works aren’t hung, and yet they were acquired? I call it a closeted modernism; it’s nodding to the fact that yes, there was non-western modernism, and yet not inscribing it into MoMA’s hanging of the canonical works of modern art.
SB: Yes, because you did say these were the first works to be acquired?
ShB: I believe them to be the first works; they also acquired a Marcos Grigorian – he’s an Iranian Armenian. That work was acquired in 1965. I need to do more thorough research to see if there were any earlier works purchased, but I believe them to be if not the first then certainly amongst the first.
SB: I wanted to stay with this idea of closeted modernism given that this year is the first time Art Dubai has presented a modern section, and I just wanted to think about this notion of closeted modernism in relation to Dubai as a gathering place which you talked about as well. I wonder if we could find a connection between the two.
ShB: Well it’s fascinating, we have here in Dubai for the first time, as you said, galleries showing modern Middle Eastern art and also South Asian art. Included in that is a gallery that is showing works by Ardashir Muhassis, who is an Iranian modern artist, and there are several key modern artists in the Afkhami collection as well. What we’re finding is that as interest in contemporary Iranian art grows, people are going back and seeing who the pioneers were who were making Iranian modern art in the fifties, sixties and seventies.
So Dubai is now starting to take note of modern Iranian art as well, and this is important. As I said in my talk I really feel that Dubai is a key capital of the Iranian art world; if we think about the Iranian art world as where the people who care about Iranian art, who collect Iranian art, who make Iranian art, live, it’s beyond the borders of the nation-state of Iran at this point, and Dubai is a very key place for two reasons:
a) It has some of the main galleries that deal in contemporary Iranian art and modern Iranian art;
b) Some of the main collectors are based in Dubai.
When there are these events like Art Dubai and the Global Art Forum we all come together; it’s like our annual convention. You will see the gallerists and the curators and the scholars and the collectors who work on Iranian art all coming together in Dubai and some of us can’t go to Iran, some of us who are in Iran can’t go to Europe or America, but we can all come to Dubai. Because really what you need to be part of the Dubai art world is an interest in, and a passion for, art, and Dubai provides a safe and exciting place for us all to come together and experience our appreciation for art.
SB: Do you have a context for this? Why Dubai specifically; how did that come about?
ShB: It’s interesting, I was speaking to Maryam Massoudi yesterday who divides her time between Dubai and Tehran, and she started coming to Dubai in the sixties and seventies, and her father was involved in creating relations between the Iranian and the Arab world. She was telling me that there’s actually a very long history of Iranians coming to Dubai. Part of it is obviously the proximity, but a great deal of it is also to do with the attitude of the Dubai government, which is very much one of embracing a pluralistic cultural atmosphere and one in which a lot of Iranians feel they can flourish and be themselves.
But there’s also a political economy to the art world here in Dubai. Sometimes I’ll speak to artists who live and work in Iran and they’ll say: look, I can go into my studio, I can make art for three months, and then I can have a show in Dubai and that show will be enough money for me to live on for four or five years.
So Dubai creates a space in which the political economy of the Iranian art market can function, but it’s also aspirational. Sometimes I’ll hear artists who are living and working in Iran say: I’m going to try and be the next Farhad Moshiri. So it also sustains the imagination of this generation of Iranian artists.
SB: I’m going to ask you one more question because you brought up Farhad Moshiri. In your talk you made a point about quite a well-known discussion around artists working inside Iran and artists working outside Iran and the relevance of this, and I was just wondering if you could give us your take on that.
ShB: This is interesting, I mean I myself live and work in the USA, and sometimes when I speak about Iranian art I speak exclusively about artists who are immigrants or in exile, who live outside of Iran, and sometimes I work on artists who exclusively live and work in Iran. In fact, two of the artists that I work on – who I’ve Skyped and called and emailed – I met them for the first time here at the Global Art Forum, which is something that happens often. But one thing that I’ve found is that regardless of where Iranian artists live and make their art they keep in touch with each other, they follow each other’s work.
There’s one artist I know, Nicky Nodjoumi, who lives and works in Brooklyn; he is on his mobile phone to artists who live and work in Iran all the time. Sometimes artists in exile show their work in Iran but there’s always the Internet where keep up with each other. I had one artist, Simin Keramati, who, when I started working on her, lived and worked in Iran. She has since moved to Canada – this happens often – but when she living and working in Iran I asked her, do you follow the works of Shirin Neshat and Farhad Moshiri and Nicky Nodjoumi, these people who we mostly think of as focused on the western art market? And she said we absolutely keep up with their work, whether we like or not, we keep up with their work. She said you have to realize that those of us who live and work in Iran are in our own kind of exile; by virtue of being an artist and being an Iranian artist you’re in a kind of internal exile. So a lot of the artists I work with do see themselves, obviously in different ways, as part of this larger Iranian art world.
Dr. Shiva Balaghi is a cultural historian of the Middle East, who has published widely on contemporary Iranian visual culture from the late Qajar era through the contemporary period. She is an International Humanities Fellow at Brown University, where she teaches Art History and History. Her books include Picturing Iran: Art, Society, and Revolution (co-edited), Saddam Hussein: A Biography, and Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East (co-edited). Balaghi is a founding board member of the Association of Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA). She is an associate editor of Review of Middle East Studies and Vice President of the American Institute of Iranian Studies.