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From the Ground Up

Discussing arts infrastructure in Tehran

007 / 8 October 2014

This brief conversation with curators Azar Mahmoudian and Nazila Noebashari centers around the question of infrastructure, or lack thereof, in Iran and more specifically, Tehran. Topics of discussion include the degradation of relationships between Iranian cultural institutions and local artists networks; the question of what can be done to rebuild them or to organize outside of them; and the tension between the relative isolation of Tehran from the global flow of artists, artworks and ideas against sustained interest in multiple forms of Iranian cultural production outside of the country


Firstly, Azar Mahmoudian presents her concerns about the hyper visibility of Iranian artists outside of Iran, while she is eager about new collaborative efforts to organize physical arts spaces that make contributions outside of market dynamics. Nazila Noebashari's predictions for the future are hopeful, as she recognizes the increased interest of young audiences in the visual arts.  


America the Beautiful installation view, September 2012.
America the Beautiful installation view, September 2012.


Azar Mahmoudian is an independent curator and researcher based in Tehran. She also lectures in critics and comparative art history in various universities in Tehran.


Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi: What do you recognize as the most pressing concerns in the visual arts in Iran currently?


Azar Mahmoudian: Iranian artists have built diverse and interesting practices in the region and internationally, yet we should be careful not to romanticize the Iranian art scene.


People often enthusiastically tell us that considering political obstacles and socio-economic sanctions what artists are doing is fascinating, as if is we should celebrate the mere existence of a contemporary art scene in the Islamic Republic. While it is very important that we appreciate the resilience of the scene, this sort of discourse oversimplifies the current situation.  Truth is, the Iranian art scene is actually suffering from a drastic lack of basic infrastructures.


LSM: How so? What are the areas that you think are most lacking? What are the infrastructural or institutional gaps and how are they being filled?


AM: We have to first clarify what we mean by infrastructure The art market is growing, and we sometimes translate this growth to broader developments in the art scene. For instance, we brag about the establishment of the Tehran Auction as a noble achievement that signifies the emergence of a self-sustained market for the arts. Meanwhile, the situation in academic environments is pretty terrible. Universities are disconnected from new developments in international contemporary art and still use syllabi and methods from the 1960s. Some faculty members are frustrated and many of them already left their positions. Independent intellectuals also prefer to find affiliations in institutions outside the country.  Cultural institutions are either state-run or limited to small commercial galleries without access to public or external funds. Some of these galleries are doing their best to occasionally exhibit small, non-commercial or research based practices, but none of them can afford to regularly support such practices. Also, they cannot afford to put on international projects. It seems what we call the "globalization" of Iranian art moves in only one direction- objects of art go outside, but nothing comes in.


Whereas domestic censorship has been fetishized as the focal point of many debates on Iranian art, its contemporary art scene really craves structural support.


LSM: It seems that what you are identifying is a continued disjuncture between state-sanctioned institutions and artists who wish to operate independently. Yet, you identify current artistic production as dynamic. It's a very particular set of circumstances. How do you connect what is happening now with the availability of support in the past and future infrastructural possibilities?  


AM: Since the late 1990s, we have witnessed a surge of global attention towards the art of Iran. The same is more or less true about the rest of the region. There are certain geopolitical and financial reasons behind this, rather than opening up that debate I think it is more important is to see what the consequences of this sudden international attention when national institutions and local academic spaces are deteriorating.


In the past 15 years, the opportunities to exhibit outside Iran have been majorly limited to 'group survey exhibitions of Iranian artists' in certain institutions in Europe and North America. These survey exhibitions have  become more and more problematic, because no matter what  the idea and intention of the curator is, they primarily function as holistic introductions to Iranian culture and the sociopolitical situation for an imagined foreign audience. The artworks are reduced to what they may represent about the society from which they come from and formal qualities of artworks are presented as secondary to such representational value. It's a classic story- "Iranian art" thus becomes the Other of the global art scene, and it predictably performs and reproduces whatever makes this otherness more novel and more interesting. 


LSM: These issues you speak of are not exclusive to the Iranian case, but are the forms that exhibitions or art from the non-west or global south often take in traditional art 'centres'


AM: Indeed, this is not exclusive to Iran. Many southern nations have also been subject to this kind of attention. But the situation in Iran is specific precisely because of the lack of local independent institutions to make up for the effects of international attention.


These survey shows are not responsible for the problematic situation on their own. They only become problematic when the biggest events that are happening in the country's art scene are these exhibitions outside of the country and the auctions. These two formats have now become the primary and at times monopolizing channels of visibility and recognition for a majority of artists in Iran. While in other countries in the region, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, the new global regard is just one part of their art scene, I believe in Iran the whole scene is on the verge of dissolving under an external gaze and the promising market. Just look at other art hubs of the region, Salt (Istanbul), Ashkal Alwan (Beirut) and Townhouse (Cairo) were all established during the same time that this global interest towards the art of the region emerged. In Iran you don't see any initiatives at that scale


LSM: A discussion of infrastructure must also include a discussion of the Internet, the support of which is still, very purposefully, limited in Iran. Of course, I don't wish to overstate the power of the Internet as a tool, as has often been the case.


AM: In the past few years we have heard much about the capacity for new technologies to create 'virtual' alternative platforms for visibility and dialogue. But the Internet's emancipatory power has limits. Today, the romanticization of virtual spaces can mostly serve a local regime, which does not like actual interventions in the physical public sphere. We should bare in mind that formation of actual collectives and appropriation of the physical space by the people is a very critical issue in Iran today. Fetishization of the internet also serves the bad conscience of the global art scene, which benefits from showing Iranian art but does not invest in the processes which shape it.


Being present and fighting to maintain a physical space for dialogue and collective action brings with it another set of ethics  and  another level of responsibility. By using the internet we can feel more connected but this doesn't replace the need for physical spaces for interaction and in some ways it deflects efforts to build these. A skype discussion cannot possibly replace interacting in real life and forming real communities.


LSM: Do you view this as a problem to be rectified? And if so, what are the solutions, possibilities, both real and imagined that can you conceive of for this double-edged sword of hyper-interest and infrastructural failure? 


AM: We need solidarity amongst the artistic community to join forces and shake the foundations of the current structure at every level – universities, museums, galleries and so on. This can happen through experimenting in new forms of artistic practice and through building sustainable, physical, alternative art spaces. I should add that in the past few years I have slightly changed my mind in this regard. For a while I thought the best way to resist the current situation was to form parallel spaces where we can work autonomously and reduce opportunities for either clash or even contact with the current system and artistic apparatus.  Now I think this is not enough. We also need to directly intervene. Everyday, I witness many people who still have much to offer step aside because they are exhausted. Many university professors prefer to hold small, private classes than work at national universities, sometimes people leave the country all together. Artists boycott the Tehran museum and other state-run organizations through frustration with a system that doesn't recognize them. Nonetheless, I think if we abandon the scene, the situation will only deteriorate. We not only need to create alternative and parallel spaces, but we also have to reclaim national institutions. Universities and museums belong to all of us and we should make our presence felt.





Aaran Art Gallery, view from the garden.
Aaran Art Gallery, view from the garden.


Nazila Noebashari is a curator and the director of Aaran Gallery in Tehran.


LSM: Traditional sorts of art world discourse often drew lines between central and peripheral art worlds, a hierarchical ordering of places. Such discourse has been replaced by a language of multiplicity, and the use of the term hub, as a city or area where artistic production is visible, viable and an essential part of the cultural landscape. Does that idea resonate more strongly? Do you conceive of Tehran as an artistic hub, globally or regionally?


NN: Tehran is a hub, it is a major production center in this region. There is no other country in this part of the world that has such a lively and progressive scene. There are infrastructural limitations of course, but what is important and what makes Iran a major player in the region, is the strength of its past and the hope for the future that is consistently upheld and cannot be stopped.


LSM: The disintegration of civil society in Iran poses a major issue in the development of independent institutions and educational platforms for artistic activity. For now, does the gallery space fill that role or at least provide an imaginary space for the production of civic engagement?


NN: There is nothing imaginary about the involvement of the civil society with visual arts in Iran.  Visual –progressive – art is a large component of civil society. The independence the visual arts has obtained since the hardships of the first two decades of post-revolution Iran has given it strength and perseverance. A survey of many exhibitions over the last few years reveals to what extent the visual arts is engaged with contemporary society and politics. The economic independence of the visual arts and the existence of private gallery spaces, despite all the limitations inside Iran, have created a lively scene whilst other branches of the arts are dependent on governmental support and therefore are much more restrained. For example, the lively theatre scene of Iran is completely dependent on governmental permits and funding.


LSM: So, if the visual arts can operate independently and without reliance on government support, limited infrastructure is not necessarily prohibitive. What are the current practical realities of working in Tehran today? What are the limitations in infrastructure and can these be approached pragmatically or viewed as productive for your work?


NN: There is great interest in Iranian art from all over the world and with the election of the new administration we are now receiving more and more foreign visitors. Traveling to Iran has been made easy and more journalists are visiting and finding out more about art.

The Museum of Contemporary Art of Tehran is now in the hands of more knowledgeable people than the last period. Ultimately, if the political negotiations with world powers are concluded to the benefit of Iran, then I believe more doors will be opened, particularly with the facilitation of banking and travel.


LSM: The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the few institutions that has endured, having been established just two years before the revolution of 1979. Yet the support it provides to artists seems to ebb and flow depending on the priorities of the administration and broader governmental remit. Do you see TMOCA's role changing under this new administration?


NN: The administration of Dr. Rouhani is paying special attention to the arts and culture of Iran and although it's still too soon to judge, their whole attitude is more supportive and encouraging than the past administration.


LSM: On the other hand, arts infrastructure cannot be centered on just one large museum. What other institutional gaps are there? How do you respond to these?


NN: We need better lecturers and faculty members and visiting lecturers from other countries. And more private galleries and foundations, but that will be fairly easy to reach once people feel secure in their investments and start new spaces and ventures. Iranians are very versatile and we rapidly react to reforms.


LSM: Iranian social and cultural history if often discussed as a series of ruptures, with institutions of the state consciously separating forms of cultural knowledge in the present from the past, distinguishing their ideological messages. It often falls to individuals to retrace the connections that are still shared in collective memory, yet have been disconnected institutionally. How do you connect what is happening in the present to past narratives and future possibilities? 


NN: An important component of Iranian Identity and culture is continuity, it can be found in everything we do. There have been major and often violent upheavals, but no historical shock, however drastic, has been able to break the chain. 


While visiting encyclopedic museums one can witness the chain of art production that has remained strong for millennia. It is important, if not vital, not only for this part of the world, but for the world to nurture and to support artists of a nation that has endured more than its fair share. 


LSM: Since opening your gallery in 2009, has you audience changed? How do you consciously building ways to engage your publics?


NN: Our local audience is young collectors, as well as established collectors both inside and outside the country, young artists, students and faculty members of universities and generally a good number of enthusiasts who show up for openings on Fridays.


The audience has changed for the better over the past decade, with many more young collectors and students eager to see new works of art.

About the author

Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi

Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi is a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at New York University.