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Notes on Women in Iranian Art

A Review

006 / 27 February 2014

Iran is a country where more than half of university graduates as well as many of its leading contemporary artists are female.[1] Yet, though women entered the canon of modernism in Iranian art with the same vigour as men, albeit fewer in numbers, there is a glaring void of information on them. In most art history curricula, notable female names tend to be missed – such as Artemisia Gentileschi's bulky baroque paintings, or Hilma Af Klint's pioneering abstract art. This lack of material reveals a marked gap in Iran's cultural history, with implications for future generations.


In thinking about the absence of women artists in Iranian art history, this study will look at the positioning of these artists both collectively and independently, and consider how a more rigorous inspection may benefit or harm these artists. In such a reading, one must also consider the country itself, a place where all sectors of society are fighting to substantiate their own narrative of history. Of course, though once recorded, history is murky and almost mythical, it is also a source and expression of power.[2] This is why remembrance and reconstitution of such historical narratives are vital.


Poster for the exhibition Unexposed, curated by Tara Aghdashloo, which took place in Brussels (2012), Athens and Warsaw (2013).
Poster for the exhibition Unexposed, curated by Fery Malek-Madani, which took place in Brussels (2012), Athens and Warsaw (2013).


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In the case of women in Iran, their absence from professional artistic practice is conventionally tied to family and household duties. 'There's a lot of women artists in Iran, but our only problem is housework, kids and husbands. They always take precedence,' says Lili Golestan in conversation, translator and founder of Golestan Art Gallery. The gallery is one of the most prominent in Iran and has introduced hundreds of artists. Golestan comes from an eminent background herself – her father, Ebrahim Golestan, is a leading figure in Iranian cinema's New Wave, and well-known author. Golestan started as a translator, and from the beginning she faced a male-dominated society that made it difficult to accept women's contribution. She recalls how she translated her first book at the age of 24, and how people said that her father must have translated it for her. Yet over the years, Golestan, notorious for her resilience and stern approach to her work, became an integral part of Iran's modern art history.


In 1981, and at the onset of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which stifled the economy and weakened all cultural institutions, Golestan turned her garage into a bookstore. A few years later, she transformed it into an art gallery. 'I went to the Ministry of Culture to get permission, and the man in charge asked me 'why do you come here every day? Where is your man?' I told him I don't have a man, and I'm pretty sure he felt sorry for me and gave the documents.' Yet Golestan explains that in the arts, as in most fields in Iran, the private sector has conventionally been more liberal than public institutions. Most galleries are privately owned and arguably have a more subdued gendered politics and/or discrimination. When broaching this to curator Fery Malek-Madani, Malek-Madani agreed, saying that it might in fact be easier for a woman to be an artist in Iranian culture, since men are usually expected to be the primary breadwinner in the household.


Shohreh Mehran, from Schoolgirls series, 2009. Oil on canvas.
Shohreh Mehran, from Schoolgirls series, 2009. Oil on canvas.

Indeed, Iranian women have been actively contributing to the nation's arts and culture for thousands of years, albeit in more conventionally 'feminine' art forms – textiles, carpet-weaving and so on – everything one might term 'applied art'. Around the 1940s, women entered the scene as Reza Shah Pahlavi (the father of Iran's last monarch) allowed them to freely study and practice as artists. Women such as Behjat Sadr, Farah Osouli, Bita Vakili and Mansureh Hosseini began working in fine arts and became well-known artists and teachers. The artists experimenting in this period triggered entire new movements, participated in international art fairs, and opened galleries. But while a limited number of individuals (mostly men, and mostly European educated) excitedly explored Iran's belated 'modernism' in the visual arts, none specifically focus on women.


'A book on Iranian women artists only, would marginalize them even more,' Dr. Hamid Keshmirshekan explained in conversation, an author of several books on contemporary and modern Iranian art. He explains how gendered categories actually undermine women artists when they should be acknowledged as artists and only artists. Still, society is not (yet) blind to racial, sexual, gendered, ethnic, and other such categories. And it does not seem like we are in a post-post-feminist world quite yet, in which women ascend professional ladders based on merit and merit alone, on par with male counterparts and without the need for any equality-seeking movement, or even a term such as feminism. That utopian reality is only attainable through a healthy process of social development and collective awareness. It is not so much 'affirmative action', but affirmative recognition. This is a battle about the politics of knowledge, which is pivotal in relations of power. As Bond and Gilliam explain, 'the politics of society becomes the politics of knowledge expressed in various fundamental forms of appropriation, interpretation and exclusion.'[3] This basically means that knowledge and its production is political in nature, creating the discourse of power. In this case, it is more difficult to pin down an 'exclusion' rather than presenting an alternative interpretation.


Shohreh Mehran, from Schoolgirls series, 2009. Oil on canvas.
Shohreh Mehran, from Schoolgirls series, 2009. Oil on canvas.

In his article, 'Neo-Traditionalism and Modern Iranian Painting: The Saqqa-khaneh School in the 1960s', Keshmirshekan writes that 'unlike other fields of modern Iranian studies, such as socio-politics and economics, one of the immediately obvious problems in the compilation of a well-balanced body of research on different aspects of contemporary Iranian art is the scarcity of any precedent.'[4] In absence of precedence, chances of misinformation rise exponentially. This is why critics have scrutinized the recently amplified infatuation with Middle East and Iranian art, pointing to the readily packaged and superficial understandings of the region's contemporary artwork as encompassed within a kind of regional 'trend'.[5] Keshmirshekan notes how this 'outsider' viewpoint – one that simplifies and reduces a region into cultural stereotypes and tropes – is at times based on clichéd definitions of the country's limitations, oppressions, political issues and censorship. As such, Keshmirshekan notes, curators, auction houses, and galleries go looking for work that fits the preconceptions. And 'if it's not in the narrative, then they don't like it.'[6]


Yet, Iranian women have lived, for centuries, in a patriarchal system that has excluded them from cadres of social and political power. In the decades preceding the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and with the attention of former empress Farah Pahlavi, women experienced a more inclusive social and educational environment. The complexities of their role in maintaining this system, in challenging and redefining it, is a tough and tantalizing story that needs to be critically examined. While, as Keshmirshekan mentions, segregating and isolating a (marginalized) group of society for the sake of discourse may emphasize their subsidiary position, not highlighting their presence will in effect naturalize their exclusion and undermine the struggle for power.


Most artists I have spoken to are aware of this contingency. 'After the [1979 Islamic] revolution in Iran, the world came looking for Iranian women artists, even more than men,' says Shohreh Mehran, a well-known painter who has worked steadily in post-revolution Iran. 'They wanted to see what women were like in a "backward, miserable society", and how much oppression they face. But we tried not to get caught up in this game.'[7] Mehran says the idea of her art being exhibited only because she is a woman is almost offensive. Yet she does take part in shows where the subject matter is women. 'Of course the issue of women exists,' she notes. 'I see how we have to wear layers and layers of clothing and how we're limited. So it might be a part of my subject.'[8] In her School Girls series (2009–present), for example, we see female students in concordant uniforms designed to dilute individualism. In each piece, the faces are elegantly hidden – either behind a hand or blocked from sight. There is a sense of heedless jubilance in the way the students are walking: hands around each other's necks, with their mantos' playfully flowing.


Shohreh Mehran, from Schoolgirls series, 2009. Oil on canvas.
Shohreh Mehran, from Schoolgirls series, 2009. Oil on canvas.

For Elham Issari, a young painter trained at London's Chelsea College of Arts and Design and based in Tehran since 2011, some female artists feel pressured to depict female-oriented subjects. 'I wouldn't dare say there's no oppression, of course there is. But not every single female artist has to be this oppressed female thing,' she explains. 'Maybe I want to paint trees, but I'm still an artist!'[9] Issari insists that an exhibition should not be treated like a mosque – with separate sections for men and women. However, outside of Iran there have been successful attempts at all-women's shows, such as Unexposed, curated by Feri Malek-Madani in Brussels in 2012. The show's 75 artworks by 40 artists, then travelled to Athens, Warsaw and Tehran, attracting a lot of media coverage, including a report by the Iranian government's own English language channel, Press TV.[10] Yet, when in 2001, Malek-Madani did a similar albeit smaller exhibition and recalls how, she recalls the utter surprise of many foreign viewers in finding there were so many female artists working in Iran at all.


For 2012's Unexposed, Malek-Madanispecifically looked for lesser-known female artists who were not just Iranian, but resided in the country, as opposed to the very active diaspora. The show also included a younger demographic of artists who were raised under the Islamic Republic. 'Speaking to these young people in Iran, it was incredible to see that despite the circumstances and all these ideas that were imposed on them, they were able to throw that out and find their own way,' she says. Such exhibitions may risk the sort of marginalization that Keshmirshekan also talks about, but they can also provide a record of cultural production that has been historically neglected, while setting a precedent for future criticism on their works.[11]


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Newsha Tavakolian was not included in Unexposed. Her story starts from when she was a 16 year-old photojournalist for Iranian newspapers in late 1990s. She got paid close to nothing at first, then a bit more. She travelled with her work, went to war zones and taught herself how to take better photos. Her profile as a photographer has now crossed over to contemporary art with successful exhibitions in Iran and around the world – her latest was in New York's Thomas Erben Gallery (Look, April 2013).


Tavakolian's first love, however, was singing. She has daydreamed about it since she was little. Women are not allowed to publicly sing in Iran and so she moved on. Later, she captured the underground singing culture in her Listen (2011) series and created mock CD-covers with portraits of women singing emotionally. Nevertheless, when it comes to certain kind of bondage, Tavakolian states:


I don't like to victimize myself and say, 'oh they don't let us.' I don't take no for an answer. And this is how I was raised in this society. Because as a woman you have to always prove to yourself that you can. It's not like they trust you from the beginning.[12]


Tavakolian's is a sentiment shared by many female professionals in Iran – the sense that, by virtue of being a woman, they have to work harder to be taken seriously.


In this, Tavakolian's sense of agency and control is clear-cut. She spares no time for self-pity, noting:

Iranian women today are so much stronger and cleverer than previous generations. Older generations were more conservative, they cared more about what the society would think or say of them.[13]


This may be true, but the problem is that it is hard to know, since no one has studied or inspected the different social, political and economic aspects in the lives and works of Iranian women artists. There is no way of understanding the initial absence or poignant emergence of women in the Iranian art scene. Iran's archives don't include such comprehensive records, and those rare books such as Pioneering Women of Iran[14]are written and published outside the country.[15]


* * *


In the past few decades, there has been an increasingly pronounced presence of Iranian women artists actively circulating the international market. From Monir Farmanfarmaian and Farideh Lashai (godmothers of Iranian modern art), to Shirin Neshat, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Pouran Jinchi, these names are revered and paraded around key galleries and auctions.[16]This is a promising trend, except that the really meaty price tags still belong to men's works not just in Iran, but also universally – only around five per cent of works featured in major permanent collections in the USA and Europe are by women, while less than three per cent of art books are solely on female artists.[17] The difference is that in other western countries, you have Dinner Parties (1974–79),[18] groups and studies trying to decode the gap between male and female artist representations, and entire museums dedicated to women in the arts.[19]


The value of an artwork is a volatile concept that depends on many factors not in the scope of this article. But economic prowess is a strong indication of access to power.


Newsha Tavakolian, from the series Listen, photograph.
Newsha Tavakolian, from the series Listen, photograph.

Back in Iran, in June 2013, the Tehran Auction sales amounted to $1.3 million.[20] The top piece was an untitled oil painting from Sohrab Sepehri's Tree-Trunk series (1970), which took seven billion rials (over $208,000). Meanwhile, a calligraphic painting by Mohammad Ehsaii sold for 4 billion rials, another by Hossein Zenderudi for three billion rials, and a painting by Reza Derakhshani went for 2.7 billion rials. Iranian women artists did not reach anywhere near such values. On this financial disparity, Leila Heller, founder and president of Leila Heller Gallery in New York, pointed out to me that such artists were mainly established before the revolution and fermented their markets over time, whereas a lot of female artists have been active only recently. 'It's as if you are comparing Monet, Picasso, or Warhol with a younger, living artist like Damien Hirst or Richard Prince,' she conjectured. 'The latter of course being comparable to Shirin Neshat, who is famous, and has a great price point like those artists.' Neshat is a great example of a successful Iranian artist. She is perhaps one of the most renowned Iranian artists internationally, and at a point in her career where whatever she does turns heads. Neshat has a strong female-narrative as well, and her subjects are usually women – herself or others. But, and there is a nagging 'but' here – Neshat has been working outside of Iran for over thirty years and her absence from her subject-country, which inspires and subsequently categorizes her work (by galleries, curators, reviewers), has raised objections against her work both from within Iran and outside the country. Some Iranians criticize Neshat's understanding of Iran as too removed from its present realities. However, her relevance has undoubtedly helped put the country and its artists on the map.


* * *


Newsha Tavakolian, from the series Listen, photograph.
Newsha Tavakolian, from the series Listen, photograph.

The absence of Iranian women artists in recorded history and pedagogy is a critical indication of their marginalized position in that society. As suggested by speaking to a range of modern and contemporary Iranian female artists, these individuals put their practice above historic prevalence or lack thereof with a view to the future rather than the past. Yet, a closer look at their role and trajectory in the art world, and what facilitated and impeded their growth, is necessary. Since the onset of the 'Cultural Revolution' in the early 1980s, which reshaped national culture into a more Islamic identity, the new Iranian regime monopolized the country's historic narrative. Its ruling ideology penetrated aspects of education and cultural production in a systematic way. In this context, it is vital for groups to reclaim their presence and not to feel ashamed to highlight their own identities. Investigating sources of knowledge and circumstances of this production will allow for a more accurate approach to Iran's art history as a whole, and the activities of female artists in particular.



[1] Fariba Sahraei, 'Iranian University Bans on Women Causes Consternation,' BBC News, 22 September 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19665615

[2] C. G. Bond and A. Gilliam, eds., Social Construction of the Past: Representation as Power (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hamid Keshmirshekan, 'Neo-Traditionalism and Modern Iranian Painting: The Saqqa-khaneh School in the 1960s,'in Iranian Studies 38.4 (December 2005).

[5] Since 2006, and with a number of Middle East-focused auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's, and their branches opening in the region, these art works have been in high demand.

[6] Hamid Keshmirshekan, personal interview with the author, via Skype in Tehran, August 2013.

[7] S. Mehran,  personal interview, via Skype in Tehran, August 2013.

[8] Ibid.

[9] E. Issari personal interview, via Skype in Tehran, August 2013.

[10] 'Forty Iranian Women hold Art Expo in Tehran,' Press TV, 13 July 2013 http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/07/13/313574/iran-art-ehibition-expo-forty-women-europe-unexposed/

[11] Anthony Downey's paper on the importance of criticism in artistic development is a poignant reference in this regard. Anthony Downey, Framing a Discipline: Contemporary Art of the Arab World, conference paper, 'Regional vis-à-vis Global Discourses, Contemporary Art from the Middle East,' conference in SOAS, London, 5-6 July 2013.

[12] N. Tavakolian, personal interview, via Skype in Tehran, August 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] M. Pirnia, 'Pioneering Women of Iran' (Rockville, MD: Mehr Iran Publishing Co., 1995).

[15] In this respect, Fereshteh Daftari is a scholar with a few useful titles books on Iranian modern art and ways of looking at it.

[16] Neshat has frequented auction houses such as Christie's, Houshiary's installations were recently at Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York and the Lisson Gallery in London, and Jinchi is represented in major collection such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Farjam Collection, Dubai.

[17] J. Chicago, 'We Women Artists Refuse to be Written Out of History,' The Guardian, 9 October 2010 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/09/judy-chicago-women-artists-history.

[18] From the website: 'The Dinner Party is an installation by Judy Chicago, exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum, representing 1,038 women in history – 39 women are represented by place settings and another 999 names are inscribed in the Heritage Floor on which the table rests'. See: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/index.php

[19] National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC: http://www.nmwa.org

About the author

Tara Aghdashloo

Tara Aghdashloo is a writer, journalist, poet and curator based in London, with an expansive interest in art and politics. She has broadcasted reports for BBC Persian TV, and recently finished co-hosting and co-producing the first season of a new panel show on Manoto TV. As a writer, she has written for a number of magazines and publications, and her poetry collection, This is Not A Pomegranate came out in 2011. Tara is the co-director and curator of The Invisible Line Gallery in East London. She has an MA in Global Media and Postnational Communication from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in Journalism from Toronto’s Ryerson University.