Exhibition review: “Mirrored Reflections: A Study of Transformations in Iranian Contemporary Art (1974-1984)”
Curated by Kianoosh Motaghedi at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art
19 January – 27 February 2022
Firouzeh Saghafi, University of Geneva
Since the advent of the revolution four decades ago, Iranian revolutionary art has very often been shown in sequence and by fractions in various exhibitions. Generally showing the works of so-called “Islamic” artists, these exhibitions rarely refer to the creations by other groups of artists active at the same time. However, for the first time since the 1980s, an exhibition in Tehran presents us with a much more complete vision of this period of Iranian art history, marked by revolutionary art.
Organized and curated by independent researcher Kianoosh Motaghedi, the exhibition “Mirrored Reflections: A Study of Transformations in Iranian Contemporary Art (1974-1984)” opened on 19 January 2022 at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA). This exhibition presents not only a broader vision of this chapter of Iranian art history, but also situates it in a pre-revolutionary context. It is a rare exhibition for art historians, art lovers and scholars but also for a new generation of Iranians who have not necessarily seen these works in light of this new narrative.
The exhibition, as its name suggests, is a representation of Iranian society with its ups and downs throughout the history of art since the 1970s, a period, which according to the curator, marks the beginning of contemporary art in Iran.
Occupying all the nine halls of the museum, the main idea of the exhibition, as explained in the statement, is to show "the formation of revolutionary art as ‘the collective’ and the reflection of social developments of Iran with the aim of demonstrating the socio-political beliefs of artists as well as reviewing the socio-religious fight and opposition”.
Several points make this exhibition an important event of its kind in the history of TMoCA but also in the history of exhibitions of Iranian art in general, and revolutionary art in particular. Unique in terms of narrating revolutionary art, the first idea highlighted by the exhibition is that the art of protest in Iran began long before the revolution. This is done by showing different artistic genres, such as caricature, figurative and abstract art but also religious art. The curator adds to this list, artists of coffeehouse painting, subsequently showing the influence of this genre in the works of post-revolutionary artists.
The second point is the integration of the history of exhibitions in the narration of the history of protest and revolutionary art. Precisely, when we look at the history of art from the revolutionary period and the creation of different groups and artistic movements, one cannot underestimate the important role played by exhibitions that were held at that time, in the creation of different movements, the most notable of them being at the Faculty of Art and the Hosseynieh Ershad but also at the TMoCA.
The photographs by Jila Dejam – photographer of the TMoCA who captured the museum and its exhibitions for more than three decades – are also displayed for the first time within this very institution, giving us a vision of the museum from the beginning of the revolution. Therefore, the history of the TMoCA in 1979 is an integral part of this show, and it is not surprising given that this period is the golden age of the museum in terms of contemporaneity and its responsibility towards the creation of art of that time. In addition to these photographs, sections are also dedicated to the archives that accompany the works, including books, catalogs, sketches, photographs, posters, etc., which for the most part have never been shown in exhibitions or publications dedicated to this period, in Iran or abroad. In addition, the presence of works by Iranian artists—completely absent from exhibitions dedicated to this movement—shown after more than forty years, allow several generations of Iranians to visualize revolutionary art holistically.
While one third of the works belong to the TMoCA collection, the rest of the works are loans from private collections and the Hozeh Honari centre.
The first room of the museum, Gallery 1 starts from the main entrance of the building, a round room surrounding the slope that links this gallery to the last gallery of the museum. The visitor's journey from this gallery begins at the entrance/ground level, towards subsequent galleries, whereby visitors gradually enter the lower parts of the building and finally return to the entrance level through an ascending pathway. The corridors are designed as a slope and create a movement inside the museum in which the exhibition of works is also possible.
The display begins with a wall timeline contextualizing the exhibition through historical and artistic events. It begins with the constitutional revolution of 1905 and delineates the key dates of important political events of Iran and the world, the history of Iranian artistic education, cultural bureaucracy as well as public and private cultural and artistic institutions, and important exhibitions of Iranian art including key exhibitions that took place at the beginning of the revolution.
Gallery 1 which constitutes the space around the ramp at the entrance of the museum presents and divides the works—all created before the revolution—into two parts: "Protest and Critical Painting in Iran” and "Coffeehouse Painting in Iran.” The first part shows the works of artists such as Ardeshir Mohassess, Alireza Espahbod, Bahman Mohassess, Leyli Matin Daftari, Rahim Najfar and even Mohammad Hossein Halimi, who each in their own way represented the socio-political context of the 1970s and demonstrate the curator’s objective to place revolutionary art in a history of social art already in place since the beginning of the 1970s.
While Alireza Espahbod and Rahim Najfar each represent a social context under heavy surveillance with references to SAVAK (the secret police, domestic security and intelligence service in Iran between 1957 and 1979), the work of Bahman Mohasses titled Always Iran refers to freedom and presents a character whose mouth and hands are tied. Mohammad Hossein Halimi for his part uses architectural elements through which he represents a scene of revolt and rebellion.
Despite the presence of works by few artists in this corner, the text accompanying this part refers to other names such as Houshang Pezeshknia, Parviz Habibpour or even Hossein Maher, and others who critically addressed their contemporary society but whose works are unfortunately not present at the exhibition.
The second section, "Coffeehouse Painting in Iran" presents two paintings of this style and informs the spectator not only of the history of this folk art created at the beginning of the Qajar era but also its influence on post-revolutionary creations, especially in the art created during the war period, through elements and religious symbols.
In the following space, two works by Ayoub Emdadian, considered one of the "pioneers in the field of protest painting of Iran”, occupy almost the entire exhibition space. The sapling of Liberty, created in 1973, represents the figure of a man buried underground, who because of its attached ankles can be considered to be a martyr of freedom, out of whose body grows a sunflower, surrounded by people mourning his death. Morteza Goudarzi Dibaj, artist and art historian of that time whose text accompanies the work on the wall notes that "the sunflower symbolizes fertility and rebirth" and the "surrounding personages are all reprehensive of an irritated, annoyed and suppressed class looking for victory and freedom.” Drawn on two panels, this large 250 x 260 cm work marks the beginning of the Protest Art period from the point of view of the exhibition’s curator. A musical piece dated from the beginning of the revolution also accompanies this painting in the form of a "sound shower," whereby the visitor only hears the music once in front of the painting. It is a music produced by the cultural and artistic center of “Chavosh Group”, created in 1978 following the political unrest in the country. This group brought together a large number of musicians and greatly helped in the evolution of traditional Iranian music. The piece presented at the exhibition is performed by Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the most prominent voice in traditional Iranian music, who was very active in the creation of songs that were influenced by the political atmosphere in Iran during the 1979 revolution. The presence of the latter is all the more important when we know that today, his voice is not broadcasted in the official media. His music is an integral part of revolutionary culture and the choice of the curator to integrate music as part of the exhibition should be applauded. The songs and revolutionary music of the time cannot be separated from the artistic productions within this political context, and therefore allow the visitors to gain a better understanding of the prevailing cultural scene of that era.
The other work of Emdadian installed in front of the previously mentioned painting measures 250 by 820 cm on six panels, and represents a battle scene between the people and the army. Inspired by socialist realism, it can be considered the largest and the most important painting of Iranian protest art of the 1970s. Other works located in the space at the end of Gallery 2 represent different scenes of death, revolt or even misery and injustice, by the artists Hossein Khosrojerdi (still a student at that time), Mohammad Fasounaki and Parviz Izadpanah whose works date from the revolutionary period. The space ends with two photographs and an oil painting, each representing the monument of the Shah and the fall of the statue, thus symbolizing the end of the Pahlavi period in this exhibition. It is interesting to note that at the start of Gallery 2 a work by Iraj Eskandari, a personality highly present in the artistic context of the time is also presented to the visitor. It displays a scene commonly represented in the revolutionary art depicting the revolt of peasants against landowners.
This work is reproduced thanks to a printing technique on the wall, newly acquired by TMoCA. The reason behind this transcription is that due to the loss of the painting, the original work could not be presented at the exhibition. Throughout the exhibition this technique is used several times depicting works that were lost in particular due to the specific context of the times in which they were created. All of them were done with the consent of the respective artists.
Despite the presence of only four paintings (including one also represented by the technique of printing on the wall), Gallery 3 represents the part of the exhibition dedicated to "The Revolutionary Art: From Realism to Narrative Expressionism.” In the introductory text welcoming the visitor into this space, an extract from Samila Amir Ebrahimi’s article, published in the magazine "Herfe Honarmand” notes: "Devoid of individuality, most of the realistic paintings of the Islamic revolution reflect typical people, usually workers and laborers. As we approach the day of the victory of Islamic revolution, the tone of works shifts towards a sort of expressiveness indicative of wrath and protest.” Indeed, the work of Manouchehr Safarzadeh (known as Mashsafar being part of the secular leftist group of artists) whose work Alliance among Muslims represented by the technique of printing on the wall, that of Habibollah Sadeghi, very active in the group of so-called Islamic artists, that of Hannibal Alkhas and Massoud Sadedin entitled The first anniversary of the Revolution, drawn on a surface of six panels of about 7 meters, each reveal the scenes described by Samila Amir Ebrahimi. Herself an accomplished/active artist at the time, she has also written several articles about the art of this period.
The work of Hannibal Alkhas and his student Massoud Sadedin—a common practice for Alkhas to produce paintings in cooperation with his disciples and who is considered the master of all this generation of freshly graduated artists during this revolutionary year—is accompanied by a musical piece entitled Sepideh or Saraye Omid, one of the most famous songs of the 1979 revolution, written by Houshang Ebtehaj, produced by Mohammad Reza Lotfi, with Mohammad Reza Shajarian as vocalist, all three being the most renowned musicians of the revolution and traditional Iranian music in general. The three works presented above are dated from the beginning of the revolution between 1979 and 1980.
A portrait by Keykhosro Khoroush of Imam Khomeini dated 1969 is also displayed at the back of the room. This is the first portrait of Khomeini that one comes across in the exhibition, with many others following thereafter. The curator made an effort to integrate portraiture, a separate movement that developed in parallel with the social art produced at the time, with the idea of the heroization of leaders and their presence in artistic creations. This integration is presented throughout the exhibition.
Leaving Gallery 3 and taking a last look at Mashsafar's work, originally 10 meters long, we are faced with a very familiar work, not because it has been seen before but because the technique of the artist, Hossein Mahjoubi, a very lively character for more than fifty years in the Iranian art scene is reknowned. One can recognize the particular style of Mahjoubi, considered a modernist landscape painter but the painting represents a scene very different from the nature and landscapes he usually paints. It is the city of Tehran, with its monuments and its urbanism, giving way to a phenomenal crowd covering a major portion of the painting. One of the distinctive features of this exhibition is the presence of works by artists such as Mahjoubi, who were not known in the genre of social art. The latter work was on loan from the Negarestan Museum in Tehran, which since May 2021 has permanently exhibited thirteen works by the same artist in its space, and very rare works both in terms of subject and technique.
Subsequently, it is the photographs of Michel Setboun, a French photographer working for Sipa Agency, which accompany us to Gallery 4. Throughout the exhibition the latter's photographs belonging to his series "The Days of the Revolution” are found.
The presence of a single photographer, and moreover a foreign photographer is a surprising choice, especially when one knows the history of Iranian contemporary photography and the important artistic productions through this medium in the revolutionary context. But for Kianoosh Motaghedi the rationale for his choice is for the exhibition to place an emphasis on paintings rather than photography. This appears to be a coherent choice considering the fact that photography and graphic design were and still are mediums that have been much more discussed and studied in the history of Iranian revolutionary art. Nevertheless, the importance of photography and graphic design is highlighted in the parts of the exhibition dedicated to the archives, which emphasizes the exhibitions dedicated to this medium from 1979 onwards.
Almost all of the works present in Gallery 4 belong to the collection of the TMoCA. These are exhibited only for the second time, the first time dating back to November 1979 during the reopening of the TMoCA following the Islamic revolution.
Apart from the works of Bahram Dabiri, Manouchehr Safarzadeh, Niloufar Ghadernejad and Hannibal Alkhas, who are all considered important artists of this period, three photographs and an accompanying text are also presented in the center of the room. The photographs of Jila Dejam, taken in 1979, are exhibition shots of the reopening of the museum, one of which shows the work of Manouchehr Safarzadeh seen in the previous space. The text explains the itinerary of these works that were initially exhibited at Baq e Ferdows (an exhibition venue located in northern Tehran) which were then brought to TMoCA in November 1979, after which they never left the museum reserves.
Exhibiting such important works which are at the intersection of painting and mural art, and presenting the history of their display side by side in this Gallery is an interesting pleasing choice by the curator that shows the importance of the history of exhibitions both inside and outside an institution, especially in times of revolution.
Gallery 5 is completely dedicated to research, archives and history of exhibitions, rarely seen elsewhere. Its presentation, both in terms of the choice of paintings and the documentation presented is unique. This space of the Museum has a rather different architecture compared to the other spaces. Composed of four small areas surrounding a slightly larger one, it gives access to the next room but also to the outside of the museum where visitors can take a break, look at the architecture of the museum and the sculptures of Iranian and foreign artists, placed permanently in a courtyard space.
A work by Siroos Moghadam entitled Fisherman invites us to Gallery 5. Here one finds three works by Vahed Khakdan, and one by Morteza Katouzian, all printed on the wall next to works by Mohammad Ali Taraghijah. All three are considered as highly committed artists within the early 1980s Iranian art scene, who participated in numerous group exhibitions at the TMoCA during these years. This sampling allows visitors to have an idea of the work of these artists and the type of works created and exhibited during this period. The small rooms that make up the other spaces of Gallery 5 are each devoted to historical reminders. The first is dedicated to mural art in Iran, containing historical texts including one entitled "From Decorative Wall Paintings to the Revolutionary Murals," a very important subject in the history of Iranian urban art, until today. Photographs of artists such as Niloufar Ghaderinejad producing a mural in Tehran in 1979, posters representing the urban context of the time, as well as a showcase containing books on the subject and a sketch by the artist Iraj Eskandari for a work that was supposed to be produced in the city of Tehran at Enghelab (Revolution) Square, but was never produced, constitute the documents made available to the viewer in this first space of Gallery 5.
The following space is a historical reminder of revolutionary art in general. The two writings presented enlighten the visitor on the history of Russian and Mexican revolutionary art. Some works from the TMoCA collection are also presented to enrich these examples. This is the case with the lithographs by Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. Russian revolutionary art is also present through some images printed directly on the wall.
The next space features posters produced by Parvaneh Etemadi depicting Mohammad Mossadeq, ousted Prime Minister during the 1953 coup and a poster of Ayatollah Taleghani, all produced in 1979, as well as a work by Reza Bangiz depicting Imam Khomeini. Both the posters of Parvaneh Etemadi and the work of Reza Bangiz are rare works that have hardly ever been seen before, especially in this style in a political context.
The last space of Gallery 5 is totally dedicated to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Not only emphasizing the role that the museum has played in the presentation of revolutionary art, but also supporting the idea that the history of exhibitions is an integral part of Iranian revolutionary art. The documents presented in this room are numerous and include several posters of the first exhibitions of the TMoCA after its reopening in 1979; the final model of the catalog of the inaugural exhibition which today is almost impossible to find; and photographs of Jila Dejam depicting an exhibition organized and produced by Morteza Momayez at the TMoCA on wall writings of the revolution in those years, an exhibition bringing street art inside the museum institution.
The exhibition continues to Gallery 6 dedicated to artists who will later be labeled the artists of Hoze Honari.
Hoze Honari has had a great significance in the history of revolutionary art in Iran. Created in 1979, it was originally named Hoze Andishe va Honar Eslami (Domain of Islamic Thought and Art), a center created to promote Iranian Islamic culture and art. A group of artists known as Islamic/Muslim artists joined the center at the very beginning of its creation. Their gathering first came about in a group exhibition at the Hosseynieh Ershad in 1979 and continued throughout the years at the Hoze. An independent institution, the Hoze would later be attached to the Islamic Propaganda Organization around 1981, and take its current name of Hoze Honari.
The major part of gallery 6 is dedicated to the works of Hoze's artists from 1970 to 1981, which will continue through rooms 7 and 8, but which constitutes the Hoze's creations when it became a full unit of the Islamic Propaganda Organization. All the works in Gallery 6 and the works in Galleries 7 and 8 are important works in terms of the history of art, because a big part of them have rarely been shown to the general public or within TMoCA.
Apart from these unique works, a screening of a film by Kamran Shirdel, documenting the uprising in the streets of Tehran is also presented in a small room in the corridor leading to the last part of the exhibition. This is the first time this film has been screened in Iran since its production, specifies the curator of the exhibition. It is a projection of more than an hour that shows the context of the revolution in the streets of Tehran, allowing the viewer a better understanding of the overall social context in which the artworks of this exhibition were created.
The “Mirrored Reflections” exhibition ends with a room dedicated to war and its representation. It is very clear that revolutionary art cannot be approached without this staging, which is part of the flow of Iranian revolutionary art. The importance of this part of the exhibition is all the clearer when we see the transformations produced in the works of the artists compared to those of the previous years. Symbols borrowed from religious art are very present, together with the use of subjects taken from the visual history of Islam, such as the use of the representation of Shiite imams, the representation of martyrs, or the borrowing of traditional elements from Persian paintings, as presented by Motaghedi, at the start of the exhibition. This part begins in the corridors leading to Gallery 9, with a text expanding on the changes produced in art during this period and the fact that "the concept of martyrdom and its significance in protesting and achieving victory was replaced with a religious and epic narration of the martyr's position in defending the country.” This segment begins with the work of Kazem Chalipa dated 1981, representing a woman with a weapon, leading to another space where apart from the presence of a few posters (for exhibitions, political events or even commemorative), there is a work by Morteza Katouzian dated 1982-1983 entitled In memory of the martyrs. In his oil painting, the artist depicted very realistically the Michelangelo’s Pietà, representing Jesus Christ in color, and at the bottom left of the painting a weapon ammunition, thus transforming the "pietà” into a depiction of martyrdom, a subject abundantly evoked in the art of war in Iran. This space also has two display windows presenting documentation on the subject. Two books deserve particular attention in this section. The first is a two-volume book by Majid Jafari Lahijani published in 2009 in Iran entitled Art in the heat of the revolution 1979-1981, representing a real archive of cinema and television, capturing all productions during this era, with many interviews and reminders about art exhibitions. This work rarely appears in the bibliography of publications on the history of art, but its importance is not to be questioned, quite the contrary. The second older book is A decade with the graphists of the revolution 1979-1989, a book by Mostafa Goudarzi which remains among the main publications, which today can only be found and consulted in libraries in Iran.
In Gallery 9, the last room of the museum (and of the exhibition), the artists presented are Iraj Eskandari, Habibolah Sadeghi, Kazem Chalipa, Parvaneh Etemadi and Javad Hamidi. The latter is of the first generation of Iranian modernists whose work has not only been rarely seen but is also almost absent from the art-historical narrative of this period, presenting a battle scene from the Iran-Iraq War.
Two other works located at the end of the exhibition are also noteworthy, the first one is a painting on canvas by Kazem Chalipa, dated 1985 and titled Basiji. The work shows an Iranian soldier from behind, walking in the city alone in the middle of a crowd of civilians who are walking without paying any attention to the latter. The artist has shed light only on him, further accentuating his loneliness. This painting in a sense symbolizes the end of this type of art or even subject, which no longer attracted public attention. The painting is placed across Parvaneh Etemadi's work entitled Memory, depicting a backpack and the portrait of a martyr of war, further demonstrating this idea of an extinguished state, which is only the memory of a distant past.
Iranian revolutionary art and subsequently the art produced during the war hold a significant role in the history of Iranian contemporary art, separating it into a period before and a period after revolutionary art. While photography and the graphic arts are the mediums best known to the public on this periodization because of their larger creation, the exhibition “Mirrored Reflections” shows us the imperative place of the visual arts in this less seen and less known artistic periodization. The presence of works shown after more than four decades gives this exhibition an even more substantial historical interest in addition to the archives present throughout the exhibition.
The large number of artists belonging to different groups and presented in the exhibition allows us to say that this show presents indeed a chapter in the history of Iranian art, one little seen in displays of Iranian contemporary art.
Firouzeh Saghafi is a PhD candidate at the University of Geneva under the supervision of Professor Silvia Naef. She is working on the creation and development of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran (TMoCA), with a thesis entitled: "Between an Imported Modernity and an Anxious Contemporaneity: Identity Functions and Policies of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, 1977-2017". She works with the Dastan Gallery in Tehran as an advisor and has also assisted curators on exhibition projects such as "Mechanisms" at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (2016) in San Francisco, and Medusa, "Jewelry and Taboo" at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (2017).
How to cite this review: Firouzeh Saghafi, "Review – 'Mirrored Reflections: A Study of Transformations in Iranian Contemporary Art (1974-1984)'”, Manazir: Swiss Platform for the Study of Visual Arts, Architecture and Heritage in the MENA Region, 11 April 2022, https://manazir.art/blog/review-mirrored-reflections-study-transformations-iranian-contemporary-art-1974-1984-firouzeh-saghafi