Iran is something of a dirty word in the west, associated as it is with a repressive theocracy at home and support for groups hostile to western interests abroad. Yet Persian culture has a proud and rich history dating back thousands of years distinguishing itself in architecture, painting, weaving, pottery, calligraphy and sculpture.
The art scene in Iran has exploded in recent years. The capital, Tehran, now boasts more than a hundred galleries whereas five years ago you could count the number on one hand. The Iranian art market is outperforming that of any other Middle-Eastern country. For example, at last years’s 20th Century Art: Middle East auction at Sotheby’s, Iranian artists accounted for more than 60% of the sales.
Bita Vakili is among the most successful. One of her works fetched $40,000 at a Christie’s auction in Dubai recently. She is one of 19 different artists, many of them women, on show at the inaugural exhibition of London’s new CAMA gallery that represents exclusively Iranian contemporary art. In her semi-abstract Pulse of the Earth series, with its flattened perspective in thickly-applied oils, Vakili creates her own urban world.
The 51 works on show are a taster of the current Iranian art scene. They have been handpicked by curator Mona Kosheghbal, CAMA’s co-founder based in Tehran with 20 years experience in the Iranian art market. Entitled Sensation, the show has no particular theme and encompasses both figurative and abstract pieces embracing a wide variety of styles and genres.
“We want to show a positive side to Iran and to distance Iran from the standardised nuclear sanctions, botched deals and so on, as is often spouted by the western media outlets,” says Riley Frost, a CAMA co-founder in the UK who began developing contacts in Iran initially through an ex-girlfriend. “A lot of the time it is understandably so but obviously you have to make a direct distinction between the nation state and how it acts, and the people who live within it…we also want to show that Iran is not this kind of archaic, dark, backwoods country.”
Although all forms of art in Iran are vetted by the censors before it can go public, it seems there’s less scrutiny for art than say music or film. “Art, on the whole, is a lot more interpretive in the sense that even if you have a blunt message, the viewer can see it in a multitude of different ways,” says Riley. Here he explains more on CAMA’s ethos.
To exemplify the point, the bubbles in Tahereh Samadi Tari’s graphic Untitled, above, are clearly symbolic. But of hope? Aspiration? And why are they presented before a modern western building? Why is the woman reading a newspaper under an umbrella? In controlled societies like Iran, artists are well versed in ambiguity, something that westerners too appreciate and enjoy.
Throughout Persian art history, elements of mythology, iconography, geometry, calligraphy and so on have marked artists out from other nationalities and cultures. Contemporary Iranian art retains these features though, typically, as with Najva Erfani, these symbols are often given a surreal twist to impart a message.
Many of Sensation’s artist are young and CAMA has tried to showcase those who are not trying necessarily to conform to a western aesthetic as a means of selling their art more easily. I noticed that a large proportion of the works on show here are very large which limits their commercial appeal to some extent. Initially at least, the gallery is aiming to establish a hub in the west in order to establish artists’ reputations with the hope they will kick on in the future.
Art has always been a conduit for expressing current issues anywhere. Iran has undergone a revolution in sorts with regard to attitudes towards sexuality and this is alluded to in some of the exhibits. The country has also been undergoing something of an economic crisis and a long-established drug epidemic involving narcotics and opiates.
Hooman Derakhshandeh’s haunting portraits of addicts reflect the last. Part of a series entitled Venus, Entry’s subject wears a traditional headdress but shaped into a crown, a regality aspired to but unachieved perhaps. A similar work is appropriately entitled Lorazepam named after the addictive drug prescribed to ease alcohol withdrawal and anxiety among other uses. Derakhshandeh specialises in portraits of women. Venus and an earlier series, Paradox, were very popular in Iran.
It is good news for art lovers and collectors that young artists like him and the others are able to show their work here. Riley Frost sees CAMA as a social project as well as a commercial venture. “We’re confident that beyond the support that we always have and always will have from the Persian diaspora, that Brits, Europeans and western collectors more broadly will see the true value in what we see.”
Sensation is showing at CAMA Gallery, 19 Dacre Street, London SW1H 0DJ until 25 June.
All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.