Scenes of angry mobs taking over the U.S. embassy in “Argo,” energized protests following Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia in 2007, and unceasing headlines of the latest U.S.-Iran tensions are among the images that have created a largely negative Western perception of Iran.
But walk into the Asia Society’s “Iran Modern” exhibit and you will experience the country that Iranians know and that ex-pats long to return to. That is, a country whose culture has been deeply rooted in art from the times of ancient Persia.
The exhibit, which opened on Sept. 6, focuses on the three decades leading up to the 1979 revolution, and is the first major showing of Iranian modern art in the U.S. The second and third floors of the museum have been dedicated to the exhibit’s 100 works, which includes a multimedia array of sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, catalogues and more.
While it is tempting to seek out hidden political messages in the pieces, other elements are not to be missed. The themes of the works vary, but many contain beautifully translated contrasts between ancient traditions like poetry, mysticism, and calligraphy and the modern culture of internationalism, media, and abstraction. In the section titled “Abstraction & Modernism,” an untitled piece by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian is a mirror constructed of Islamic-style geometric shapes.
While some of the pieces were completed in the same year as Andy Warhol’s iconic “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” they are modern in the sense that they explore local popular culture and traditions, rather than focus on commercialism.
The last room, on the third floor, consists of a timeline of art-related events in Iran from the 1940s to Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile in 1979. This room, which also contains cases of catalogues, personal letters, and articles about art shows would have been more valuable as an introduction to the gallery, rather than as the conclusion.
Nonetheless, the curators, Fereshteh Daftari (who received a Ph.D. in art history from Columbia) and Layla Diba, deserve commendations for the expansive collection they have put together. “Iran Modern” is educational and eye-opening, as it reveals an entire aspect of Iranian culture that has been shrouded by the subsequent political turmoil of 1979 to today.
“Iran Modern” runs through Jan. 5 at New York’s Asia Society on Park Avenue and E. 70th St. Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., free entry with CUID.