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Iran Modern is the first major museum exhibition dedicated to modern art in Iran. Divided into four sections that deal with four different trends in Iranian modernism—politics, calligraphy, abstraction, and a movement called saqqakhaneh—the Asia Society exhibition has generated great enthusiasm among museumgoers and major media outlets. QIUYUN TAN chatted with the two curators of the museum, Layla S. Diba and Fereshteh Daftari, who received her Ph.D. in art history at Columbia in 1988, to learn about the behind-the-scenes stories of this eye-opening show.

Can you tell me a bit about the initiation of the exhibition—how did you think of putting together this show?

Layla Diba: The reason for doing this exhibition is that there had been exhibitions on contemporary Iranian art, and it would be important be do an exhibition about the origins of this art from the 1950s to the 1970s. The other reason was that, in art criticism and museum exhibitions, there was increasing attention being paid to non-Western modernism, so that exhibitions have been devoted to Japanese art, Chinese art, Latin America's, but nothing has been done in a major way on Iranian art in this period. So we felt it was an important subject to present to American and Iranian-American audiences.

I learned that most of the exhibits were loans from the United States, Europe, and other countries in the Middle East. Is that because there have been difficulties in acquiring exhibits directly from Iran? What is the main challenge in that?

Fereshteh Daftari: The director of the museum discouraged us to borrow works from Iran because of the sanction, but I was the only curator who could travel to Iran, and I insisted that we should try at least to get something from private collections, because you cannot just rely on the works that are outside. Finally I picked one work that is a self-portrait of an artist, that is a photograph. ... That's the only piece that we borrowed from Iran. The sanction, the language is not very clear, apparently art is accepted, but at the same time, the bureaucracy is intimidating, and you still need to apply for license. I think that Melissa [the director of the exhibit] made the right decision by not having the show depend on works that are borrowed from Iran.

The movement of Saqqakhaneh was one of the important directions that Iranian modernism took. Can you tell us more about it?

LD: The word "saqqakhaneh" refers to a public water fountain. It was a very interesting architectural feature. These public water fountains had sections for water, and they had a grillwork, paintings, padlocks, and pieces of fabrics. The padlocks and pieces of fabrics were intended for the viewers to make wishes—they would use these fountains as a place for devotion.

The movement was named after this saqqakhaneh because there were so many stylistic and formal parallels with these water fountains. It is a movement that encompassed a number of artists who all shared a similar vision that entailed looking to what we've called devotional objects, objects of popular piety, and appropriating these forms to create a new semiabstract visual language. The artists were looking to create something new that was both Iranian, and modern, and cosmopolitan. They did not turn to what we call a high-art tradition in Iran, which was in [the style of] realistic 19th-century-style painting.

The artists in the modern period acted as dissenters. How do you see reference to this in the exhibition?

LD: There are different artists who either deal with the images of the security and the dissonance, others who question the role of women, the Westernization of the culture, the conditions of the oil workers. We represented four or five artists; each one was looking at a different aspect of the political and social scene at that time.

One work that I was very curious about is the one called Nothing. In your description you said that its critical meaning is overlooked. Can you explain a bit more about that?

FD: "Heech" in Persian can mean "nothing," but it can also mean "nothingness." That's really the only word artist Tanavoli [Parviz] has ever used in his works. It is in the script. The script is Arabic, but the language is Persian. Tanavoli is known or disliking calligraphy. Calligraphy was extremely popular in the 60's. Why is he using it if he dislikes it? My only interpretation is that this "heech" is a little bit like the Trojan horse of calligraphy. He uses it, he is infatuated into it, takes all its form, but claimed it's really nothing. But that's one interpretation. It has turned into his signature style. Maybe he's just announcing his awareness of nothingness, which is something extremely existential and mystical.
You were the chief curator of Negarestan Museum in Tehran right before the revolution. Did you see any changes in the climate of the art world prior to the revolution?

LD: I was there for only the last five years before the revolution. The signs of change in my mind were not very obvious in the art that was being produced, because the revolution was actually quite sudden. The change came pretty abruptly and quickly. So I think that in the exhibition we do show some of the artists were presaging political events, but these artworks were not very visible— either they were not shown in the galleries, or the artists didn't show them.

The few decades represented here were also a period when modern art received massive support. Why do you think it is the case?

FD: It has to do with a state sponsorship the queen found up. The queen married the Shah in 1959. When she became the queen, she's got the principle that she understood the value of modern, contemporary art and supported it, first by acquiring it and then by creating institutions. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, when it opened in 1977, was the only museum devoted to modern and contemporary art in the entire Asia continent, with the exception of Japan. It housed an important collection of international and national art.

If the audience is to leave the exhibition with one message, what do you hope it to be?

FD: In this context of New York, it is important for people to understand that there was modernism outside of the West. This modernism is quite innovative, it's not the stereotype that a lot of people imagine— which is, any modern art outside of the West is its derivative. This show proves that there are a lot of innovative viewpoints.