The sanctions have been eased and Iran is no longer a political outcast. Tehran’s art scene mirrors the spirit of new beginnings in the country – and is shaped by many strong women
Seconds of tension pass before auctioneer Hossein Pakdel brings down the hammer. “Sohrab Sepehris ‘Tree Trunks’ sold – for 30 billion rials!” A murmur passes around the room. Women and men whipser behind their hands, others use their smartphones to snap the painting men in white gloves are carrying from the dais.
Thirty billion rials – that’s roughly 890 000 euros, a price that, as everyone agrees, would not have been possible just a few years back, especially as Sepehri, who died in 1980, was one of Iran’s most progressive and liberal-minded painters.
It’s Friday evening in Tehran and the city’s high society has come together at the elegant Parsian Azadi Hotel. The Tehran Auction, an event aimed at promoting contemporary Iranian artists, is taking place here for the fifth time. The audience applauds as one work after the next changes hands.
By the end of the evening, the bidders in the room and on the phone will have spent a total of 7.5 million euros on art – many times the sum that changed hands in the past.
Every day is a tightrope walk, and I love it
“Iranian art is finally being noticed in a big way,” says Shirin Partovi, as she gives an Iranian collector the three-kiss greeting – left, right, left. She knows the scene. For the past 11 years, she has been running one of the city’s most successful galleries, the Shirin Art Gallery. In recent years, she has been focusing on Iranian artists, and the artists she showcases can expect to make the leap onto the international scene.
One day later, she is sitting in the office at her gallery on 13th Street in the center of Tehran,f talking about her career. She is surrounded by artworks, a golden male torso, a bronze pistol, fresh orchids and dozens of books. She’s wearing golden sneakers paired with distressed jeans, and only pushes her pink headscarf back off her head for the photo.
“I’ve been creative ever since I was a child,” she says, “and always wanted to become an artist.” But her parents did not consider that an occupation for a woman and had ambitions for her to become a doctor or an engineer. She persuaded them to let her study English literature instead, but art never lost its fascination for the now 46-year-old Partovi.
She moved to the USA in the late 1990s and made a name for herself as an interior designer and art buyer. She returned to Iran in 2004 after a friend called her and told her about the need for more galleries in Tehran and that it was time for that to change. “It was a challenge I couldn’t resist,” says Partovi.
The going was tough. Freedom of speech and artistic freedom are heavily restricted in the Islamic Republic. In order to obtain a gallery license, Shirin had to apply in person to the Culture Ministry and submit all of her credentials. The authorities looked closedly into her CV, looked for offences she might have committed and subjected her to a drug test.
Before the gallery opening, police officers called by and demanded she should hang curtains in the office window so that she, a woman after all, could not be watched from the buildings across the street. The “morality police” also warned that art which criticizes Islam or the regime was taboo, as was pornography. “But there is a gray area between what is permitted and what is not, of course,” she says, “and we occasionally test out how far we can go.”
One such occasion was six months ago, when she brought in a performance artist to draw attention to the fate of a 16-year-old girl who had been in prison for two years, awaiting the death penalty for stabbing and killing her father, when he tried to rape her.
Partovi and the artist built a prison set and staged role plays, in which the gallery visitors were interrogated like suspects. The idea was to demonstrate the level of pressure the state exerts on its citizens. Almost miraculously, the event was neither disrupted nor closed down.
The case was very different last year, when police officers turned up because Partovi was exhibiting pictures of a blond woman in jeans and a T-shirt. “Why is she dressed like that?” one of the men barked at her. “That is immoral Western culture!” – “This happens in our country!” countered Partovi.
“Women long for the West. That’s why they go under the knife to get a cute little snub nose and wear Western clothing. You can’t close your eyes to it; what you see here is social critique.” It didn’t help. She had to close the exhibition after two days. Partovi smiles when she thinks back to that. “Every day is a tightrope walk, and I love it.”
That tightrope walk can be witnessed all over Tehran. On Friday evenings, when the new exhibitions open, young Iranians wander through the city’s galleries. On pictures showing women in deep-cut blouses, the “sensitive parts” shimmer through a milky veil of several layers of sticky tape.
Girls with lipstick-red lips stand smoking on terraces, their headscarves draped as far back as possible over their hair. In the exhibition rooms, young creatives in Nike sneakers and hipster gear discuss the exchange programs that will soon see them installed as artists in residence in London and Amsterdam.
Iran is changing. In the Bush era, the country was still styled part of the “Axis of Evil.” President Präsident Mahmud Ahmadinejad proclaimed that the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time, and the West feared Iran would soon be able to build an atomic bomb.
But since President Hassan Rohani took office in 2013, the country has assumed a friendlier face. The government began talks with the West and promised to comply with its demands for more stringent monitoring of its atomic program. In return, the West has lifted nearly all of the economic sanctions it had imposed on Iran.
Since then, gold fever has broken out, and companies from all over the world are eager to invest. Not that Tehran’s creatives are particularly interested in foreign investments, even though Iran’s ailing economy could certainly do with them.
They are actually more interested in the psychological effect of this mutual rapprochement. “Perceptions of us are changing again,” says a young woman taking a look at the exhibition of tyrant portraits showing at the Mohsen Galley this Friday night. “The world is showing an interest in us again.”
One person who has been observing the art scene in Tehran for years is artist Nouriman Manouchehri. “There used to be no exhibition spaces at all in town. We artists couldn’t even buy decent brushes and paints,” she says. At the start of this century, Iran could neither produce quality art supplies itself nor import them.
“And today, there are around 200 galleries in Tehran, and 50 of them change their program several times a month because there is such great demand.” Manouchehri sees that more and more collectors from all over the world are coming to the city. “Iran is a bit like Cuba,” she says, “mysterious and exciting.”
Manouchehri is sitting in her studio. Hanging on the wall behind her are collages showing her as a young woman, bare-breasted. “Of course I could never exhibit these in Tehran,” she says, “but everything is possible here as long as it is done discreetly.” What she means is that in Iran, too, people drink alcohol, even though the law forbits it.
In artist cafés that barely resemble cafés from the outside and in which Tehran’s creative scene comes together in the evenings, young people pass water bottles filled with homemade spirits around under the table while ordering juice and coffee from the waiters.
Everything is possible in Iran – as long as it is done discreetly
In Iran, too, artists draw and paint nudes, but they organize underground exhibitions at home and invite only selected acquaintances to their opening night. At house parties, people dance, drink and make out behind closed doors, just the same as they do in Europe.
It was her longing for that tightrope and for Persian culture that drove Manouchehri, today 62, back to Iran at the end of the 1980s after having lived abroad for many years.
After the Islamic Revolution, her family emigrated to the USA, and her parents and siblings still live in San Francisco today. “But I wanted to return to my roots,” she says. “I feel a deep connection to this country and its people. In the USA, life is so materialistic. In Iran, not everyone can read and write, but they can all can recite poetry.”
In Yasmin Rahimian’s case, too, it was pride in her Persian heritage that inspired her to be creative. Along with her mother, Afsaneh, the 29-year-old founded the Sondos Design label five years ago. Her mother had designed clothes before, but mostly plain evening wear.
It was her daughter, who urged a change of image. “I had noticed how women in Tehran were adapting more and more to the Western style of dress,” says Yasmin, “and I wanted to do something about that, to offer them an alternative.”
The coats she designs are modern and simply cut, but decorated with with colorful – hand-stitched – Persian embroidery. Always in search of unique Persian motifs, mother and daughter travel every two months to the markets of northern Iran, and to Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The two are sitting in the living room of their spacious apartment. It smells of incense here, and there are dishes of nuts on every table, fruit arranged in shades of red, and water laced with strawberries and mint.
Everything is perfectly presented, right down to the last detail, because their living room is also their showroom. Here, unobserved, clients can feel free to let their headscarf fall.
Just like art, fashion is a risky affair in Iran. Last May, several models were arrested for letting themselves be photographed bare-headed. Some of the women are said to have been released on bail, other models have left the country for fear of prosecution.
The Rahimians have so far also photographed their models without head coverings and posted the pictures on Instagram. At the moment, they are working on a new concept: For the summer collection, they announce, their models will be photographed wearing headscarves.
The Rahimians do not want to give up their country for Dubai or Qatar even though the laws are less strict and the clients wealthier there. “Our home is the Islamic Republic,” says Yasmin. “We have to accept the rules if we want to live and work here.”
She also believes that her country is opening up and in the opportunities the end of economic sanctions will offer businesswomen like her, too. For a long time now, she has been receiving inquiries from women in Europe interested in ordering coats, but she cannot yet sell her collections in the West because, although money transfers between Iranian and Western banks are permitted, they are barely possible.
But she isn’t really interested in starting an Internet business, anyway. “My dream would be to open a boutique in Milan or Paris,” she says. Then she rearranges her scarf, pulling it just far enough over her hair that it doesn’t slip down.