EIKON_Visual Art in Iran

Attempt at Orientation
Bernd Fechner

The Western Conception
Traditions of Blanking Out

Where to begin when you want to write about Iran, its art scene and photography? After all, there’s a lot of ground to cover. There’s a lot to talk about. Atom bombs, oil, religion, human rights, the hijab, the persistence of colonial perspectives, sanctions, and, not least, war and peace.
I recently spent quite some time working in the photobook library of Leo Fritz (1908–2005) and Renate Gruber. In his functions for Koelnmesse, photokina, the German Photographic Association, and as an exhibition-maker, Fritz Gruber was a central figure in shaping the perception of twentieth-century photography both in Germany and internationally well into the late 1980s. It would have been nearly impossible to find a museum director or curator – at the time there were hardly any of them specialized in photography – who could match Fritz and Renate Gruber’s global network. The Gruber library reflects the history of the medium: photobooks from Europe, the United States, and Japan but also from the USSR, China, India, Israel, Southeast Asia, South and Central America, and Turkey. But not a single book about or from Iran.
This conspicuous detail seems to be confirmed when we open the volumes of The Photobook: A History by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr published by Phaidon in 2004 and 2006: Iran doesn’t make a single appearance in them. The same is true for the still unsurpassed standard works by Hans-Michael Koetzle: Das Lexikon der Fotografen. 1900 bis heute, Knaur, 2002, Photographers A–Z, Taschen, 2011, and Eyes Wide Open – 100 Years of Leica Photography, Kehrer, 2014. Let’s take another work, one generation prior: Helmut Gernsheim’s The Origins of Photography, Thames and Hudson, 1982. Negative on all counts, not even the slightest mention of the word “Iran.” Didn’t they have photography in Iran?

Nineteenth-Century Persian Photography

Of course they did and still do – quite a lot, and in fact quite early; an extraordinary wealth of it. The density of nineteenth-century Persian photography owes a great debt to the circumstance that shortly after its invention, photography was introduced by the highest levels, so to speak: Even before he began his long regency, Nāser ed-Din Shāh (1831–1896) devoted much time and enthusiasm to this new medium. Photography became the omnipresent hobby of the monarch and his court, and it accompanied him on all his travels across his kingdom and abroad. From the 1870s onward, Tehran became the bustling center of a rapidly growing photo industry, even for non-Iranian photographers. Above all for Antoin Sevruguin (who died in 1933). Born into a Russian-Georgian-Armenian family, he rose to the status of court photographer and was a savvy entrepreneur, supplying Europeans with clichéd pictures of the Orient, both for travelers and through contracts with Western press agencies. Also the German-born photographer Ernst Hoeltzer spent his working life in Iran. A telegraph engineer by trade and a professor in Isfahan, Hoeltzer left us thousands of glass plates, whose images were collected for recent Iranian publications.

detail from
Early Photography of Iran, 1880–1930
b/w glass plate negative
13 x 17,7 cm

Today’s historic holdings of the Golestān Palace in Tehran comprises tens of thousands of objects. It is one of the world’s largest archives of nineteenth-century photography. The capital’s Photo Museum, which opened in 1995, shows old camera and photo techniques, photojournalism as it evolved in Iran, early specialist literature, and
vintage albums.
It is well-known that photography was also all the rage at Queen Victoria’s court. Her husband, King Edward, was greatly interested in cameras. What would then have been unthinkable in the prudish Europe, however, was the profound permissiveness with which Persian photography revealed highly intimate scenes: harems, festivities, decorated diplomats, women amongst themselves. Since the beginning, it wasn’t only the men who were behind the cameras in Persia.
Not only do the Iranian holdings offer a wealth of material on the history of photography, they are also resources for historical research, specifically the history of mentalities, for instance, where the evolution of gender identities in the course of an increasing Europeanization is concerned. A milestone in Gender and Queer Studies is the 2004 study Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards. Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity by the US-Iranian scholar Afsaneh Najmabadi. In it, she uses an analysis of photographic material to indicate that beauty ideals under the rule of the Qajar dynasty were not subject to secondary biological sexual characteristics. This might also be a good place to refer to more recent photohistorical works, especially those of US scholar Staci Gem Scheiwiller and Swiss-based Elahe Helbig.1

1. See “Further Reading”, 71.

Iranian Modernism

Nāser ed-Din Shāh might have made a successful career for himself as a professional photographer. Taking stock of his rule, in contrast, is a rather bleak affair. The nation was underdeveloped and caught in a stranglehold. Under the regency of the Pahlavis – Reza Shah followed by Mohammad Reza (1919–1980, shah from 1941 to 1979) – the year 1925 saw the beginning of an ambitious effort to modernize the country following the Western example. The wearing of hijabs was banned in 1935. At the same time, the military dictatorship – in imperial guise – proclaimed a return to the old traditions of Iranian national culture, that is, the pre-Islamic heritage of the Achaemenid Empire, particularly that of Cyrus the Great. Persepolis became the stage for the 2,500th anniversary celebration of the Persian Empire. The nationbuilding effort proved especially enduring in its references back to the eminent poets, mystics, and natural scientists of tenth- to fourteenth-century Persian Classicism: Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Rūmī, Saadi, and Hafez.
The consistent development of the educational system, modeled on the Western academic training and supported by generous programs for the advancement of young elites with study programs at European, Russian, and American universities, facilitated Iran’s access to industrialized countries. Above all the fine arts, film, and the entertainment industry narrowed the gap to the Western world. In 1940, the School of Fine Arts was integrated into the University of Tehran as a faculty in its own right.
The academy in Tehran played a key role in the way the Iranian art scene unfolded. From the 1950s on, Western Impressionism, Expressionism, and abstract art, Soviet-influenced Realism as well as Far Eastern influences melded with Persian calligraphy, ornaments, and miniature painting to yield great works of Modernism: Hossein Kazemi (1924–1996) and Bahman Mohassess (1931–2010) in the field of painting; Sadegh Hedayat (1903–1951) and Nima Yooshij (1897–1960) in literature – including, of course, the singular voice of Sohrab Sepehri (1928–1980) in poetry, painting, and drawing. They are joined by an equally powerful array of modern neotraditionalist artists, such as Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937), Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (b. 1937), Nasrollah Afjei (b. 1933), and Mohammad Ehsai (b. 1939).

Photography during the Pahlavi Era
What seems somewhat less spectacular in contrast – from what we know today – is the photographic output between the 1930s and the 1960s. Commercial, advertising, and press photography created new professions. The Photographic Society of Iran was founded in 1950.
During those years, an estimated seventy percent of Iranians were illiterate. Hence, photographs of streets, bridges, railroads, industrial
complexes, schools, and cinemas served as propagandistic proof of modern technological progress. And while photography during the
Pahlavi era had left the confines of the palaces since its golden beginnings under the Qajars, it neither opened a window onto the world nor became an artistic medium. This was to change rapidly with the dawn of the 1970s.
Photojournalism and social documentaries in particular attracted a lot of interest through exhibitions and publications. The Seyhoun Art
Gallery, which became one of the foremost hubs for contemporary art in 1966 and has remained one to this day, showed series by Kāveh Golestān (1950–2003) about the everyday life of Iranian kids in 1975. The artist shot his famous series about prostitution, work, and psychiatric hospitals for the daily newspaper Ayandegan in 1977. His wife, Hengameh Golestān (b. 1952), also created pioneering work with her pieces about the everyday life of women and her series on traditional wedding pictures.
Art production in Iran had been at its zenith since the 1960s, and Tehran had become one of the most interesting art hotspots in the world. The Persian tradition of a feudal culture of distinction and aesthetic education were spurred by the discursive, committed interest of a new urban middle-class. Numerous galleries were created, and a Tehran art fair was inaugurated very early on, shortly after the founding of the first contemporary art fair, in Cologne, and long before Basel. Aside from the art biennial in Tehran, the cities of Shiraz and Isfahan also hosted biennials. And yet: modern art needed a central location – there was no shortage of petrodollars among the country’s wealthy – and so, initiatives for the installment of a museum of contemporary art were born.

TMoCA, 2019
photos: Modiriat-Tosee-Paydar’s Archive

When the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art TMoCA opened its doors in 1977, it was miles ahead, both in terms of its founding year-most European modern art museums came later-and in terms of its architectural concept and purchasing budget. It collected the largest holdings of Western art outside of Europe and the United States. With David Galloway as chief curator, the Tehran Museum managed to juxtapose major works of Western Modernism with those of Iranian artists: a dialogue among cultures and civilizations at eye level – in painting, sculpture, and photography. This, too, was a distinctive feature of the TMoCA, as the perception and presentation of photography in the context of contemporary art was anything but self-evident in the 1970s: The same year, 1977, marked the first time that the documenta in Kassel showed photography at all.
At least since the second half of the 1970s, Iranian art – especially calligraphy and graphic art, along with photography – had been caught up in the dynamics of intensifying political upheaval. Many artists positioned themselves on the side of the Revolution, taking on an active role in fanning the storm that turned into a hurricane.

Islamic Revolution and Iraq War

Ruhollah Khomeini, Flug vom Pariser Exil nach Teheran, 1979
gelatin silver print on baryta paper
30 x 40 cm
© Archiv Robert Lebeck

The chain of events that was later to result in the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran began around the time the TMoCA opened in October 1977. On February 1, 1979, Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989) returned to Iran from his Parisian exile and managed to install a revolutionary interim government. Aboard his chartered Air France jumbo jet were hundreds of journalists – also for the Ayatullah’s safety, as it was feared that a missile might intercept the plane – among them Robert Lebeck for the German magazine Stern.
In its amalgamation of Shiite theology, anti-imperialism, religious socialism, and national republicanism, the 1979 Revolution was an event of global, epoch-making significance. The Iranian call for emancipation suddenly not only changed the balance of power in the Middle East but, with the end of the East–West conflict, also laid out the international agenda for the twenty-first century.
In 1980, Iraqi troops under Saddam Hussein, with support from the West, started a large-scale invasion of Iran. The war lasted eight years and probably cost about half a million lives on both sides. At the war’s end, the Islamic Republic was economically ravaged, the generation of men born around 1960 demographically decimated.
From revolution and war germinated the stern national culture that also shaped the arts in the Islamic Republic in those years. The anti-imperialist nature of the revolution collided with the country’s Western-tinged modernism in the arts. Until the 1990s, it was very difficult for artists to present their works internationally. Many left Iran due to repression.
The Tehran Biennial returned for the first time in 1991. The exhibition included revolutionary art with analogies to Social Realism or Mexican facade painting. The next biennial in 1993 already had fewer requirements in terms of content. Ruyin Pakbaz is his generation’s most prominent historian, critic, and university professor for art. His books are standard works for students; titles include The Encyclopedia of Art (1999), Iranian Painting: From Prehistory to the Present Day (2000), and the Dictionary of Art Terms and Artists (2010), most of them not yet translated from the Persian. On the occasion of the 1993 Tehran Biennial, Pakbaz warned about state censorship and the dangers of stultifying repetition in the arts.
With the gradual relaxation of the short leash at which art had been kept, the TMoCA bloomed into one of its most vital centers: by way of biennials for photography, painting, and sculpture as well as big exhibitions on contemporary European, American, and Japanese art! and a rediscovery, curated by Ruyin Pakbaz, of the pioneers of Iranian Modernism, which is to say, art from the age of the Shah. The TMoCA also dedicated its presentations to Iranian artists, like Shirin Neshat (b.1957), who had left their country after the Revolution.

Photography of the Revolutionary Period

Aside from large-format patriotic works next to highways, on house facades, or countless public squares, modern painting and sculpture regressed in the revolutionary years. Since the 1980s, however, it has been mainly media art, film, and Iranian photography that have continued to stand out. Abbas Attar (1944–2018), Kaveh Kazemi (b. 1952), Maryam Zandi (b. 1946), and Bahman Jalali (1944–2010) count among the world’s big names of twentieth-century photography.

Demonstrations during the Iran Revolution, 1979
from the series The book ʻThe Revolution of Iran 79
analog b/w photographs
varying dimensions

Abbas Attar, an Iranian-French photojournalist, may be the most celebrated figure in the West thanks to his prominent role in Magnum Photos and his numerous books and exhibitions. He spent his life traveling and dedicating his photographic and journalistic work after the revolution to photo stories about world religions at the end of the twentieth century: their resurgence, their power, and their violence.
Kaveh Kazemi and Maryam Zandi are also known for photographing the Revolution. However, both kept working in Iran on series about various topics in the 1980s and 1990s – Zandi about nomadic Turkmen, Kazemi about Zoroastrian and dervish communities. Above all, both, albeit with different visual approaches, became portraitists of their nation’s leading intellectuals: writers, philosophers, musicians, historians, illustrators, sculptors, theater directors, poets, filmmakers, opera singers, painters, actors. Photography demonstrated the continued strength of the Islamic Republic’s culture.

Untitled, 2000
from the series Kasnazani Dervishes of Kurdistan
varying dimensions

The Iranian Past
in Contemporary Photography

Since the beginning of the reform era in the 1990s, Iran’s photographic heritage has not only been comprehensively analyzed, conserved, digitalized, and published, the photography of the Qajar era has also become a constant subject in contemporary Iranian art.
Over the course of four decades Bahman Jalali was a pivotal figure of Iranian photography: as a chronicler of the Islamic Revolution and the Iraq War, as an artist, photobook author, image editor for magazines, curator, university teacher, initiator of the photo museum in Tehran, and photo historian. For years, he reviewed and preserved the holdings of the Golestān Palace, and, since 2006, his own photographic works have been shown in big retrospectives in Western Europe and in Iran alike. Jalali’s last great cycle, Image of Imagination, was dedicated to old Iranian photography: He collaged nineteenth-century images with double exposures, pressed and dried flowers (much like in herbaria), or calligraphies. The result were photopoetic refigurations in which photography negotiates itself and common distinctions between origin, manipulation, and work dissolve.

Untitled, 2004
from the series Image of Imagination
70 x 70 cm
Courtesy: Rana Javadi

Oscillations between photographic tradition and modernism shape the works of Shadi Ghadirian (b. 1974) in an entirely different way. Her series Qajar, about Qajar women, is influenced by studio portraits that became popular in late-nineteenth-century Iran. Projections of female gender roles in Oriental settings are counterbalanced by contemporary objects like boomboxes, Pepsi cans, and vacuum cleaners.

Qajar #3, 1998
from the series Qajar
varying dimensions
© Silk Road Gallery / Shadi Ghadirian

The artistic exploration of the visual tradition and the manipulation of found photographs seem striking characteristics of many artists born and based in Iran. Golnaz Mohammadi Moghanaki (b. 1988) investigates the narrative power of photography by editing old family pictures. She is not primarily interested in personal experiences or questions of identity but in probing the limits of visual media in our understanding of time, moments, and memory.2

each 18 x 13 cm
Fortune, 2013
Fortune, 2015

2. In the exhibition Capturing Iran’s Past. Photo Art (November 7, 2019–January 26, 2020) the Permagonmuseum in Berlin currently
showcases works by Shadi Ghadirian, Taraneh Hemami, Najaf Shokri, and Arman Stepanian.

The Iranian Photo and Art Scene under Sanctions

Forty years after the Revolution the constellations have once again been jumbled. Art acts in new and expanded spaces: in blogs, on Instagram, at universities, in museums, in schools, in journalism, and among art dealers. Most of the players were born after 1970 and are women, digitally connected, and globally active. Parisa Aminolahi, who was born in Tehran in 1978 and now lives in the Netherlands, for instance, processes experiences of commuting between worlds by interweaving photographic and musical elements, among other things, in her video Away.

from left
exhibition view
Teer Art fair, Tehran, 2019

Maryam Majd, Hamidreza Pejman, Hormoz Hematian, Arash Razaghi
reception, Teer Art week,
Tehran, 2019
photo: Matin Jamei

Surprisingly unfazed by economic sanctions and political turmoil, the current art market soldiers on. The Tehran art fair Teer Art took place in its second edition in June 2019. Going back to an initiative by private galleries and cultural foundations in Tehran, the fair is largely managed by Maryam Majd, who is also the director of Assar Art Gallery. Two annual events, the summer fair, and a gallery week in January make Teer Art a new platform for modern and contemporary art!with great success both in terms of sales and the enormous crowds it pulls. The twenty exhibiting galleries, some of which presented only one position at their booths in 2019, are among Tehran’s most renowned: Assar, Etemad, Homa, and Azad. Photography is found mainly in the programs of Silk Road, AG Gallery, and Mohsen. The young galleries 009821 Projects, Inja, and Hedayat were also represented, as well as Emrooz from Isfahan. Pirsook Art Space from Shiraz presented, among other works, concrete photography by Aslan Arzaghi (b. 1984). Badguir from Paris, the only international representative, showed Kaveh Kazemi’s photographs from the revolutionary years.

exhibition view
Teer Art fair, Tehran, 2019

Visual art from Iran today enjoys an international avant-garde status. Along with just under a dozen Tehran galleries that are present at
international art fairs like the Art Basel or the Contemporary Istanbul, more than forty galleries put on regular exhibitions in the city. The openings constitute weekly meeting spots for the capital’s civil society. They have been joined by a young scene in the cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, and Kashan. Recent years have also seen gulf states, primarily the Art Dubai fair and the auctioneer Christie’s Dubai, assume an important role in trading contemporary Iranian art. Since 2012, Iran also has an auction house for modern and contemporary art, Tehran Auction.

exhibition view „Steve McCurry“,
Hasht Cheshme art space,
Kashan, 2019
photo: Manoochehr Heydarian

Hossein Rowshanbakht, Hossein Farmani, Hassan Rowshanbakht
photo: Siavash Naghsh Bandi

Photography established itself completely in the Iranian art scene in the 2000s, above all through the work of Anahita Ghabaian, director of Silk Road Gallery, and Simindokht Dehghani, director of AG Gallery. Both continually travel internationally, their galleries participating in the Paris Photo. They recently put on large exhibitions at Rencontres d’Arles, develop the scene, and complain that the upscale market for vintage prints or limited large formats is still a difficult subject in Iran. This summer, not one but several new art spaces opened in Kashan, which is a two-hour drive from Tehran and the birthplace of Sohrab Sepehri: a house for Steve McCurry with the support of the US-Iranian entrepreneur and photography enthusiast Hossein Farmani and the two young photography activists Kashani Hassan and Hossein Rowshanbakht as well as two impressive exhibition spaces in a renovated old industrial building. Three years ago, the London-based art collector Homa Zarabi donated her library of modern art, architecture and photography to the city. Next year, Kashan is planning to organize a photo festival.

Steve’s House,
Kashan, 2019
photo: Deed Studio

Due to an increasing market orientation, the great international interest in Iranian positions has also given rise to critical voices. Galleries and artists often feel confronted with expectations that non-American and non-European art should have either ethnical or political connotations. Would Iranian art even be internationally recognized without Persian calligraphy, or rug patterns, and the criticism of the hijab? It has so much more to offer. The obsession with the visual Other is a postcolonial construct. Yet how does art work as a critique of global homogenization without succumbing to folkloristic stereotypes? There is, overall, an acute awareness of the dangers of carnivalizing cultural difference and self-exoticizing art as marketing strategies!by Iranian exhibition-makers, Iranian art critics, bloggers, and, above all, the visual artists themselves.

Away, 2013
stop motion HD video
duration: 15′


Current exhibitions and events
Capturing Iran’s Past. Fotokunst – Photo Art
special exhibition of the Museum Islamische Kunst – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, from 7.11.2019 until 26.1.2020, Pergamonmuseum, Berlin

Teer Art week
exhibitions, panel discussions, film screenings, studio visits, etc., in galleries, public spaces, and artists’ studios, for the program go to, from 27.12.2019 until 10.1.2020, Tehran


Further reading
Contemporary art
Hannah Jacobi, Stimmen aus Teheran. Interviews zur zeitgenössischen Kunst im Iran, Frankfurt am Main 2017 (reliable, German-language overview of the current art scene)
Hamid Keshmirshekan, Contemporary Iranian Art. New Perspectives, London 2013 (encyclopedic standard work about twentieth-century Iranian art)

Staci Gem Scheiwiller, Liminalities of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Iranian Photography. Desirous Bodies, London 2016
Staci Gem Scheiwiller (ed.), Performing the Iranian State. Visual Culture and Representations of Iranian Identity, Cambridge 2013
Staci Gem Scheiwiller, Markus Ritter, The Indigenous Lens? Early Photography in the Near and Middle East, Studies in Theory and History of Photography 8, Berlin 2018
Elahe Helbig, „A New ‚Visionʻ: Early Works of Ahmad Aali and the Emergence of Fine Art Photography in Iran (1960s–1970s)“, in: Asiatische Studien, 70(4), Zurich 2016

Political History
Reinhard Schulze, Geschichte der Islamischen Welt. Von 1900 bis zur Gegenwart, Munich 2016
Edward W. Saïd, Orientalism, New York 1978


Author’s Acknowledgments
Hannah Jacobi has been studying and publishing on contemporary Iranian art since 2010. I owe many helpful hints to her. My most sincere thanks go to David Galloway for years of friendship and directions.


Internationale Zeitschrift für Photographie und Medienkunst
International Magazine for Photography and Media Art
(Heft/Issue #108, 11/2019)

Österreichisches Institut für Photographie und Medienkunst – EIKON

Carl Aigner

Chief Editor:
Nela Eggenberger

Pia Draskovits