the Boundaries, to the Field Beyond:
Exhibition of Contemporary Iranian Art
By: Melinda Barnhardt
With many thanks to my dearest Melinda, as always
Out beyond ideas of
the exhibition of 88 contemporary paintings entitled “A Breeze from
the Gardens of Persia” at Meridian International Center in Washington,
D.C., April 27 through July 15, 2001, I found to my disappointment that
nearly all lacked the quality of vision that museum-goers in a democracy
customarily expect. Organized by Meridian International Center in
collaboration with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibit is
presented in the United States in cooperation with Search for Common
Ground. As evidenced by the
use of a quotation from Rumi as its epigraph, the obvious intent is to
stimulate cultural detente. The problem, as usual in repressive
contexts, is the intrusion of the “party line” expressed in the
guise of art. Still, in the
interest of an accurate assessment, I paused to give the exhibit some
thought: A collection by 54
individuals, a third of whom are women, it points to an increased number
of Iranian citizens currently practicing a wide range of art.
The experimentation with new media and techniques, areas no doubt
considered “safe,” is nonetheless worthy of remark. A small number
of the paintings, particularly those by and about women, show degrees of
authentic vision. However, most adhere to an officially sanctioned
religious and social message. Confusingly,
many simultaneously make reference to the rich Persian past.
The effect is that of a dizzying house of mirrors, in which the
images of traditional Persian culture are heavily misused and coopted.
The greatest value of the exhibit may lie in what it reveals
about conditions needed for the emergence and nurturing of art.
tour of some examples from the exhibition serves best to illustrate:
at the entrance, Javad Nobahar’s Shepherd’s
Dream features the piercingly beautiful image of the reed, familiar
to all Iranians from the opening of Rumi’s Masnavi.
As in the Masnavi, it plays a
lament, symbol of the soul’s longing,
The shepherd lies down far from home, and “exhausted and sad
and in the sunset plays a sorrowful tune in the memory of his beloved”
(the artist’s words, quoted in the exhibition catalog).
The intent in the use of Rumi’s symbol here is uncertain,
however. A slim possibility
exists that Nobahar’s painting constitutes veiled social comment via
allusion to the powerful image of the flute:
Perhaps this contemporary man, an “outsider,” directs his
lament not only to heaven but to inhabitants of the distant city and the
global village beyond. (Is the shepherd longing for freedom, and unhappy
with his life?) What is far
more likely is purely sentimental idealizing of a common man’s
melancholy piety. One
suspects that Rumi’s flute is being stolen -- or at very least
the majority of cases, the appropriation of images is all too clear.
Contemporary Persian miniatures make use of window imagery to
draw upon associations of special vantage points, openness, and
liberation that windows in miniatures have long implied. Some
dazzle with their rendering and stylistic effect.
A few examples of the degradation of the window’s meaning will
suffice: Mohammad Bagher Aghamiri’s “Window to Heaven” preempts
not only window, but bird and cypress symbols of free spirit and
independence, describing a saccharin and romanticized religious scene:
Prayer rug and Q’uran have been left behind near the window’s
sill, and the departed soul soared to the heavens, vanished from sight.
In Abbass Jamalpour’s “My Presence,” the window again is used with
heavily didactic intent -- providing a supposed opening onto the
ineffable whiteness of the Infinite.
The crowning touch: an image of the Kaaba that glows,
framed by an encircling wreath in the traditional foliated border’s
top. More offbeat, and deceptively “with it” in its combination of
New Age and miniature motifs, Amir Zekrgoo’s “Time” telescopes
window within window, envisioning the future’s repetition of the past.
Hardly New Age at all, the scene is dominated by the ascendant dome of a
the same manner, modern abstract expressionism is harnessed to religious
themes. And “safeness is
all” in often more honest, but narrowly-focused village scenes. (Though, as an aside, I very much liked the architectural
forms and freshness conveyed by textured straw and earth in Parviz
news arises from degrees of emerging expressiveness in works featuring
women. In a handful of paintings by male and female artists, women
appear as actors -- no longer idealized, passive creatures (a point made
by Professor Farzaneh Milani, in a lecture related to the exhibition). Unlike subjects of the other works, they appear to represent
honest portrayals, struggling to push against boundaries that restrict.
In Rezvan Sadeghzadeh’s Dancing Women, they move, hands joined, from a blue field, across a
desert-colored bound. In Simin Keramati’s Cloud
in the Wind, they rise,
partially enveloped in chador-like fabric, their hair blowing free
behind them. In other
cases, they transition and perhaps change:
A doorway suggests a new dimension in Akram Afzali’s untitled
painting. A woman passes
through it, her peach-colored robe lighting the space into which she
moves. My favorite of this group, Rahman Maleki’s Girls
on Horseback, has tribal women riding toward some new horizon.
Their brilliant clothing contrasts with a nearly neutral ground,
as they head toward their vision of a brilliantly patterned kilim-like
region that lies ahead.
single painting, Paradise, by
Gizella Varga Sinai, suggests a degree of movement beyond customary
boundaries to the intuitive region of common ground alluded to in the
quotation by Rumi. In this traditional (at first glance) Persian
miniature scene, a young woman sits by an open garden window.
The moment is one in which a bird -- quintessential symbol of
freedom -- enters the window to drink from the shallow bowl in her hand.
The twist: A heavy veil of cloudy dust and cracks of age which
greatly obscure the entire scene. In
this painting, the garden has crumbled.
A huge fissure divides the bird from the girl who beckons with
the bowl. A glimpse of the
brilliantly colored bird shines through the dust, unobtainable.
Caught in stasis, like the figures on Keats’ “Grecian Urn,”
the bird and girl suggest that it is lack of fulfillment that seems
eternal. (Or is it?
Several small flowers -- or are they weeds? -- burst through the
fissure in bold, straggling foreground color.
Their shadow, against the cloudy wall, indicates their existence
in the present, on this side of the dust.
Will heroic vitality once again express itself in a cycle of
Sinai’s painting provides insight into the possibility of an enlarged
syntax capable of examining multiple boundaries -- in this case,
boundaries created by restrictions in the political present and the
traditional past. Who is
responsible for the disintegration of the garden?
The artist does not opt for easy answers.
The suggested associations and trains of thought stimulated in
the viewer are multiple and newly complex. The images of the past have
not been imprisoned by the ideology of the present.
Neither past nor present realities have been simplistically
endorsed or condemned; instead, their structures and meanings have been
overlapped, played against each other in ways that the mind is freed to
explore. Its intuitive
regions subtly activated, mind roams the new territory, pausing to
meditate in hitherto unknown gaps and crannies (the “bounds out of
bounds” -- perhaps the true “field beyond”).
Is Varga Sinai’s painting a one-time only “fluke”?
Can the present cultural climate ever soften sufficiently to
nurture such experimentation across the board?
For information on the show’s national tour, see www.meridian.org..