(Not) Crossing the Boundaries, to the Field Beyond:

An Exhibition of Contemporary Iranian Art

 By: Melinda Barnhardt

With many thanks to my dearest Melinda, as always


Out beyond ideas of
Right doing and wrong doing,
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
(Jelaluddin Rumi, 1205-1273)


Viewing 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.

A tour of some examples from the exhibition serves best to illustrate:

Placed 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 diminished.

In 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 mosque.

In 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 Kalantari’s  “Village near Kashan.”) 

Encouraging 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.

A 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 renewal?)

Varga 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..