In the opening rooms of the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Epic iran, a curved and horned bronze figurine greets the visitor with an evil half-smile. As the viewer leaves the show an hour or two later, another provocative personality leaves an equally vivid impression: she’s a blonde woman with blue eyes blowing a provocative, shiny pink bubble straight into your face.
The earliest work, a disturbing fusion of man and beast indicating some form of shamanic worship, dates back to 3200 BC; the photograph of the lady with bubble gum, “Miss Hybrid # 3”, is a 2008 piece by artist and archaeologist Shirin Aliabadi. It is an invigorating journey through time. Even by today’s standards of eclectic hit shows, few are able to span their works over five millennia.
Epic iran is, in this sense at least, aptly titled. Three distinct periods of Iranian history are presented, in the words of co-commissioner Tim Stanley, “as a sequence, with appropriate breaking points”. Recent broadcasts have dealt with these three periods – the ancient, the Islamic, and the modern and contemporary – without regard to their relationship to each other. This one tries to find the threads that cross the story.
First of all, the bad news: there are no-shows at the party. Although the widely acclaimed exhibits of the British Museum during the first decade of the 21st century, the 2005s Forgotten Empire on ancient Persia and the years 2009 Shah ‘Abbas: Iran’s overhaul, marked a new climate of cultural cooperation between Britain and Iran, with many prestigious loans to Bloomsbury, the current political tensions between Iran and the West have proved too tense to be overcome.
“There was every hope that it would be possible to include material from Iran, and the Iranian side was enthusiastic about it,” said John Curtis, who piloted the shows and co-hosted Epic iran. “But this was scuttled by the deteriorating circumstances following [President] Trump’s actions [to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal]. “
No matter: new loans were arranged and the show’s ambitions remained intact. Curtis, academic director of the Iran Heritage Foundation, says the continuity of Iranian culture is evident through the longevity of Iran’s language, religion and literary traditions: he points to the continued existence in Iran of the Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest forms of worship, and the cultural significance of poetry, from the 10th century Shahnameh (Book of Kings) of Ferdowsi, in the present tense.
The exhibition also aims to correct certain misunderstandings. Iranian culture has found itself ambushed by historians with a point to prove. The achievements of ancient Persia were undervalued by Greek writers like Herodotus, who had little desire to glorify his country’s enemies and whose influence extended into 19th-century Europe. Today Curtis tells me with something approaching malice, there is a school of thought that the art of the Parthenon could have been influenced by Persepolis, reversing the traditional theory that the Achaemenid capital was designed with the help of the Ionians.
The golden age of archeology in the 19th and early 20th centuries also saw Iran eclipsed by the works of art of its neighbors. “Iran was considered a poor relation of Mesopotamia and Egypt,” Curtis says. “When the concept of the Fertile Crescent was invented in the interwar period, Iran was not really a part of it. If people had known Iran as much as they do today, he certainly would have been included. A Royal Academy of Arts show held in 1931, a forerunner of Epic iran, paid relatively little attention to the country’s antiques, such was their low standing.
The section of the exhibition on modern and contemporary art, curated by Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, brings the history of Iran back to the present day. It is here that the tensions between politics and culture are most felt, especially following the abrupt changes of regime in the post-war years.
Iran willingly embraced the avant-garde with the establishment of the Tehran Biennale in 1958, which was replaced by the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of the Arts, whose experimental nature became an early target of Islamic rhetoric. “Indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz and it is said that such acts will soon be shown in Tehran too, and no one is saying a word,” Ayatollah Khamenei said of an Iraqi mosque in 1977. “Gentlemen [clerics] in Iran, don’t say anything. I can’t understand why they don’t speak! They made their feelings blatantly obvious just two years later.
Contemporary art was inevitably shaped by the 1979 revolution. Many artists fled the country and are prestigiously regarded by Western galleries. Tala Madani, whose scathing deconstructions of masculinity are portrayed in the 2008 “Making Faces” series, left Iran at the age of 14 and lives and works in Los Angeles. She says the effects of artists’ emigration have had unintended consequences, in many cases making their work more conservative.
“They come to America, and they know all about pop culture, popular music, etc., and then they have this moment of panic when they realize, ‘Oh my God, my new neighbors don’t know anything about it. me! They think I am someone who rides a camel, without a cell phone. And they become very invested in their own history and in the preservation of their history. They do not dare to challenge their own conscience because they must first clarify their past. And their work becomes conservative by default. “
I ask him if it even makes sense to talk about a thread that has run through Iranian culture for such a long time, other than that it was produced on the same piece of land. “Well, I’m doing my painting outside of this piece of land,” she replies. “But my brain is in this country.”
‘Epic Iran’ opens May 29 vam.ac.uk