TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Some of the world’s most prized works of contemporary Western art have been unveiled for the first time in decades — in Tehran.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric, rails against the influence of the West. Authorities have lashed out at “deviant” artists for “attacking Iran’s revolutionary culture.” And the Islamic Republic has plunged further into confrontation with the United States and Europe as it rapidly accelerates its nuclear program and diplomatic efforts stall.
But contradictions abound in the Iranian capital, where thousands of well-heeled men and hijab-clad women marveled at 19th- and 20th-century American and European minimalist and conceptual masterpieces on display this summer for the first time at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
On a recent August afternoon, art critics and students were delighted at Marcel Duchamp’s see-through 1915 mural, “The Large Glass,” long interpreted as an exploration of erotic frustration.
They gazed at a rare 4-meter (13-foot) untitled sculpture by American minimalist pioneer Donald Judd and one of Sol Lewitt’s best-known serial pieces, “Open Cube,” among other important works. The Judd sculpture, consisting of a horizontal array of lacquered brass and aluminum panels, is likely worth millions of dollars.
“Setting up a show with such a theme and such works is a bold move that takes a lot of courage,” said Babak Bahari, 62, who was viewing the exhibit of 130 works for the fourth time since it opened in late June. “Even in the West these works are at the heart of discussions and dialogue.”
The government of Iran’s Western-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife, the former Empress Farah Pahlavi, built the museum and acquired the multibillion-dollar collection in the late 1970s, when oil boomed and Western economies stagnated. Upon opening, it showed sensational works by Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock and other heavyweights, enhancing Iran’s cultural standing on the world stage.
But just two years later, in 1979, Shiite clerics ousted the shah and packed away the art in the museum’s vault. Some paintings — cubist, surrealist, impressionist, even pop art — sat untouched for decades to avoid offending Islamic values and catering to Western sensibilities.
But during a thaw in Iran’s hard-line politics, the art started to resurface. While Andy Warhol’s paintings of the Pahlavis and some choice nudes are still hidden in the basement, much of the museum’s collection has been brought out to great fanfare as Iran’s cultural restrictions have eased.
The ongoing exhibit on minimalism, featuring 34 Western artists, has captured particular attention. Over 17,000 people have made the trip since it opened, the museum said — nearly double the footfall of past shows.
Curator Behrang Samadzadegan credits a recent renewed interest in conceptual art, which first shocked audiences in the 1960s by drawing on political themes and taking art out of traditional galleries and into the wider world.
The museum’s spokesperson, Hasan Noferesti, said the size of the crowds coming to the exhibition, which lasts until mid-September, shows the thrill of experiencing long-hidden modern masterpieces.
It also attests to the enduring appetite for art among Iran’s young generation. Over 50% of the country’s roughly 85 million people are under 30 years old.
Despite their country’s deepening global isolation, and fears that their already limited social and cultural freedoms may be further curtailed under the hard-line government elected a year ago, young Iranians are increasingly exploring the international art world on social media. New galleries are buzzing. Art and architecture schools are thriving.
“These are good works of art, you don’t want to imitate them,” said Mohammad Shahsavari, a 20-year-old architecture student standing before Lewitt’s cube structure. “Rather, you get inspiration from them.”
Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.
Nasser Karimi And Mehdi Fattahi, The Associated Press
After a lifetime as an elementary school teacher, 71-year-old Diane Major would never have imaged seeing herself in an art exhibit, but she says she’s discovered a whole new side of herself ever since a burnout led her to art therapy.
For a third year in a row, her artwork is being featured in the exhibit Parle moi d’amour, where creations by participants in art therapy workshops run by the organization Les Impatients are being presented alongside that of some of Quebec’s top artists.
“It’s been such a rewarding experience for me, because we can come together and share what’s going on inside,” said Major, whose work in the exhibit is available to purchase.
About one-third of the exhibit comes out of the workshops, offered for free across the province to Quebecers with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Major says it was a diagnosis of major depression and generalized anxiety that led the retiree to a workshop — and ultimately changed her life.
“I had so much trouble living,” Major said. “I told the psychiatrist, I have no more will power to do anything. Nothing interests me anymore.”
“In our society it’s always about how well and how fast you can perform. The final product is the most important. But with Les Impatients, it’s the steps you take that matter, and that’s what makes all the difference,” she said. “Each step counts and each one you take has its value, regardless of the end result, whether it’s positive or negative.”
The workshops draw more than 800 each week, with children represented by youth protection also in attendance, said Frédéric Palardy, the general director of the organization. It provides all the material needed to create the art.
“It goes from ‘It saved my life,’ to ‘That’s the only place where I feel good,'” Palardy said about the artists who attend their workshops.
WATCH | Frédéric Palardy explains Les Impatients’ art project:
A free exhibit downtown features work by participants in art therapy workshops alongside creations from some of Quebec’s top artists.
“It’s a very safe space. Everyone respects each other, everyone knows around you people are suffering,” he said. “But when you look at their work, there’s not much suffering.”
All works are given an equal place in the exhibit, whether they’re by one of Quebec’s famous abstract artists like Jean-Paul Riopelle, or someone who’s just started painting.
The organization calls itself Les Impatients since participants are “not thought of as patients” but rather “as creators impatient to heal,” according to its website.
“They’ve experienced difficult things in their life, and they need to express that,” said artist Marilyne Bissonnette who leads workshops in Montreal, Joliette and Repentigny, also featured in the exhibit.
“When they come to visit the show and see all the people that have come, they receive a lot of love, they are so proud.”
Professional artists and private collections have donated the rest of the pieces in the exhibit.
Art-lovers who want to take their favourites home can bid on all the artworks featured, with all proceeds going to the organization. Bids started as low as $50 on most, and can be placed online or during the live auction set for Wednesday night.
The free exhibit is on display at 200 Sherbrooke Street West at theUniversité du Québec à Montréal until Thursday.
“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art.” _ Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1897)
As Vladimir Putin’s senseless invasion of Ukraine ignites global fury, the clamor to vilify all people and all things Russian rages at levels unseen since the height of the enduring Cold War. Everyday Russian people are suffering, alongside their Ukrainian and Belorussian siblings, trapped in the domestic prison built by sanctions, living in constant dread that Putin will exhort his minions to pluck them from their desks and factory production lines to become soldiers fueling his bloodthirsty aggression.
Extending justified abomination for Putin to all Russians harms our collective humanity and undermines the cultural fabric that serves to comfort, inform, and enlighten us in times of strife. Putin doesn’t own the legacies and lives of the masters of visual and performing arts living and working in Russia or those of Russian heritage. Erasing Russian culture in a misguided protest against Putin only underscores his ownership of all things Russian.
Celebrating artists living and working in Russia or of Russian heritage is a powerful affront to Putin. Recognizing their vast contributions to humanity demonstrates that the creative force of the 144 million people living in the motherland and another 30 million ethnic Russians living abroad is more powerful than a warlord who oppresses his own people along with innocent victims in Ukraine. Feeding anti-Russian hate empowers Putin’s criminal agenda. Russophobia is inherently problematic, as it theoretically homogenizes an ethnic identity comprising more than 160 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, including 40 groups who are officially recognized as indigenous.
Artists chronicle and decode our collective joys and struggles, triumphs and failures, and the fungible, frustrating space between. What better way to undercut Putin’s faux Russianess than to amplify the contemporary artists who subvert every Putinesque erosion of creative consciousness? February 24 marked the escalation of the bitter, simmering eight-year Russo-Ukrainian War, and hurled it into the global spotlight, as if the centuries-long strife was breaking news.
Embrace flamboyance over neo-feudalism. Envision a future Russia where outrageous imagery, installation, and performance eclipse Putin’s outrage.
It’s soul-affirming that more than 24,000 people visited the Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair earlier this month, the highest turnout since it launched a decade ago. Seventy-two galleries from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Kaluga, and Vladivostok presented more than 1,600 works of contemporary art.
“According to our feelings, the atmosphere at the fair this year was very lively. At the same time, for us, this fair turned out to be one of the most difficult in our practice,” said Marina Gisich, founder of Marina Gisich Gallery and winner of Cosmoscow 2022 Stand Prize. “In difficult times, you want to look for new sources of inspiration and survival. And in that sense, Cosmoscow has probably become such an island of emotional stability.”
Art is an expression of the human condition which enables and encourages us to experience the range of emotions and perspectives of other people throughout history, including the creators, the subjects depicted in artworks, and anyone we interact with through discussion of art. It helps us work toward cultivating empathy and acknowledging the collective human struggle. Only then can we work toward effecting social change that can foster the western construct of peace, which is elusive to many people around the world.
As western media turns its gaze firmly on its decades-long favorite source of disdain — Russia — it’s essential to recognize that wars continue to rage around the world, threatening and subjugating everyday people everywhere.
It’s easy to turn our focus away from the world’s longest civil war, because its rare to spy a western headline. Conflict erupted between various ethnic groups in Myanmar in 1948, the year the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. An estimated 13,646 casualties have been reported so far this year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Civil war and terrorist insurgency persist in Afghanistan and Mali, civil wars continue in Colombia, Ethiopia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, terrorist insurgency won’t let up in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Tunisia, and South Sudan remains embroiled in ethnic violence.
Honor the work of artists everywhere, in spite of the governments that oppress the people.
As the summer winds down, there are still plenty of opportunities heading into fall for some art-related excursions. Keep your eyes open for autumn studio tours as the fall colours brighten the landscape, but be sure to also cast your gaze over the water for a slightly different outing. Hop on the ferry and head over to Wolfe Island to visit the Wolfe Island Gallery, which is open on weekends now until Oct. 8 (it is open more frequently during the summer).
The WIG is an artist-run collective comprised of creatives who live on, or have some other connection to, the Frontenac Islands — Wolfe, Simcoe and Howe. This is the main criteria of membership for artists in the WIG, another being that works produced for exhibition must be original fine art, sculpture or fine crafts. (A yearly call for artists goes out on the WIG’s web page and socials in early spring.) Given the emphasis on the island connection, it should come as no surprise that much of the artwork on display is closely tied to the islands themselves, whether the work reflects the landscape, community, fauna or lifestyle. The artwork and crafts at the gallery include paintings, photography, stained glass, sculpture, jewelry, drawings, art from found objects and quilts, among other types of work.
While most artwork has the stamp of its creator on it that in some way identifies it, with a gallery such as the WIG, it is also interesting to speculate on whether the artwork within it also reflects a certain specificity of Place. This idea of Place can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It may refer to representation of the actual geography and population of a particular region; it may refer to the character, ambience or “vibe” given by a locale; it may refer to a sense of identity. The possibilities, while not quite endless, are many. Historically speaking, for example, the quality of light in and around Venice was well known by painters, who sought to reproduce it in their landscape and city-scape representations. And this particular quality of light (if successfully captured in paint) served to identify this particular Place even if the subject was not made plain by the title of the work or by distinctive architectural or other features.
So when you’re looking at the artworks on display at the WIG, are there aspects that speak to the work having been produced on one of the Frontenac Islands? You might consider whether Nancy Steel’s figural paintings evoke a sense of community, or if her landscape vignettes offer a sense of a slower pace of island life. Or perhaps the willow bark bowls made by Patricia Howes and enhanced by found objects suggest quietude and long rambling walks of discovery. The black-capped chickadee of Jan Fitch’s carving or the owl in Kathy Schwab’s stained glass may be frequent visitors to their respective gardens or just passing through, with their own stories to tell.
It is the stories, of course, that drive artistic creation, with those stories supported and imbued with the influence of Place. Go and experience some island time and discover the stories being told in art by this very particular place.
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