Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Cultural Politics of Art in Iran

Katrin Nahidi

My book, The Cultural Politics of Art in Iran – Modernism, Exhibitions, and Art Production, revisits the era of modernist art production in Iran from the 1950s to the 1970s. This book highlights that Iranian modernist art was a vibrant and culturally significant form of artistic expression. During this period, artists skillfully incorporated their visual Iranian heritage with modernist techniques, resulting in the creation of artworks that engaged with global artistic discourses and addressed the unique challenges posed by Iran’s modernization programs.

These artistic productions went beyond mere local experiments with Western modernity. Instead, they reflected broader questions of modernity and modernization in Iran. The artists developed their own specific form of modernism, one that aimed to be both modern and distinctly Iranian. Their artistic expression was closely tied to a critique of the Western modernity adaptation, often referred to as “westoxification” (gharbzadegi), as well as the country’s political struggles for liberalization and democracy.

Methodologically, the book employs postcolonial theory and iconographic analysis of the artworks to dismantle imperial conceptions of modernity and potentially decolonize the history of modernist Iranian art. These findings go beyond the local Iranian context, showing the limitations of the traditional and static conceptualization of Western modernity when studying art histories outside the Western world. Consequently, these repercussions have sparked a transformative discourse that challenges previous understandings of modernities, exposes the inherent epistemological violence of modernity, and calls for the development of fresh concepts and the reevaluation of existing definitions.

The inspiration for this book is closely connected to my academic background. In my master’s thesis, I analyzed Shirin Neshat’s feature film Women Without Men (2009) within the broader discourse of Iranian exile and diaspora. Through this analysis, I encountered a prevailing narrative that was present in art historiographical practices about non-Western artists during the early 2000s. These texts propagated the idea that non-Western migrant artists drew inspiration from their premodern cultural heritage and merged it with Western postmodern means of expression. In doing so, these artists appeared to achieve the seemingly impossible task of reconciling Western modernity with Islamic backwardness. Consequently, art historiography and exhibition practices aligned with the political discourses of the early 2000s, which reflected anti-Muslim sentiments, reinforced stereotypes, fostered identity politics, and reduced non-Western artists to their countries of origin.

This sparked my interest in the following question, which I developed into my PhD project: Does a modern Iranian art scene exist prior to the contemporary era? Filled with enthusiasm, I headed to the art history library and visited the Islamic Art Department. On the shelves, I discovered survey works on Persian art, such as Arthur Upham Pope’s renowned A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present (1938), along with numerous books on ancient and pre-modern Iranian art. However, there was hardly any material on modernist Iranian art. This indicates that, at that time, Iranian modernist art, like other non-Western modernist art, was not considered part of the global canon. Modernism is often perceived as a Western phenomenon. Until recently, non-Western modernist art was often seen as a belated imitation of Western modern art, unable to achieve the originality of the Western model. In recent years, scholarly efforts have aimed to change this perception and incorporate transcultural and global modernities into the Western canon. Although perceptions have significantly evolved in the academic field, many museums that exhibit modern art still adhere to a Eurocentric idea of what modern art is.

As I continued my research, I encountered a challenge in the form of missing archives. This made me realize that Eurocentric concepts of history, archives, and art historical narratives are not sufficient for studying Iranian modernism. However, this obstacle led me to discover the value of artist interviews and source materials from libraries and archives in Tehran. These resources turned out to be extremely valuable in questioning art historiographical concepts.

In the first chapter, I focused on the question: “Who is speaking?” and examined contemporary exhibitions both inside and outside Iran, considering them as sites of knowledge production about modernist Iranian art. This analysis revealed that the interpretation of Iranian modernist art in these exhibition contexts often serves various contemporary political interests of soft power, resulting in a depoliticized reading.

Moving on to the second chapter, I delved deeper into the cultural politics during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1978). To challenge the perception of modernist art in Iran as merely a reflection of Pahlavi modernization, this chapter explores Jalal al-e Ahmad’s art criticism. Using his writings as crucial resource, I discovered that modernism in Iran was not solely a form of formalist experimentation with Western modernity. Instead, it introduces a new artistic language that provided Iranian artists with fresh means of expression to address social and political themes of their time.

Chapter 3 explores art works and written materials related to Saqqakhaneh, which is considered the first successful incorporation of global modernism into Iranian art history. Saqqakhaneh was not a self-proclaimed art movement, and the artists involved did not share a common aesthetic agenda. The various designations of Saqqakhaneh as a modernist school, artistic group, or independent art movement highlight the absence of a standardized definition for the term. Recognizing this distinction offers valuable insight into the intricate and political landscape that paved the way for the reception of art works associated with Saqqakhaneh.

In the final chapter, I turn my attention to The Fighting Rooster Association founded in 1948. This reveals that the first generation of modernist artists were already deeply committed to establishing a distinctly Iranian modernism. By adapting French Cubism, Jalil Ziapour and the Fighting Rooster Association were able to develop a suitable visual language that drew inspiration from Iran’s cultural heritage, thereby creating an artistic subjectivity rooted in the country’s identity. Additionally, this artistic adaptation helped foster the Fighting Rooster’s political aspirations for Iran’s democratization and the establishment of an alternative national identity based on its spiritual heritage.

Through my book, I aim to contribute to the recognition of Iranian modernist art as a field that has been underestimated thus far. Artistic productions have the potential to provide unique insights and a deeper understanding of Iran’s modern history. On a personal level, this project has enabled me to explore the sociocultural and sociopolitical circumstances that led to the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, which greatly impacted the lives of my family members spread around the world and brought my parents to Germany.

The Cultural Politics of Art in Iran by Katrin Nahidi

About The Author

Katrin Nahidi

Katrin Nahidi is a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Graz. She has taught at the University of Graz, University of Osnabrück, and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He...

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