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The Art of War: Why Today’s Iranian Art Is One Of Your Best Investments Now

by Abigail R. Esman

“Until the crimson blossoms on the shirt.” It is a line from a poem by Ahmad Shamlou, an Iranian poet whose work is especially popular among Iranian dissidents these days.

It is also the title of two paintings  by Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh, who currently lives in exile with his photographer brother Ramin in Dubai: although their works are being swept up by major collectors throughout the West – including art trendsetters Charles Saatchi and Don and Mera Rubell – friends in Iran have cautioned the Haerizadehs that they risk execution should they return to their native Tehran. Their art has made them enemies of the state these days, thanks in part to Ramin’s self portrait as a mullah in drag. (Indeed, police invaded the home of one of Ramin’s collectors, confiscating the works, and it is rumored that the collector now faces a prison sentence.) Additional works of political protest have not helped: across the thickly painted, altarpiece-like triptychs of “Until The Crimson Blossoms On the Shirt,” and “Until The Crimson Blossoms On the Shirt, II,”  for instance, contorted, bloodied figures writhe and struggle against their oppressors – the painter’s response to the treatment of those  imprisoned during the 20o9 Green Revolution uprisings.

But to many in their homeland – and many more abroad – the Haerizadehs are heroes, celebrated not only for their political activism but as two of the hottest artists on the global art market — part of a new passion for  contemporary art from the Middle East.

The anguish and anger that permeate the Haerizadeh’s work infuses much of Iranian art, which is especially sought-after. Of these, the photographs by Shirin Neshat are probably the best-known (with prices to show it), especially those of women, their faces, feet, or hands inscribed with calligraphic Persian texts. But there are others, like the Haerizadehs, worth watching, such as Y. Z. Kami  who currently exhibits with Gagosian, or German-based Parastou Farouhar, who has spent the past decade investigating the political murder of her own parents under the former Shah of Iran, incorporating her findings – and her horror – into digital images and installations. And  Shirin Aliabadi, another photographer, documents the conflicts and dynamic relationships between Islamic and Western worlds, particularly as they affect Iranian women.

Personally, the works I covet are those by Abbas Kowsari , and Newsha Tavakolian, both photojournalists living in Tehran.  Kowsari, for instance, snaps gripping, vivid portraits of life under Ahmadinejad’s Islamist regime; his shots of  chador-clad female police cadets, pistols at the ready, prepared to kill to preserve the moral decency of their fellow Iranian women, are among the most haunting and powerful images I have ever encountered; and his recent “Ashoura” series is positively chilling.

Tavakolian’s work also focuses on the shackles and violence that characterize Iranian culture under Islamist rule, and the plight of women in Islamic society; “May Your Wish Come True, ” for instance, consists of a series of portraits of veiled, even blindfolded women dressed in black as they appear on the streets of Iran during the period of Moharram. As Tavakolian explains on her web site, “Forbidden to speak, they visit 4o houses and burn a candle to Imam Hussein, the third Shi’ite Imam, in each house. Their secret wishes will be granted after the ceremony, according to a 500-year-old tradition.”

Many of these  Iranian artists, such as Farhad Moshiri and Mohammed Ehsai (another of my own favorites)  now command prices over the million dollar mark; but there are many others  notes Leila Heller, whose LTMH Gallery   in New York specializes in this material, who remain far more accessible – offering a tremendous investment opportunity.  Ramin Haerizadeh’s prices still hover at an easy $10,000, though recent auction sales have seen Rokni’s canvases pass $50,000.

Heller further  points to Shoja Azari,  Neshat’s husband, whose museum sales have been particularly strong;  Shiva Alimadi, whose prices have flown from $500 -$4000 in 2005 to $4000 – $26,000 today; Negar Ahkami, whose values have increased fivefold in five years; and Reza Derakshani,  whose work Heller was selling for $5000 to $30,000 as recently as 2009, and who now brings as much as $100,000 at auction.

But these values, ultimately, are beside the point. What is truly extraordinary, and what makes these artists so worthy of support, is their courage.  Their art places them on the frontlines of the battle for democracy and freedom in Iran and throughout the middle east. Their passion, their vision, their work – and the recognition their receiving – from Quatar and Dubai to London, Paris, and New York – may well help make it happen.

Via Abigail R. Esman - Pen & Sword - Forbes
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