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Iranian Contemporary Art & Its Market Opportunities

Newsha Tavakolian, My Superhero, from the series Listen, 2010, C-print, 105x130 cm. Courtesy ATFM.

by  Arash Amir Azodi, Art Taipei Forum Media

Whenever the theme is contemporary Iranian art, I have to talk about “Listen”, a piece by contemporary Iranian artist Newsha Tavakolian. The woman in the photograph appears to be very desperate, but at the same time, embodies the choice to face challenges head on.

Looking at Iranian history, we see revolutions every ten to twenty years. Politics in Iran has always been unstable and the development of contemporary art has been diverse. The most important change happened 30 years ago, at a time when Iran was experiencing a revolution and transition of power. The population grew exponentially from 30 million to almost 70 million. Based on this point, we know Iran is a young country and many young Iranians hope to find their identity and ponder their environment.

The Evolution of Contemporary Iranian Art

To understand the development of contemporary Iranian art and how the seeds of contemporary art were spread, we have to first understand how contemporary art took root in Iran. With French art academies serving as examples, Iran established its first art academy in 1941. Not long after, a queen appeared on the scene in the 1960s – Farah Pahlavi. She studied architecture and was friends with many avant-garde artists such as Andy Warhol. In a third world country like Iran, a queen who loved architecture and art had great influence on the country. The role of patron to arts emerged around this period of time. Pahlavi put great emphasis on public art, for example, placing sculptures in many places, etc. In the mid-1970s, Tehran established its first contemporary art museum. According to many collectors and art critiques, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is considered to have the most valuable collection of Western modern art outside of Europe and the United States. Due to factors such as these, Iran gradually grew accustomed to modern art in the 60s and 70s. Through different venues, education and patrons, Iran’s contemporary art and modern art began to flourish.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art building is a piece of art in itself. Most of the museum area is located underground. It has a very adequate collection and a decent library, making it a good place for art students to learn their craft. There is also an abundance of galleries in Iran. The resources and development of contemporary art provides a good foundation for aspiring young artists.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. Courtesy ATFM.

Background of Contemporary Iranian Art

The Islamic Revolution in 1979 was broadcasted on TV. For artists, the revolution was an excellent subject matter to work with. After the Cultural Revolution in China, social movements changed various social values. Iran was the same. The First Persian Gulf War, also known as the Iran-Iraq War, followed the Islamic Revolution. Anyone who had a camera or who had an interest in photography, writing, or theatre could become war photographers and document the conflict. Others documented events through journalistic photography. All of these photographers became artists. In the Iranian photography field, there was a very thin line differentiating journalistic photography and artistic photography.

A few years ago, an Iranian and Middle Eastern art expert published a book on Iranian photography. While providing an examination of Iranian culture and society, the book mentioned the difference between public image and private life which leads to the cultural schizophrenia we see in everyday life. Cultural schizophrenia is defined as having two different personalities when one is alone and when one is dealing with friends, family, the workplace or school. To some extent, it can be seen as cultural bipolar disorder. The contemporary Iranian art for this generation is somewhat like cultural schizophrenia, that is to say, there is a discrepancy between one’s private life and one’s public image. What are the results of the different traits? Like a human laboratory, observers watch Iran’s different reactions to various changes. In the past, Iranian photographers did not work for international photography companies. It wasn’t until Iranians started working with these companies that the work of Iranian’s artists introduced the world to this piece of land. The majority of Abbas Attar’s work was black and white photographs that told the stories of Iranian politics, religion, and the day to day life of the Iranian people. When we see photos that are centered on the themes of revolution and the First Persian Gulf War, we realize society is full of stories and storytellers.“Untitled” is by Shirin Neshat, an Iranian artist in New York. Using a series of photos that talk about Allah through women, Neshat examines how the new society operates under old ideas.

Shirin Neshat, Untitled, 1996. 23.8 x 16.5 cm. Courtesy ATFM.

Sharia, the moral code and religious law of Islam, also influenced Islamic art. To some extent, Sharia is the limitations of Islamic art. Yet, at the same time, it allowed contemporary artists to inject even more diversity into their art and forced artists to search for more metaphoric vocabulary. It also allowed both domestic and foreign audience to have more access to contemporary art forms. To understand how Sharia has influenced contemporary Iranian art, we have to talk about an Iranian photographer, Newsha Tavakolian, who was mentioned earlier. Sharia stipulates women cannot sing and people did not object to this rule for the most part. So the declaration made by artists was a very new point of view for the Iranian people. A video in the “Listen” series by Tavakolian depicts six Iranian singers that were forbidden to sing. This short film was a good example of how Sharia established restrictions but also provided artists the means to comment on Sharia or the means to discuss related problems. In addition, Sharia also forbids nudity, female opinion, and not crossing national borders, etc. Another female artist representative is Arush Bayas. Muslim women were not allowed to show their hair and she used her mother’s hair to create art. For Iran’s contemporary artists, the search for cultural identity and coming in contact with the outside world is a theme they are exploring. The outside world is not the world outside of Iran but a world outside of the self. Coming in contact with the outside world requires self-reflection at the same time.

Link video in the “Listen” by Tavakolian. Courtesy ATFM.

The Development of Contemporary Iranian Art

Prior to 2006, with exceptions to New York and London, the world did not understand contemporary Iranian art. In 2006, Christie’s opened an office in Dubai and began auctioning contemporary Arabic and Iranian art. Since then, Iranian art and artists gained a platform for exposure. Iran does not enjoy many tourists or a successful tourism industry, hence many deem it to be a mysterious, almost obscure country.

An ally of Iran, Dubai has more lax regulations; many artists favor the opportunity to exhibit in Dubai. In 2010, Tate Modern announced they were collecting contemporary Iranian art for a new exhibition room. Chelsea Art Museum in New York and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi have also started to collect contemporary Iranian art pieces and organizing related exhibitions. From November to April, an increasing number of museums exhibits are related to Iranian art. A decade ago, there were very few books that focused solely on contemporary Iranian art, regardless if it was in English or any other language, unless it was published locally. But in the past few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of publications on this subject matter, especially in the United Kingdom. The art world has started to take notice of contemporary Iranian art.

Iranian Art Market

From 2006 to 2009, statistics show that out of four Middle Eastern countries, Iran’s modern and contemporary art constituted 50% of the market. This number included artists working both domestically or abroad. The 2008 financial crisis heavily impacted Dubai. Apart from Dubai, London and Zurich were also big markets for Iranian art. If we look at these four Middle Eastern countries, Iran had the largest market share and it is significantly larger than the other countries. There was a slight shift in the statistics of 2009, most likely taken from London auction market sales. The Iranian art industry was also shocked to see the high market share its artists held.

When Christie’s opened an office in Dubai it expected sales from 2006 to 2009 to reach $30 million, but sales reached $100 million in just a year, the majority being the work of Iranian artists. So Christie’s became a platform for Iranian artists. The success of auction houses and Dubai exhibitions gave contemporary Iranian artists and contemporary artist groups the opportunity to present themselves. There are currently many international curators who are taking Iranian artists even more seriously.

In addition, Iranian artists have garnered attention in regional fairs. Not only are they popular in galleries in Tehran or elsewhere, they are also popular in Abu Dhabi Art, an international art fair. Istanbul Art International is set to open in a few days and many Iranian galleries will be in attendance. The Iranian art market has adequate hardware, such as venues, exhibition centers, etc. What it lacks is the software, the professionals which still require some time to foster. From an international perspective, Iran is still considered a newcomer. Around 69% of sales are from Iranian artists. Ever since 2006, the work of 153 artists has been sold in auction houses, making Iran the most successful country in the Middle East. Data taken from the website of ArtTactic, a company in London, reveals that until last year, Iran, United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon had the biggest sales records out of the top five Arabic countries and Iran. Middle Eastern artist Parviz Tanavoli is the record holder of Middle Eastern sales. His bronze sculpture“The Wall,” which represents separation and isolation, sold for more than $2.8 million. Farhad Moshiri’s “We are All Americans” is a piece of conceptual art. Whether we like it or not, contemporary art stems from the West and the concepts of collecting, auctioning, and exhibiting all come from the West. We cannot find these habits in the East, not even collecting.

Farhad Moshiri, WE ARE ALL AMERICANS, 2006. Courtesy ATFM.

The Iranian art market is booming. From 2006 to 2008, it grew from $25,000 to $250,000. It was a speed so unbelievably fast that people thought it was a bubble. What happened between 2006 and 2009? In reality, there was no major cultural event and the pieces of art being produced did not increase by very much. Perhaps the growth was effected by the influence of Dubai as it had just become the new cultural center. But the growth has not been continuous; Dubai’s numbers have increased in the past year and a half.

There are several factors for the decline in the market. The first factor is the international sanctions placed on the Iranian government. Many galleries, collectors and curators are not able to wire money to Iran and cannot have any monetary exchanges with Iranians. If a gallery in Shanghai or New York wanted to exhibit pieces from Iran or sell Iranian artwork, transferring money to the artist after the sale is always a problem. It was a serious obstacle when these international money transfers were not allowed. Insurance is another sticky situation. I had previously discussed how to deal with international sanctions with several large galleries that were handling the work of contemporary Iranian artists. They all expressed it was close to impossible. They said, under these circumstances, they would need a middle person to serve as a connection between the gallery and the artist. I will continue to pay close attention to the situation in the next few months and see how the galleries that are acting on behalf of Iranian artists will survive.

About a year and a half ago, the Iranian rial began to depreciate. There were also changes in the regional socio-political situation. As of now, in comparison with Arabic art, the demand for Iranian art has decreased; the market is in decline. In the past year and a half, Iranian artists have not received equal opportunities for development. They have almost no access to collectors in the region. The majority of Iranian art is sold in the Middle Eastern market, with collectors possibly from Saudi Arabia, Iranian or Turkish.

This next piece is a satirical piece aimed at Iran’s current situation. “Shams ol-emareh,” by Kambiz Sabri, is a sculpture in the likeness of a Persian palace. Showcased in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, it is precariously placed on top of a pillow, almost as if it is perpetually unstable but not to the extent of collapse.

Kambiz Sabri, Shams ol-emareh, 2012. Courtesy ATFM.

The Right Time for Collecting and Investing in Iranian Art

If it was two years earlier, I would be able to provide an answer. But the current situation is different and no one can predict how things will play out. If you are interested in contemporary Iranian art, there are two types of contemporary Iranian artists. The first type of artists lists their prices in US dollars or Euros. These artists tend to be more stable. The other type of artists, like the ones mentioned earlier, prefers to list their prices in the local currency. When the Iranian rial depreciated, like in January of 2012, $1 was equal to 1200 rial. But in October, $1 was equal to 4400 rial. Let’s assume in January a piece of art was valued at $1000 but can now be purchased for $270. This is a very big problem. If you want to invest, now may not be the best time to purchase the work of young artists. But many collectors in the art field buy these pieces simply because they appreciate the artists’ work. Contemporary Iranian artists will not be able to not survive solely because of fluctuating currency value.

Via Art Taipei Forum Media
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