In Paris I am always curious to know what criteria have been satisfied to earn an exhibition at one of the state museums. Why would the French be interested in the censored and banned images from modern Iran? The mystery is solved very shortly after entering Unedited History, as we learn that so many Iranian artists from the post-1979 Revolution period came to France, and have indeed made their name here. At least, a large number of those exhibited are now living and working in France.
|Kaveh Golestan, Prostitute Series, 1975-1977|
Documentation accompanying exhibition
Unedited History starts tentatively with the paintings and other arts of the pre-Revolutionary Shah’s Iran. I say tentatively because the works were preoccupied with aesthetic issues, experimenting with form and style in a search that brought together traditional and Western art forms. And then the revolution happened. By the late-1970s, all the experimentation of the previous two decades was left by the wayside, overwhelmed by an urgent and unprecedented passion for change and the possibility of freedom in life and art. Among the treasures on exhibition in Unedited History was footage shot by Kamran Shirdel of the 1979 revolution as it took place around him. Entitled here Memories of Destruction: Rushes from the Revolution, we see, minute by minute, the slow unfolding of events that changed the world. Two things struck me about this rare footage: first, much of what we see is a dense crowd, walking. Motion and protesting in Iran 1979 belong together. I don’t know what to make of it, but I think of, for example, the Egyptian Revolution, and I think of Tahrir Square packed to the rafters with protesters sitting, standing, protesting. And I wondered why the walking in Iran? Was this related to the relative invisibility of the Ayatollah in the leadup to the overthrow of the Shah? That is, with no leader to look at physically, the people were left to walk in search of freedom? Second, I was struck by the separation of men and women in the footage. Of course, they were separated, even in revolution, but nevertheless, it’s a surprise to see the adherence to religion in the midst of revolution. Even when this revolution is in the name of Islamic Law. In confirmation of what I suspected was Shirdel’s extremely rare footage, a google search turned up no reference to the film. Just to see this footage is reason enough to go visit this exhibition.
|Kaveh Golestan, Citadel, 1975-1977|
Also really powerful were Kaveh Golestan’s photographs taken in the redlight district of Shahr-e No, otherwise known as the Citadel, in Tehran, 1975-77. The area was erased in the 1979 revolution, and again, I found myself amazed at the awkwardness of gender relations. It wasn’t just the presence of prostitutes in the Muslim-Arab world, but the presence of the male photographer inside that world that left me amazed by the images. And it was a sparse, sad, cold world. Often with a single image on the wall, a threadbare cover on the bed or its equivalent, years of grime on the walls, there’s nothing glorified about sex in these photographs.
|Tahmineh Monzavi, Ateliers de Confection de Robes de Mariée|
Quartier de Mokhberodeleh, Teheran, 2007-2011
Later, towards the end of the exhibition, face to face with Tahmineh Monzavi’s photographs of underground fashion designers, in contemporary Tehran, I wondered if anything had changed in Iran. Young men try on the corsets, carefully sew the bodices of dresses, wedding dresses, however fashionable, are surrounded by the sadness of a world on the edges. Monzavi caputres men in a women’s world that is not meant to exist. The rhyme with the photographs of the red light district from before 1979, visually as well as in their melancholia, give Monzavi’s a poignancy that left me wondering what has been rebuilt since 1979.
|Narmine Sadeg, Office of Investigation into Diverted Trajectories, 2014|
Going around Unedited Histories, I couldn’t help thinking of the war in Gaza and the senseless violence going on in the West Bank. Traced through the progression from revolution to the Iran-Iraq war, to the building of nuclear warheads, tensions with the West, I was reminded that it’s one thing to overthrow a Shah, and replace him with an Ayatollah and an Islamic constitution, but the reality for Iran was that it took 25 years before the country could return to anything resembling a sympathetic government. The 1979 revolution caused such instability for the entire region, fear for its neighbors, isolation from the West, and as we know, today 35 years later, instability in the Middle East persists. In addition, everything about the art made in Iran, still today, comes back to that revolution that now happened 35 years ago. Revolutionary gestures like the overthrow of a Shah are never quite so straightforward.
|Chohreh Feydjou exhibition view Unedited history: Iran 1960-2014|
In the final rooms, the powerful work of Chohreh Feyzdjou and Narmine Sadeg bring the concerns of Iran, its devastated history, and the same but different melancholia we saw in the photographs, to the West. Both artists digress from the documentary photographic and filmic form that became the chosen media for the representation of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iranian life and politics. Their deeply sensual and tactile sculptures exude the pain and death and dislocation of being in exile, coming from a country that has suffered everything. Feyzdjou’s boxes, cabinets, racks and shelves filled with decaying, burnt and wasted objects, all meticulously labelled, remind us of the impossibility of holding onto anything. And through the archival collection and cataloguing of now useless objects, bottles and papers, we are left in no doubt as to the futility of trying to retain what will always disappear.