Nestled beneath a coffee shop in downtown Tehran, Iran sits a small but popular art gallery. A group of young intellectuals stand in a circle smoking cigarettes, laughing and chattering among the noise that drifts from the inside. This is just a small example of life in a city where over 8 million people dwell.
On Fridays, the only weekend day, many people in Tehran go “gallery hopping.” Days off mean significantly less traffic, as some prefer to spend the day indoors with family. Others however have in recent years developed a weekly tradition of going to multiple galleries in one day or one evening.
“Gallery hopping ... is happening now in Tehran, and some will say it's only for the upper-middle class, but you will see that it has become a sort of movement in Tehran. [People] start in the morning and go from gallery to gallery, something you rarely see in San Francisco or New York City, both of which are major hubs for art in America. But in Tehran you have a lot of good artwork. It has become a part of people's life,” said Ahmad Kiarostami, son of the famous Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.
In the past decade, this trend has caused a surge in the number of diverse galleries, and this number continues to grow. Although the people in Iran have many external issues to deal with, ranging from the pollution to the crippling economy, art in various forms remains an important part of their lives.
“You go to Tehran and see that [art] has become a necessity,” said Ahmad Kiarostami. Because Tehran does not have bars or nightclubs, going to galleries has become a way to socialize over tea and pastries. In downtown Tehran sits some well-known galleries that invite an older, more traditional crowd. I attend one exhibition my first Friday in the city, and happen to go when the whole exhibition revolves around the theme of fruit to celebrate Shab-e Yalda, the longest and darkest night of the year.
“Although Iranian artists use native components in their art, they strive to have a universal voice. They want to have a universal language in the world,” says one gallery owner, who wishes to be unnamed. Among the many themes that visual artists choose to depict are the role of women in society, ancient Persian culture, masculinity, and more topics concerning contemporary life in Iran.
“We saw expanding art schools, universities and also [an] increasing number of art lovers more than before in the past two decades, and it led [to the improvement] of quantitative and qualitative in art. Nowadays, Iranian art is more well-known than before. In the past, people knew Iranian art for its traditional and decorative art like carpet, miniature [paintings], enamels and woodcarving, but now the art of Iran has become more familiar by selling works in great world auctions,” said Majid Mollanoroozi, director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Many of these local artists I talked to try to stay away from depicting only the traditional stereotype that people jump to when they think of Middle Eastern art and nothing else—the woman’s chador, the veil, and calligraphy to name a few. The commercialization of artwork has become a problem within this community, not only in Iran but among many international art auction houses.
“Commercializing art … changes the whole concept of art because it becomes a commodity. The artists, because they need to make ends meet, copy other artists around the world and produce something just because they want to sell. That takes away from the true meaning of art,” said Ali Rasouly, a painter.
Because some foreigners have a incomplete perspective of contemporary art in Iran or perhaps even Iranian culture, exotic-looking art usually sells in the market. “The artists are trying to give their art more of a worldly look rather than just traditional Iranian. People badly imitate art like pop art. People who view the art from outside of the country have a limited opinion which reflects their view of Iran and Iranian culture,” said painter Morteza Pourhosseini.
While many artists show their work outside of the country in auctions in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, New York, and Europe, most visual artists based in Tehran struggle to sell and market their work because of their lack of support. There is a great gap between the government and the art world. As a result, artists often have to get a second job to support themselves and their passion becomes a labor of love.
“In my opinion, one of the biggest problems for the artists in Iran is that, because of the political image Iran has around the world, we don't get the right recognition and support. It's unfortunate because great artwork and talent goes unrecognized because of the political situation,” said Bita Vakili, a mixed media painter based in Tehran.
With the exception of certain ideas, in the past few years, the contemporary art world in Iran has become more inclusive when it comes to visual art such as paintings. Other art forms, such as music, theatre, and film, each have their own set of rules. “Everything in Iran can be interpreted as political and there are degrees to political restrictions,” said Ida Meftahi, visiting assistant professor of Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
While people agree that censorship is extremely hard, some mention that the positive side is that limitations boost creativity. “And I think that's why we have such good cinema in Iran, because of all the limitations,” says Ahmad Kiarostami.
On the second Friday of my stay, I take an organized “gallery bus tour”, which takes us to five different spots of the city. Each exhibit and its diverse artistic community continues to reveal the complexity and richness of the culture. In another part of deep downtown Tehran is another gallery, this one featuring younger up-and-coming artists. In the corner is a group of younger Iranians, chattering among the noise. The theme of the exhibition is mustaches, and when I later ask the gallery owner why this is the theme, he explains that mustaches can be seen as taboo. Unconventional-looking mustaches are rare and looked down upon by most traditional individuals. The demographic of people attending ranges from twenty-something up to early 40s.
The last spot on the bus tour is a smaller, more inviting gallery that features the exhibit of Vahid Chamani, a well-known Iranian painter. He says that his works try to portray the hidden inner emotions and chaos of the people through the subjects’ faces, which reveal empty-looking eyes. In such a paradoxical land, the tension between history and modernity is always at play. This is the spirit of his work, and in such a sensitive time, it is this sort of art that connects the community together.
“Art is one of the main ways to reach out to people but also reflect people's thoughts and feelings and desires. So it's important in every culture for artists to be able to work and to be free to express themselves. Without art, there is no culture in my opinion. Especially for a country like Iran … it is extremely important for the artists to be active and be able to work. It's very important,” said Melody Safavi, an Iranian singer and journalist now working in the U.S.
There was a time where coffee shop going or hookah shops was considered a trend. But for the people, these galleries, parks, coffee shops, or whatever it may be has become their bit of freedom in a public space.
“Our art is a means of communication. It's a means of communication between one person or one group with another person or another group. And whenever we have a conversation going, there is a possibility for understanding and for peace building,” said Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, professor of Creative Arts at Siena College.
Not only was variety seen in each piece, but also in the opinions of the painters themselves. However, the one definite thing they did share was something in identity; each gallery displayed works showing the richness and complexity of a land thousands of years old. And there’s still much more to see.