Looking beyond Ayatollah to Iran’s treasures
LONDON – The board game is around 4,500 years old. Shaped like a bird of prey, it has holes along its wings and chest, where the coins were once positioned. It is one of a few dozen ancient artefacts that were to travel from the National Museum of Iran to a spectacular exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum here. But they never came.
Other artifacts that were to be shown – as detailed and illustrated and in the catalog for this “Epic Iran” exhibit – included a gold mask, a long-handled silver pan, and a carved stone goblet. To secure the loans, the museum was in long-standing talks with the National Museum of Iran until early 2020, said Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, also known as V&A.
“At some point the silence started to come down, and I don’t think it was internal to them,” he said in an interview. “There were external political forces.”
Ironically, the overriding purpose of “epic Iran,” according to Hunt, was to put aside the political tensions that have hampered relations between Iran and the West since the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a Islamic Republic.
“We want people to take a step back and understand that Iranian history did not start in 1979,” he said. It was about looking beyond the “paradigm of what is called Islamic fundamentalism, and concerns about nuclear testing and Ayatollah’s visions,” he added, and “understanding the wealth , the breadth, depth, complexity and beauty of Iran. . “
The V&A fair, which runs until September 12, exhibits an astonishing array of works of art and treasures spanning 5,000 years: from the remains of early civilizations to the creations of contemporary artists living in Iran today. The full range of arts and crafts practiced for millennia in Iran are exemplified by centuries-old carpets, illuminated manuscripts, miniature paintings, carved ornaments, court portraits and fine textiles.
More broadly, hostilities between Iran and the West have been exacerbated under the presidency of Donald Trump. He withdrew the United States from a 2015 deal to reduce Iran’s nuclear capacity, tightened economic sanctions against Iran, and ordered the January 2020 murder of Iran’s most powerful security commander and intelligence, General Qassim Suleimani.
Cultural collaborations between Iran and the West suffered as a result, said Nima Mina, who taught Iranian studies for 20 years at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
“In post-revolutionary Iran, everything has been politicized,” he said. Cultural institutions and artists must align themselves with “a certain ideological and political agenda,” as artists did in the Soviet Union, he said.
“The Islamic Republic is an ideological and autocratic regime, so it is difficult to be apolitical, even if someone tries,” he said.
The V&A isn’t the only western museum that has tried not to get loans from Iran. In 2016, a long-scheduled exhibition of works from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin was canceled when Iranian authorities denied export permits for the works. Half of them were the work of Western artists such as Picasso, Gauguin, Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon, and came from a collection assembled before the revolution by Iranian Empress Farah Pahlavi.
Originally, the V&A – under the direction of its former director, Martin Roth – planned to exhibit the private collection of the Sarikhanis, a UK-based Iranian family who own hundreds of works of art and d Iranian heritage. When Mr. Hunt took over the V&A in February 2017, he decided to transform the exhibit into something larger and more extensive, incorporating treasures from the collections of the V&A and other international museums.
One of the most important objects in the exhibition has been loaned to the V&A by the British Museum: the Cyrus Cylinder, a small 6th century BC clay tube that Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, buried under the walls of Babylon after he conquered it. Engraved in cuneiform – the writing of the ancient Babylonians – the Cyrus cylinder was “a charter of good governance” in which Cyrus pledged not to “rule by oppression, dictatorship and tyranny,” the co- curator of the exhibition, John Curtis, the Briton Former museum keeper of the Middle East department.
What the cylinder demonstrates is that Iran was a land of religious tolerance and that it enlightened the rulers 2,500 years ago. The British Museum included it in a popular 2005 exhibit, “Forgotten Empire,” which also aimed to open Western minds to the country’s ancient culture and history.
This exhibition received a very large loan from the National Museum of Iran: a silver tablet documenting the founding of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire. The tablet traveled to London “in the face of quite extensive press comments and complaints that the British could not be trusted to return them,” said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum at the time. In return, Iran asked to borrow the Cyrus cylinder, which visited Iran in 2010, as London feared it would never return. (These fears were unfounded: the priceless item was returned.)
In addition to artefacts from Iran’s past, two “Epic Iran” rooms on modern and contemporary art show that Iranians were active participants in twentieth century art movements and today produce photographs, paintings and paintings. state-of-the-art facilities.
The high rate of female artists exhibited – including photographers Shadi Ghadirian and Shirin Aliabadi – demonstrate that Iranian women have transcended gender inequality and restrictions such as the compulsory veil to produce and display their work.
This last part of the exhibition – produced by associate curator Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, whose family has lent a lot to the exhibition – also coincides with the most recent period of Iranian history, a period of revolution and further divisions. raw. The wall texts seem to reflect these tensions.
They refer to “the authoritarian rule of the monarchy, its ties to economically exploitative Western powers, and its self-aggrandizing attempts to channel Iran’s pre-Islamic past”, which incited dissent and led to the revolution. Post-revolutionary Iran, meanwhile, is described as being “isolated” and trying to open up to the rest of the world “despite strict domestic policies and international economic sanctions.”
“The choice of words in reference to the Islamic Republic is very careful,” said Mina, the academic. He said it was probably out of a desire not to “endanger” the Iranian artists on the show. As a general rule, painters, photographers, filmmakers and sculptors in general were to be “loyal, conformist, or at least not challenge” the government to continue their artistic practice, he said.
Despite the setbacks of the loan, Hunt, the director of V&A, said he hoped the show would pave the way for collaborations: the show was always designed as a two-way exchange, he said.
“It would always be nice to have a relationship with Tehran, which we would like to build on in the future,” he added.