Bridge to Iran

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Meridian's'Wishes and Dreams' Features Country's Younger Generation

It’s been six years since “A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia”—an exhibition of works by established Iranian artists—was mounted by the Meridian International Center in conjunction with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

Iran is very much on the minds of Americans these days—as it always has been in some ways given the unique history of U.S.-Iranian political relations in the latter part of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century. Most of the thinking back then—which largely continues today—had a large element of antagonism to it. “Gardens of Persia” was a major and successful attempt—typical of the Meridian’s efforts—to bridge some of those tensions through art and culture.

Much has changed in Iran and in the United States since “Gardens of Persia” was exhibited in 2001, not the least of which is the continuing war in Iraq. What has not changed is the antagonism—these days revolving more so around the Iraq debacle, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and all the other tensions plaguing the Middle East.

But what has also not changed is Iran’s desire, need and impetus to create art. So now we have “Wishes and Dreams: Iran’s New Generation Emerges,” the latest Meridian foray into bridge building. And again we see the efforts of Nancy Matthews, vice president for arts and cultural affairs at Meridian, working with the Tehran University Art Gallery in collaboration with Dr. Sami Azar, former head of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, who also worked on “A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia.”

If “Gardens of Persia” was a large depiction of Iran’s established artists, “Wishes and Dreams” speaks of and to a new generation, most of which was born since the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with heavy representation from female artists—something that may come as a surprise to Western expectations.

In fact, 30 young artists, many of whom came here for the opening days of the exhibition, are represented. If this is a display of a new generation of artists, it nevertheless has a number of characteristics in common with the earlier show. There is a tremendous variety to be seen here, and if the work is at times uneven, it is never anything less than eye opening. There is also an effort here, in spite of the relative youth of the artists, to embrace Persian and Iranian artistic traditions—to not just show respect to design elements from the past, but to embrace and celebrate these traditions with great beauty and poetry.

And it’s the design elements that identify the works as being particular to Iran and Persia. They show up in works such as “Butterfly” by Elham Eslamian, Bahar Behbahani’s gorgeous mixed-media “Mementos,” Behnam Kamrani’s digitally made “Mystical Clothes,” Rashin Kheiriyeh’s splashy acrylic “Trees and Fishes” and his illustration for “The Cunning Tailor.”

The preoccupation with fishes (and birds), at times whimsical, combines 21st-century high-tech digital and video art with ancient, traditional concerns. At its best, this combination shows up in Ahmad Nadalian’s “Does the River Still Have Fish,” a two-and-a-half-minute video in which the artist placed fish sculptures and etchings made on stones into flowing rivers and creeks, by way of making sure there is a correct answer to his question.

None of the artists speak to the present political situation in Iran, the rule of the ayatollahs, fundamentalist Islam, or the tensions in the U.S.-Iranian relationship. Perhaps they don’t need to—political content in art is usually a more subtle thing and can be something as simple as a flash of yellow paint as opposed to, say, a Brechtian song or a Kathe Kollwitz pencil stroke.

More indicative of change is the willingness of these artists to take influence wherever they find it, most often in technology—a very difficult thing to control in today’s globalized world. Shahnaz Zehtah, for instance, has created an installation that hauntingly mixes constructed leaves with painting, while Afshin Pirhashemi’s “Dream of a Woman” is another powerful and enigmatic creation. Then there’s Amirali Ghasemi’s video about her series of digital photos on foam board depicting young female students at Tehran coffeehouses—their faces blanked by white, a portrait of anonymity.

There’s much to admire here—Vahid Hakim’s abstractions on the desert, for example, or the touch of Henri Matisse found in Rokneddin Haerizadeh’s scrumptiously colorful “Two Parrots Picking on a Bowl of Cherries.” There are works here that are harsh, some that are musical, and all that are lively with a sense of questing in a turbulent world. The exhibit even drew U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who took a tour in mid May. Perhaps next time there might be a way to put “Wishes and Dreams: Iran’s New Generation Emerges” alongside a similar age group of contemporary artists from the United States to see U.S.-Iranian relations through an even deeper prism of understanding.

Wishes and Dreams: Iran’s New Generation Emerges through July 29 Meridian International Center’s Cafritz Galleries 1624 Crescent Place, NW For more information, please call (202) 667-6800 or visit www.meridian.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999