ON A FRIDAY NIGHT in Tehran’s flashy Elahieh neighborhood, the voice of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer is nowhere to be heard, but the ostentatious whine of a Ferrari often is. Ferraris make little practical sense in car-clogged Tehran, where getting from one end of town to the other can easily take several hours. But Friday night here is for gallery hopping and showing off. A Ferrari is perfect for a noisy crawl down Fereshteh, a narrow street that winds down Elahieh’s hill.
This enclave sits well up the slopes at the base of the snow-covered Alborz mountains, near Tehran’s northern boundary, while the rest of the teeming metropolis of 15 million spills down the hillside onto the hot plain below. In Tehran, uptown is literal: The higher up the hill you live, the richer you are. This is where the city’s stylish, monied young people come to promenade, cruising the galleries that have sprung up here in search of the latest must-have luxury: modern Iranian art.
The beleaguered Iranian economy has distributed its great oil wealth unevenly. U.S. sanctions were never fully lifted, and corruption is widespread. The widening gulf between Iran’s rich and poor, among other things, provoked a rage that has flared in other parts of Tehran and engulfed Iran’s provinces in violent protests. But here in Elahieh, it’s hard to see signs of economic suffering and easy to spot the wealth fueling one of the most dynamic and underappreciated art markets in the world.
Contemporary Tehran offers many surprises for anyone expecting only the stern face the Islamic Republic projects to the world, and even to itself. As my plane landed at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, the stylish, carefree Iranian girls sitting in front of me suddenly folded their bright wings and crawled back into the shapeless cocoons they’re required to wear in Iran. They wrapped themselves in loose outer coats—called manto—and hid their glossy black hair under hijabs. Then, laughing merrily, they all took selfies holding finger-guns to their heads. The Iranian morals police still drive around town in vans, looking for dress-code violations. The immodest are rebuked, and sometimes taken in for a lecture, but only if they get caught. Later I heard that some young Iranians had been using a mobile app that showed on a map if a morals van was prowling nearby. Couldn’t the authorities have banned the app? Undoubtedly, but they hadn’t. Iran is often a contradictory place.
At the top of the hill, above Elahieh, stands the 272-acre Saadabad palace complex, now a series of empty monuments to the pecking order before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Qajar kings started building here not long after they moved Iran’s capital to Tehran in 1796. (In its long history, Iran has had 40 or so different capitals.) Reza Shah, the strongman who supplanted the enfeebled Qajars in 1925, lived in what is known as the Green Palace on the Saadabad grounds and later built the White Palace nearby as a summer retreat. His son Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi spent summers in the White Palace with his glamorous wife, Farah Diba. It is now a museum. The cavernous state dining room in which the vainglorious shah entertained the American politicians who propped him up is preserved here, as is the grand salon where the shah and his wife watched TV on a boxy set—it’s still there, surrounded by neatly arranged chairs—not far from where angry crowds at the bottom of the hill dismantled his hated regime. Outside the palace, a large bronze statue of Reza Shah has been cut off at the thighs and the trunkless legs left as a reminder: Ozymandias standing.
It’s a short walk down to Elahieh, where a new pecking order pecks. Elahieh means divine in Farsi, and that’s how it must have felt to the wealthy Tehranis who first built their cool garden villas here in the 1920s and ’30s to flee the brutal summer heat of the city below. Some of those walled villas are still there, but many have been bulldozed. Cranes punctuate the skyline as the neighborhood makes room for luxury high-rises, designer boutiques, swanky restaurants, hipster cafes—and, of course, art galleries.
‘Sanctions aren’t going to hurt the art scene here. It’s a great time to be active in the arts in Iran.’
“There were maybe a handful of galleries when we opened in 1999. Now every day we hear of a new gallery opening. It’s a very chaotic situation,” says Maryam Majd, co-director of the Assar Art Gallery. The walls of these galleries are covered with new work by Iranian painters and photographers. Ten years ago, these young artists would probably have listened when their parents told them that studying law, engineering or medicine is the only way to make a decent living in Iran. But prices for contemporary Iranian art have gone through the roof since then (although the recent political unrest had a chilling effect on the market). Older masters like Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Parviz Tanavoli and newer stars like Farhad Moshiri and Shirin Neshat have vaulted onto the world stage. They now show at galleries in Paris, New York, London and Berlin. Many of them spend most of their time outside Iran, but their success has trickled down, transforming Iran’s art scene into a lively bazaar that outsiders rarely get to see. Not everybody can cash in, of course, but enough have to overcome the objections of the stodgiest parents.
“It’s a golden time to be an artist here if you have talent and a little luck. The luckiest of them become richer than those doctors ever did,” says Alireza Sami-Azar. Sami-Azar was present from the start, first as director of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, then as a consultant for Middle Eastern art auctions at Christie’s in Dubai and now as head of Iran’s first art auction house, Tehran Auction, which he founded in 2012.
Some say he was the creator of the boom, and they don’t always intend it as a compliment. Christie’s Dubai auction of April 2008, at which $ 20 million of art was sold, much of it Iranian, is often cited as the market’s big bang. In May 2016, Tehran Auction recorded sales of $ 7.4 million, and that’s mostly just within Iran, where Sami-Azar says prices for homegrown painters are now often higher than outside it. “I’m accused of creating this crass mumbo jumbo,” says Sami-Azar, sounding as though he’s happy to plead guilty as charged.
All of this is fairly new. After the revolution of 1979, the landscape of the visual arts—moviemaking aside—was a relative wasteland, and it stayed that way for a long time. But it’s also something very old. Persia has a visual heritage going back millennia. The Achaemenids, who ruled over much of the ancient world, chiseled bas-reliefs onto the city walls of Persepolis, their desert capital. In the 17th century, the Safavids made Isfahan a jewel of Islamic art and architecture. Its graceful blue-tiled mosques and busy workshops for painted miniatures had no equal anywhere, a judgment any modern visitor will quickly accept.
The flowering of contemporary art in Iran is a trickier phenomenon to comprehend. Like many things in Iran, for every statement you can say about it, you can just as easily say the opposite. At times it appears that the country runs on a kind of elaborate, ritualized hypocrisy. For a foreign visitor, it can be difficult discerning truth from falsehood. And yet everywhere I went, I also encountered startling warmth and unfeigned generosity. However you judge it, Iran’s cultural identity is being sketched out now on the gallery walls of Elahieh, just as it was once inscribed in the stones of Persepolis and the tiles of Isfahan.
In recent months, the truculent clatter of President Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric, his moves to kill Obama’s nuclear deal and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the legality of the president’s travel ban on Iranians, among others, have put many here in a jumpier mood. Art collectors within Iran have reined in their exuberance as they look toward an uncertain future. Ongoing financial sanctions are hobbling the trading and showing of Iranian art abroad, and they may become even tighter. “I’m really disappointed that I can’t promote artists living in Iran because of sanctions,” says Leila Varasteh, an Iranian curator and art dealer in Paris. “They’re really stifling our voices.”
After years of trying, Simindokht Dehghani finally got her AG Galerie accepted to the prestigious Association of International Photography show in New York City. This was just before Trump first proposed his travel ban. Furious, she canceled her trip. But Dehghani, who still sounds like someone from Southern California (where she went to college), points out that Iran’s art boom is a homegrown phenomenon; the U.S. can’t make or break it. “Only a handful of our galleries show internationally. In the long run, sanctions aren’t going to hurt the art scene here. It’s a great time to be active in the arts in Iran.”
KASHAN LIES ABOUT three hours’ drive south of Tehran on the road to Isfahan. The town is famous for its annual rose festival: Every May, the syrupy vapor of damask roses blankets the streets as they are rendered into rose water. In the 19th century, Kashan’s prosperous merchants built many fine mansions here, but in subsequent years the merchants left for Tehran, and layers of dust gradually covered their abandoned homes.
Lately, Kashan has become very trendy, thanks in part to Shahnaz Nader, who studied interior design in the U.S. and then lived in Paris before returning to her native Tehran. Nine years ago, she was asked to restore Kashan’s old Manouchehri mansion and transform it into a boutique hotel. Nader bought a second house for herself, for $ 20,000. She spent 15 times as much making it into a hidden jewel of classic Persian splendor.
Nader’s house is not easy to find. From the narrow streets, all the houses in Kashan look identical, with their mud walls baked the same cinnamon brown. Traditional Persian houses turn their best face inward. When I finally found Nader’s front door, I entered and Nader invited me to sit on her cool portico between two inner courtyards, one with a low shallow pool bordered by harmonious rows of trees and flowers. The house seemed to generate its on breeze.
The word paradise comes from the Old Persian word for garden—paradaiza—and goes to the core of Persian life and art. Persia’s carpets take their motifs from its gardens. Balanced structure is everything, and the feeling is not one of profusion but of peace. I saw several celebrated gardens as I traveled around, but only Nader’s gave me a sense of how delightful it must be to inhabit one. “The experience of living in this house is just extraordinary—the sun on the architecture, the sound of the birds,” says Nader, as she bustles back and forth from her green-tiled kitchen, bringing plates of melon and bowls of yogurt.
Nader says she knows of several Kashan mansions that have been bought up since she arrived. I stayed in one built by Ebrahim Khalil Khan in the 18th century; it has been turned into the Saraye Ameriha Boutique Hotel—a palatial property that sprawls over a labyrinth of seven interior courtyards, all of it invisible from the street.
Four of these old mansions now belong to the Belgian bad-boy neoconceptual artist Wim Delvoye (perhaps best known for tattooing pigs and for a provocative piece called Cloaca, an installation that turns food into feces). He bought these houses over the past five years as an all-in bet on the future of Iran and Iranian art. When the houses are finished, he told me, they will include studio and exhibition space for him and other artists from Iran and elsewhere. “I was looking around for an alternative to the West. I looked at China, I looked at the Philippines, and then all of a sudden, I thought, Iran! I mean, nobody likes this country. It’s the axis of evil! That’s thrilling. I was looking for something rough but with a great trending direction. I don’t mind the problems.
“The artists in Iran are on a much better level than China’s were when I went there in 2003,” he adds. “The Chinese are too much into accommodating the Western buyer, which explains why so many of them are painting Mao with a fish on his head or playing cards with Greta Garbo. You don’t have this in Iran. There are so many galleries, so many interesting artists, and they’re not trying to please me too much. I’m not in a hurry—Iran doesn’t have to be a wonderful country tomorrow. I’m just going to enjoy every step they take.”
Back in Tehran, I had felt some of the optimism and pride Delvoye was talking about. I met a young collector named Bahador Adab at the Dastan +2 gallery on Fereshteh. We were both admiring a series of striking portraits by the young artist Farrokh Mahdavi. The subjects all had pink, fleshy faces from which piercing eyes shone as if a living soul were inside. Adab has bought a few of these portraits since he moved back to Iran in 2015. Like many privileged Iranians, he had been studying abroad. “Despite all the challenges, I am convinced this is going to be one of the most interesting places on the planet within the next 10 years. I want to be part of it,” Adab says.
Buying art was a similar leap of faith. “The first work I bought, my mother was dead against it,” he says. It was a painting by Ali Akbar Sadeghi, who likes to run traditional Persian iconography through a surreal blender. Since then, Adab has accumulated some 80 works, and he says his mother has come around. Lately, Adab has started dreaming about making a small private museum, something in the northwest region since he’s a Kurd and that’s where most of Iran’s Kurds live. “I really want to do something for Iran, even if people don’t take you seriously at first,” says Adab.
Many of Adab’s early acquisitions came through a gallery called Dastan’s Basement, just up Fereshteh from Dastan +2. Hormoz Hematian, who owns both galleries, opened it six years ago as a kind of minor league for emerging artists and new collectors. The work is uneven, but there’s a lot of it, some of it very good and all of it priced to move.
“It’s like an audition room. We did 40 shows last year, and if three get picked up, we’re good,” says Hematian, a young Tehrani who received a master’s in civil engineering from the University of British Columbia, discovered he hated the field and then made a radical course correction. In 2015, Hematian opened Dastan +2 for promising artists from the Basement who were ready to move upstairs. His first space was in an elegant gray-brick building that used to house the Belgian Consulate. Art galleries in Tehran often pop up and disappear overnight. More than a few are started by the children of wealthy parents, who use them to speculate on rising prices, or often just for bragging rights on Fereshteh.
Dastan has managed to sink more solid roots here, but Hematian is under no illusions about what drives the market. The original Dastan +2 shared a building with a showroom for sleek designer furniture and a fancy landscape architect. Hematian somewhat sheepishly concedes that many of his customers came there for the luxury one-stop shopping, not connoisseurship. As far back as the Achaemenids, Persians enjoyed a reputation—among the ancient Greeks, anyway—for self-pampering.
“Bling tells a good part of the story,” says Alireza Sami-Azar. “Many of the collectors are very young and very rich. They already own their Maseratis. They have houses in Tehran, Vancouver and Paris. What else can they buy? Their fathers collected carpets and antiquities. When they go to one another’s houses, they ask themselves why they don’t have what their friend has on his walls. But that kind of competition is good for the market and good for the artist.”
None of this cheapens the work I saw in Hematian’s gallery. He introduced me to a wonderful painter—given the explicitness of the work, I won’t mention his name—who draws in a primitive, outsider style that suggests Henry Darger or Sigmar Polke. I tried to buy a charming drawing of water polo players, but the series had sold out fast. The painter showed me notebooks of his sketches, brimming with life, some exuberantly erotic. “No one will ever see these,” says Hematian.
Like so much else here, the relationship between Iran’s artists and the Islamic authorities who run the country rests on shifting sand. Outright nudity is clearly unthinkable, but much else falls under a fuzzy know-it-when-I-see-it standard that is difficult to second-guess. “Just imagine your grandmother—anything she would frown on probably wouldn’t work,” says Hematian. Mohsen Gallery strayed across the line when it exhibited a store mannequin whose plastic breasts were covered with mirrors. It proved to be a breast too far, and the gallery was forced to close for about 10 days. “I try to be courageous,” says the gallery’s owner, Ehsan Rasoulof, whose father is the influential banker Jalal Rasoulof. “If I don’t let young people express themselves, what are we doing here?” A current exhibition features a series of androgynous portraits by Shirin Fathi in the stiff style of the 19th-century Qajars. “It’s a kind of Cindy Sherman–esque take on the Qajar taste for young boys,” says Rasoulof. Officially, homosexuality does not exist in Iran, but so far, bureaucratic feathers remain unruffled.
It’s not that the pressure is unremitting. If anything, people say that the enforcement of censorship has diminished noticeably since the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight-year presidency in 2013. But the pressure is unpredictable and often bizarre, and that makes people—particularly sensitive artists—extremely skittish.
In late January, prison terms of 27 and 16 years were handed out to Karan Vafadari and his wife, Afarin Neyssari. Vafadari, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, founded Tehran’s Aun Gallery, whose assets were also confiscated. His wife is a permanent U.S. resident. It seems certain the couple’s art activities weren’t the reason. Dual nationals have been targeted for some years, often as bait for future prisoner swaps. But since no one can be absolutely sure, no one feels completely safe.
The photographer Newsha Tavakolian lives in Shahrak-e Gharb, an affluent Tehran neighborhood of high-rises on the hill. It’s a short drive down the Chamran Expressway from my hotel, but it took forever to get there. (Tehran’s relentless traffic rarely appears to trigger road rage. I never heard a horn honked in anger, and bottlenecks are negotiated with civility.) Tavakolian welcomed me in the spacious ground-floor apartment she uses as her studio. She has won numerous awards for her work, including photos that eloquently freeze a changing Iranian society as it hurtles ahead. Her striking portrait of a young Iranian girl holding the string of an unseen balloon appeared on the cover of Time in November 2015 as part of a photographic essay. That’s when Tavakolian says her troubles began.
“They saw a conspiracy behind the image of the balloon—that it was meant to float off to America. It became a big drama that I’m trying to westernize Iranian youth, and the politicians took me hostage,” Tavakolian told me. “This is something that could happen to anyone at any time.” In Iran, noofoozi is the word for “infiltrator” of Western ideas. The regime sees noofoozis as fifth columnists, and given Iran’s abiding rancor over its history of manipulation and exploitation at the hands of Western powers, the charge packs a considerable punch. Still, a balloon floating off to America? Really?
“They put a lot of effort into interpreting things that aren’t necessarily there,” the artist Farhad Moshiri told me.
SOON AFTER I arrived in Tehran, I heard that one of Iran’s best-known artists had just had his passport seized for committing this kind of thought crime. Parviz Tanavoli first made his name as a sculptor back when the shah still ruled Iran (prerevolutionary artists are often referred to as “modern” as opposed to “contemporary”). He now lives mostly in Vancouver but returns periodically to an elegant house designed for him by Kamran Diba, Farah’s cousin, who also designed (and briefly ran) Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Some years back, Ahmadinejad, an implacable foe of the cosmopolitan Tanavoli, had wanted to gut the house and establish a mosque in its place. Somehow, Tanavoli managed to hold him off.
I met Tanavoli in the garden of Diba’s boxy modernist gem of sand-colored brick with dark-green trim. The small swimming pool was empty, and all around it were sculptures in the artist’s signature shape, a calligraphic form that looks a little like a two-eyed alien bending over one curvy leg. It’s called a heech, which is the Persian word for nothing, but with a Sufi mystical twist implying that nothing is everything.
Tanavoli does many other things—he was preparing for a forthcoming exhibit of lion sculptures when I met him—but the heech is his personal brand. He made the first one in 1965, and he’s made thousands since, from massive heeches for museums to little jewelry heeches for Tehran’s smart set, for whom they are de rigueur. “I am a heech-making factory, it pays for my whole living,” says Tanavoli. “Everybody has to have a heech—rings, jewelry. What amazes me is that they still want them.”
Tanavoli told me he had spent the morning with the authorities, trying to defend himself against vague charges to get his passport back. At the root of everything was the heech. “It’s more serious than I thought,” Tanavoli says, not looking remotely troubled. “They are telling me that my work creates anxiety, that I am telling people false things. How do you defend against that?”
Public sympathy was with him. A cartoon by a Tehrani satirist circulated on social media: Tanavoli is asking a uniformed gendarme, “What have I done?” and he responds with a bubble containing a heech—“Nothing!” A friend of Tanavoli’s told me something else the following afternoon. “I know the woman who caused all these problems—somebody had made a legal claim against Tanavoli,” she says. In her version, the government confiscated his passport pending the resolution of a commercial dispute, not for ideological reasons (Tanavoli later said the dispute was trumped up as an excuse). Whatever in fact transpired, within short order he got his passport back, and no more was heard about anxiety-provoking heeches.
TO APPRECIATE Iranian art at its most resplendent, you must travel to Isfahan. The Safavid Shah Abbas moved Iran’s capital here from Qazvin, in 1598, to be more centrally located. Once here, he remade the entire city around a vast, new square over 500 feet wide and almost 2,000 feet long. Like a modern shopping mall, the Naqsh-e Jahan square (it means “image of the world”) is anchored along each side by four monumental hubs: the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah for the shah and his family, the grand bazaar, the Ali Qapu Palace and, grandest of all, the Royal Mosque. The hallmarks of Persian aesthetics are all on view. The palace’s second-story portico rises on rows of slender columns, giving it a delicate lightness that sets old Persia’s buildings apart from the grandiloquent monuments of its Ottoman and Mughal neighbors. The gently swollen domes of the two mosques are wrapped in shimmering tiles crawling with intricate geometric patterns. When the sun sets over the square, they glow an otherworldly turquoise. As the old Persian saying has it, “Isfahan is half the world.” It isn’t much of an exaggeration after you’ve seen it.
In Shah Abbas’s day, the arcades connecting the square’s four hubs buzzed with artisans: Carpet weavers re-created Persia’s famous gardens in silk and wool, calligraphers hunched over priceless manuscripts, metalworkers filigreed potbellied brass jugs with gold and silver, and painters shrank the great Persian epic poems down to tiny miniatures (despite the regime’s Shiite piety, Safavid artists enjoyed unusual freedom to portray the human form). This was the high-water mark for Persian national art, and after the Safavids were booted off the world stage in 1736, nothing quite like it was seen in Iran again.
It remains a wellspring from which so many of the contemporary artists I met in Tehran still draw. The painter Farah Ossouli executes flawless Safavid miniatures, except her armored paladins often tote AK-47s and carry riot truncheons. The sculptor Sahand Hesamiyan fashions steel-ribbed interpretations of traditional Persian domes. “Everything Iranian, from eating to architecture, has made my personality,” says Hesamiyan. “When I change mosques, houses, dishes, fabrics into sculpture, it has the whole background of Iran in it.”
THE ROAD FROM Isfahan’s bazaar to the galleries on Tehran’s Fereshteh Street is a long and bumpy one. In 1794, the Qajar dynasty took over Iran. The Qajars are remembered today for sexual decadence and for selling off Iran’s resources to bankroll their wild spending. Few Iranians have a good word to say about them. I visited the Qajars’ Golestan Palace in Tehran and found it to be, on the whole, a gaudy, kitschy affair—made even kitschier by the Qajar taste for plastering their walls with elaborate mirror mosaics. It feels like living inside the world’s biggest disco ball. My guide told me the story of how this came to be. On one of their frequent luxury shopping sprees to Europe, the Qajars fell in love with France’s gilt-framed mirrors and bought boatloads of them to be shipped home. The mirrors were packed badly, and most shattered en route. The mosaics in the Golestan Palace, pieced together from the salvaged fragments, are the Qajars making lemonade out of lemons. Unfortunately, Iran developed a taste for lemonade. Mirror mosaics are everywhere.
By 1925, the military strongman Reza Khan had toppled the Qajars and proclaimed himself shah, ushering in the two-generation Pahlavi dynasty. The allies replaced Reza Shah with his more malleable son Shah Mohammad Reza at the outset of World War II. The young shah kept the oil taps open while spending the profits on a bulging, useless arsenal of American weaponry. His one nod to Persian identity was to cloak himself in the mantle of the bygone Achaemenids, which seems to be many Iranians’ favorite dynasty.
That was an empire, stretching at its height from Libya to India. The ceremonial capital of Persepolis was designed as an exercise in awe: Dignitaries marched up the long steps and under columns topped with winged bulls and lions to deliver their tribute to a Darius or a Xerxes or an Artaxerxes. You can examine every detail of the ceremony in fine-lined bas-reliefs all along the walls: the tribute bearers leading sheep and cattle and carrying precious goblets and jewelry as gifts, the squadrons of troops from every part of the empire, each nation wearing its own strange and marvelous hat.
The Achaemenid dynasty ended abruptly in 330 B.C. when Alexander the Great cut through it like butter. After looting the treasures of Persepolis, he burned it. In 1971, the shah invited the West’s beau monde for a party among the ruins to celebrate Persia’s 2,500th anniversary. He meant to access Achaemenid glory but ended up evoking its transience instead. Eight years later, the Islamic Revolution swept him away. In an empty field, I noticed the bare frames of the air-conditioned tents the shah had erected for his party guests. They look like the discarded chassis of alien spaceships. My guide couldn’t tell me why they were never removed.
During the years the shah was stockpiling American F-14s, his wife, Farah, was stockpiling Monets, Renoirs and Francis Bacons. In this she was advised by her cousin Kamran, who was also badgering the queen to fund a national museum of modern art. “I thought we should have a national collection,” says Kamran Diba, who today lives and works mostly in Spain and France. “The Iranian art scene was primitive, and my idea was to give it prestige from a kind of ‘Bilbao effect.’ So I advised my cousin to buy abstract expressionists. She bought impressionists. I made the plans for the museum, and it opened in 1977, nine years after inception. It had a big impact on the art world in Iran. Suddenly, everybody got the idea that artists must have some value, since it’s such a big building. We no longer had to feel inferior to the West.”
Tehran’s MoCA is a handsome building that showcases Diba’s skill as an architect. Sunlight filters in through a graceful series of low turrets inspired by Iran’s old wind-catching towers. (The towers, called bâdgirs and built many centuries ago, channel the wind outside to be cooled by reservoirs of water within.) Inside the museum, Diba designed a Guggenheimy ramp that spirals down around the central space. After TMoCA opened in 1977, Diba presided over a collection that had grown to several hundred works, estimated to be worth more than $ 3 billion today—Gauguin, Pollock, Rothko, van Gogh, Picasso and on and on.
Very few people outside Iran have seen these paintings. “When the revolution came, the museum was out of the picture,” Diba says. “The only art they were interested in was the propaganda art of war martyrs.” The Farah Diba collection, under the government’s control, was stored in a vault and largely forgotten. It remains in that vault, still under lock and key, but slowly the paintings are coming back into view. Visitors can now apply for permission to enter the vault. (When I was there, I was told the only guy with the key was out of town. True? Who knows?)
I met TMoCA’s previous director, Majid Mollanoroozi (he left his post last year), in his office at the museum. On the wall behind him hung a beautiful Cézanne-like painting of trees by Sohrab Sepehri, who is also one of Iran’s best-loved poets. Mollanoroozi came in after the more moderate Hassan Rouhani took over the presidency from Ahmadinejad in 2013. Still, Mollanoroozi felt he must mediate between two groups of people who don’t really get one another, and he seemed put-upon and tired when we spoke. “The job is a tricky one. There’s just not good cooperation between artists and politicians. It’s a major problem.”
Mollanoroozi had assigned himself the mission of bringing modern Iranian art to the wider world’s attention. To help make this happen, the treasure trove of Western art in the vault could serve as an excellent Trojan horse. “This is undeniably our strategy,” he conceded. “Without the European works in the exhibit, nobody would pay attention—I confess that honestly.”
From the bustle up on Fereshteh Street, it’s clear that new Iranian art will find a way to emerge. The process isn’t always pretty, and sometimes it feels as though there’s more foam than coffee in the cappuccino. A respected art journalist at a local newspaper asked me if he was right in suspecting that auction prices could be manipulated. (I told him it had been known to happen in the West, and he seemed reassured.) Rumors abound: This one is laundering money, that one is channeling art profits to terrorist groups. Iran’s mullahs have even jumped into the art trade to make a quick buck.
Hamid Reza Pejman is an amiable young man with a bodybuilder’s physique who made a fortune in his family’s pipe-laying business. He is also one of Iran’s most committed art collectors. His foundation sponsored an archival museum show in Iran at TMoCA, a collection of U.S. and Soviet cartoons and postcards that formed the visual culture of Iranian children before the revolution. He’s engaged Diba to design a museum for his foundation’s huge collection in the mountains north of Tehran. “Everybody asks about what I’m doing, and no one understands it,” says Pejman. “Am I laundering money? Look, if I wanted to launder money, I wouldn’t need to create an art foundation.”
Despite the backbiting and political meddling, nearly everyone I spoke to in Iran accepts chaos as the price of progress. They also believe that, come what may, a better future is pretty much unstoppable. “The kids—they don’t give a damn if they live in the Islamic Republic. It’s a fact of life—deal with it,” says Hematian of the Dastan galleries. “We’re not reaching out to the government to help us. We’re not reaching out to the West to help us. What’s happening now—we’re making this for ourselves.”
Appears in the February 17, 2018, print edition. The online version of this article was updated after press time to reflect news.
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