The noise and bustle of Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport at five in the morning is a little overwhelming, especially after six peaceful hours snoozing on a flight from London. Only a few years old, but some design flaws are already showing in this sleek building, particularly in the way incoming travellers find themselves in irritatingly long queues. A glass wall brings welcoming family and friends frustratingly close, and as you inch slowly towards the exit you can read improving signs that remind how ‘Respect for Islamic Dress is Respect for the Rights of Women’. Another enormous queue outside siphons off into taxis, and by the time I am on the road to Tehran, dawn has broken.
This was my introduction to Iran early last month as I went to select paintings for an exhibition in Soho. My friend, Aras, had visited her family last summer and returned to London with tales of the great art she had seen in Tehran’s galleries. We were soon thinking about how we could get some to London, and soon after gallerist Jill George had offered her premises for a show. All that remained was to actually see what would be going up on the walls. I was staying with a friend in downtown Tehran, and rolled up as he returned from the local bakery with breakfast. Glasses of hot tea washed down freshly-baked flatbread, cream cheese, honey and fresh walnuts as I enjoyed the calmest moments in four days of running from galleries to studios to artists’ homes to look at paintings.
One question I was asked whilst there was: “What do you like about Tehran?” and this is not an easy one to answer. There is little impressive architecture, and the city is polluted and overcrowded, with something like twice the population of London in a smaller area. But what makes Tehran one of my current favourite cities is the sheer warmth of its people, whose hospitality, charm and generosity belie the general media image of their country abroad. This was my third visit there, and still people looked surprised when they heard of my plans. If having a small exhibition of contemporary Iranian painting helps to undermine such assumptions – and I know I’m reaching for the stars here – then it’ll be even more worthwhile.
After breakfast, we drive across town to Azad Gallery in Yousefabad. This small artist-run basement room has been showing exceptional art in Tehran since 1999 under the Directorship of Rozita Sharafjahan. I wanted to see good painting, and Rozita knew exactly which artists I should consider. Various canvases were assembled from painters Marzieh Bagheri and Azadeh Balouchi, two young women who have been out of college for barely a year and already producing exceptionally confident and accomplished work. I wanted everything they could provide, but had to settle for two from one and three from the other. I was driven by painter Samira Eskandarfar to see her work in her flat: she proudly told me that Tate Modern had just decided to buy one of her video works that day. I saw the studios of Khosro Khosravi, Mohammad Tabatabaie and his wife Masoumeh Bakhtiary, and was struck by how little room they had to produce their magnificent images, and how modestly they wore their abilities. Hamed Sahihi brought canvases into Azad Gallery for me to choose and the resulting selection has only one guiding theme to link the paintings: quality. Everything I have selected – and of course, how could I say otherwise? – can hold its own with the finest market-approved painting from anywhere else in the world, and given that it is the first time most of these painters have shown in London, prices are very cheap.
It was not easy to whittle down all the excellent art I saw to the seven artists who make up the exhibition and, needless to say, Aras and I are already tempted to investigate another show with some of the many accomplished and talented Tehrani artists we could not include this time. Time will tell if we can do this, but a trip around the Tehran art world is a surprising and delightful experience that belies the general, woefully negative impression of Iran that still persists.
By David Gleeson – Guest Blogger & Aesthetica Magazine contributor.
To read more about Middle Eastern Art, read Contemporary Art From the Middle East a feature on Golden Gates, which ran in Paris last October.
From Tehran to London: New Painting from Iran is at Jill George Gallery, 38 Lexington Street, Soho, London W1 until 18 June. Admission free. www.jillgeorgegallery.co.uk
(c) Mohammad Mehdi Tabatabaie
Triptych, oil on canvas
120 x 220 cm
Utopia Ophelia (2009)
acrylic on canvas
She Was Alone (2009)
oil on canvas