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Orientalism and its Impact on Iran’s Contemporary Art

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

On October 2019, Yasaman Tamizkar led a public discussion titled “Orientalism and its Impact on Iran’s Contemporary Artists and Art Scene” which was held at the See You in Iran Cultural House in Tehran, Iran. The discussion questioned the hegemony that defines Iranian social and cultural identity and the politics of stereotype and representation that has influenced the Middle East for decades.

The audience gathered to talk about the “Impacts of Orientalism on Iran’s Contemporary Art and Artists” moderating by Yasaman Tamizkar, an art graduate and curator based in Tehran. Yasaman posed some questions like How would an Iranian Artist summarize the Middle Eastern/Iranian culture into an image? How much can we rely on that image to recall an identity? What element/object/concept/incident represents a culture in the best way? And who is telling our story? And how much can we rely on a “single story” on any subject?

To answer these questions, Yasaman started with her own take on the subject and said the hegemony that lies within the art world cues artists to reflect on issues that the Middle East has been dealing with for decades. Thus, artists are encouraged to create artworks that amplifies social conventions, rituals and any familiar image for the market, with the promise to be recognized in the competitive international art scene regardless of their country’s political reputation. The dangers of this situation – a desperation to impress the art market – is when a country, a culture or a social identity is defined by that one image. That image is not the whole truth. In fact, the truth is not the glamorous eye-catching social conventions and rituals, nor the dark side of political social limitation. The truth lies within the intersection of both interpretations. She said using symbols and elements which are believed to define our culture – but are expired symbols that were repeatedly used to shape (mis)conceptions of eastern societies through the lens of an outsider – in a form of art can make the art piece exotic. Then Yasaman showed some slides representing what she believed as “exotic art” and “orientalist view” of Iranian artists, one example of which could be “Chador Art”.

One of the audience believed that we can further the discussion based on the School of the Saqqaghaneh. Following the steps of artists like Tanavoli and Arabshahi who were prominent Saqqaghaneh artists in the 1960s, others wanted to reproduce exotic and west favourite arts that sells good at auctions; arts that have roots in religion and eastern cultures. In creation of these art works, art auctions and biennials’ dictations have a much greater role than creativity. Another member of the audience recalled the time she was invited to curate a global exhibition originated in Jordan. Queen Rania who was the force behind this exhibition wanted to name it “Breaking the Veils: Women Artists from the Islamic World”. It was very problematic because it wanted to have the stereotypes confirmed for the audience, that veils need breaking, instead of asking what is the veil. She thought part of this phenomenon is because the world we’re living in is so noisy that in order to be heard, you need to speak this language of codes and brands, and if you are an artist who doesn’t use these brands (like Chador or veil), you may go unrecognized. Another perspective discussed the relationship between capitalism and art production in today’s world and how market mechanisms are shaping the art scene in Iran.

Photos: Amin Behmanesh (See You in Iran Archive)

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