A giant canvas depicting the union jack overpowers the entrance to Cama Gallery in London. As you get closer to Fereydoon Omidi’s artwork, the Persian letters inscribed on the painting under the thick layers of red, white and blue become more visible.
Here, at the first gallery in London to be dedicated to Iranian art, Omidi’s multilayered calligraphy was, he said, “a plea for peace and cultural understanding”.
Ironically, due to visa issues, neither Omidi nor 18 other Iranian artists represented by the gallery in its inaugural show can make it to London for Thursday night’s opening. A stringent visa regime in the UK means real cultural exchanges rarely take place, despite the improvement in bilateral ties between London and Tehran.
But the artworks have, however, reached Britain’s shores. Reflecting huge western interest in the Iranian contemporary art market, most items in the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, named Sensation, had been purchased even before the gallery opened its doors to the public.
Iranian art is at the moment financially outperforming art from other Middle Eastern countries at global auctions, and it accounted for half the revenue generated at Sotheby’s Middle East auction last year.
Parviz Tanavoli, famous for his bronze statuettes depicting the word heech, (“nothing” in Persian), is the region’s most expensive artist at auction, having achieved million-dollar sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. And art by Bita Vakili – an Iranian artist whose works are featured in Sensation – priced initially at $20,000 sold for more than double that amount at Christie’s.
Cama’s Sensation exhibition is a rare window on to the works of emerging artists living in Iran, whose image on the global stage has mainly been dominated by political developments such as the 2015 nuclear accord, which Donald Trump has vowed to annul, and the regional bickering with Saudi Arabia.
Riley Frost, 25, is the gallery’s co-founder. A Londoner who studied anthropology of art at Goldsmith’s, he became interested in Iranian art after dating a woman from the country. Frost said that art could serve as a means of separating ordinary people from the notion of “a nation state”.
He said: “The problem that I have is that often as soon as you hear ‘Iran’, it’s associated with nuclear, international sanctions and some sort of repressive theocracy. That for me is not what Iran is, it’s not a representation of the people of Iran. And artwork comes from the bottom up, it doesn’t come from up to down. That’s the difference between international politics and the role that art can play.”
Cama aims to be an Iranian gallery in the west, Frost said, rather than a gallery in the west selling Iranian art. “The aim is to provide the most legitimate platform possible for Iranian art, and what I mean by legitimate is that we don’t just look at artwork which is conducive to western way of looking at things.”
A considerable number of works on display are by female artists, and the curator of the show, Mona Khosheghbal, is also a woman. Khosheghbal, who is also unable to attend, said on phone from Tehran that she called the exhibition Sensation because the concept allowed her to choose a selection that would best showcase the variety of art done by the country’s emerging artists. (The show’s title is not alluding to the controversial 1997 Royal Academy exhibition of Young British Artists, also called Sensation.)
“I’d say that the younger artists are embracing a bigger variety of art and styles and genres compared to the generation before them. You’ll see works in all genres, from abstract to figurative,” Khosheghbal said.
The curator added that censorship in Iran, where the state vets most artistic work prior to public display, is more relaxed in visual arts than cinema. “There’s an inherent censorship in oriental art. It’s not only related to post-1979 Islamic revolution, it existed centuries back in the poetry of Hafez and Rumi or Saadi through the abundant use of allegories and metaphors. Maybe easterners want to be like that, to hide behind a cover, they don’t want to be explicit, and that’s maybe why the west is interested in them, because we’re deeper and sophisticated in our expression of art.”
Vakili, whose works of mixed media on canvas are shown at the exhibition, said visual art is the best manifestation of real life in Iran. “Other things about Iran go through a great deal of filters, but the visual art is close to the ordinary people and their way of life. You’ll see that people also have similar lives in Iran, that they’re also connected to the outside world.
“There’s a lively and dynamic society in Iran and if the western eye looks at our art, rather than our politics, it will get a more humane view of my country.”
Cama co-founder Frost said the boundaries restricting Iranian artists have made their art more intriguing. While Europeans have “so much option for free expression”, Iranian artistshave to operate within a certain box – they’re forced to create something special. The expression says pressure creates diamond. I think that’s archetypal with Iranian art.”
- Sensation is at Cama, London, until 25 June.
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