Looking beyond the Ayatollah to the treasures of Iran

Iran Museum 2 (2)
A room devoted to Persepolis, the ancient city that was once the capital of the Persian Empire, in the exhibition “Epic Iran” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, May 28, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
LONDON — The board game is roughly 4,500 years old. Shaped like a bird of prey, it has holes running down its wings and chest, where the pieces were once positioned. It’s one of a few dozen ancient objects that were set to travel from the National Museum of Iran for a spectacular exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum here. But they never came.اضافة اعلان

Other artifacts that were set to be shown — as detailed and illustrated and in the catalog for that exhibition “Epic Iran” — included a gold mask, a long-handled silver pan and a carved stone goblet. To secure the loans, the museum was in long-standing talks with the National Museum of Iran until early 2020, said Tristram Hunt, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, also known as the V&A.

“At a certain point, silence began to descend, and I don’t think that was internal to them,” he said in an interview. “There were outside political forces.”

Ironically, the overarching purpose of “Epic Iran,” according to Hunt, was to put aside the political tensions that have dogged relations between Iran and the West since the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic Republic.

“We want people to take a step back and understand that Iranian history didn’t begin in 1979,” he said. The point was to look beyond “the paradigm of what is called Islamic fundamentalism, and concerns around nuclear testing and visions of the ayatollah,” he added, and “understand the richness, and breadth, and depth, and complexity, and beauty of Iran.”

On display in the V&A show, which runs through September 12, are an astounding array of artworks and treasures spanning 5,000 years: from the remnants of the earliest civilizations to the creations of contemporary artists living in Iran today. The full gamut of arts and crafts practiced for millenniums in Iran is illustrated with centuries-old carpets, illuminated manuscripts, miniature paintings, sculpted ornaments, court portraits, and fine textiles.

The exhibition is intended as an all-encompassing feast for the eyes. Yet somehow, recent politics still manage to pervade it.

To start with, “Epic Iran” is opening at a low point in British-Iranian relations, with the detention since 2016 of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman, on espionage charges she denies, and an ongoing dispute over debts for tanks that Iran ordered and paid for before the 1979 Revolution, but which Britain never supplied.

More broadly, hostilities between Iran and the West were exacerbated during the presidency of Donald Trump. He pulled the United States out of a 2015 deal that was meant to curb Iran’s nuclear capability, toughened economic sanctions against Iran and ordered the killing in January 2020 of Iran’s most powerful security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Cultural collaborations between Iran and the West have suffered as a result, said Nima Mina, who taught Iranian studies for 20 years at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“In post-Revolution Iran, everything has been politicized,” he said. Cultural institutions and artists had to align with “a certain ideological and political agenda,” as artists did in the Soviet Union, he said.

“The Islamic Republic is an ideological, autocratic regime, so it’s difficult to be apolitical, even if somebody tries,” he said.

The V&A is not the only Western museum to try and fail to secure loans from Iran. In 2016, a long-planned Berlin exhibition of works from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was canceled when Iranian officials withheld export permits for the works. Half of these were by Western artists such as Picasso, Gauguin, Mark Rothko, and Francis Bacon, and came from a collection assembled before the revolution by Iran’s empress, Farah Pahlavi.

Originally, the V&A — under its former director, Martin Roth — had planned to exhibit the private collection of the Sarikhanis, a British-based family from Iran who own hundreds of pieces of Iranian art and heritage. When Hunt took over the V&A in February 2017, he decided to turn the exhibition into something broader and more extensive, incorporating treasures from the collections of the V&A and other international museums.

As well as artifacts from Iran’s past, two rooms of “Epic Iran” on modern and contemporary art show that Iranians were active participants in 20th-century art movements and, today, produce cutting-edge photography, painting, and installations.

The high ratio of female artists on display — including photographers Shadi Ghadirian and Shirin Aliabadi — demonstrate that Iranian women have transcended gender inequality and restrictions such as the compulsory veil to produce and display their work.

This final section of the show — put together by associate curator Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, whose family lent extensively to the exhibition — also coincides with the most recent period in Iranian history, a period of revolution and still-raw divisions. Wall texts seem to reflect those tensions.

Despite the loan setbacks, Hunt, the V&A director, said he hoped the show would pave the way to collaborations: The exhibition was always intended as a two-way exchange, he said.

“It would always be nice to have a relationship with Tehran, which we’d like to build on in the future,” he added.

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