The Iranian art scene by curator Martha Kirszenbaum
We had a great discussion with Martha Kirszenbaum, Los Angeles based curator. Back from Tehran, she talks about her vision of Iranian artistic life. Inspiring!
Persiennes : Hi Martha, could you please present yourself?
Martha Kirszenbaum : I am a French curator and writer based in Los Angeles since 2014, where I was the director and curator of Fahrenheit, an exhibition space and residency program in Downtown. I grew up in Paris and moved to New York about ten years ago to complete my Master’s at Columbia University, then worked at MoMA’s Media and Performance Department, and at the New Museum for two years. I moved back to Paris in 2010 and became an independent curator, developing various projects in Europe and the US. An exhibition related to filmmaker Kenneth Anger brought me to Los Angeles at the end of 2013, and I literally fell in love with the city of angels, its golden light and restless energy. I established myself there to open and develop Fahrenheit, in collaboration with a non-for profit foundation FLAX. Besides I have also been writing for many publications and magazines such as Flash Art, CURA and Kaleidoscope, taking Leica pictures, DJing, and dancing, in particular to Middle-Eastern music.
P : You were on an “Art Trip” with 2 other colleagues and friends, could you tell us more about it? What’s the program?
MK: I have been invited to attend the opening of a new contemporary art foundation in Tehran, Pejman Foundation. The first exhibition that opened last week is a solo project by French-Algerian brilliant artist and friend Neil Beloufa. The idea of Pejman Foundation was to invite several international curators to Tehran and to organize a series of talks and screenings with them, in order to open up the art scene to foreigners and to exchange ideas and practices. Beside myself, the Foundation invited my close friend and collaborator Myriam Ben Salah, a Tunisian curator based in Paris and working at Palais de Tokyo, the Italian curator Cloe Perrone, who is also a friend currently working at Fondazione Memmo in Rome and in New York. Two other curators took part of the adventure: Hicham Khalidi who is Dutch-Moroccan and works for Foundation Lafayette, and Leonie Radine from the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. The program was quite something because Tehran is a very intense and sometimes disorienting place, with it own sense of reality, but I think we were able to take advantage of the most of it. Myriam and I presented a film screening reflecting on Middle Eastern popular culture, with music videos and artist’s films; and each of us five curators presented our respective curatorial practices and current projects during a series of talks held at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.
Read also >> A visit to The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art
The TMOCA is a beautiful modernist building also storing one of the most impressive collections of abstract expressionist American art, carefully gathered by Farah Diba; a collection that has unfortunately never been exhibited outside of Iran.
We of course met with several artists and curators, visited galleries and museums, in particular the beautiful Abgineh Museum of Glass and Ceramics, which is one of my favorite places in Tehran. It is a stunning collection of glassware presented in a 19th-century Qajar palace and displayed in modernist cases designed in 1977 by Austrian architect Hans Hollein.
P: Could you tell us more about the artistic scene in Iran? What’s your feeling about it?
MK : The feeling I’ve had in general about Iran, and about its artistic scene more precisely, is that there is a huge potential among a younger generation of artists, and that galleries and institutions seem to be developing. We met two fascinating artists from an older generation — the iconic painter Parvaneh Etamadi, who’s paintings on cement from the 1970s really caught my eye, and Reza Shafahi, a former gambler who became an artist at the age of 74 and makes wonderful, fetishistic and Matisse-inspired drawings.
We had very interesting meetings with some younger artists, such as Mamali Shafahi, who recently finished a quite controversial film inspired by post-internet practices, that will be presented at Moshen Gallery later this year; and Nazgol Ansarinia, whose latest installations deal with the destruction of buildings in the city of Tehran. We also met with photographer Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, whose black and white portraits of ordinary people, artists and writers in Tehran in the 1990s felt really moving.
There are many dynamic galleries in the city, such as Delgosh, started by artist Shabahang Tayyeri and Niloofar Abedi, that represent a rooster of emerging artists. I was also inspired by the program of Dastan Gallery, notably representing Fereydoon Ave, an older graphic designer who produced fantastic posters for theater performances before the Revolution.
The city is also thriving with several artist residencies, such as Kooshk that welcomes four international artists and curators yearly, and Sazmanab, run by curator Sohrab Kashani, and soon the one at Pejman Foundation. The weaker point of the Tehran art-scene is its institutions, as most of the public funding seems to go towards political, oriented initiatives, and not contemporary art. Even the Museum of Contemporary Art, which could be a real landmark, feels a bit dusty and neglected. In this context, I think that the Pejman Foundation could benefit from this lack and become an important organization to promote international contemporary art in Tehran, and also an interface between foreign artists and art professionals, and the local artistic community.
P: Why did you decide to go to Iran? What are your links with the country?
MK : Well, it was actually my second trip to Iran! Although I don’t have any Iranian backgrounds, my mother, who is in fact Polish, had many Iranian friends in Paris in the 1970s, and has always been fascinated by the sophistication, the beauty and the poetry of Iranian and Persian culture. She speaks quite good Farsi, cooks Fesenjan (a traditional stew with walnuts and pomegranates), and listens to Iranian music! Therefore I grew up with a lot of Persianism in the background. For my mom’s birthday two years ago, we went on a trip to Iran, and spent two weeks traveling all over the country —from the Caspian Sea to Yazd, the capital of Zoroastrianism, Isfahan, Shiraz, amazing Persepolis and Tehran of course. It was a magical trip!
I was already living in Los Angeles, which is also nicknamed “Tehrangeles”, as it hosts the biggest community of Iranians outside of Iran, Muslims and Jews by the way, who left Iran after the Revolution. Some of my best friends in L.A. are from Iranian descent, and we often go out to Iranian restaurants in Westwood, attend Iranian dance parties, and we even organized several Nowruz parties, even one time at Fahrenheit. So in a way, Iranian culture has always felt very familiar to me, all the more that I am a dedicated fan of Googoosh, the Persian diva and one of the most iconic performers of the Middle East.
Read also >> Googoosh, The Pre Revolutionary Persian Diva
In this sense, going back to Iran, this time in a work and artistic context, felt very natural.
P : How would you describe The Persian art in 3 words? (I know it’s very difficult)
MK : I don’t think I can describe Persian art (which 2,500 years old!) in three words, but what I can say is that to describe Iran, I often think about what I’ve humorously called the ‘Theory of the 40 columns’. There is a renowned and magnificent palace in Isfahan, built by Shah Abbas in the 17th Century and named Chehel Sotoun, which means ‘40 Columns’. The reality, however, is that there is only 20 columns standing, and the 20 remaining are just reflections in the water! To me, this says a lot about Iranian mentality, society and culture—the poetic approach to the everyday life, the ta’arof and this lovely habit that have the Iranians of saying yes to all, but also the impossibility to achieve their goals. In short, it describes the complexity of the Iranian reality today where everything and nothing seems possible at the same time.
P: How do you see the future of art in Iran?
MK : It seems like, on the one hand, private and DIY initiatives coming from below are blossoming, such as Pejman or the art space Ab Anbar. On the other hand, a younger generation of artists, galleries and curators, who often studied abroad, came back to Iran and brought back with them a more open, international approach to artistic and curatorial practices. To give you an example, we met a very interesting young female curator, Azar Amhmoudian, who studied at Goldmith College in London and came back to Iran to open an independent art space named Kaf, and was recently a curator at the renowned Gwangju Biennale. I’m convinced that these types of profiles, especially women, will bring the Iranian art scene to the next level.
Thanks Martha !