Iranian artist on a major exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern art in Canada

With the bulk of major exhibitions being held in Europe, the UAE, and the United States, Canada is often dismissed as a cultural backwater when it comes to contemporary Middle Eastern art. Things are changing, however, slowly, but surely. Running between April 20 and September 15 at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia on the country’s west coast will be Safar / Voyage, a major exhibition of contemporary art from around the Middle East, and the first of its kind in Canada. Organised by a group of distinguished members from the Iranian-Canadian community – entrepreneurs, artists, curators, and historians – the exhibition will take viewers on a journey (as the name Safar suggests) across the Middle East, featuring works by renowned Iranian, Turkish, and Arab artists – including Farhad Moshiri, Adel Abidin, Kutlug Ataman, and Mona Hatoum, among others – in an attempt to familiarise Canadian audiences with a much-misunderstood region.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Nezhat Khosrowshahi, the exhibition’s chairman, who first brought the exhibition to my attention. Soon afterwards, hungry to learn more about the initiative, I phoned Parviz Tanavoli, the distinguished Iranian artist who will not only be exhibiting one of his sculptures, but who was also integral to the conception and realisation of the exhibition. With a modesty and humbleness defying his status as one of the forefathers of contemporary Iranian art as it is known today, the Ostad and I talked at length about the exhibition and its origins, the Middle East as a region, and the ever-nomadic Iranian soul.

With so many Iranian, Arab, and Turkish artists now living in Canada, why have we had to wait so long for an exhibition of this calibre? As well, why was British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology chosen as the venue for the exhibition? Why not, for instance, a venue in Toronto, with its sizeable Iranian population, or Montreal, often considered as an Arab and North African cultural hub in North America?

[This exhibition] took a few years. I encouraged the people in charge of the Museum to do an exhibition based on the theme we have, because [the Middle East] is an area that is unknown to most people, and the news that reaches people here is mostly negative; it’s mostly about war, terrorism, and fighting. The culture [of the region] is also unknown. I suggested [the theme], and luckily, the Museum – which usually does other types of exhibitions – liked the idea. There were other [similar] exhibitions held, such as one about modern Middle Eastern art at the British Museum, which I participated in with my Heech sculptures. The response was good, and we organised a committee and set to work, with Mrs. [Nezhat] Khosrowshahi joining us, as we needed a capable chairman.

I don’t know why [this exhibition] didn’t happen anywhere else. The interest was always here in Vancouver, but we didn’t have a venue. When we found out the [Museum of Anthropology] was interested … that was great news!

Safar will feature quite a few works by numerous established artists in the region as well as in the diaspora. Whose, and what type of works can we expect to see at the exhibition?

I’ve done one work for this exhibition – Oh Persepolis. The exhibition, as planned by Feri (Fereshteh) Daftari, [will turn the viewer into] a traveller visiting all these countries in the Middle East, from one place to another, seeing [the] cities, ancient monuments, people, politics, and daily life [therein]. It will give a taste of the Middle East today.It won’t be like [the writings of] the travellers of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Many of the artists [will be] presenting [works about] themselves and their political views of today’s Middle East, and about what is happening there and the problems the region is facing. Of course, some artists [will be] exploring [the subject] in different ways.

The name of this exhibition is quite interesting, as it suggests a sort of journey or voyage, and is common to the dominant languages in the region – Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. What sorts of voyages have the artists here, from different backgrounds and cultures, embarked on, and what similarities and differences do you witness with respect to the way they’ve dealt with the subject? As well, what is a piece like Oh Persepolis trying to convey here?

My work is based on melancholy for Persepolis, and my concern about what is happening to it. [Shortly after the Revolution], some extremists wanted to destroy it; [now], it is [subject to] damage and pollution, and nobody is looking after it. [The work] is straightforward: I want to bring the attention of the world to this ancient site, and tell them they should do something about it. It’s been around for over 2,500 years, and it’s a pity that it’s going to be destroyed. My work was made five or six years ago.

[Essentially], Feri Daftari went around and chose the artists and works as she saw fit. She tried to make [the exhibition] as varied and as encompassing as possible, to show all aspects of Middle Eastern thought, life, and the lifestyle. [For instance], some artists have worked with the Persian carpet and have brought it into [a modern context]. As well, a Lebanese artist has [an installation] of a car packed with household items for a quick getaway. Each artist [is coming] with different ideas.

While the exhibition aims to bring together artists from various countries in the Middle East, many are beginning to question the implied unity of the term. Mrs. Nezhat Khosrowshahi remarked that due to myriad differences and internal politics between countries in the region, art from what is casually known as the Middle East is now being specifically classified as belonging either to Iran, Turkey, or the Arab world. What are your thoughts on this? Are we witnessing the ‘end’ of Middle Eastern art as we know it?

The term ‘Middle East’ was not comprehensive, because Israel is there too … they [use the disambiguation] to avoid [mentioning Israel]. I think it’s mainly because of that single country – Israel. Of course, when we talk about the Middle East, [the term] can also include North Africa, too. [The term] suggests a much wider geography than the Middle East alone.

This nomadic blood, and not being tied down to a certain place – it’s very genetic, you can feel it … When spring comes, I have to pack and go, no matter what

In addition to the art on display, the Museum will also be hosting a seminar entitled Nomadic Aesthetics and the Importance of Place, which I think ties in beautifully with the concept of the exhibition, especially given the fact that the nomadic spirit and lifestyle so integral to many Iranian, Turkic, and Arab societies have persisted to this date. Would it be farfetched to assume that the blood of our forefathers still flows strong in us yet, as evidenced by the multi-layered voyages being made by these, as well as other Middle Eastern artists? As well, could you tell us a bit about what will be discussed during the seminar?

A bit of that blood exists in me! This nomadic blood, and not being tied down to a certain place – it’s very genetic, you can feel it. But of course, things are changing with the modernisation of all these countries. Things are not the same – people are becoming more cosmopolitan and urban in cities, and no longer have that nomadic lifestyle. But it is still noticeable.

When spring comes, I have to pack and go, no matter what – this is something genetic, something in my blood. It is very true [with respect to] spring. One of the reasons is that we have four seasons, especially in Iran and Turkey. Spring is pleasant; things have changed, the land is green, the grass is growing – you want to go somewhere else, and put the long winter behind you. Of course, in summer you want to settle down by the mountains, and in fall, when the grass dies, you want to go a warm land – in the case of Iran, in the vicinities of the Persian Gulf. This [nomadism] is all very interconnected with nature and climate.

here will be different talks [at the seminar] with different perspectives. [Nader] Ardalan and [Hossein] Amanat will be talking about architecture, while Abbas Amanat will be talking about changes [in the Middle East] through the eyes of travellers of both the past and the present.

Given the importance and scale of such an initiative, it’s only natural that I ask – what’s next for the contemporary Middle Eastern art scene in Canada? Can we expect to see similar initiatives elsewhere in the country? You’re most welcome in Toronto!

First of all, we are hoping that other museums will also showcase this exhibition. Hopefully, this will be like a travelling exhibition. We haven’t had any replies yet, but the Museum staff are working hard … this is going to be the very first step. Europeans are very familiar with the Middle East, and have had commercial and business relations with Middle Easterners for hundreds, if not thousands of years; but the Middle East is not as well known in North America, especially in Canada. [However], with the demand and growth of Middle Easterners in Canada, there is going to be a good reason to follow up on this exhibition. There are many different ways of exhibiting the arts and culture of the Middle East, and this is only one way; many, many exhibitions can [also] be organised afterwards.

By Reorient


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