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A New Exhibition Explores Five Millennia of Iran’s Cultural History

Portrait of a woman from New Julfa by Markos, Circa 1649. 

On view at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until September, this exhibition explores five millennia of Iranian art, design, and culture with more than 300 rarely seen ancient and contemporary objects. “Iran has a tremendously long and unbroken legacy of the production of art at the very highest level, yet 90 years have passed since the last UK exhibition to explore 5 000 years of art, design, and culture in its entirety,” says Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, associate curator of Epic Iran.

The show covers the earliest periods but also explores current times. “People may be astonished to learn that Iran has had a vibrant intellectual art scene throughout the 20th century, very much at the heart of modern art,” Sarikhani Sandmann comments. “In the contemporary art scene, after the dramatic rupture of the Iranian Revolution and the long Iran-Iraq war,
the art world has re-blossomed, especially since the end of the 1990s.

Women’s jacket, blouse, and skirt, 1800-1840. 

Today, in Iran, there are many galleries with dynamic curatorial and cultural programs, both in Tehran and in other cities. Equally, Iranian artists living abroad continue to contribute to the artistic debate.” Showing the diversity of works across all media, these paintings, sculptures, ceramics, carpets, textiles, photographs, films, installations, and animations are set within an immersive design by Gort Scott Architects, tasked with creating different atmospheres that transport visitors to a city with a gatehouse, palace, library, and gardens. “The questioning, irreverence, humor, and intellectual depth are evident,” Sarikhani Sandmann says. “Whether it is the minimalist, spiritual sculpture of Shirazeh Houshiary; the humorous, many layered self-portrait light box by Khosrow Hassanzadeh; or the poetic, nearly mystical animation of Avish Khebrehzadeh, the works touch us deeply. This level of self-examination and exploration does not just question notions of what it means to be Iranian, but also just what it means to be.”

Veiled woman by Sirak Melkonian, 1957. 

The works showcased also include a 1 500-year-old Sasanian silver plate (part of the Sarikhani Collection, of which Sarikhani Sandmann is the cofounder and director, and which contributed to the organization of this exhibition, along with the Iran Heritage Foundation); a pen box (qalamdan) from 1717 by Muhammad Zaman ibn Zaman; and Shirin Neshat’s video installation Turbulent.“When looking at art from Iran, at first it might look unfamiliar to new audiences,” says Sarikhani Sandmann. “It is often small and intimate, or else, monumental and architectural. It has a different script or look or texture. But if one looks closely, one sees themes that are familiar: of power and strength, of war, of love and tenderness, or spirituality and the divine, of fear and vanity. I hope that everyone who comes to see this exhibition will not only get to know Iran better, I hope they get to know themselves better. To be touched by art is one of the most beautiful gifts of life.”

Bottle and bowl featuring Persian poetry, 1180-1220. 

Epic Iran is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until September 12.

Photographs: Getty, Indigital, Laura Friedli, Franklin Belingard, Andrew Magurran, Khalid Alsudairi

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Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia

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