A window onto the new Iran

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Political and social changes are reflected in the work of a new wave of young Iranian artists. We look at the art and its relationship to the country's turbulent history.

As was reported in Socialist Review's May issue, Somerset House hosted The Burnt Generation, an exhibition of contemporary Iranian photography. This exhibition is the work of nine young women and men. The subjects of their art are all caught in the web of the political history of Iran.

For example, Ali Nadjian's and Ramya Manouchehrzadeh's work "We live in a paradoxical society" demonstrates the contradictions of the private and public spheres of home and society in Iran.
Gohar Dashti places emphasis on similar complexities. Newsha Tavakolian looks into the story of youth, and Sadegh Tirafkan demonstrates the curvatures of the male body with Persian calligraphy.
Three artists' works concentrate on the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988, when 1.5 million people on both sides died and hundreds of thousands were physically and mentally disabled. Shadi Ghadirian places military objects in domestic spaces, hence looking at this war from a feminist perspective.

Babak Kazemi uses objects such as bullets and number plates from destroyed homes to portray the tragedy of wars. Abbas Kowsari documents the trip that thousands of Iranians make to the fronts of the Iran-Iraq War every Iranian New Year (21 March) to remember those who died in this war. The work of Azadeh Akhlagi, a woman artist called "An Eye Witness", particularly captured the attention of the media. Her photographs present those freedom fighters, intellectuals, artists, clerics, sportsmen, journalists, activists and poets who died in tragic circumstances from the Constitutional Revolution in
1906-07, to the oil nationalisation of 1951, the 1979 revolution, and the Iran-Iraq War.

Each image represents the struggle against political repression at home and imperial domination. In a conversation with me in Tehran recently she explained that An Eye Witness was originally a film project. She then used the images for this exhibition. Because of a lack of funding, her friends voluntarily participate and act in her films and photographs. Those who were present at some of the events have participated in her reconstruction of the events. Her art shows that she is mournful, wishing she could have prevented those tragedies from happening; such as The Death of Taghi Arani (1903-1924), the legendary Marxist intellectual who was tortured and murdered in Reza Shah's prison.

In her view, the death of the 32 year old feminist poet Forough Farokhzad, who was killed in a car crash in 1967, "was a disaster, unnatural and a sudden halt in the flow of time".
The death of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1967 reminds us that he was instrumental in the nationalisation of Iran's oil, to which the CIA-MI5 responded with the coup of 1953 that led to the fall of his government and the consolidation of Mohammad Reza Shah's dictatorship. She records resistance against the dictatorship and imperialism by showing the images of student demonstrations in this period and the killing of the students by the military.

The murders of Bijan Jazani and Hamid Ashraf, the Fedayeen guerilla leaders, in 1975 and 1976 at the hands of the notorious Savak secret police are another reminder of the political repression under the Shah. Similarly, there is the mysterious death in 1977 of Ali Shariati, the Sorbonne-educated sociologist who combined the Marxist concepts of class and anti-imperialism with Shia Islamic ideas. He was instrumental in the success of the 1979 revolution.

End of the night
The October Gallery in London is also exhibiting the work of another Iranian young woman artist, Golnaz Fathi, and her second solo exhibition, "Dance Me to the End of Night".
Her work expresses traditional Persian calligraphy, especially the technique of Siah Mashgh, a dedicated practice of repeating letters over and over until the ink creates a densely textured solid black impression.

She explaines that "her hand movements form uncompromised gestures, emerging out of the deep layers and attempt to capture a thought, emotion, or sound. Undertaken with the same consideration, each work is densely inscribed with potential meanings allowing unrestrained imaginative possibilities". There is also Farhad Ahrarnia's exhibition, "Stage on Fire" (May-June). His work is a combination of craft and architecture. He applies the core principles of architecture as a means to probe the semiotics of culture and power. He applies these tools in his hand-embroidery and needlework, which he layers upon and punctures into the surface of iconic imagery.

These exhibitions enter the worlds of these artists who live and work in Iran. Their works go beyond the existing erroneous and simplistic perceptions of people. They counter the often inaccurate and misleading impressions put forward by the media, politicians and some academics in the West when they talk about Iran and Iranian people, in particular women. Mehri Honarbin-Holliday (the author of the book Becoming Visible in Iran), an Iranian woman academic and a practising artist living in the UK, describes how Iranian artists, especially women's fluid interpretations and vision of their visual culture, have penetrated global artistic spheres in the 21st century.

Top galleries, museums, cultural centres and auction houses around the world exhibit and sell the work of female artists because of the ways in which these works disclose bold and new ways of seeing. These young artists are educated at various universities in Tehran, the capital, and other cities around the country. Art education and art practice have become a front for demonstrating resistance. Art is not only an intellectual project but also a political project. The women in particular use art to challenge patriarchal gender rules and roles.
These artists, by becoming visible in the global art scene, insist that the people in the West refrain from indulging in the simplistic representation of Iranian women and men as isolated victims of patriarchal religious laws and political repression.

This is the way they challenge Islamo-Iranophobia in the West. They challenge the view that the Muslim world in general and Iran in particular is archaic, pre-modern, rigidly dogmatic and violent.
This simplistic notion of modernity ignores the fact that it is a process which occurs at different levels and is experienced unevenly. It also disregards notions of the plurality of modernity and multiple modernities. These arguments are important as they challenge the assumptions that modernity is exclusive to the West. Modernity implies capitalist development, the formation of different classes and patriarchal relations, the formation of the modern state and other institutions such as the army, education, health, employment, media and constitutional laws. It also implies the monopoly of power over people within the framework of the nation-state which have occurred in all Muslim majority societies such as in Iran.

It is true that the authoritarian state and institutions promote patriarchal gender relations and limit the democratic rights of citizens. However, as is demonstrated in the work of these artists, young women and men challenge the status quo and the conservative ideologies.

Developments since 1979
The art exhibitions, especially the work of Azadeh Akhlaghi, may reflect political pessimism. This can be interpreted as the failure of the left and secular nationalists in Iran. She does not necessarily agree with this interpretation and she leaves it to us to make our own judgment. But there may be an element of truth in this.

The major players in the 1979 revolution were women, workers, Islamists, nationalists and the left. The ideological tensions between these groups soon became apparent about whether the revolution was about democracy, anti-imperialism, Marxism, Islamism, nationalism, women's rights, workers' rights or minority rights. Divisions opened up within, as well as between these groups.
The left, historically dominated by the Stalinist tradition, failed to develop successful hegemonic projects. They were crippled either by their total subordination to groups that they identified as a "progressive national bourgeoisie" or by abstaining from critical support for the Islamists who had mass support among the oppressed sections of society.
In contrast to the left and the secular nationalists, the Islamist' movements in Iran - from right wing to liberal modernists - succeeded in combining nationalist aspirations, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism and modern interpretations of Islam.

Following the 1979 revolution, the Islamic state distributed wealth and provided social welfare to the majority of the population. This was in contrast to the secular pro-West state of the Shah in the 1960s and 1970s, which served only to enrich the elite. Since the 1990s Iran has gone through a large scale socio-economic development.
The presence of a highly educated young population with different levels of religiosity and secularity is clearly visible. Young people in particular are challenging the very state that has brought about these developments.

The relative improvement in health, education and employment has raised people's socio-political consciousness.
The 1979 revolution threatened the economic and strategic interests of the US and its allies in the region. The West regarded the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 as a means to weaken the revolution and to replace the Islamic state with a pro-West regime.
The war created a strong state in Iran which shaped national and foreign policies. It allowed the more conservative factions of the Islamists to consolidate power, and the constant threat of war and sanctions translated into an intensified level of repression

Political changes
There are similarities and differences between governments since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. All governments with diverse Islamist policies, from conservatives to liberal reformist, embraced neoliberalism - and on many occasions called for improvements in the relationship with the West. However, the West's hostilities towards Iran continued.
The differences between these governments are to do with their response to the constant demands of workers, women and students for political and social change since the 1990s.
Although secular nationalists and the left have been prevented from forming political parties, many people identifying themselves as secular left and nationalist joined the Islamist Reform Movement.

The more democratic elements within this movement have called for the extension of democracy. Art, cinema, theatre, literature, music, diverse Islamic dress codes, journals, magazines and newspapers began to blossom with a new sense of possibility.
The workers' strikes have been a regular feature against pay, health, safety and redundancies due to privatisation and sub-contratcting - as well as struggle for independent unions.
Following the 1979 revolution, the strike committees which were instrumental for the victory of the revolution became "workers' shoras" (councils).
The Iran-Iraq War intensified the process of Islamisation of state and other institutions, the Islamic shoras replaced the independent shoras, but militancy and strikes continued and many workers within these state-sponsored organisations argue for the re-establishment of independent organisations.
Despite the arrest and imprisonment of activists, it has not been possible for the authorities to exclude workers' unions, even under Ahmadinejad's conservative government.
The victory of Ahmadinejad in 2005 was in part a protest by some of the poorer sections of the population against Khatami's reformist government (1997-2005) that had moved to a free-market economy and attempted to shrink the social welfare system.

When Ahmadinejad was re-elected in 2009 for a second term, millions of protesters challenged the election results. The Green Movement protests continued throughout 2009-2010 as poverty, corruption and neo-liberal economic policies were imposed under Ahmadinjejad's government which asserted its power through violence, intimidation and political repression.
However, in this period the authorities became deeply divided - some were in favour of opening up to the global economy and culture, while others exploit the constant threat of war, regime change and sanctions in order to silence the democracy activists.
The election of President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 brought hope, as he stood for relaxing political repression and paving the way to improve relationships with the West by resolving the nuclear issues in order to end sanctions, which are making the poor poorer and the rich richer.
On domestic issues there is a degree of relaxation of social restrictions on the lives of the young people. This allows many young women and men to push the barriers further and demand real changes.
At a political level very little has been achieved, as thousands who were arrested during Ahmadinejad's government have not been released and those on bail are still under threat of imprisonment.

Nuclear power
On the nuclear issue and an end to economic sanctions, Rouhani, as the representative of supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenehi, has been trying hard to achieve a solution.
Iran has agreed to cap at 5 percent its production of enriched uranium and to limit its current stockpile from further enrichment. One controversial underground facility, Fordow, will end up as a research and development centre, and the other, the Arak reactor, will be used for low enriched uranium rather than natural uranium.
Iran has agreed to the implementation of the IAEA nuclear watchdog's Additional Protocol, which would provide enhanced monitoring over all of Iran's nuclear activities.
However, Iran is resisting foreign domination and does not agree to completely scale back its uranium enrichment activities and research and development, what Obama's administration - under the pressure of the US Congress which is heavily anti-Iran and pro-Israel - is pushing for. Paradoxically, the West needs Iran's cooperation against the rise of jihadists in the region from Syria to Egypt to Iraq, coupled with an uncertain and threatening Afghanistan which the West has created.
Thus the US may have no choice other than to come to some kind of agreement with Iran. Alternatively, if talks on nuclear issues and sanctions fail, the US may go for an oil embargo, which is a declaration of war, as Iran could disrupt the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf leading to a military confrontation that is not in the West's interest.
This socio-political situation in Iran is clearly demonstrated in the work of Iranian artists. They show that democracy not only depends on the struggle against political repression but also the struggle against imperialism.

Elaheh Rostami-Povey is the editor with Tara Povey of Women, Power and Politics in 21st Century Iran, Ashgate 2012.