This is the first of a series of conversations conceived by Iranian-born artist, curator and writer Elham Puriyamehr as part of her internet-based curatorial project called “Recounting Experiences,” which is specifically conceived for Radicate.eu. The purpose of this series is to present the developments of artistic research in West Asia. This video conversation is done in cooperation with Ag Galerie, Tehran.
Conversation transcription below
Elham Puriyamehr: Hello Simindokht, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We will talk about art spaces in Tehran as part of my curatorial project “Recounting Experiences,” based on research and conversations. I would like to know more about how you started your activities in the arts and how you got involved in the art world.
Simindokht Dehghani: Thank you for the interview. I became involved with art because I studied art history and criticism at UCSD (Ed: University of California, San Diego). Following 9/11, I moved to Tehran because at the time the climate in the United States wasn’t very inviting for people from the Middle East, or at least I felt that way. So I moved to Tehran and immediately began working for an art publication called “Tavoos Art Quarterly.” I was translating for them and through that office I met quite a few artists and individuals with whom I began working. Through one of the artists I met there, Farideh Lashaii, I began organizing exhibitions. I don’t want to call it curating. It was organizing exhibitions, but I did try to have a theme because these exhibitions were held at galleries, at commercial art galleries. The goal was to try and sell the artwork and that’s what the gallery owners wanted. So I think of those projects as more organizing art exhibitions in galleries in the Middle East where the works would be for sale and they were very successful. Of course, this was during a time in which the art market in the Middle East was flourishing greatly and every exhibition that would be held in almost any gallery would have tremendous sales. It was a good time for me to start, yes.
EP: And what about the Ag Galerie? What is the main characteristic of Ag Galerie of which you are the director?
SD: Ag Galerie is an art gallery. It is a commercial space, but we also try to be a space that allows for important things to happen in the Middle East. Our aim from the beginning was to try and, first of all, expand people’s ideas of image-based art. I do so by trying to invite artists both inside Iran and from other countries to hold the exhibitions, by having publications that would accompany these exhibitions, and also by taking part in art fairs outside of Iran. Fairs are a way of trying to expand or trying to reach viewers who are living in other countries and up until now have only been exposed to a certain kind of art from the Middle East which is, in my opinion, what the West likes to see from the Middle East: things that are very exotic, things that carry a very large label of being Middle Eastern. I’m trying to avoid labeling the artwork that we show as Iranian art or Middle Eastern art; we just call it art, as these artists just happen to be from the Middle East.
EP: As you know, we had Islamic contemporary art that is a very hard sentence to translate. How can something such as art be called Islamic or contemporary? What exactly is your approach with Ag Galerie? What is your approach to art and artworks or the art scene in Tehran?
SD: I don’t know what Islamic art is. When we say Islamic art we use it in the same way that we use “Roman art,” “Ancient Egyptian art” or “Catholic art,” which is art that was created because of the sponsorship of the Church or the State. In my opinion, that label can only apply to that kind of art, which is like a manuscript illumination or an artwork that has got a religious theme. I can say that this is Islamic art. But to use the term “Islamic art” to talk about the work of an artist who comes from a country whose majority of the population is Muslim, I think is a mistake that is like describing Catholic art to talk about the art produced today by an artist who is from Italy. I tend to stay away from those labels and I find those labels to be very misleading and, to be quite honest, incorrect.
EP: But you know that these kinds of artworks do not have any place in the market. What do you do as a gallery owner?
SD: They actually do have a place in a market, but I think that the artwork that you are referring to, that is very popular with Western collectors, is artwork that will have a shorter lifespan. With the lifting of sanctions and the fact that we are getting more and more visitors, among them curators and collectors are coming to Iran, I think after a while people will want more than wallpaper. They will want more than something decorative. I am not saying that the artwork that is popular such as calligraphy has to be dismissed; it is a very important part of our art history and it’s very important to show and support that kind of art. But this is not the only art being produced, it is not an art form that can be incorporated into other arts simply because it’s exotic. It has been used as a tool. Calligraphy itself is one of the most important art forms to be created in this region. It has very strong bases in Islamic art, because that’s how it was initially when Islam came to this area. The figurative art and the figurative representation of human beings and the body was forbidden — but this is an entirely different theme or subject and argument— and artists concentrated on the beautification of the written word. So I’m in no way dismissing that art form, but I think that when an artist decides to incorporate bits of that in order to try and find a market, for the work that he or she is producing, it becomes questionable. For us living here, this is a very clear aim. Again not for all artists, there are some that have been doing it. Master calligraphers incorporate other symbols and other motives into their art. But we are talking about artwork that has been created recently with an eye for the market.
EP: And they have contemporaneity, as you say.
SD: Yeah, exactly.
EP: I am eager to know about your artists, could you explain the relation between artists in your selection?
SD: I think they are as different as they are similar. The difference is very formal and in the kind of work that they are pursuing. The similarity is that they do not have an eye towards the market. Their art is critical; it involves very real issues happening around us, not just in our own country but also in the region. They deal with issues of pollution, immigration, conflict, war, politics, our society and they are all image-based. So having said that, we have photographers who use analog photography, who print on paper, and then we have photographers who take snapshots and then work on those on their tablet and just create line drawings out of them. Then there are those working with video art. The installation we have right now of Taraneh Hemami (Ed: “Hall of Reflections”) is really impressive and was previously shown at the 6th Sharjah Biennial (2003). It deals with old family photo album, pictures which she has used to trace and follow the immigration path of certain families who left Iran after the revolutions and settled in San Francisco Bay Area. So we show all kinds of artwork, but the thing that they all have in common is that they are image-based and that I tend to shy away from the artworks that I say are created with an eye to the market.
EP: And I see that they are not always shown within simple exhibitions; most of the time they are part of more complex projects.
SD: Yes, some are projects. We have one project, which is based on the image of Iran on Google Earth, which shows the map of Iran with the red dot in the center. This artist, Mahdyar Jamshidi, has gone and found that dot and created a project there, in that location, as a site-specific project. The whole thing has been documented with photographs, with a drone that hovers above, with a video. We organized a tour and launched the project on site. A book will be printed for that project and launch will be held here at the gallery. So that’s how vast we try to take this idea of image-based art.
EP: So you just not look for aesthetic objects, you are looking for artistic interventions, right?
SD: Yeah, absolutely.
EP: I’m really impressed by the beautiful building here. I would like to know more about the building and the exhibitions after that.
SD: The building was completed in 1969, so it is late 1960’s architecture. It’s a villa with four floors, but from the outside it looks like two floors. We are in the north of Tehran, just off Valiasr Street before you reach Tajrish square. Tehran is a very strange city, the entire city is on the side of a mountain, it’s just sprawling and swallowing up all its suburbs. This house itself is again on a street, which is on an incline. Walking in you only see one level, then you have to climb the stairs in the yard to reach the other parts. So it’s a very interesting house. The renovation took about a year and we had to make some changes to accommodate the gallery space and create a nice clean space for the exhibitions. Though if need be, we can use the others rooms and the bedrooms which have now been converted to the library, to my office and archive room. We have our own digital lab upstairs where we try to offer all the best standards and quality of paper, printing, scanning. So everything we do, we do on site. Yeah, so the entire house has been dedicated to the gallery space and all the activities that try to support the gallery.
EP: What about the exhibitions? Do you just yourself select artworks?
SD: I do.
EP: Or do you also work with curators?
SD: Well, yeah both. Most of the exhibitions are my own personal taste and what I would like to see being presented here and abroad. Like I said, we take part in fairs and I try to support the artists with whom I work. Also, I work with curators if they come to me with an idea that I think expands that notion of what image-based art can be, and what the potentials are.
EP: Perfect. I would like to talk about the art spaces. In Iran, in Tehran especially, we have public art spaces and private art spaces such as Ag Galerie. What is the relationship between these two spaces there?
SD: Yeah, we have the Contemporary Museum of Art in Tehran, which was founded in 1970s, it’s a beautiful building. It holds a very impressive collection of Western art and Iranian art from the Modern era. They hold exhibitions regularly. They are currently very active. Due to a lack of funds available to them, they are taking projects. Right now a project with private sponsors is taking place. Then we have other artistic centers, there is the Saba Cultural Center and Iran Cultural Center, which you can rent; even biennales are held in these spaces. They are both public spaces that are controlled by the government. You would have to go through those offices to book those spaces. Then we have the privately owned galleries. The privately owned galleries in Tehran, which number I think is close to one-hundred-seventy, are all owned and founded by private individuals. Each one has its own schedules so the exhibitions go from five days and I think we have a longest exhibitions of four weeks and the next year that will be six or eight weeks, maybe. There are several magazines that have been published in Iran, there are weekly, biweekly, monthly, quarterlies dedicated to all the arts. There are magazines that are dedicated to photography, to various mediums, to cinema and theatre. There is a nice network of programs and places and publications that you can work with.
EP: Is there any cultural policy connecting these kind of art spaces?
SD: Well, we do need to get a permit from the government to open a gallery, so not everyone can have a gallery. You either need to have had experience working in a gallery or as a curator, or you must have had your degree in a related field. You go through the different stages, they inspect your location to make sure that it meets the requirements of a gallery and you need a permit also not just from the Ministry of Cultural but also from your local police station, they inspect the site and make sure that it’s okay. So there are various different procedures and steps that you have to go through to get your permit, but it’s relatively easy to get it. Once you have a permit, for every exhibition you also have to send them files of the work that you want to show and make sure that they are approved before they can be exhibited. But once you have your permit you are pretty much free to work. Galleries do not pay taxes in Iran, so we are exempt from that, which is a big help for us.
EP: And all of them are commercial, right?
SD: As far as I know, they are all commercial and another benefit of having a gallery is that you can operate at a residential building. So all the galleries in Iran operate at residential apartments or houses, which might be very bizarre for people, because in the West or in other countries where we have art galleries usually they are in a shop with a storefront. It’s a commercial location, but here you might have to go to a residential area on the third or second floor to find an art gallery, which is a very nice way of discovering and find a location. That’s an interesting thing about the art galleries in Tehran.
EP: What is the relationship between the art spaces and the visitors, the people? How do people find the exhibition space? Is it kind of white cube where people can go and see everything?
SD: No, like I said, unless you know that there is a gallery there, by driving you might never even discover it, you might even live next door to one and never know that there is a gallery there. There is a monthly gallery guide that it is published here called “Pishnegah” and we all advertise. It is free. People can take them, they are available in all the galleries and cafes. People use that as a guide and they go through that, you can start uptown and work your way to the city center or some of them are even downtown. So that’s how people find the art program in Tehran.
EP: Let’s go back to your exhibitions, what do you do in your exhibitions? What kind of systems or policy do you have for each exhibition? For example, I see that you have a publication and you have a space for showing and displaying the artworks. So how do you explain these things that accompany the exhibitions?
SD: Well, we have the exhibitions and we haven’t had talks for all them or panel discussions or publications, but we will. Like I said, we just opened a year and half ago and we need a permit also to publish, so we applied for that and hopefully within the next couple of months we will get our publication permit. Then we will be able to publish the books that will accompany each exhibition. As far as the talks go, we had one or two not held here but at a different location, because we just have the one large space that accommodates the exhibitions and in order to hold the discussions or the talks there are space that we can rent, and speak to for using as the location for those talks. So we do have a program that I hope to expand on and so far it has been wonderful. We’ve managed to receive attention from the media, not just in Iran but also with — which was surprising because they found out about us and they took images from the site — or other newspapers and magazines who have never been in touch with me, but I do search occasionally and I find myself somewhere in some magazines. It’s very nice to see that kind of attention.
EP: What about your exhibitions outside of Iran? I see that you participated in many art fairs.
SD: I think that the art fairs are a very important part of the program we have here. Like I said, we have met difficulties with being supported financially through purchases and acquisitions, because again it is not what people would like to see. It’s not the decorative art and I find that I have managed to find a very nice list of clients who found us through the fairs. For us it’s really important to attend in the fairs not just for sales but also for museum acquisitions. Many of these curators and collectors don’t come to Iran, but they are interested in what we are doing. So when we go to the fairs we meet all of these curators from the different museums and I think it’s very important to have a presence.
EP: Fantastic. If you want to add anything else…
SD: I think that’s it. Thank you for this opportunity and I hope that through this platform we will be able to present a side of art that has been produced here in Iran and in the Middle East which does not gets a chance to be seen otherwise. So I’m very happy about this collaboration.
EP: Thank you.
English proof-reading: Emma Siemens-Adolphe
All images: courtesy Ag Galerie