Farah Diba, the wife of the last Shah, was an avid collector of modern art. Just two years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution she opened the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) - one of the first museums solely dedicated to modern art and the largest collection outside of Europe and North America. It includes numerous, mostly unknown, Iranian artists but also world famous Western painters, such as Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Magritte. The museum also features a large pop-art collection, Pablo Picasso’s “The Painter and his Model” and one of the most valuable Jackson Pollock paintings, “Mural on a Red Indian Ground”. Despite having the most comprehensive collection of Middle Eastern and Western art in Asia, the pieces of art remain locked up in the basement and are rarely shown to the public.
Of course, in the Islamic Republic of Iran modern art is highly political. The hardliners amongst the regime see the collection as un-Islamic, promoting Western culture and displaying pornographic as well as homosexual content. Nevertheless, all paintings - with the exception of a portrait of Farah Diba by Warhol and a Willem de Kooning painting that was swapped for a rare ancient Persian poetry book - have been safely guarded and survived the revolution and the hardliners. Needless to say, the Islamic government would also be in an awkward position if it were to trade with pornographic and un-Islamic art.
Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cultural, intellectual and social freedoms were severely restricted, including forced closures of cafés and art spaces as well as limiting artistic freedoms of museums. The TMoCA was no exception. Before Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 the museum would regularly display pieces of their Western collection in special exhibitions, even staging a dedicated exhibition of the entire collection shortly before the controversial president assumed office. The 8 year long presidency of the hardliner left Iran culturally and economically isolated.
With the election of the moderate president, Hassan Rohani, in 2013 and the lifting of the UN sanction in January 2016, things changed dramatically. An exhibition abroad seemed increasingly likely and the TMoCA looked to Western museums for partners. Eventually the National Gallery in Berlin and the MAXXI in Rome joined forces to show to the public 31 Iranian and 30 Western paintings from the permanent collection in December 2016. While loaning important works to museums abroad is usually not a big issue and is routinely done by all big institutions, this exhibition would have been exceptionally symbolic. Although several of the works have been on loan to museums abroad, it would have been the first time an extensive collection of the most important works would have left the country.
Other cultural exchanges have already taken place between institutions in Europe and Iran, such as the Nationaltheater Mannheim performing “The House of Bernarda Alba” at the Fajr Theatre Festival in Tehran in January 2014 and Berlin’s Schaubühne performing “Hamlet” at the same festival 2 years later. Both plays were viewed by thousands of people on several nights. Nicole Heesters even won the “The best actress” prize for her performance in “The House of Bernarda Alba”. Despite all the efforts and the positive experiences in the past, the talks on the exhibition between Berlin, Rome and Tehran were suspended at the end of the year. So what went wrong this time?
There are several, some competing, explanations on what exactly went wrong. The Iranian presidential elections in May 2017, the death of ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the election of Donald Trump have certainly not made things easy. Rohani’s decision to postpone signing the export approval forms has been interpreted as a pragmatic sign. Even though it is likely that he will win the elections, he doesn’t want to give his hardline critics the impression that he is too pro-Western or promoting un-Islamic values. The recent death of Rafsanjani, who was seen as a balancing force between the more moderate forces and the hardliners, is also feared to shift the power to the latter. And a final blow to the project followed when the Iranian culture minister, who had backed the exhibition, was ousted from office (even though the new minister is also in favour). In other words, this wasn’t about some art exhibition anymore but about domestic politics.
And of course Trump mocking the lifting of the UN sanctions as “one of the worst deals ever” and proclaiming it his “No. 1 priority to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” doesn’t make things easier. Some might fear that the Trump administration will try to seize the valuable paintings to make the deal sweeter. While this is somewhat unlikely, some of the paintings actually belonged to the family of the former Shah and decedents could prevent them from returning back to Iran. Further, some of the paintings may have also belonged to Jewish collectors who were forced to sell them under the Nazis, which could also cause legal battles (although this is also pretty unlikely). To counter Iranian fears, the federal government took over the guarantee of the safe return of the collection. Normally this would have been the responsibility of the state of Berlin or the museum.
However, there weren’t only internal struggles on the Iranian side. In Germany, Merkel’s chancellery and the foreign office had differed quite significantly in their approach. Monika Grütters, the commissioner for culture and media, initially favoured the idea of supporting an exhibition in Tehran for Iranians to admire their vast collection of modern art. The matter was further complicated when TMoCA’s director, Majid Mollanoroozi, took part in a Holocaust cartoon competition, which prompted outrage in Berlin and Rome. The chancellery was advocating to cancel the entire exhibition. Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier intervened and the project was transferred from the chancellery to his ministry on the condition that Mollanoroozi would not be responsible for the exhibition. However, with Rohani’s refusal to sign the export approval forms it looks increasingly unlikely that the exhibition will happen in 2017. Nevertheless the German foreign office stressed that it still believes in the idea.
Why question the beauty of the Islamic veil? (Photo: KNE
With the upcoming elections in Iran and the uncertainty surrounding the Trump presidency, the time window for such a monumental exhibition seems to have closed. While there are many more cultural exchanges between Europe and Iran, this would have been the most symbolic for all parties involved.
Iran is under much pressure to show it’s population that reforms and the opening to the West actually have tangible effects. The boom in oil export has surely resulted in a respectable GDP growth, yet unemployment has actually increased by nearly 2% in the first half of 2016 and underemployment remains high. General unemployment stands at 12.2% and youth unemployment at 25.2%. Remaining sanctions are still putting shackles on job-creators, such as the petrochemical and automotive industries, and are making it unnecessary hard for European businesses to transfer capital to Iran. Corruption and inefficiencies remain rife. The revolutionary guard controls around a quarter of the economy. And Iranian banks hold an unnerving high amount of bad debt, forcing them to charge high interest rates, which of course is bad news for small businesses. The country is more diversified than many other oil-rich countries, but many of the industries have failed to create sufficient jobs for the young country (in 2010 the median age was 27; even though the fertility rate is now only 1.6, opposed to 6.4 in 1970). If the government fails to provide the jobs it promised, hardliners might take it as an opportunity to show that cooperating with the West is the wrong path for Iran.
And with Trump’s threats of tearing up the nuclear deal lingering in the back of everyones mind, foreign companies are not very likely to invest in Iran. Of course, Trump can’t just unilaterally pull out of a “deal” made by 6 countries and enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution. Nevertheless, it only took three days for him to sign an executive order (or at least rumours thereof) to prevent Iranians from obtaining visas to visit the USA and to possibly also restrict access to the country for Iranian visa holders. Trump’s hawkish rhetoric (and possible actions) will frustrate Iranian moderates and only further the cause of hardliners who can showcase Trump as the perfect example of the “moral shortcomings” of the United States. Despite this the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will most likely continue to back the deal, especially in light of the fate of countries that experienced the Arab Spring.
In such uncertain times cultural exchanges are extremely crucial, even with difficult partners. The German foreign office was right to continue the talks with Iran, despite the Iranian side crossing a red line. It now has to keep the possibilities of further talks and cooperation open. It is especially crucial for Iranian moderates, intellectuals and artists in the long-run that the country reintegrates itself into the global economy and political structures. While the speed of this process might be frustrating, the West should continue to engage with Iran.