Ban and I took a trip to the Musée d'Art Moderne to visit the exhibit Unedited History: Iran 1960-2014. I was interested to see how different the work on show from before the Islamic Revolution and from now would be, and to learn more about a country I'd like to know more about- as well I should, seeing as my husband is from there.
There is a curious lack of information (in Ban's family, at least) about what exactly happened in Iran. From what I can discern, there was a Shah- quite a modern chap who favoured progress and modernisation of the country. There was more freedom- dance was permitted, women didn't have to wear a hijab, apparently he even had his lunch flown in on Concorde jets from London from time to time. It seemed Iran was going to prosper from oil deals, export, international relations. Then, it all changed. The people revolted, Khomeini was flown in from France (France? Wha?) and then all of a sudden the country was Islamic and things took a massive u-turn. I didn't understand- these things don't happen overnight. Why did the people chase the Shah out? How did this unknown guy who was in France suddenly become the top dog? What happened to all the young people who were in favour of Communism? Did they just shrug their shoulders and accept the new guy? Did the USA and UK arrange it all, as some people say?
There is a huge cloud of mystery surrounding how things got to be how they are now, and when we ask Ban's parents (who were the generation kicking this all off) or friends of the family, everyone is really vague and won't give us a straight answer. "It just happened." seems to be the general response. For someone who likes to know the motivation behind the things people do (as much as anyone can- sometimes, apparently, things "just happen") it's pretty frustrating. Ban, who was born to the sound of Iraqi shells falling around the basement where his family huddled together with buildings exploding around them doesn't even have a clear sense of the past. It's as if it happened, and people just want to forget the how's and the why's. Maybe this exhibit would shed some light on it...
We arrived and walked straight into the pre-Revolution section. This included a series of printed posters and old films of the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of the Arts. There were international guests from all over, invited to dance at the foot of the ruins of Persepolis. Thai dancers, ballet, African tribal dance, Balinese- the grainy films showed an amazing array of talent and beauty being celebrated at an ancient place of culture and advanced knowledge. It must have been spectacular- imagine performing at such a historically grand place! It was hard to believe that in one turn of the museum corner (a mere 15 years later) things would be so drastically different.
The next section showcased propaganda flyers and posters from the revolution. Ban pointed out that the colours and imagery were very reminiscent of Communist and Nazi propaganda- the stark red and blacks, the very graphic arrows and looming, pointing figures. There was a frustrating lack of information about the actual revolution though. I wanted to know a little more about the background- how a nation jumped from exotic Festivals of the Arts to completely shunning dancing, music, clapping, anything Western. I understand that an exhibit is not a history lesson and is not required to spoon feed me historical details, but a little background on why the people were revolting would have helped me to understand better the messages shouting from the posters and put it all in context.
From there it quickly became the Iran-Iraq war section- the very war into which Ban was born. Over 1 million Iranian people were killed; Banoo himself remembers being little and having to evacuate to the North to find safety. The propaganda posters in this section were increasingly graphic, with many showing dead children, women clutching dead babies, and other horrific imagery. It was a dirty war, chemical warfare was employed, and after 8 years of intense fighting...nothing happened. Iraq tried to invade Iran, Iran defended itself. The two countries tried to rebuild and move on, but in the series of photographs shown at the exhibit, to this day there are rubbled buildings, bullet hole-riddled homes, and the leftovers of war in many places. Many sons, fathers, and brothers were killed.
The exhibit included, and this was my favourite part, an installation by Chohreh Feyzdjou. An entire room was filled with rolled-up canvases, old crates, shelves of jars with blackened contents, boxes of small clumps of black matter, old drawings and artwork, rolled-up printed books- all coated in dark, smoky pigment. It smelled like old and decay, and the whole space felt sad, even dead. Again, there was a frustrating lack of information on the piece, apart from listing the contents, so after some googling, I learnt that she was born in Iran in 1955 and this installation was her life's work- practically everything she has ever done- all coated and rubbed with black.
Feyzdjou was born into a Jewish family, but her father changed their name from Cohen to the more-Persian Feyzdjou to fit in better. When she moved to Paris to continue her work as an artist, she was told to change her name back, since Feyzdjou was unpronounceable, and she'd "fit in better". I think this theme of transient identity is a common one amongst many Iranian artists- and this installation felt, even though her name was meticulously labeled on every item, like somehow every work she ever did had this black shadow of doubt over it. Whether it was from where she was from, or how she felt her identity was something to be veiled, who knows. It was the only part of the exhibit that really drew me in.
As the exhibit progressed, the work became more modern and younger artists' and photographers' work was shown. I especially liked a series of modern Iranian families photographed simply with white backdrops, and wanted to see more of that. I think, especially due to the media's portrayal of Iran as the "Axis of Evil" and other common misconceptions popularised by ignorance, the people in Iran get clumped in with the government as something to be feared, hell-bent on destroying the things Westerners cherish. My impression is that the people of Iran generally just want the freedom to follow their hearts, whatever that entails. There is a fantastic photo blog called Life Goes on in Tehran, which shows people in the city going about their quite normal lives. Though the site hasn't been updated since 2010, the Facebook page is still active. People there order pizzas, take their Porsches to the car wash and eat melon with their grannies on a Sunday afternoon, just like the rest of us. (Well, apart from the Porsche part.)
The exhibit was a nice way to spend an afternoon, but it still leaves many questions unanswered. Maybe they are questions that don't have clear, logical responses- who knows. The history of many nations is complex, winding, un-explainable. I do know that when I finally get to visit Iran with Banoo, I will take photos of everything and anything, I will eat every food that is offered, I will soak up the sights and smells and sounds and really experience life in Iran. Maybe that's the only way to really know anything about any country, after all.
The exhibit runs until August 24 at the MAM.