In Iran, artist ‘survivors’ navigate obstacles, foreign and domestic

Inside her downtown studio, Iranian artist Rene Saheb is surrounded by the tools of her craft: a multicolored riot of art supplies, and a number of large, unfinished canvases upon which she explores her psyche – and the state of Iran’s.

The paintings often intricately explore modern interpretations of ancient Persian fables, on themes ranging from telling lies and thievery to flattery and the human spirit. One painting, still unfinished after years of work, reflects how the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s continues to effect everyday lives of Iranians, from the ubiquitous presence of “martyrs” to daily vocabulary.

Iran’s legions of creative artists have served as a window into the state of the country’s deeply simmering cultural scene since long before the 1979 Islamic revolution. They often labored in the dark those first two decades, in low-profile places with tiny audiences of friends, until a renaissance with the 1997 election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

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The genie was out of the bottle, and despite new restrictions imposed during the 8-year tenure of archconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the number of art galleries flourished, along with the global profile of Iran sculptors, painters, and filmmakers.

Wearing denim overalls and a flowery headscarf, Ms. Saheb, who at 31 has been a professional artist for a decade and is a member of Iran’s Institute for Promotion of Contemporary Visual Art, speaks passionately about her art.

Ironically, her on-going exploration of the Islamic Republic’s most revered narratives – the “sacred defense” war against Iraq, and the depth of Shiite belief for many Iranians – was triggered in 2012 by depression after her US visa application was rejected, despite being accepted at a prestigious New York art school.

“I have to continue living in my country and discover who I really am,” Saheb recalls thinking. She began noticing posters of Iran’s martyrs, felt for the hundreds of thousands who died, and saw how black flags were flown during the Shiite mourning month of Muharram.


Like many of their fellow citizens, Iran’s artists are grappling with renewed US sanctions, facing shortages of art supplies, cash, and hope. In response Saheb has chosen a purist path.

“I don’t care about sanctions because under these pressures, people will find a different way,” says Saheb, who muses about, for example, using papier-mâché instead of bronze in sculptures.

“A real artist can find an artistic way,” she says.

Iran is brimming with art. Murals decorate the sides of buildings with vast images from modernist works to, of course, martyrs. Parks and intersections are laden with sculptures, many funded by municipalities.

The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art still has a large pre-revolution collection of Western works, from Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock to Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. It is a legacy that exemplifies how art has always stirred this nation, despite its tumultuous politics.

“We are masters of survival,” says Nazila Noebashari, owner of Aaran Art Gallery in Tehran, who knows hundreds of Iranian artists. When President Trump first announced the United States would withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions, she was inundated with unhappy, anxious calls.

But as weeks went by, the tone became defiant.

“Artists kept coming and said, ‘You know what? This is nothing new. We are here. We are artists. We have no other option but to work,” says Ms. Noebashari.

There will be changes, she says. Long gone are the days of the Iran-Iraq War, when no Iranian galleries were open, and artists had to quietly show their work in their garages or teach inside their houses.

For the past two decades, Iranian artists have instead enjoyed good raw materials, from canvas to paints to bronze, and a surge of spaces that number 50 active galleries in Tehran alone.


Iran’s artists have done relatively well since the election of centrist President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. The spread of gentrification, cafes, and even newly established theater houses in central Tehran has “accelerated” under Mr. Rouhani, whose officials have been “much gentler toward arts and culture,” Noebashari says.

“We say there are always wonderful currents running in the depths in Iran, and whenever we get the chance – whenever there is security and safety – then we flourish, and this is what we have been doing for many, many centuries,” she says.

Still, Iran’s art scene is never far from politics. And as Rouhani has not been able to fulfill promises of economic prosperity and greater social freedoms, he has been targeted by artists, too.

Actor and film director Reza Tavakkoli, for example, said last year that during Rouhani’s first term “no attention was paid to culture, art, and artists,” and their living conditions, especially in cinema, “only got worse day by day” and were sometimes akin to “absolute poverty.”

This spring, months after protests rocked Iran, several artists declined Rouhani’s offer to attend a fast-breaking iftar dinner during the holy month of Ramadan, to protest the stark conditions for common Iranians.

“At a time when most of our people live in hardship and their food tables are empty, I cannot swallow this Iftari [dinner],” the actress Parastou Golestani wrote on her Instagram account.

But despite the uncertain politics and specter of sanctions – or perhaps because of them – art is advancing in Iran.


Saheb continues to probe the layered meaning of Persian proverbs, using hens, foxes, and even sheep to show the truth of human frailty, as well as goodness. And though she doesn’t remember the war, her mother was pregnant with her during the last year of fighting, when Iraqi bombs were falling on the capital.

Her unfinished painting shows buildings on fire, and martyrs, framed by a cat and a helmet, with layers of others images such as flutes that evoke a line of Iran’s war poetry: “Listen to the flute, it tells the story of separation.”

In one installation, upon a replica anti-tank mine, Saheb attached a metal toy soldier that normally lies on its belly. Upright, it holds its gun above its head, and with knee bent it looks like a ballet dancer.

She turned it into a simple music box to evoke a childhood memory, and gets goosebumps when she watches it. It is called Khorramshahr, or City of Happiness, after an Iranian city where the fighting was so intense it was nicknamed Khuninshahr, or City of Blood.

“He’s not fighting, it’s not war – it’s dancing,” she says.

“All the concepts are the mirror of my mind, and all the things I faced in my life. For me, art is like therapy, scanning all my life and clearing it up, to start anew and find myself.”

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