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June 27, 2012 5:34 pm
Compared with the money spraying around western auction rooms lately – the £24m ($37m) Miro, the $87m Rothko, the $120m Munch, all artist records – last Friday’s contemporary art auction in Tehran was a lightweight. It fetched only 21.5bn rials – $1.7m based on the official exchange rate. Yet it too marked a moment: as the first ever contemporary art auction in Iran, it was a symbol of the burgeoning self-confidence of the country’s art scene.
Not that the collectors and gallery owners gathered in the high-ceilinged dining hall of the Hotel Azadi were bullish beforehand. Some worried that the country’s economic hardships and the international furore over its nuclear programme might deter potential bidders. Yet in the event all 73 lots were sold, hitting the top end of the pre-sale estimate of $1.2m-$1.7m; the polite exchanges of “mobarak bashe” – congratulations – over tea, coffee and sweets afterwards were sincerely felt.
So was the reaction of Alireza Samiazar, the organiser of Tehran Auction, as the event was baldly titled. “Thank you for making this a glorious evening,” he told the assembled bidders afterwards. The reform-minded former head of the Museum of Contemporary Art, now a senior editor of the Persian quarterly Art Tomorrow, hopes to hold the event annually.
Iran has long had a vigorous contemporary art scene. But international recognition has grown in recent years, in parallel with the interest in Middle Eastern art more generally, as collectors hope for a repeat of the bonanza in Chinese art. Regional fairs, notably in Dubai and Istanbul, have played a part too. A breakthrough came in 2008, when a work by the sculptor Parviz Tanavoli – part of his “heech” (nothingness) series – fetched $2.8m at Christie’s in Dubai. This remains an auction record for any Middle Eastern artist.
The clientele on Friday appeared mostly to be local, with only one foreign gallery owner, from Dubai. Half-a-dozen landlines connected expatriates and other overseas bidders. A special guest was Michael Jeha, Christie’s managing director and head of sales in the Middle East, who said he admired the auction’s “excellent organisation”.
The works in Tehran Auction were not only by established artists such as Tanavoli, Hossein Zenderoudi, Aydin Aghdashloo and Mohammad Ehsaei. Emerging talents – Mehrdad Mohebali, Hamed Rashtian, Pouya Arianpour, Shahriar Ahmadi, Adel Younesi, Mojtaba Tajik – were equally represented. A common theme was hard to discern but many pieces referenced the country’s complex sub-cultures and social contradictions, some drawing on traditional forms such as the miniature to express 21st-century anxieties. A sense of frustration with the status quo in areas such as the role of women and matters of personal identity was apparent too, though there were no ostensible political messages, probably to avoid censorship.
Tehran Auction – organised and funded, Mr Samiazar says, by himself and some colleagues – needed government permission to take place, but that is standard procedure for any cultural event in Iran. In fact, the country’s visual art is less subject to state-imposed censorship – other than a strict ban on nudes – than media such as cinema, the authorities apparently taking the view that its obliqueness and relatively narrow audience make it less dangerous. Tehran’s two dozen or so private galleries have regular openings without facing any major restrictions from the government and send work to overseas exhibitions and auctions.
The predominantly liberal art community, however, has been feeling wary since the bitterly disputed 2009 presidential election. Many backed the reformist Mir-Hossein Moussavi – who is also a painter – for the presidency; he is now under house arrest, despite, his supporters say, having won by a landslide. The post-election unrest, in which tens of demonstrators were killed, has certainly had an impact on art works. Hassan Razghandi, a 28-year-old sculptor whose latest crystal pieces question the concept of “enemy”, says efforts to avoid censorship and political suppression have made Iran’s visual art more sophisticated and creative.
The top lot on Friday, sold by a private collector, was an untitled 1967 abstract painting by the poet and artist Sohrab Sepehri (1928-80). It fetched 1.9bn rials ($155,000), just above the low pre-sale estimate, in thin bidding. Other, more affordable, works were more hotly contested. A photograph of a cow, part of film director and photographer by Abbas Kiarostami’s “Snow White” series, made more than $29,000, squarely in the middle of its estimate. Tanavoli’s 2009 “The Wall and Three Heeches” did better, punching through its upper estimate of just over $65,000 to achieve more than $94,000.
Kourosh Shishegaran, whose painting “Figure”, an image of a person apparently entangled in stripes, sold for $57,000, says the auction is an indication of an artistic scene that is on an upward trajectory. “Iranian artists are approaching a golden period,” he said.
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