Perception: Iranian art at Summerhall

No fake smiles.

Western sanctions on Iran have made artists’ materials hard to come by while the closure of embassies make travel visas for countries like Britain a running nightmare, but Tehran’s art market is booming, apparently, with fortnightly shows in about 70 private galleries in the city.

There’s a remarkable taste of this scene from painting to photography and video in the Perception exhibition of close to 40 Iranian artists at Summerhall.

Iran’s modern schools of photography and visual art date back to the period when Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar, King of Persia from 1848 to 1896, hired Western photographers to chronicle his court. Like Prince Albert he became a royal photography buff and collector and was an amateur artist. One of the country’s leading contemporary artists is Parviz Tanavoli with a major show just opening in Boston.

The exhibition is part of the Edinburgh Iranian Festival and runs until just February 16th; a sadly short run given the effort of choosing the works and getting them here; don’t waste time.

An immediate stand-out in an upstairs room is a metaled blowtorch, by Amin Roshan. This whimsical piece is quietly steeped in history, like many other works – it pays to read the captions.

Edinburgh Iranian Festival Perception Summerhall

Lion and the Bull on Blowtorch, Amin Roshan

Roshan is a young artist from Masjed Soleiman, close to the heartland of the oil industry in the south of Iran. His work relates to the British sway over its history, most notably through the 1953 coup d’etat, by all accounts engineered by the US and Britain to topple Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq after he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian oil industry.

The blowtorch, and a companion steel helmet, titled ‘Protect me from what I want’ and shaped like something from a medieval armoury, are genuine artefacts from the British period. Roshan sent them to the the country’s famous copper craftsmen in Estafan, to have these Western industrial objects embellished with traditional Persian imagery.

Both are priced at $3,500; the helmet has already sold through the Janet Rady Fine Art gallery in London, which represents him in the UK.

The Edinburgh Iranian Festival, with British Council backing in just its third outing, got 250 responses to its call for works from Iranian artists, or others inspired by Iran. About 40 were chosen by a panel including Janet Rady, a leading London dealer in Middle Eastern art, and three Iranian judges: Morteza Nematollahi, a sculptor, and Gohar Dashti, a photographer, in Iran, and Helia Darabi , a lecturer at the University of Art in Tehran.

I’ve never been to Iran and unlikely ever to visit as a journalist but for anyone similarly ignorant but interested in Iran, the show is a breath of artistic fresh air in February. Some artists clearly have international exposure and some are finds.

Don’t miss the show’s three further rooms in the Summerhall basement. Included there are a a series of photographs, Paralell Streams, by Farzin Foroutan, a graduate of the School of Fine Art in Mashhad.

  • Farzin Foroutan Perception Summerhall Edinburgh Iranian Festival
    Farzin Foroutan

These oddly appealing, surreal domestic scenes focus “on the relationship between men and women, and the image that is perceived in society about how they should be and act like”, priced at $150 each.

The winner of the jury prize was the artist Mansooreh Peyrovi, with three works on fabric showing the Veresk Bridge, using a technique that appeared to combine ink drawing with a marbling effect from blotted paint.

Veresk Bridge Mansooreh Peyrovi at Perception Summerhall Edinburgh Iranian Festival

Veresk Bridge by Mansooreh Peyrovi

Again, history is on show: the bridge was built by the Germans, but Iran refused to destroy it as requested in the war, to hobble Russian supply lines. The works are “the artists perception of the events in World War II where the bridge was a route for the Russians and helped secure victories”.

My own choice for winner might have been the photographs in the basement by Amin Armirian, born in Estefan, whose first degree was a graduate diploma in mathematics and physics, before he studied cinema and photography. It’s not uncommon apparently for students to do the right thing by their family in their first degree and then find what they want to do.


This is my best effort to reproduce it through bad reflections off the glass. He shows three photographs, Abbatoir 1&2 and Analogy, quirky, and humorous: boys on wooden ladders over Tehran, children in pyjamas in gasmasks, sheep in formation chasing an artist off a side street.

‘The artist uses symbols of religion, life, and war in set pieces to give a perspective in his thoughts on those ideas and ideals that people try to live up to and fight and kill for,” the caption says. The photographs were printed in Edinburgh and no price was available.

Perception’s Iranian artists apparently paid for the shipment of their own work. Sweetly, if confusingly, some are priced in dollars and others in toumans, a common but no longer official currency in Iran; a touman is worth 10 rials, officially the world’s least valued current unit, currently tracking at 27,590 to the dollar. This work was nominally priced at 250,000 toumans; the conversion may be complicated.

You can find some better images of the work on the Iranian festival’s Facebook page but one favourite work that also appeared frankly good value for money the larger of two untitled works by Roozbeh Gezerseh.

Perception Edinburgh Iranian Festival Summerhall

Untitled by Roozebeh Gezerseh

The colours are washed out in my image but priced at only $1,200, it’s an impressive piece of work by an artist who has not been seen outside Iran.

Here’s a better image of both her untitled works in the show courtesy of the festival.


The caption reads: “The artist presents paintings of families that would normally be seen in family photograph albums. There are no fake smiles and positions that would be seen in advertisements.”

It’s an account of an interior life infused with sadness that reaches into several works in the show. It echoes in the ‘hand prints’ by Ali Ebrahim Nikoo, from Tehran and a member of the Visual Arts Society of Illustrators.

“An engraving is not an effect,” the artist records. ” It registers a memorable moment like a look or a smile or sadness. We see the people within the images and their smiles or sadness are like moments of smiles or sadness for us, like a memory engraved.”

Hand print by Ali Ebrahim Nikoo

Hand print by Ali Ebrahim Nikoo

A few years ago conservatives in Iran pushed director Ali Reza Sami-Azar out of his job at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran; but as part of its busy scene, he now stages annual auctions where sales run into millions of dollars. The city’s leading galleries stage mixed shows of artists every couple of weeks. About 70 percent of art students in Iran are women; and in a place where personal blogging is fraught with possible risks, and social media and other sites blocked, art is still a potent vehicle for self-expression.

The festival worked hard to push every positive aspect of Iran but one artist showing the city had lost one brother to the Shah’s regime and another tortured to death under his successors, a reminder of its much darker history and the cost of modern protest. Artists in Iran have to be careful of official censure and avoid nudity at least in their front rooms. That being said they have never historically faced restrictions on figurative work.

“There are huge numbers of galleries because the market in Iran for Iranian art is very, very strong,” said Daley, who has been visiting the country for 40 years. “There’s a lot of money circulating internally in Iran, which is difficult to get out. It’s become a status to acquire art, so the art market in Iran is absolutely bombing.”
There are many artists in Iran both trained and self-taught partly, it is said, because art is one safer outlet for freedom of expression, albeit in more subtle forms. For those who can’t blog safely, for whom Facebooks is banned, as are many websites, art is a way of silent speaking.

There is much to see in this show – like the sophisticated short video works Cenapse 1&2 by Ramin Rahimi, an iranian painter and filmmaker, who has shown round the world and Arash Mobarrez a composer and sound designer. In one transparent images of two young people hang ethereally in a misty mud street, skyscrapers (of Tehran?) looming behind.

One a visually lighter note, at least, is Shima Esfandiari’s Garden 11, which has shown in the Dubai art fair, won drawing prizes and been short listed for others

‘The situation of humanity, in current era, has been shown with suspended figures, as they cut and separated from the centre if the Persian carpet (Persian culturrr) and its beauties. They are dreaming about its great past.”

Perception Summerhall Edinburgh Iranian Festival

The Edinburgh Iranian Festival is an young addition to the Edinburgh festival calendar but it has stepped up this February with a remarkable line-up of film, fashion and visual art. Long may it continue.

To close, ‘Blowback’, three photographs by Pezhman Zahed who has studied in the UK and now Germany and has featured in ‘Elephant’ magazine.

Blowback looks back at the financial records of the Anglo-Iranian oil company prior to the nationalisation of the oil industry in 1949, 1943, and 1919, before theoverthrow of the Iranian government through Operation Ajax in 1954.

The photographs demonstrate “excited fluids under the effect of sound waves with frequencies generated by the company’s net profits royalties to Iran and British taxes”. His practise ghas previously involved “examining the possibility of transforming non-visual data (such as economic figurrs) into visual forms”.

I’d love to see him take on the Greek crisis.

  • Pezhman Zahed Perception Iran Edinburgh
    Pezhman Zahed
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