After years of sanctions and political upheaval, the pandemic is a new hurdle for the fragile Iranian art scene

Pejman Foundation in Tehran opened a museum at the start of this year only for it to close soon after as coronavirus struck

Argo Factory in Tehran Image courtesy of Pejman Foundation

Argo Factory in Tehran Image courtesy of Pejman Foundation

In January, the Iranian non-profit arts organisation Pejman Foundation opened Argo Factory, a museum dedicated to contemporary art located in the bustling neighbourhood of Ferdowsi, Tehran. In simple terms, the opening felt exhilarating. Argo Factory is a project that withstood the tumult of its place; from the optimism of the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran and its immediate uplift to the domestic economy, to the eventual dismantling of the deal, reimposition of sanctions, and ceaseless geopolitical instability. The museum is a home for the arts that engages an ecosystem of artists, architects, contractors, curators, writers, institutions and international collaborators.

Then, much like a sudden storm, the torrent of Covid-19 hit. As swiftly as Argo Factory opened, it closed.

Now it is mid-May and here in Iran we are all at home except for frontline workers in key sectors. In the arts, the impact of Covid-19 has felt relentless, closing down not only Argo Factory but an entire ecosystem of creativity, from individual practices to well-established public institutions. Yet, art—as an element of society—is experiencing a type of renaissance. What is and isn’t art seems always up for debate but, at this moment in our lives, the necessity of art has never been more certain.

Exterior view of Argo Factory Image courtesy of Pejman Foundation

Pejman Foundation was built on—and to a larger degree, sustained by—the notion that the arts are necessary. Nestled in Tehran and buoyed by global ambitions, the foundation’s aim has always been to lend support, facilitate dialogue and initiate projects in service of the arts. In a place where the status of art can be nebulous—at times a proud cultural export and at others, a point of contention with the state—art is not nearly as underground as many outside Iran may believe. In many conversations, weekend plans always seemed peppered with stops at galleries and openings. It was a given to know who was showing and where, and why it was worth seeing. I remember thinking to myself, "Have I ever been in a city as alive as Tehran?”

The beauty of art is that it is never static. Rather, it is an ongoing conversation and a confrontation of ideas. Art can also be a great measure of life, distilling a sense of time, place, and significance. In this spirit, we inaugurated Argo Factory with a solo exhibition by the Iranian artist Nazgol Ansarinia that was organised by the Los Angeles-based curator Aram Moshayedi. The Room Becomes a Street (10 January-10 April 2020) was a fierce examination of Tehran’s changing landscape, its near-constant environmental demolition and renewal, and the impact on the exterior and interior lives of the populations within.

Installation view of the show Nazgol Ansarinia: The Room Becomes a Street at Argo Factory earlier this year Image courtesy of Pejman Foundation

Covid-19 is without a doubt a colossal interruption. While the necessity of art could be argued as a naively romantic idea, this global pandemic underscores a more practical reality. The economic infrastructure of the arts involves workers across disciplines and industries, with jobs and livelihoods on the line. And yet emerging from this pandemic-induced pause is the art that people turn to. For those privileged enough to shelter safely at home, we bide our time with movies, music and books. There are stories that move us and bind us even in our distance. Art as a response, reaction, and perhaps even a reflex.

In a sense, Argo Factory closing so soon after it opened is a telling measure of history and human life. In oil-based economies increasingly at the mercy of market volatility and the obvious limits of non-renewable resources, the arts emerge as a culturally-defining force. Argo Factory now stands as a significant structural element in Iranian contemporary art. As a response to the shutdown, the museum has established alternative artistic platforms such as The Room, an online space dedicated to video art.

The pandemic will rage on, restrictions on movement will continue, and lethargy might set in. Yet in the voices of the founder Hamidreza Pejman and the director Shakiba Abdollahian remains a clear, and careful, note of optimism. Argo Factory is a measure of Iran’s ceaseless creativity, both now and well into the future.

Installation view of the show Nazgol Ansarinia: The Room Becomes a Street at Argo Factory earlier this year Image courtesy of Hamid Eskandari and Shima Misaeidi

I can’t help but ask: Why is this—art—necessary? What we’ve built and what is to come is possible only with the people who stretch the world over; those who lent us their time, efforts and thoughts to help us build this dream from the ground up, and continue to do so. I am reminded that at its heart, Argo Factory is about people. The reasons for why we gather feel entirely, unmistakably necessary. One of those reasons is art. I can’t wait for Argo Factory’s doors to open again.