Manhattan exhibition combats view of Iran as 'hostile anti-American state'

Asia Society group show from Mohammed Akfami collection shows 'great diversity' of Iran’s often unseen arts scene

Untitled from the Rapture series, 1999 © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist, Noirmontartproduction, Paris and the Mohammed Afkhami Foundation

Untitled from the Rapture series, 1999 © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist, Noirmontartproduction, Paris and the Mohammed Afkhami Foundation

Few other countries are as misunderstood as Iran. But an Iran exists beyond the headlines of authoritarian rule and theocratic Islam. It’s a country full of thriving artists — and they’re now on show in the US. 

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians — The Mohammed Akfami Collection, on view at the Asia Society in Manhattan until 8 May 2022, aims to broadening one’s idea of what Iran is, or can be, by giving a profound look at the country’s dynamic contemporary arts scene.

Of the 23 mid-career and emerging artists included in the show, all but one was born in Iran and over a third still live and work in the country. Three generations are represented, with the work touching on subjects as diverse as gender identity, politics and spirituality. The work takes multiple forms, from traditional Persian figurative painting to photography and abstract sculpture.

We Haven't Landed on Earth Yet, 2012 © Ali Banisadr, courtesy of Mohammed Afkhami Foundation

"Iran today is perceived by ordinary Americans as a hostile, anti-American state,” says the collector Mohammed Akfami.

Each piece in the exhibition comes from Akfami's extensive collection, one built from extensive periods of time spent in Iran. “The reality is the people of Iran ultimately want nothing more than friendly relations with Americans and are by far the most pro-America populace in the Middle East," he says.

In addition to showing a side of Iran not often considered in the US, the show also dispels the myth that all women in Iran are living under despotic rule at home. "I would estimate that 40 per cent of artists working in Iran right now are female, higher than elsewhere," Akfami told the BBC. "Nearly everyone I talk to in galleries is a woman. They're driving the scene in Tehran in particular. And the diversity of work is amazing."

In season four of CNN’s Parts Unknown, the host Anthony Bourdain said he was shocked by the disconnect “between what one sees and feels from the people and what one sees and hears from the government.” Diversity is a key concept for the show. As Bourdain saw first-hand, Iran doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is diversity of opinion, diversity of faith and, as viewers will see in the show, great diversity in how Iranians express themselves. Both the Asia Society and Mr. Akfami hope this show will help Americans see an Iran that exists beyond the lower third of the television screen during the evening news.

Dark Sea from the Metamorphosis series © Alireza Dayani, Mohammed Afkhami Foundation. Photograph: Mah Art Gallery (Shahnaz Khonsari)

“Our exhibition opens during a complex period when the relationship between Iran and the United States has become increasingly estranged,” says Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe, vice president for global artistic programs and director of Asia Society Museum in New York. “So it is now even more important to activate Asia Society’s interdisciplinary platform to celebrate Iranian culture and highlight the power of art to find common ground."

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Akfami Collection is on show until 8 May at Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Avenue, New York City