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How Sami-Azar, head of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art, has been the mediator that Iranian artists yearned for

With the view that creative outlet precedes change, Sami-Azar has begun to thaw segregationist policies that bar Iranian artists from international acclaim

Shirin Neshat

With the Islamic revolution (1979) and the political isolation that followed, Iran fell into a deep cultural crisis. Artists were suddenly faced with a dictatorship that essentially denied artistic freedom of expression, imposed severe Islamic codes and made Western culture taboo. As the borders closed and new boundaries were established by the government, artists had no choice but to look inward to their imagination, to transform this isolation into an artistic resolution. Consequently, we have seen an outpouring of artistic production in literature, film, theatre, visual arts and music. We find bold attempts by artists who have not only challenged the authority, but have pioneered an authentically Iranian, non-Western aesthetic; which, while remaining mindful of the crippling social, political and religious realities of their country, aims at transcending national boundaries, to become universally significant.

What was lacking however within this cultural momentum, has been an institution that could stand between the artist and the authority. Lack of opportunities and governmental pressure had made many artists vulnerable and invisible. The re-emergence of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran which had its own glorious history during the Shah’s regime, as the major cultural centre, under the direction of the celebrated Sami Azar (who also serves as the chief of Ershad, the culture ministry), perfectly filled this void. Faced with endless obstacles as he navigated between the public and the government, Dr Azar has been without a doubt the most critical figure in nurturing this vital artistic atmosphere. He has relentlessly pressed ahead with the conviction that culture and freedom of expression are tools for social reform, and perhaps most importantly, ways to reclaim a national “pride” that Iranians seem to have lost to the world, ever since the revolution.

Dr Azar slowly opened the borders for Iranian artists to travel and experience the world, and to expose their work to an international audience and he took immense risks by organising major modern and contemporary exhibitions of Western art in Tehran. This step became a major breakthrough and received tremendous response from the Iranian public. Today the museum has cultivated an enormously large constituency, particularly the young, who form the largest number of the population.

What remains impressive is that, while preoccupied by internal cultural affairs in Iran, Dr Azar did not neglect the large Iranian artistic community in the diaspora. The risks were innumerable in bringing back such artists to Iran, not only in respect to their personal political history, but often in relation to the problematic nature of the subject of their art. However, Dr Azar welcomed them back. I remember speaking with Mr Zenderoodi, a distinguished Iranian artist living in Paris, who said he was shocked by the public’s reception, and the heroic treatment of his art, as busloads of visitors arrived from all over the country for the opening of his exhibition.

Over the years, Dr Azar, whom to this date I have never met, has made numerous efforts to pave the way to bring me and my “controversial” art back home. He finally succeeded in 2003 and 2004. In both cases, I doubted that the exhibition of my work could go ahead without obstruction by the government or the press, but to my surprise there was no negative reaction.

It is easy to conclude that Dr Azar has been more than just a cultural agent, for many of us he has been a mediator between the conservative government and the people of Iran, in particular artists who cannot—and will not—negotiate with any dictatorship. The possible departure of Dr Azar would mean a serious loss of hope for an artistic community that believes whole-heartedly that culture can facilitate change.

The writer is an Iranian artist living in New York

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Mediator of hope'