Reality Check

Myriam Ben Salah on Neïl Beloufa at Pejman Foundation in Tehran

Left: Artist Neïl Beloufa and Mehdi Moujane. Right: Collector Hamidreza Pejman and artist Mamali Shafahi.

“I DON’T THINK I’M GOING,” I told a friend the day I was supposed to fly to Tehran. The White House had just released a draft of the executive order banning entry to the United States for nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Iran. The order wasn’t final yet, so on top of the profound despair over global politics, there was a certain confusion about concrete travel processes, especially for holders of passports from other majority-Muslim countries—including yours truly.

“If you don’t go to Tehran you’ll regret it,” said my friend. “And eating kebab in Westwood won’t make up for it. Believe me, if they don’t want to let you in, you wouldn’t want to get in anyway.”

I took the advice (and a Xanax), and there I was a few hours later, wearing a headscarf at the immigration booth of Imam Khomeini International Airport. “Can you put the visa on a separate sheet?” I tried. “What are you afraid of?” asked the agent. “You’re not on ‘the list’ anyway. Welcome to Iran!”

Left: Curators Hicham Khalidi and Martha Kirszenbaum and Mamali Shafahi. Right: Curator Azar Mahmoudian.

How ironic that the occasion for my visit was a project by French-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa, a master in deconstructing geopolitical representations and global systems of control. Among other works he was installing when I arrived was the trailer of a movie shot in Iran in 2016. Conceived as a reality TV show, it features a group of young Iranians speaking in Farsi (about food, relationships, and how to eliminate one another) with an overlapping English voice-over that sounded half Big Brother, half Barack Obama. This mesmerizing oddity was titled Restored Communication. “As you can see, the world changed since I chose the title,” said Beloufa, typically impassive.

Beloufa was offered the inaugural exhibition in an industrial building in downtown Tehran. The space, a onetime brewery B.K. (Before Khomeini) called Argo Factory—after the beer that was produced there, not Ben Affleck’s Hollywood blockbuster—is the new headquarters of Pejman Foundation, an exhibition and residency program founded by the young and ambitious collector Hamid Reza Pejman. “Collecting was not enough,” he told me. “And putting works into a building is not enough either. Here students and young artists can’t travel easily. I want them to see something else. I want them to interact with other works and other practices.”

One of the conditions of Beloufa’s project was that he spend time in Iran and work with an Iranian crew of actors, technicians, artists, and installers. The exhibition was a success: A mix of video installations and CCTV cameras interacting with the artist’s signature wire sculptures covering the building’s unfinished facade, the whole enterprise looked like a UFO—especially in the context of an Iranian art scene still largely dominated by painting.

Left: Artist Parvaneh Etemadi. Right: Curators Léonie Radine and Cloe Perrone.

For the opening, the foundation gathered a group of international curators for a series of talks and screenings organized by Pejman’s right-hand man, artist and curator Mamali Shafahi. Among the guests were Museum Ludwig’s Léonie Radine, Hicham Khalidi from Fondation Lafayette, Fondazione Memmo’s Cloe Perrone, and curator Martha Kirszenbaum. “A few other people were coming but had ‘last-minute impediments,’” said Shafahi, half in jest, highlighting the strange sense of purpose that this trip was taking. Of course the visa ban was the designated small talk for the week, but Iranians, accustomed to geopolitical isolation and to the consequences of a thirty-year-plus embargo, seemed less worried than the rest of us. “It gives a new meaning to what we’re doing,” said Sazmanab art space founder Sohrab Kashani, who has been working on a television sitcom between Tehran and Pittsburgh since 2014. Artist Parvaneh Etemadi, a major figure on the Tehrani scene and a mentor to many young artists, was even more resilient. “It’s all vanilla ice cream,” she said. “It always melts eventually.”

We spent our first days cruising from museums to artist studios, as dumb struck by the taxi driver’s racing habits (hello Jafar Panahi) as we were by the breathtaking sight of the Alborz Mountains. Tehran’s streets are puzzling, clotted in architectural anachronism and punctuated by hundreds of bucolic murals commissioned by the Bureau of Beautification—even as the capital bulldozes traditional buildings and outdoor spaces. Artist Nazgol Ansarinia, whose studio we visited in the northern neighborhood of Dar Abad, showed us miniature models responding to that irony as well as a new video work reflecting the city’s many layers of memory, from the 1970s ersatz muscular modernization to today’s real-estate boom. Ansarinia’s project is supposed to be shown at New York’s Armory Show in March, but of course everything is now in diplomatic limbo.

Over the next few days, talks were held at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, home to the outstanding collection of Western art assembled in the ’70s by Farah Pahlavi, former empress and local Peggy Guggenheim, and her architect cousin Kamran Diba, who designed the museum. It was quite exhilarating to think that we were sitting above one of the most dazzling collections of Abstract Expressionist and postwar art, recently in the spotlight due to the sudden cancelation of its traveling to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie and Rome’s MAXXI. Diplomatic limbo, the sequel.

Left: Artist Shabahang Tayyari and dealer Niloofar Abedi. Right: Artist Shahla Hosseini.

Friday was opening night at the Pejman Foundation and in galleries across the city. We sampled the burgeoning scene, trying to force our way through Tehrani traffic “uptown,” where most of the new spaces are. As usual, the most interesting works weren’t performing “tradition” for the sake of commercial success. Noteworthy among them were the delicate drawings of Shahla Hosseini at Emkan Gallery as well as several gems in the hidden one-room apartment gallery where Morteza Zahedi assembled an impressive collection of Iranian outsider art, from Amir Kamand’s incongruous wooden sculptures to the earnest erotic drawings of Reza Shafahi, a seventy-seven-year-old retired gambler.

Off the multilane Valiasr Boulevard was AG gallery, where we sat with artist Peyman Hooshmandzadeh around the traditional tea-dates-pistachios combo before heading to the three-floor Mohsen Gallery for a sight of Mehrdad Afsari’s clunky photography. We finished up at Dastan, a gallery founded by the proactive young dealer Hormoz Hematian with a basement for experimental projects as well as a program of art interventions throughout the city. “Iranians are better off in Iran,” confessed Hematian on a ride between his two spaces. “There are so many opportunities. It’s really a giving country. What we are lacking right now is a nonprofit museum and more critical writing.”

Later at Pejman’s opening, Hematian’s reflection was completed by curator and local figure Ali Bakhtiari—Hans Ulrich Obrist if Obrist could lip-sync to Iranian diva Googoosh. “Visual culture here builds up through pictures and the internet, which creates a peculiar aesthetic. It’s a chance that some of us had to be able to travel and see things, but for the majority, art is an incomplete experiment,” he said. “We need to send people outside and bring shows inside,” he continued, echoing initiatives such as Pejman’s and artist Tooraj Khamenehzadeh’s Kooshk residency program.

Left: Curator Ali Bakhtiari and collector Mahdi Rahmanian. Right: Artist and Kooshk Residency curator and program manager Tooraj Khamenehzade..

The next day, the Pejman Foundation held a talk between Beloufa and curator Azar Mahmoudian. The conversation was heated but the space was not, which didn’t prevent an attentive crowed from sitting for four hours in the cold to listen. Resilience, some would say, or was it just taarof, that fascinating Iranian form of extreme civility?

“I don’t understand your art,” hailed an audience member to Beloufa. “You could at least have used a Persian toilet seat instead of the Occidental toilet seat in your installation. It would have made it more familiar.” The translator got lost while the debate expanded among the audience, the voices ping-ponging in Farsi about the need for contemporary art to adapt (or not) to a given context. “Iranian artists aren’t really liberated from tradition,” Mahmoudian said later, reflecting on the “Toiletgate.” “If at the end of the day people think about the show, even if they’re puzzled about what they saw, we did our job,” Pejman added. QED.

Left: Mohsen Gallery founder and director Ehsan Rasoulof with gallery manager Narges Hamzianpour. Right: Dastan Gallery founder Hormoz Hematian.

Left: Curators Martha Kirszenbaum, Hicham Khalidi, and Cloe Perrone. Right: Curator Sohrab Kashani.

Left: Artist Reza Shafahi and dealer Morteza Zahedi. Right: Artist Mehrad Afsari.

Left: Studio Kargah designer Arya Kasaii, Niloufar Hoseinipour, and Nima Teymourzadeh. Right: View of Neïl Beloufa's show at Pejman Foundation.