In Search of the Ineffable

Left: British Museum curator Venetia Porter. Right: Curators Faryar Javaherian and Germano Celant. (All photos: Myrna Ayad)

WE WERE CLEARLY amateurs of the Iranian veil as we disembarked at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport a few weeks ago, fumbling with our headscarves and piling into the van that drove us to the “CIP” terminal—a priority arrival and departure service for the Commercially Important Person. This particular pack of CIPs comprised art enthusiasts with American, French, British, and Spanish passports coming to see a retrospective—of a leftist Iranian artist who hails from a royalist family—organized by Italian and Iranian curators at a state-run museum originally funded by the Shah’s petrodollars in the 1970s. I could almost picture the sepia movie reel flickering CIP: Persia Art Expedition.

After two hours of Tehran’s notorious traffic, we arrived at our hotel and to a hard truth: The last clean air we’d have had been on the plane. The Iranian capital is forbidding at night, but come dawn, a softer, more charming city emerged as we gathered for brunch at the family home of India Mahdavi, the Paris-based architect and designer who was recently named an Officier des Arts et des Lettres, and her brother, the filmmaker Amin Mahdavi.

The majority of the sixty people in attendance had flown in for “Towards the Ineffable: Farideh Lashai,” curated by Faryar Javaherian and Germano Celant at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. We chatted over lemon meringue pie amid a diptych by Lashai and ceramic, glass, and bronze pomegranates common in Tehranian homes. Collectors Amer and Rana Huneidi of Kuwait’s Contemporary Art Platform, Tariq and Hessa Al Jaidah of Doha’s Katara Art Centre, and Bettina Böhm from Germany’s Outset Contemporary Art Fund met for the first time. On the terrace were members of Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue crew, Iranian artist Reza Aramesh, art advisor Wendy Goldsmith, and Eileen Wallis of Dubai’s PR firm the Portsmouth Group. Soon enough, the dealer Mina Etemad was whisking us away to one of the four branches of Etemad Gallery that she runs with her son Amir. There, we saw paintings and sculptures by the Iranian modernist Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam, whose work we would also find later at the vernissage.

Left: Victoria Gandit Lelandais of Alserkal Avenue with the Delfina Foundation’s Aaron Cesar and Delfina Entrecanales in Tabatabaei House, Kashan. Right: Collector Rana Huneidi and Bettina Böhm of Outset.

The story behind Lashai’s retrospective begins on February 24, 2014, the first anniversary of Lashai’s death from cancer. Javaherian, her longtime friend, conceived the idea for a show at TMoCA and began discussions with its officials. This wasn’t easy. (See the earlier reference to Lashai’s leftist views.) And yet Majid Mollanoroozi, the museum’s newly appointed director, insisted, “Lashai’s art is what’s important in her life, not her politics.” Score. The Iranian minister of culture Ali Jannati attended the vernissage. Score again.

Meanwhile, Maneli Keykavoussi, Lashai’s daughter, met Celant in—where else? —Art Basel. It was June 2013, and Keykavoussi found herself seated next to Celant at a dinner hosted by New York dealer Edward Tyler Nahem, who represents Lashai. They spoke about their mothers, and she sent him images of Lashai’s work. Earlier this year, they met again at the Venice Biennale, and when Keykavoussi asked him to give a talk at the retrospective, he offered to curate the exhibition, pro bono. (This for a curator with a reported $1 million fee for his Milan Expo show.) Of course, it hardly hurts for Celant, the director of the Fondazione Prada, to be on good terms with TMoCA, whose famous collection of Western art was assembled in the 1970s by former Empress Farah Pahlavi and her architect cousin Kamran Diba, who designed the museum. How great to score a loan from that prize group. In fact, rumors abound that TMoCA and the Fondazione Prada are in discussions.

Javaherian welcomed Celant on board, and in they sailed to TMoCA’s legendary vault. “The Reinhardt is the biggest I’ve ever seen,” said Celant. Of course he’d known firsthand about the museum’s collection: “I was with Leo Castelli at the gallery when Farah Pahlavi came in the ’70s,” he said. “They were talking about Lichtenstein.” Four decades later, Celant has included a work by the Pop artist from the museum’s vault in Lashai’s retrospective.

Left: Collector Hessa Al Jaidah, Eileen Wallis of the Portsmouth Group, and Fiza Akram of Alserkal Avenue at Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s studio. Right: Maneli Keykavoussi, Farideh Lashai’s daughter, with artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian.

Lichtenstein wasn’t the only outsider gracing the TMoCA walls when we arrived. As part of the retrospective, the museum’s lobby is filled with works by Bacon, Kline, Giacometti, de Kooning, and Warhol juxtaposed with equally priceless pieces by some of Iran’s foremost modernists: Bahman Mohasses, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Behjat Sadr, Moghaddam, and Sonia Balassanian. “Where is Farideh?” was the resounding question between the oohs and aahs. This opening salvo is apparently a gesture on Celant’s part to put the retrospective in historical context. But some of us didn’t catch the drift, and felt it was more of a minisurvey of TMoCA’s prized wares. It’s important to note, however, that the Lashai show is not the first time that works from the Western collection have been shown, even if some—Renoir’s Gabrielle with Open Blouse and Warhol’s (presumably slashed) portraits of Farah Pahlavi—have not been exhibited since the Islamic Revolution.

This Western and Iranian grouping hangs in an architectural design that resembles a cascading version of the Guggenheim in New York. TMoCA is rough on the inside, with its minimal lighting and unfinished, somewhat aged concrete pillars, which, along with a spiraling walkway, feels heavy against the softness of Lashai’s works. Her chronological survey moves through eight descending galleries. One gets the sense of a remarkable, multitalented woman and humanist. It’s clear she didn’t like waste. She experimented in and mastered many forms, and she seems to have been relentless in her productivity. Curatorially, the show is a wonderful journey through the life of a brave, determined woman, but the inclusion of non-Lashai works inside was sparse after the heavy dose outside. The first gallery is strongest, contrasting Lashai’s early Impressionist works with those of Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, and Pissarro. I understood the inclusion of Sohrab Sepehri’s 1971 Tree Trunks—the modernist was a mentor and friend to Lashai and both shared a love for nature in their oeuvres. But I was perplexed at the addition of a Rothko and a Pollock in that room. “Context,” Keykavoussi kept insisting.

The show ends with Lashai’s memorable video projections on canvases. Once you get there, you have to go back where you came from, as there is no other exit. Or, like me, you go through a black curtain and are greeted by a forlorn-looking 1966 Donald Judd work, missing a panel. “Is this the Hotel California?” laughed one American enthusiast. At least it didn’t end with a gift shop. But it’s a disappointment for such a major show not to have a catalogue. (Apparently, Celant didn’t like what was printed and ordered them destroyed. A Skira monograph will be released in the spring, alongside another incarnation of Lashai’s work at the Sharjah Art Foundation, curated by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, who wasn’t at the TMoCA opening.)

Left: Abdelmonem Alserkal, founder of Alserkal Avenue, and Antonia Carver of Art Dubai at Parviz Tanavoli’s home and studio. Right: Maneli Keykavoussi and collector Amer Huneidi at Parviz Tanavoli’s home and studio.

We were whisked away again to the beautiful Golestan Palace, seat of the former Qajar Dynasty and where Reza Shah crowned himself, as did his son the Shah and his queen in 1967. We dined in the least magical area of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, feasting on delectable Persian cuisine sponsored by Hamid Reza Pejman’s foundation, a young, ambitious nonprofit keen to promote the arts in Tehran. More glamorous attendees were spotted: dealer Ivor Braka and his partner Kristen McMenamy, Iranian collectors Negin Fattahi Bin Dasmal and Mariam Massoudi, Art Dubai’s Antonia Carver, the Delfina Foundation’s Delfina Entrecanales and Aaron Cezar, and Kuwait’s Sheikha Paula and Sheikha Lulu Al Sabah. Wi-Fi is übersketchy in Iran, and Instagram even sketchier. But by evening’s end, most had posted pictures of the Western work in TMoCA’s collection. Would Lashai’s aura be diluted by all this celebrity? “It’s no problem,” the humble Mollanoroozi told me later. “We see potential for presenting the museum and famous Iranian artists.”

The next day we sampled Tehran’s mushrooming gallery scene—Aaran, Assar, and the young and progressive Dastan + 2—and then made our way to the surreal cupola that is the Central Bank of Iran, which holds centuries of Persia’s jewels. Somehow the quantity—and size—of those gems made people see Iran in a whole new light. Civilization goes back some five thousand–plus years here, after all. We topped all this off with a visit to the studios of two of Iran’s most important artists, the nonagenarian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and the septuagenarian Parviz Tanavoli. (Neither had attended the vernissage, nor was their work included in the Lashai retrospective.)

Left: Collectors Tariq and Hessa Al Jaidah at Parviz Tanavoli’s home and studio. Right: Catherine de Zegher, director of the Museum of Fine Art, Ghent.

Lacking a live translator, the next day’s symposium was a crash course in Farsi for many of us. Catherine de Zegher, director of the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, read a moving eulogy about Lashai. “She did not belong to any isms, neither to Abstract Expressionism nor to Minimalism,” said the esteemed curator. Venetia Porter of the British Museum spoke about Lashai’s final work—When I count, there are only you… But when I look, there is only a shadow, 2013—a seminal piece inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War, which is the only video work in the British Museum’s collection. A talk between the curators was more of a Q&A, with Javaherian asking Celant to describe Lashai in two words. “A poet,” he responded. I would have preferred a conversation on the making of the exhibition. “Which ism would you include her in?” Javaherian asked Celant.

“Farideh is Farideh,” he replied.

“By the time he closed the show,” Keykavoussi had told me earlier, “he knew my mother better than I did.” Celant also told her not to be upset if people don’t like the show. “He said the best shows are those that aren’t perceived well,” she continued, “because they’re ahead of their time.” Then, time will tell.