arts

Could Trump put an end to the Iranian art boom?

Updated 25th September 2018
TOPSHOT - A picture taken on April 24, 2018 shows a view of an art dealer's gallery at the Bazaar in Tabriz in Iran's northwestern East-Azerbaijan province. - The historic Tabriz bazaar complex, located along one of the most frequented east-west trade routes, consists of a series of interconnected, covered brick structures, buildings, and enclosed spaces for a variety of functions: commercial and trade-related activities, social gatherings, and educational and religious practices.
Credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Could Trump put an end to the Iranian art boom?
Written by Alice McCool, CNN
Boasting an impressive variety of established and up-and-coming artists, the London outpost of Tehran's CAMA Gallery presents an encouraging picture of art in Iran today.
The newly-opened space's debut exhibition features work by some of the country's most promising names, from Ali Nedaei's dramatic marker pen depictions of Persian mythological forms to Tahereh Samadi Tari's oil paintings of solitary figures amid futuristic urban landscapes.
Interest in Iranian art appears to have boomed in recent years. In 2016, a Tehran art auction attracted record sales of $7.4 million, sparking hopes that the market was buoyed by cooling relations between Iran and the West. Then, last year, Iranian artists accounted for more than half of the £2.1 million ($2.7 million) revenue generated at Sotheby's Middle East auction in London.
"The Iranian art market is going higher, and regardless of anything it's going to (keep going) higher," said CAMA Gallery's director, Ava Moradi, during an interview at the exhibition space.
The London outpost of Tehran's CAMA Gallery
The London outpost of Tehran's CAMA Gallery Credit: Ed Aked
But some in the art world are worried that Iranian art is being affected by recent political developments. From trade sanctions to the travel ban, global power politics may be influencing the way the West views Iran. For the country's artists, this raises questions about whether the art boom will be halted -- or even reversed -- by the Trump administration's deteriorating relations with their government.
UK-based Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari described Trump's policies as having an "immediate effect" on her work.
"On the commencement of his presidency last year, a group show (organized by an Iranian art foundation) that I was (due) to participate in at the Venice Biennale (in 2017) ... had to be canceled due to the withdrawal of sponsors from our project," Sokhanvari said in an email interview.
The artist, whose work often uses magical realism to allude to politics past and present, claimed that almost all of the confirmed sponsors withdrew support "due to complications that would reflect on their businesses and potential conflict of interest with their US partners (or) consumers."
"(This) really demoralized every participant, since the works were ready to be shipped," added Sokhanvari, who declined from naming specific companies for fear of jeopardizing future funding.
"Conquest of the Garden," (2017) by Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari
"Conquest of the Garden," (2017) by Iranian artist Soheila Sokhanvari Credit: Courtesy Soheila Sokhanvari
Shahrzad Moaven, founder of a PR firm that helped the show's organizers secure sponsorship, also directly attributed the decision to Trump's policies.
"I was talking to two European companies and one US brand who had agreed to sponsor the Iranian Pavilion in Venice last year," she said. "However, when Trump announced the travel ban and renewed economic sanctions against Iran, they withdrew interest as they believed it would be press-sensitive and that they would not be able to secure business in Iran."

Artists in crisis

The situation may be even more challenging for artists still in living in Iran.
"I have enormous respect for my contemporaries in Iran," said Sokhanvari, "because they have to negotiate international economic sanctions as well as censorship."
Deteriorating economic conditions inside the country could worsen matters further. Following Trump's confirmation in May that the US was withdrawing from its nuclear agreement with Iran -- with the first set of re-imposed sanctions coming into force last month -- the Iranian rial has plummeted to record lows against the dollar.
This has impacted Iranians in all sectors, but for artists it means that the cost of equipment such as paints, paper and canvases has "shot through the roof," according to Tehran-based Shadi Noyani, who is known for her figurative paintings exploring psychological and social issues.
"Like, Dislike of body no. 10" by Tehran-based artist Shadi Noyani.
"Like, Dislike of body no. 10" by Tehran-based artist Shadi Noyani. Credit: Courtesy Shadi Noyani
"The price has become unaffordable to most," she said over email, adding that she was unable to purchase paper for two months, as vendors were waiting to see what happened to the exchange rate.
This unstable environment is also making collectors anxious, claimed Noyani. Instead of investing in art, they are "buying gold and cars which can easily be sold, should the situation in Iran get worse," she said.
Middle Eastern art specialist, Bibi Naz Zavieh from the website Artnet, agreed that there has been an "overall 'down' in the mood of all Iran-based collectors, dealers and artists." But, contrary to Noyani, she argued that many in the country are actually looking to purchase art, as it has suffered less from hyperinflation than other high-value goods.
"Essentially, (art) is still one of the safest places to invest and keep money value," Zavieh said over email. "(But Trump's policies have) made shipping in and out of the country a little more problematic, and perhaps fewer international visitors (will) come to Tehran now.
"Perhaps fewer Iranian artists can get visas to attend residencies and exhibitions abroad," she added.
Firouz Farman-Farmaian, who fled Iran in the 1970s and now runs a gallery in Spain, said that the Iranian artists he works with cannot afford visas due to "out of control inflation" in the country.
"Shipment of their works is also an issue, and (they) mostly have to be smuggled in and out," he said over email.

Restricted movement

The travel ban may be the most direct way the Iranian art world has been impacted by Trump's administration. Founder and director of the Iran Contemporary Art (ICA) Biennale, Majid Abbasi Farahani, said that the travel ban prevented him from traveling to a conference in New York to introduce and represent a number of Iranian artists. "I was informed (by a visa agency in Iran) that there is no point in applying,, as many of my countrymen were turned away at the border," he explained.
Farahani is currently working on the third edition of the ICA Biennale, titled "All About Eve," which focuses on women's contribution to the arts. He has invited artists from around the world to participate.
"Rascal 2," by Majid Abbasi Farahani, who said that the US travel ban prevented him from visiting New York to represent other Iranian artists.
"Rascal 2," by Majid Abbasi Farahani, who said that the US travel ban prevented him from visiting New York to represent other Iranian artists. Credit: Majid Abbasi Farahani
"It is due to take place next year," explained Farahani. "However, with Trump's sanctions against Iran, our reach is limited and causing financial strain. Regardless, we are making every effort to host a Biennale that the world will want to know about and attend."
Despite the substantial challenges facing Iran's art market, some remain confident that the international interest that spurred the recent boom will continue. CAMA Gallery's co-founder, Mo Khosheghbal, is determinedly positive, telling CNN on the phone from Tehran that "maybe there are problems in politics, but I think ... people around the world are happy to see what artwork looks like in countries like Iran and China."
Farman-Farmaian said that, "as politics get worse, we gain more public attention" adding that this means the Iranian art scene is "paradoxically booming."
And for artists in the country, the current hardships may yet serve as a source of creative inspiration.
"We can only keep optimistic and hope that an interesting genre of art will result from these difficult times," Noyani said.