Manhattan exhibition fights Iran as a “hostile anti-American state”

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Hardly any other country is 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 can now be seen in the United States.

Rebel, fool, mystic, poet: Contemporary Persians – The Mohammed Akfami Collection, On display at the Asia Society in Manhattan through May 8, 2022, aims to expand the perception of what Iran is, or can be, by offering an in-depth look at the country’s dynamic contemporary art scene.

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

We haven’t landed on earth yet, 2012 © Ali Banisadr, courtesy of the Mohammed Afkhami Foundation

“Iran is now perceived by normal Americans as a hostile, anti-American state,” says the collector Mohammed Akfami.

Each piece in the exhibition comes from Akfami’s extensive collection, which dates back to long periods in Iran. “The reality is that the Iranian people ultimately want nothing more than friendly relations with the Americans and are by far the most American-friendly people in the Middle East,” he says.

Not only does the show show one side of Iran that is often considered in the US, it also dispels the myth that all women in Iran live at home under despotic rule. “I would estimate that 40 percent of the artists currently working in Iran are female, more than anywhere else,” Akfami told the BBC. “Almost everyone I speak to in galleries is a woman. Above all, you drive the scene in Tehran. And the variety of works is incredible.”

On the fourth season of CNNs Parts unknown, Host Anthony Bourdain said he was shocked by the gap “between what you see and feel of people and what you see and hear from the government”. Diversity is a key concept for the show. As Bourdain saw firsthand, Iran does not exist in a vacuum. There is diversity of opinion, diversity of beliefs and, as viewers on the show will see, a great diversity in the way Iranians express themselves. Both the Asia Society and Mr. Akfami hope this show will help Americans see on the evening news an Iran that exists beyond the bottom third of the television screen.

Dark sea of the metamorphosis series © Alireza Dayani, Mohammed Afkhami Foundation. Photo: Mah Art Gallery (Shahnaz Khonsari)

“Our exhibition opens at a complex time when relations between Iran and the United States have become increasingly estranged,” said Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe, vice president of global artistic programs and director of the Asia Society Museum in New York. “That is why it is now even more important to activate the interdisciplinary platform of the Asia Society 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 view through May 8 at the Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Avenue, New York City


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