In the opening rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition, Epic Iran, a hunched, horned bronze figurine greets the visitor with a devilish semi-smile. As the viewer leaves the show an hour or two later, another defiant personality leaves an equally vivid impression: it is a blonde, blue-eyed woman blowing a provocative, bright pink bubble right in your face.
The first work, an unsettling fusion of man and beast pointing to a form of shamanistic worship, has been traced to as far back as 3,200BC; the photograph of the bubble-gum lady-with-attitude, “Miss Hybrid #3”, is a 2008 piece by the artist and archaeologist Shirin Aliabadi. It’s a bracing journey across time. Even by today’s standards of eclectic blockbuster shows, few are able to range their works across five millennia.
Epic Iran is, in this sense at least, justly titled. Three discrete periods of Iranian history are presented, in the words of co-curator Tim Stanley, “as a sequence, with appropriate points of rupture”. Recent shows have dealt with those three periods — the ancient, the Islamic and the modern and contemporary — with scant regard to their relationship with each other. This one attempts to find the threads that run through the narrative.
First, the bad news: there are some no-shows to the party. Although the British Museum’s widely acclaimed exhibitions in the first decade of the 21st century, 2005’s Forgotten Empire on ancient Persia, and 2009’s Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran, marked a fresh climate of cultural co-operation between Britain and Iran, with many prestigious loans making their way to Bloomsbury, the current political tensions between Iran and the west have proved too fraught to be surmounted.
“There was every hope that it would be possible to include material from Iran, and the Iranian side was enthusiastic about it,” says John Curtis, who piloted those shows and co-curated Epic Iran. “But that was scuppered by the deterioration of circumstances following [President] Trump’s actions [to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal].”
No matter: new loans were arranged and the show’s ambitions remained intact. Curtis, academic director of the Iran Heritage Foundation, says the continuity in Iranian culture is evident through the longevity of Iran’s language, religion and literary traditions: he points to the continued existence in Iran of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest continuously practised forms of worship, and the cultural importance of poetry, from the 10th-century Shahnameh (Book of Kings) of Ferdowsi, to the present.
The exhibition also aims to correct some misapprehensions. Iranian culture has found itself ambushed by historians with a point to prove. The achievements of ancient Persia were undervalued by Greek writers such as Herodotus, who had little inclination to glorify his country’s enemies and whose influence stretched right into 19th-century Europe. Today, Curtis tells me with something approaching an air of mischief, there is a school of thought that the art of the Parthenon might have been influenced by Persepolis, inverting the traditional theory that the Achaemenid capital was conceived with the help of the Ionians.
The golden age of archaeology, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, also saw Iran overshadowed by the art works of its neighbours. “Iran was regarded as a poor relation to Mesopotamia and Egypt,” says Curtis. “When the concept of the Fertile Crescent was invented in the interwar years, Iran wasn’t really part of it. If people had known as much of Iran as they do now, it certainly would have been included.” A Royal Academy of Arts show held in 1931, a precursor of Epic Iran, paid relatively little attention to the country’s ancient artefacts, such was their low standing.
The exhibition’s section on modern and contemporary art, curated by Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, brings the story of Iran right to the present day. It is here that the tensions between politics and culture make themselves felt most acutely, not least in the wake of the abrupt changes of regime during the postwar years.
Iran willingly embraced the avant-garde with the establishment of the Tehran Biennale in 1958, which was replaced by the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts, whose experimental nature became an early target of Islamic rhetoric. “Indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz and it is said that such acts will soon be shown in Tehran too, and nobody says a word,” said Ayatollah Khomeini from an Iraqi mosque in 1977. “The gentlemen [clerics] in Iran don’t say anything. I cannot understand why they don’t speak out!” They made their feelings clamorously evident just two years later.
Contemporary art has inevitably been shaped by the 1979 revolution. Many artists have fled the country, and are prestigiously regarded by western galleries. Tala Madani, whose scathing deconstructions of masculinity are represented in the show by 2008’s “Making Faces”, left Iran when she was 14, and lives and works in Los Angeles. She says the effects of artists’ emigration has had unexpected consequences, in many cases making their work more conservative.
“They come to the US, and they know all about pop culture, popular music, and so on, and then they have this moment of panic when they realise, ‘Oh my God, my new neighbours know nothing about me! They think I’m someone who rides a camel, without a cell phone.’ And they become very invested in their own history, and with conserving their history. They don’t dare to challenge their own consciousness because they have to first clarify their past. And their work becomes conservative by default.”
I ask her if it even makes sense to talk of any thread running through Iranian culture for such a long time-span, other than that it was produced on the same patch of land. “Well, I make my painting outside that patch of land,” she replies. “But my brain is in that land.”
‘Epic Iran’ opens May 29, vam.ac.uk