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Frieze week schedule speaks of Iranian art surge in the West

Does a crop of major presentations coinciding with the art fair indicate a proportionate energy in the market?

The Iranian art explosion is a visible presence during Frieze week. Dubai’s The Third Line gallery (F17) will devote its stand at the fair to a solo show of works by the Iranian superstar artist Farhad Moshiri (a spokesman gave price points of $150,000 to $250,000 for the pieces). Across town, Sotheby’s is holding a daytime auction of “Contemporary Art Including Arab & Iranian Art” tomorrow; estimates range from £3,000 to £4,000 for an acrylic on canvas by Mehdi Farhadian (Bouquet of Gladiola, 2009) to £40,000 to £60,000 for an ink on canvas by Nasrollah Afjei (Siah Mashq, Black Homework, 2007).

Meanwhile, one of the most important figures in Iran’s cultural establishment in the past ten years is set to curate the first major show of Iranian video art in Europe, “Facts and Illusions” at the Royal College of Art (15-17 October). Dr Alireza Sami Azar, who resigned as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran in 2005, is credited with opening up the country’s contemporary art scene through international collaborations. He spoke to The Art Newspaper on the eve of his London exhibition.

“Facts and Illusions” includes works by 14 artists, such as Simin Keramati, showing Silence, 2005, and Rozita Sharafjahan, whose piece Depression, 2004, focuses on “experiences of despair and desolation”, Azar said. The show, which is co-organised by the Magic of Persia charity and Candlestar cultural consultancy, both London-based, is the latest in a number of US and European displays devoted to Iranian contemporary art. New York’s Chelsea Art Museum recently launched “Iran Inside Out”, while a commercial show of Middle Eastern art opens in Paris next week (“Golden Gates”, 20 October-13 November, showing at 46 Rue de Sévigné) with nine Iranian artists.

Azar, now a consultant to Christie’s, welcomes the increased exposure—“It is a remarkable development that is a little overdue”—and notes that Iranian practitioners have benefited from the general upsurge in interest in Middle Eastern art: “Contemporary art in the region is booming and it is by no means confined to Iran…there is a growing feeling among many artists of being Middle Eastern as opposed to being Iranian, Arab, etc,” he said.

“My only concern is the emergence of a tendency to create works largely intended to attract foreign attention but ignore an Iranian audience,” he added. “This means that we may have a kind of art that, despite recognition outside of Iran, is viewed as irrelevant inside the country. We need art that plays an effective role in our socio-cultural movement.”

Azar questions the fate of contemporary Iranian art following the re-election of far right president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June, pointing to a recent statement signed by leading cultural figures that calls for the boycott of government-organised exhibitions: “Under the new ultra conservative culture minister [Mohammad Hosseini], the situation doesn’t look promising at all, though I think we still have to wait and see. The government assumes the task of controlling artists rather than supporting them.”

Hopes were raised, however, by the opening of an official Iranian pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, for the first time since 2005, prompting commentators to suggest that Iran may be embarking on a new course of cultural diplomacy. “The participation…was good, though the selection of artists [including Hamid Reza Avishi and Iraj Eskandari], who were by no means contemporary, was a clear sign of misunderstanding about the whole idea of the Biennale,” Azar said.

Further Iranian events during Frieze week include a contemporary art prize for emerging Iranian artists organised by Magic of Persia (Royal College of Art, 15-17 October). In addition, Candlestar is behind “Iran Unbowed” at the Hyatt Regency-The Churchill hotel (until 24 October) featuring works by Abbas Kiarostami and Rasool Soltani, among others.

This market is nevertheless still “challenging”, says Desislava Kavlakova of Xerxes Gallery in London, which specialises in Iranian art. Iranian artists, however, led the pack when Christie’s held its fourth sale in Dubai of Arab, Iranian and Western work in April 2008. The auction made $20m, with the top lot, Parviz Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), 1975, selling for $2.8m (est $400,000-$600,000), a world record for any Iranian artist at auction.

But inevitably the market chilled last autumn when Christie’s fifth Dubai sale in October saw a drop in prices paid for Iranian painting. And what is the state of play now? Lina Lazaar, Sotheby’s specialist in contemporary art, commented: “In terms of artists represented in auctions, around 10% are sold above the £80,000 mark, in the region of 70% between £10,000 to £80,000, and the remaining 20%, below £10,000.” 

Kavlakova provided further insight: “Farhad Moshiri, Shirin Neshat, Shirazeh Houshiary and the established modern/contemporary masters command the higher price points, currently in the region of £100,000 to £250,000. The majority of the other works fall within the £5,000 to £50,000 range. The collectors of contemporary Iranian art are, in descending order, Iranians based in Iran, Iranians based in the Middle East, collectors in the Arab world, international collectors in continental Europe, international collectors in the UK and international collectors in the USA.”

Western buyers are indeed gradually muscling in on the action, with 11 Iranian artists featured in Charles Saatchi’s recent London show of Middle Eastern art. “The most important collections of Iranian art I know of are in Iran, Dubai, London and Paris,” adds Arianne Levene, curator of “Made in Iran” at London’s Asia House this summer.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iranian art'