An Artist as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

by Shiva Balaghi | published June 8, 2009

Something’s happening here. In one of the largest street demonstrations in Tehran since the 1979 revolution, thousands filled Vali Asr Street (formerly known as Pahlavi Street) on Monday, forming a human chain nearly 12 miles long and stopping traffic for nearly five hours. They wore strips of green cloth around their wrists and heads in support of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. They sang “Ey Iran,” the unofficial national anthem composed in the Pahlavi era by one of the leading figures of classical Persian music, the late Ruhollah Khaleghi. Banned for a time by the Islamic Republic, the song’s lyrical melody touches a deeply patriotic vein.

Oh Iran, oh bejeweled land,
On your soil lies the wellspring of the arts…
Never far from you are my thoughts.
In your cause, what value do our lives have?
May the land of Iran be eternal.

Some of Iran’s leading intellectuals and cultural figures have been actively campaigning for Mousavi. They attended a May rally in Azadi Stadium, marking the anniversary of the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami. The Oscar-nominated director Majid Majidi made Mousavi’s official campaign video. Over 800 filmmakers and actors signed a public letter published in Iranian newspapers supporting Mousavi’s candidacy. Leading directors like Dariush Mehrjui, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Manijeh Hekmat and Masoud Kimiai appeared in a ten-minute video, “Green Stars,” distributed on YouTube, calling on Iranians to vote -- and to vote for Mousavi. “There will be a day when Iran has a president whose hands are draped in green,” says a young woman to the camera, “who paints, listens to music, and reads quality books. His name is Mir-Hossein Mousavi.” Makhmalbaf reminds viewers that disenchanted voters who protested the last presidential elections by not voting far outnumbered those who voted for sitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “An artist understands the meaning of responsibility,” says the director Masoud Kimiai. An architect and an artist himself, Mousavi has garnered increasing support amongst Iran’s culture workers who have faced growing pressures in Ahmadinejad’s regime.

“Never have I found those who pursue art and culture so demeaned,” says one participant in the video “Green Stars.” The Western media has largely overlooked this important aspect of the June 12 elections for the Iranian presidency. In the past four years, the red lines that confine artistic production in Iran have blurred and sharpened intermittently, inhibiting Iranian visual and literary cultural life. Director Tahmineh Milani’s latest film, Settlement, has been banned. The books of Sadeq Hedayat, perhaps Iran’s most eminent fiction writer who died in 1951, can no longer be published. The translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest novel never saw the light of day. Many writers and filmmakers simply don’t get permits to publish and distribute their work. Responding to the growing criticism, Iran’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Saffar Harandi, has urged more self-censorship. Iranian artists have at times been targeted as “spies” for western powers, and it has become increasingly difficult for Iranian-American and Western artists and art scholars to interact with their Iranian counterparts.

Meanwhile, the deterioration of Iran’s foreign relations under President Ahmadinejad has hampered the cultural diplomacy initiatives undertaken by his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. At the time, Iran experienced a cultural opening some dubbed Iran’s “glasnost.” One of Iran’s leading museums, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMOCA) hosted exhibitions co-organized with European cultural organizations, like a Gerhard Richter show and an exhibition of twentieth-century British sculpture that included works by Damien Hirst and Mona Hatoum. TMOCA organized acclaimed exhibitions of contemporary Iranian art, curated by such leading figures as Faryar Javaherian, which included works by Iranian exiled artists like Shirin Neshat and Siah Armajani. In 2003, TMOCA hosted a major retrospective of Parviz Tanavoli’s sculpture; the work of Iran’s preeminent sculptor had not been widely shown in Iran since 1979. TMOCA regularly hosted symposia that included Western art critics and scholars. In his last exhibition after the election of President Ahmadinejad, Sami Azar, the outgoing director of the museum, mounted a major show of TMOCA’s Western contemporary art, the largest collection of its kind held outside of Europe and the United States. As Ahmadinejad took over the presidency, thousands of Iranians passed through the museum each day looking at paintings by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock.

An Artist as Mr. President?

Some of the optimism conveyed by Iran’s culture workers at the prospect of a Mousavi presidency is clearly based on his background as a respected architect and painter. In the 1960s, Mir-Hossein Mousavi studied at one of Iran’s top architecture departments at the Melli University. Well versed in eastern philosophies and theories of Western modern art, his early paintings were abstract expressionist works. In the 1960s and 1970s, his architectural drawings and paintings were regularly exhibited in Ghandriz Gallery, known for promoting young contemporary artists, especially those experimenting with abstract expressionism. He used oil and gouache combined with mixed media to produce simple yet beautiful paintings.

In a pamphlet produced for a February 1968 exhibition of his art at Ghandriz Gallery, Mousavi wrote a rather philosophical essay on art and society. Art, he wrote, can never replace social movements and “the paint brush will never take the place of the communal struggle for freedom. It must be said that the expressive work of any painter or artist will not minimize the need to perform his social responsibilities. Yet it is within the scope of these responsibilities that his art can provide a vision for a way of living in an alternative future.”

By 1979, Mousavi was one of the leaders of the Islamic Republic Party. Soon after the revolution, he became the editor of the party’s chief newspaper, Jumhuri-yeh Islami. Not long after the nascent revolutionary government took over TMOCA, his newspaper published a scathing critique of an exhibition of works by the artist Nicky Nodjoumi in which a particular understanding of the relationship between art and society was articulated. The ultimate aim of any artist, the newspaper declared, must be to encourage people to strive to seek spiritual values. The artist must produce a pure art unburdened with concerns of race, tribalism, class and political parties. Such an art is the ink, the lifeblood of the revolution -- and can help the people reach for the divine, seek righteous values and nurture positive cultural investments in society.

In the fall of 1981, Mousavi became the prime minister of Iran, a position he held until 1989 when it was constitutionally dissolved. He is remembered fondly for having helped lead the country through the treacherous Iran-Iraq war, creating a ration system that allowed a fair distribution of basic goods for Iranians facing the double impact of the war and an international sanctions regime. It was also during the war that Iran undertook “The Sacred Defense,” the mobilization of the home front that drew heavily on cultural production -- films, television serials, wall art and posters, painting and literature -- to create support for the long and painful war that devastated so many Iranians’ lives. It is unclear what role the artist-as-prime minister had in shaping that official cultural narrative which, throughout the 1980s, largely supplanted alternative artistic visions.

Mousavi left political office in August 1989, but he did not leave the government. As he told the Financial Times in April of this year, “I was interested in culture, which is why I shifted to cultural activities. Of course during this period I was [an] advisor to the top authorities. I have also been a member of the High Council for Cultural Revolution and the Expediency Council. The positions necessitated that I follow political and executive issues.” [1] The genesis of the Cultural Revolution goes back to the campus wars between various student groups during and immediately following the 1979 revolution. By 1980, the Islamic student groups had the official backing of Ayatollah Khomeini who appointed the original members of the High Council for Cultural Revolution; their chief objective was the Islamization of Iran’s universities. By 1996, the nature of the organization shifted. According to its website, “In this stage the Council was entrusted with responsibility to give priority to the cultural management of the society in various arenas and through appropriate policy making pave the way for emergence of a society benefited from Devine [sic] blessings.” 

Mir-Hossein Mousavi is also the head of the Iranian Academy of the Arts, created by the High Council of the Cultural Revolution in 1998. According to the statutes of the Academy, its purpose is to carry out policies and implement strategies to safeguard and promote Islamic and national art and cultural heritage and to “confront the threats of the invading culture.” The activities of the academy are broad, its organizational structure expansive, and its accomplishments noteworthy. It has various departments including those dedicated to the traditional arts, cinema, music, philosophy and architecture. It also supports research groups on topics like the anthropology of art, and serves as a clearinghouse for scholars of Iranian culture from around the world. It publishes books and journals on various aspects of Iranian culture. The academy oversees several cultural organizations such as Saba Cultural and Artistic Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Palestine. It also organizes major international exhibitions of contemporary Islamic art.

Reading Tea Leaves: What Will Become of Iranian Cultural Life in a Mousavi Presidency?

Taking account of Mousavi’s art, his writings on art, and his work as a leading art administrator, there is reason to be hopeful that we would witness another Iranian glasnost during his presidency. Though he was a member of the Cultural Revolution’s council, which hardly bodes well for those invested in artistic and intellectual freedoms, he has by some accounts taken a very passive role in recent years. Certainly, his fiery denunciations of Ahmadinejad suggest there will be a break from the status quo.

His wife, Zahra Rahnavard, is also an artist, holding bachelors and masters degrees in Art from Tehran University. Her works have been incorporated into public spaces in Tehran. In an interview with PBS while she was still the chancellor of al-Zahra University and an advisor to President Khatami, she explained, “Because of my artistic character I can approach politics in a more poetic and free way.” Describing her home life, which has received considerable attention in the presidential campaign, she said, “The atmosphere in our family is very complex -- art, religion, politics, sports and happiness co-exist.” [2] Perhaps those thousands campaigning so vigorously and hopefully for her husband are hoping that this same atmosphere can be expanded to encompass all of Iran, “oh bejeweled land.”

Endnotes

[1] Financial Times, April 13, 2009. Mousavi has been a member of the Expediency Council that serves mainly as an advisory role for the Supreme Leader since 1997.
[3] Rahnavard was featured in the series “Adventure Divas,” http://www.adventuredivas.com/divas/iran/zahra-rahnavard/

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