Articles | Visual Arts
Ethnicity as Spectacle


Effacing the Iranian Cultural Contour through Visual Arts
Hengameh Fouladvand
Tavoos Art Quarterly,No.8

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This essay will follow the course of contemporary Iranian visual art, specifically painting as related to the developments of various contexts.  A critical inquiry into the various styles of Iranian visual arts will demonstrate its developmental process from decorative and more ornamental works towards intellectual and more conceptual themes.  The focus will be on the creation of ethnicity for spectators through context-building. It will examine how Iranian ethnicity is simulated for use by the mass media and popular culture both inside and outside of Iran.  Painting possesses an indirect revelatory power. It can display what is meant to be revealed, celebrated and if necessary created. Or it can conceal what must remain hidden.  In particular, effacing the Iranian cultural contour through visual arts will be discussed.

Iranian Modernists and Ethnicity

Since the 1960s, Iranian modern art has gradually catered to its mass market. It has been used in entertainment, business, publicity and, quite frequently, tourism.  Under such circumstances a culture of spectacle-oriented mentality has supported a kind of art that is more an “art event.”  The most problematic dilemma arises when the content of visual art loses its importance and the attention is founded on the effect of its media existence. Outside the country, it is in the context of supporting non-white, Third World or “Other Arts.” It may also be for socio-political reasons exclusively related to the Iranian situation. At any rate, the Western media has been instrumental in popularizing Iranian arts. Before we discuss the kind of Iranian visual arts produced today and its approach to ethnicity, we should examine “modernism” as related to Iran.

By the 1970s many artists, architects, and university scholars in Iran had already developed their own version of modernism as an aesthetic ideology. While they did not all share the same characteristics, certain elements were shared by many. They reacted against the sentimentality and historicism, influenced by the old styles of European nature paintings, and had already rejected the more traditional style of miniature and Qajar paintings. Iranian modernists embraced technology and its demand for fresh beginnings and  new styles. Many celebrated the principle of form following function and the use of new materials in their work; which further broke ties with the past. Innovation, experimentation and originality were celebrated by instructors and students of applied arts.  Thus many artists rejected ornamentation on the grounds that they were superficial and signs of the past unreflective society—among them many such as Kazemi, Lasha’i, Shabahanghi, Ehsa’i, and Nami celebrated simplicity, clarity, purity, and order in their works. Others such as Zia’pour, Javadipour, Ruhbakhsh, Esfandiari, and Yekta’i went after primitive, exotic, and naive art to find purity in form.1 The kind of ethnicity and naive art they chose, however, was very much in the context of French Post-Impressionists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.