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. 

Post-Impressionist subjects or forms were generally borrowed from non-Western sources in order to offer emotive and expressive alternatives to the illusionistic tradition that had prevailed before.

Saqqa-khaneh artists were among the first modernist artists who turned to ethnicity as subject matter.  Earlier Marcos Grigorian was among the first who became interested in “Earth Art.” To evoke authenticity, and communicate genuine ethnic feelings, Grigorian turned to multitudes of primitive forms and approaches, incorporating ethnic foods such as nan sangak and abgoosht & dizy, while experimenting with mud as an original material.2

Tanovoli’s use of simple, childish, and pure forms and his exotic use of ethnic crafts as artwork were among the first attempts of Iranian modernists to dissolve the lines separating art and craft.3 Grigorian later produced a series of rugs that erased this separating line even further.

Monir Farmanfarmaian was among the first female artists who used Islamic-Iranian motives in her mirror works and glass paintings. Farmanfarmaian later incorporated these motifs in her boxes and mixed-media constructions.4    

Exclusivity, and pride in introducing authentic work were prerequisites of this era.  As such, these modernist efforts were the backbones of presentday Iranian art.  Their international language was seen as universally applicable and did not apply to geographical boundaries.  Thus, outside of Post-Impressionist contexts celebrating Iranian ethnicity in order to serve the traditional aesthetic values, for its own sake,  for further critical examination, or as a non-decorative subject matter, this approach was not the norm for modernism.  Ethnicity was left to the so-called traditional artists to tackle. Despite the rapid change of art movements and styles, “modernism” still remained a style typical of pre-revolutionary Iran. The result was the production of  many museum quality works. However, in the Western World by the end of the 1970s, modernism lost its position as the real and the only style of the modern age and became one of the style from which artists could choose.  While the revolution of 1979 was taking place in Iran, in the U.S and the Western world, the term Post-modern began to gain ground, and concepts of pluralism in art, eclecticism, and hybridity in style became the norm.  Back in Iran, many artists and scholars turned their attention to reflecting the social-political realities of the Islamic revolution.5 Expressing the socio-political concerns of the society through art became extremely important.  Scenes of everyday life of people, rural landscapes, and ritual scenes which were mostly depicted for aesthetic pleasure were substituted by religious and slogan works. Traditional images of poverty and injustice depicted in the pre-revolutionary period of Iran, which were mostly non-political and depicted in the realist style, were not reflecting the goals and aspiration of the Revolution. Even the “Coffee-house” paintings of the earlier part of 20th century, originally made to express religious and traditional beliefs of ordinary people, did not reflect the day to day practices and scenes of a revolutionary culture.6

The importance of “ideology and belief” substituted technique and style as distinguishing elements of this period’s art.  Yet this transition did not happen abruptly.

“Serious Art”

By the 1970s, there appeared some social activist traces in Iranian art. Some artists and intellectuals were now turning to the concept of art for a pre-defined political purpose. For them art had to be “serious.” For them, art was only serious in a context of reflecting social problems of the “oppressed” masses.  In Europe the philosophers and art critics of the Frankfurt School had already divided art into “serious” and “light.” These neo-Marxist theorists of the 1930s also viewed culture as low and high.  To them “a valuable critical function was performed whenever bourgeois fine art made social contradictions visible.” Adorno, for example, described a successful work as one that “expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure.” 7

The neo-Marxist theorists associated with the Frankfurt School such as Adorno, Marcuse, and Benjamin, believed that art should represent social contradictions and should reflect upon the nature of pictorial representation.  Unreflective aesthetic enjoyment according to the socialist art critics needs to be supplemented by knowledge about the work’s content. Questions such as the significance of the work for the people at the time it is made, and the historic and social context within which it is produced, were raised in order to have a critical understanding of the art that was produced.

What needed to be examined, according to the neo-Marxist art critics, was not only the formal aspects of art production and its overt content but circumstances leading to its production.8 Benjamin believed that “there is not a document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”9

Even though the Frankfurt School’s writings on art and mass culture provide us with a critical eye to look at art and art production, they are only valuable in deepening our theoretical understanding, which has been the goal of many social historians of art. However, in the context of Iranian political art, it is the works of the artists themselves,  influenced by the works of Mexican masters like Diego Rivera and other social activist artists, which have to be examined in order to follow the developmental process in their art practices.

In the Iranian context, among contemporary Iranian artists who were interested in cultural struggles before the revolution, the works of Hanibal Alkhas could be viewed as activist art.  Later, the artists of the Islamic revolution committed to a spiritual quest and the representation of God as the Divine beauty in form and image. This they depicted in battle fields and etched in the believer’s soul, refuting the West by incorporating the message of “faith” in form and content in their art.  Although art was to belong to the people, it was not to “opiate them and keep them in ignorance.”10

Post-Modern and Ethnicity

By the end of the 1970s in the Western art circles, “retro-styles,” recycling old styles, the use of quotations, plurality of styles, history, tradition, and ethnicity came back as features of art under “post-modernism.” Ornamentation and decoration made a comeback. Complexity, contradiction, and vagueness replaced simplicity, purity, and rationality. A mixture of low and high art, of fine and commercial art styles, multi-purpose and multiple styles capable of pleasing audiences were favored both by the teaching institutions and by the art market.  The concepts of beauty and pleasure from art, playfulness, humor, bright and cheerful art, as opposed to concepts such as serious, pure, and genuine were re-introduced and celebrated. The idea of intertextuality, a term used mainly by literary scholars to describe the citing, quoting and alluding to other texts, was heightened in the works of post-modern artists.11 

After the revolution, many Iranian artists realized that putting aside the old and traditional, and starting from scratch was not do-able all the time.  The flow of artistic information had been minimal in regards to stylistic developments from the West.  Iranian artists living outside the country realized that memories and histories of their past generations were still very much alive and with them.  In fact, the interplay between the older concepts and the more recent traditions contributed to richness of the imagery of many of these artists.  For many Iranian artists their sensibilities were heightened by the experiences of another land.  They were deeply stirred and shaped by currents from Iran but also enriched from outside the country, both visually and literary.  Many realized that the term “modern” is oversimplified.  Thus, the artist’s concept of “now” also contains the “past”. Issues of identity became unavoidable.

These reflections, corresponding to post-modern as a style and an ideology, were best seen in the works of Iranian artists outside of Iran.  On the other hand, the diversity and complexity of the contemporary culture of Iran and the multi-media nature of today’s world has worked for this style, both inside and outside the country. One of the basic mottos of post-modern art has been to reject the idea of art for the elite and intellectuals.12 It is argued that everyone can relate to the images of other people without the need for a specialist’s art-historical knowledge.13 Many of the works produced after the revolution reflected this sensibility and in the context of Iranian popular culture were embraced appreciably.  Without a conscious realization of post-modern theoretical backgrounds, these works, mainly wall paintings and poster designs with themes reflecting popular culture, consisted of many elements characteristic of post-modernism. They included decorative, intertextual, mix of old miniature paintings or narratives with revolutionary mottos and images, and were concerned with issues of identity.

Just as the Western art scene was going through a cross fertilization and hybrid styles were attracting new attention and freedom of artistic choice was being celebrated, the Iranian art scene was going through a turbulent time.  The over-emphasis on traditional miniature paintings, illumination and nature paintings, led to the further use of ornamentation and calligraphy in painting.14  In many instances there has been a regression to the old decorative styles.  It has also led to the creation of a new ethnic art, inside and outside the country.

Many scholars have noted that there is no specific aesthetic model for the present-day art of Iran. They argue that the reason for a lack of style is due to a lack of originality, creativity, and innovation of many Iranian artists, and the Iranian society’s rejection of modern art.  Political and market changes are also included among the various reasons.15 What should be noted is that by definition, invoking classicism, extreme refinement, extreme primitivism, symbolism, extreme use of mythology, and narrative paintings are all indications and characteristics of post-modern tendencies.  The fact is, stylistically, just as there are great post-modern works produced, it is in the nature of post-modern art to result in many shallow works as well.  By nature a mixture of different styles can lead to a loss of artistic standards and styles.  Also, as is the case of the Western art scene’s obsession with political or religious subjects, and the old and traditional, as seen in ceremonial scenes, nature paintings, and tribal images, can become too simplistic and ultimately result in unreflective over-optimistic artwork.

Yet the most challenging issue is the depiction of ethnicity.  In contrast with the international and universal language of modern artists, post-modern art focused on depicting ethnicity and local cultures.  In the West, the idea was to “think global and act local.” Artists of the 1990s were encouraged to find local subjects.  With that pre-requisite in mind for many artists living outside Iran, ethnicity became their “local narrations.” “The voices of all those suppressed and marginalized,”16 works depicting Iranian women with beautiful black eyes run by a male dominant society, segregated, and powerless! Scenes of Eid and haft sin (the seven Ss) with exotic calligraphy combined with the use of gold leaf showing ethnic ceremonies were considered Iranian, non-foreign and reflecting the realities of the traditional culture.

Iranian Ethics and Aesthetics

In the context of Iranian ethnicity, it is appropriate to consider the issues pertaining to the relations between traditional Iranian ethics and aesthetics.  What is the nature of this relationship?  There is of course more than one way to compare and contrast this topic. A pre-requisite for this discussion is the confirmation of reality as a subjective parameter.  The writings of Jean Baudrillard who first made “hyper-reality” a fashionable term in the 1980s refer to different phases of reality in image making.17

According to him we can no longer distinguish reality from our image of it. An image is a reflection of a basic reality, or a mask of a basic reality, or a mask for the absence of a basic reality, and ultimately an image is its own reality with no relation to any reality. Baudrillard suggests that images have replaced what they once described and authenticity is essentially meaningless.18

Having considered these concepts, it seems that in a more integrated and unified traditional culture, the relationship between the aesthetics of an image and morality are extremely diacritical.  Thus, the depiction of Iranian ethnicity would reflect the realities of the culture and do not have to be staged.

Whereas in the more hybrid and fragmented sensibility of today’s Iranian society, which is gradually connecting to the global economy and the electronic age, this relationship between ethics and aesthetics becomes an antithetical one.  Technically valuable, in terms of rendering and refinement, scenes of still life with bowls of fruit and pomegranates set on pearlized exotic botteh jeqqeh and termeh doozi backdrops with other various luxury items represent beautiful utopian visions that depict an exotic culture.

Examined from a classical aesthetic point of view they could be reviewed in the context of their treatment and craftsmanship. The question is, are they situated in a dialogical context between the artist and the viewer? Many of these pieces are proper examples and experiments in traditional realist painting.19 Even the most “realistic” portrait of Rostam or Mirza Koochak Khan, or the most “realistic” scene of Abyaneh (now a popular touristic attraction) would force the critical eye to notice elements of theatricality.  Many of these works, within a symbolic context, are often deployed as metaphors. Depicting Rostam or Mirza Koochak Khan, who have volumes of script and narratives written about them, in formal costumes with a most serious gesture should not be examined merely from the traditional artistic points of view. Here, the symbolism and the choice of subject matter overwhelm the aesthetic issues. The significance of the subject is instrumental in its own theatricality. Here the portrait of a local and ethnic character is no longer viewed for its artistic merit but is seen in the realm of instrumentalism.

Therefore, works that present the simplicity and goodness of Iranian rural life or general issues of beauty and morality, outside aesthetic contexts, become challenges for many artists and critics.  Only for those artists who see art as a process of translation and not creation is this dilemma resolved to an extent. For many of these artists, issues of ethics and morality, appropriation, theatricality, and publicity become valid subject matter to work with. A closer look will reveal an evolutionary process that later leads to many post-modern and pluralistic works by artists who are fluent synthesizers and in command of many styles. Artists whose works are critical of certain injustices, such as socialists, feminists, ecologists, ethnographers, and political activists, and who see the need for alternatives, consider their art as ideological and political interventions that can influence and persuade the viewer. To them art is not created for pleasure, aesthetic reasons or for art’s sake. For them the problems in their culture have to be dealt with seriously. Numerous works of art are originally created with this idea in mind. However, production of artwork with an ethnic flavor can become quite challenging. Among the risks involved in creating ethnic art, is the production of decorative and unreflective pieces without critical inquiries on the issues of identity. Outside the country, access to firsthand information also adds to this dilemma.

Creating Theatrical Ethnicity

Challenges arise when an artist creates theatrical ethnicity or ethnicity that is staged for the purpose of artmaking. Having been drawn to this appropriation of ethnicity, quite often, our artists take on a journalistic approach in their art.  In today’s art market, there is an insistent demand for the display of genuine ethnic identity. However, the genuine traditional culture only lives in our imagination and no longer exists as pure as it does in our minds.  Hence, in order to present a genuine picture, having realized that the ethnic culture (subject matter) is not there or easily accessible, the artist creates it and stages it. Ethnicity draws attention and exposure;  it can become quite exotic and can have a shock value.  So the artist creates an identity for viewing purposes, re-creating and re-constructing ethnicity for the sake of exposure.

This performative dimension is based on the idea that an artist can actually stage a culture, make spectacles and being an artist, no one is probably going to question it.  Many of these artworks have a quasi-journalistic value and a staged ethnicity combined.  Many have performative values and many come with nostalgic packaging for better emotional effects.  These presentations make art criticism even more interesting and challenging.

Numerous elements in our culture are perfect examples of cultural hybridity. In the zeal to express pure ethnicity, tradition, and/or socio-political problems of our culture through art, new cultures are drawn out so that too often they reflect a homogeneous picture contrary to the  realities of a hybrid culture.

In contemporary Iranian life there are a lot of mixed origins, offspring, and unlike parts. On one hand, Western American pop culture fills the daily life of the majority of our young population within Iran, while at the same time, old traditions, customs, and Persian handicrafts can be found all over the country. The hybridity of our culture is a reality which can not be denied, but when artists stage a unified consciousness of self and the nation, or self and the “exiled” population, as an interlocking unit or element, it can erase many elements of the Iranian cultural contour.

Generalization and stereotyping in visual presentation, stages a unified accepted picture as opposed to a contradictory look which reflects the reality of life in Iran. On the one hand we see a class of people caught up in the westernized culture that has made its way into Iran. T-shirts, jeans and sneaker clad youth, fast food restaurants, computers, TV, and video, are among the effects of the West found even in small towns in Iran. However, we still find alongside these trends, values of innocence, honesty and friendship still intact in our countryside which can be a source of national pride. Today, however, the Iranian ideals of happiness and beauty and homogeneity which are depicted in many of our  miniature paintings or ceremonial scenes of Nowrooz, nature scenes of Mazandaran and the Caspian Sea, the tribal images of women of Kurdestan and Lorestan in colorful dresses dancing and singing in the fields with beautiful horses, while perfect for ads and tourism, can become irritants to many viewers’ critical eye.

In conclusion:

Ethnic flavors in a stylistic context, if incorporated and implemented consciously, with a playful sense, and with a new attitude could actually create great art.  Artworks that are done with the concept of hybridity in mind can go beyond the physical on a deeper level to connect with the viewer on a general level and with the artist on a personal one.  Packaging our art into ethnic and exotic categories is also an individual choice. It is a choice between local, short run, nostalgic, and socio-political issues or more long-term, international issues, with  a universal language.

As artists we all internalize various currents into our systems and in the long run, they show themselves in our work, if not in a direct way but indirectly on different levels.  Thus, a way to tap into the hybridity of our culture is to have a frank conversation with ourselves.  At the same time it is a joy to delve into art that has broad universal themes as well.  For a more comprehensive approach to our contemporary art we need to pay attention to all aspects with a critical eye, without denying the original artistic and aesthetic aspects of it.  As a result, our artistic processes and experiences could be seen within their own context. Only then

can we have an appreciation for what is being produced.

Creating theatrical ethnicity on one hand is agreeable to the mass market in that it helps create jobs, sells goods and is used to promote tourism and business.  On the other hand, it tends to over-simplify cultural issues.  It can negatively affect our artistic and creative process unless it is done consciously in a post-modern and a conceptual context.  In the production of contemporary art special attention is given to creating critical dialogues and engaging

in cultural questions. Creating ethnicity in contemporary art can not be accomplished without frank and intelligent discussions about, identity, the self, and the viewer.  Most importantly, creating ethnicity through art can become instrumental in presenting simulated pictures of our culture, by blurring distinctions, and ignoring issues of pluralism. Effacing and omitting our cultural contours can depict exaggerated images of a culture that is not so

easily accessible for further methodic comparisons.•


1 Pioneers of Contemporary Persian Painting; First Generation, Javad Mojabi, published by Manijeh Mir-‘Emadi, Iranian Art Publishing, 1998.

2 Earth Works, Marcos Grigorian, published in the U.S by Gorky Gallery, 1989.

3 The Picture Is the Window, the Window Is the Picture; An Autobiographical Journey, Abby Weed Grey, New York University Press, the whole section on Iran, 1983.

4 Articles on Monir Farmanfarmaian:

New York Times, May 4,1977

NY Times, Hilton Kramer, Nov 28, 1977

International Herald Tribune, April, 1977

Art News, Malekian, 1978

Art International, Vol. XXII, 1978

Art In America, Oct 1981

New York Times, April 20, 1986.

5 A Decade with Painters of the Islamic Revolution, by the Art Center of Islamic Propagation Organization, compiled by Mostafa Goodarzi, 1989.

6 Coffee-House Painting, Hadi Fays, Published by Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, 1990.

7 Prism, T.W Adorno (London Neville Spearman),1967.

T.W Adorno quoted in “The  Aesthetic Theory of the Frankfurt School, Working Papers in Cultural Studies” (6) 1974.

8 The Affirmative Character of Culture, Negations, H. Marcuse, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972 ).

Also The Aesthetic Dimensions: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, Macmillan, 1979.

9 Thesis on the Philosophy of History, Illuminations, W. Benjamin (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins), 1973.

10 A  Decade with Painters of the Islamic Revolution, published by the Art Center of Islamic Propagation Organization, compiled by Mostafa Goodarzi, 1989.

11 The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Charles Jencks, London Academy Edition, 1977.

12 Post-Modernism, The New Classicism Art and Architecture, Charles Jenks, 1987.

13 The Avant-garde and Popular Culture in Art and Politics, J. Stezaker, 1977.

14 Negareha; Selection of Works, The Second Biennial of Islamic Iranian Painting, Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996.

15 R. Pakbaz in Tavoos Iranian Art Quarterly, autumn 1999.

16 Digital Highways, Local Narratives, Peter Dunn, British artist; 

and Journal of Art and Art Education (27) 1992.

17 Simulations, Jean Baudrillard, New York, 1983.

Also Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, M. Poster. Cambridge and Palo Alto Stanford University Press, 1988.

18 Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, D. Kellnes, Cambridge Polity Press, 1989.

Also Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Art & Politics, W. Chaloupka, Macmillan, 1992.

19 Morteza Katouzian: Book of Paintings published by Negar Publishers.