What People do with Images: Aesthetics, Politics and the Production of Iranian Visual Culture in Transnational Circuits 1912385422, 9781912385423

Rejecting broad-brush definitions of post-revolutionary art, What People Do With Images provides a nuanced account of ar

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What People do with Images: Aesthetics, Politics and the Production of Iranian Visual Culture in Transnational Circuits
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First published in 2022 by Sean Kingston Publishing www.seankingston.co. uk Canon Pyon © 2022 Mazyar Lotfalian

Foreword © 2022 Pamela Karimi Preface © 2022 Michael M.J. Fischer All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of Sean Kingston Publishing. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. The moral rights of the editors and authors have been asserted.


Cover image: Rostam 2: Returns at age 30 having been brought up abroad. Siamak Filizadeh, 2oo8.

ISBN 978-1-912385-42-3

What people do with images Aesthetics, politics and the production of Iranian visual culture in transnational circuits


Sean Kingston Publishing www.seankingston.co .uk Canon Pyon



Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian artistic productions and visual culture have gone through many phases. However, in cu~atorial practices, textbooks, and art-history classrooms, these vast bodies of art and visual cultural materials are often painted with the same brush, ana designated under the umbrella category of post-revolutionary art. This ignores the many nuances to these productions, which reflect the socio-political and economic turns that the country has experienced in the past four decades. On the face of it, all governmental officials and bureaucratic establishments i.n Iran follow the ideological values of the Islamic Republic. However, since 'the revolution every Iranian president has come with his own slightly different agenda as to what cultural productions should look like, what they should signify, and how they must be delivered to Iranian or international audiences. But Iran's social atmosphere and cultural creations are not bound only to internal politics. Due to its geopolitical situation and its imposing leadership structure, Iran has been a hotspot for global mainstream media. By sensationalizing Iranian art, by rendering it as Islamic or un-Islamic, and by framing it as overtly political or oppositional, these media platforms inadvertently define the fate of art production in Iran. Every time that negative or positive news spreads in the Iranian art community, those inside Iran are also affected. Time and again we have seen how, for example, the celebration of a particular award-winning film or an art project at a high-profile event has influenced the ways in which the Iranian government monitors art. Tragic events and political shifts in the region have also affected the arts. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the ensuing Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, a wave of Islamophia hit the entire Muslim world, including Iran. US Presidential elections were particularly crucial for Iran's politics, economy, and, henceforth, cultural productions. Particularly since Iran's clandestine uranium enrichment programme of the early 2ooos, the outcomes of US elections have had an impact on Iran's politics and economy, and these developments, in turn, have firmly influenced all forms of cultural production related to Iran. It is in light of these transformations in the actual and perceived structures of the Iranian society and its politics and economy that post-revolutionary Iranian art must be studied and explored within the framework of specific historical junctures, genres and themes. Indeed, in order to do justice to the variety of art produced in Iran, there is a need for careful in-depth studies of . certain decades with their particularities. Set in this light, Lotfalian's current study carefully delves into the arts of the first fifteen years of the twenty-first




century. These years were exceptional and formative in multiple ways. Artists in the early 2ooos enjoyed the relative freedom of expression granted to the Iranian people by President Mohammad Khatami's administration. Khatami's reformist approach also led to a boom in the art market, both inside and outside Iran. By the time of Khatami's second term in 2001, more progressive administrators had been assigned to cultural institutions and museums. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art thrived at this juncture, offering a number of important and bold exhibitions of both Iranian and global art. Many new galleries came to be, all steadily able to secure permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for most artworks that went on their walls. With the 2005 presidential election of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, all forms of cultural productions took a different turn. More than a dozen reformist newspapers closed and many more were suspended, their editors fired or interrogated and punished. Satellite dishes receiving Western TV broadcasts were banned. Although many people owned them, they were subject to a nationwide search by the morality police. The shift in official art venues came with the 2oo6 launch of a major exhibition dedicated to criticizing Israel's policies, at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The 2009 (1388 in the Iranian calendar) Iranian Green Movement (]onbesh-e Sabz) may have been overshadowed by the Arab Spring, but in local collective memory, it is still considered a very important shift in Iran's recent history, one that arose after the 2009 Iranian presidential election and in which protesters demanded the removal of Ahmadinejad from office. Green was initially used as the symbol of the campaign of Ahmadinejad's opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, but after the election, it became the marker of a clash between civilians and the government. At first, those who protested the results of the election were largely non-violent, but then conflicts broke out between police and those protesting. The conflicts became more and more fierce, and many people, most of them young and passionate Mousavi supporters, were harmed, lost their lives, or ended up in prison. The Green Movement is so important that when Iranian artists and curators speak of their projects, they often refer to pre- or post-1388 to signify the political atmosphere in which the artwork was produced. During this time, more restrictions were placed on art and artists. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance became stricter with regard to which gallery and museum exhibitions it granted permission to. As a result of these negative developments, the artistic community began to be organized into ever-more private venues, outside the purview of the government. The government, in



turn, appropriated aspects of these private P,latforms to bring them into the limelight and, ultimately, to better regulate them. Between 2ooo and 2015, Iranian diasporic art was equally bound to the international politics of Iran and the region. During the Bush administration and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Iranians faced more difficulties in accessing international art scenes. However, at the same time, more p.ttention was given to the Iranian and Middle Eastern art produced by more established diasporic figures like Shirin Neshat. Then, during the Obama administration, a younger generation of Iranian artists could travel more freely to Europe and America, and a new wave of diasporic art thrived, despite the economic sanctions imposed on Iran because of activities related to its nuclear programme. But in contrast, during the ensuing Trump administration travel to Iran and from Iran to Euro-American destinations once again became much more restricted and economic sanctions became more severe. It is against these political transformations that we can appreciate the transformation of art in the formative period studied by Lotfalian. Here Lotfalian presents art in the important political junctures of the first fifteen years of this century with utmost. care and attention. Beautifully written and from a deeply personal perspective, Lotfalian's narrative engages not only with the works of art and their producers, but also with the ways in which they relate to significant sociopolitical developments. Above all, and as the title of the book clearly suggests, Lotfalian reflects on the ways in which artists, musicians and filmmakers make meaning through their words and images, and how, in turn, the audiences of these materials interpret and understand (or misunderstand) their associations. What People Do with Images focuses mostly on Iranian art, visual culture and film. However, in a broader sense it is a study of how identity politics is mediated by creative acts and images within the transnational socio-political spheres. What's more, as an all.thropologist Lotfalian explores how artforms correspond to theoretical and methodological concerns in the field of critical theory. By relying on theoretical frameworks from the diverse fields of cultural studies and ethnography, he broadens the limits of critical theory itself. Indeed, through many examples and case studies, Lotfalian incisively shows the potential of critical theory and its latent application in various global and diasporic contexts. I find Lotfalian's thoughtful analysis and clear prose exceptionally enlightening. I have no doubt that this rich, yet accessible study will be of immense interest to scholars and practitioners of art in Iran and elsewhere in the Global South and their respective diasporas. Pamela Karimi University ofMassachusetts



Mazyar Lotfalian's What People do With Images is an astonishingly lucid and important piece of ethnogr.aphy and social theorizing ab_out art conducted over the years since 2001, with 'increasing range and sophisticati?n. Beautifully and invitingly written, often counterintuitive and disturbing of conventional categories, the title is a response to, or in dialogue with, visual arts theorist and critic WT.J. Mitchell's What Do Pictures Want? Mitchell himself declares images, rather than pictures, as the more important object of attention, and Lotfalian picks up on this conceptual difference, including Mitchell's notion of 'addressing images; that Lotfalian extends for increasingly post-democratic · and a-liberal societies. Lotfalian rightly says 'We seem to have entered an age where aesthetics and politics are technologically conditioned: He uses French philosopher Jacques Ranciere's idea that aesthetics be understood as going beyond the strict realm of art, that it is a form of politics that contests and changes 'the conceptual coordinates an