Tehran Roundtable

With Fereydoun Ave, Kamran Diba, Bita Fayyazi, Anahita Ghabaian-Etehadieh, Amirali Ghasemi, Lili Golestan, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, Rose Issa, Sohrab Mahdavi, Sohrab Mohebbi

There have been six auctions of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art in Dubai and London over the past two years. Records have been broken, particularly for Iranian artists. At Christie’s fourth sale in Dubai in April 2008, works by sculptor Parviz Tanavoli and modern calligraphic painters Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Mohammed Ehsai all sold for over one million dollars, with Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis) fetching $2.8 million, a record price at auction for a modern or contemporary Middle Eastern artist. Of the top ten lots in that sale, which included Arab and Western art, seven were by Iranian artists.

Contemporary practitioners such as Rokni Haerizadeh and Farhad Moshiri are attracting the attention of supercollectors, including Charles Saatchi and Steve Cohen. New galleries spring up each month in Dubai and elsewhere in the Gulf, many specializing in Iranian art. Of course, Tehran has long had a market of its own and boasts the largest network of galleries in the Middle East. But this explosion of international interest has certainly had an impact back home.

Bidoun posed questions to a panel of artists, gallerists, curators, collectors, and critics, aiming to generate debate on how the Dubai frenzy is transforming the Iranian art market.

Antonia Carver: How has the art market in Iran changed over the last couple of years? Is there really a revolution taking place?

Rose Issa: Yes, it’s part of a wider movement that includes Shanghai and Delhi as well as Tehran and Dubai, but in Iran now, people are selling works before they even buy them. It’s an upheaval. Artists are at a loss sometimes — they cannot price their work, they do not belong to any professional gallery that can control prices, there’s collector/speculator’s greed, and they are trying to find the middle way. It’s not easy to handle.

Lili Golestan: The change in the last few years has been huge. Our regular collectors have been joined by new, young people who know they can sell on next year for double the price. My openings every Friday are very crowded.

Rokni Haerizadeh: These are mainly people in their thirties and forties who were educated abroad and came back to Iran as entrepreneurs, starting lucrative businesses and beginning a new trend of investing in contemporary art.

Kamran Diba: For the first time, there’s a speculative market. The foundations were laid in the 1970s by the generation that includes Zenderoudi and Tanavoli. There weren’t so many big collectors then, but people bought and lived with their art. What Tehran has is talent, energy, dynamism, and individual initiative; it’s been further energized by this new market and will remain a powerhouse.

AC: Is this solely owing to the “Dubai effect”?

Anahita Ghabaian-Etehadieh: Yes, particularly the Christie’s and Bonhams auctions in Dubai. The number of artists exhibiting has increased, and their prices [have increased] by ten to one hundred times.

Sohrab Mahdavi: There’s no denying that the Dubai art phenomenon has affected the Tehran scene, but so have Nike, brand consciousness, market populism, Hollywood, and countless other items that influence the way artists see the world. The Dubai phenomenon — and its scale — is new, so the dust that it’s raising gets into your eyes faster.

Fereydoun Ave: The interesting story here is the banks — of course, Tanavoli’s The Wall was put on the market by an Iranian bank. The new blue-chip stock for the banks is contemporary Iranian art, which is cheaper than real estate and more portable.

AC: What about the wider, international impact on Iranian art?

Sohrab Mahdavi: Iranian artists are now aware of a huge opportunity beyond Iran’s border, after watching the success stories of Rokni [Haerizadeh] and Farhad [Moshiri]. This does not necessarily mean immediate international recognition, though I do believe that the tumid Dubai market will encourage Iranian curators and organizers, like the Iran Heritage Foundation and Morad Saghafi [curator of ‘Collected Memories’ held in London in October 2007], to continue with their efforts to cash in on the Dubai boom elsewhere.

Anahita Ghabaian-Etehadieh: The Dubai effect is so obvious in Iran, but it hasn’t influenced sales in Europe [yet]. Chinese art, for example, is now a part of most European art fairs, but Iranian art doesn’t figure. And Sotheby’s auction [of Middle Eastern contemporary art] in London in October 2007 didn’t cause an extraordinary leap in prices [like the Dubai auctions have].

Amirali Ghasemi: I can track two major trends in the history of exhibitions tagged “Iranian art.” Both use the art and artists to create a political image, either positive or dark, and both are destructive. The rest of the shows suffer from a lack of discourse, turning them into nothing more than a bazaar — even with their fancy names and prestigious venues — showcasing more or less the same list of artists.

AC: A year ago, there were clear steps up in price between artists’ studios, Tehran galleries, Dubai galleries, and then Dubai auctions. Is this still the case?

Sohrab Mahdavi: Due to steady inflation, the rising oil price, and the fiscal policies of the Ahmadinejad government, the price of most commodities in Iran has been so erratic as to defy any logic. The new “rich on inflation” are looking at art as an investment, one that also carries the mark of ‘taste,’ an essential for an economic class that also needs to prove that it deserves social recognition.

Fereydoun Ave: Generally, there’s been a 50 to 400 percent rise in prices in Tehran galleries over the past two years. I had a show by Ramin Haerizadeh at 13 Vanak Street recently, and the prices were almost the same as in Dubai, and they sold well.

Bita Fayyazi: The price increases concern all artworks: those [that] were greatly undervalued and also the mediocre. We believe it was about time that the world realized that there are good artists here working hard to express themselves and be recognized internationally.

AC: Are long-term Tehran collectors being priced out of the market?

Kamran Diba: Yes. These collectors are the bread and butter, but now it’s Iranian expats [who] are buying. There’ll be some correction, and the inconsistencies need to be ironed out — many artists will realize that they should focus on the local market first.

Bita Fayyazi: The old collectors find popular artists increasingly unaffordable and often expect high discounts. Most of the time they give up trying to bargain and leave the studio empty-handed.

Sohrab Mohebbi: Old-school collectors in Iran in a way are still more interested in their own generation, and most downgrade the young artists — I think there is some sort of an “old vs new” war going on, which is so Iranian.

AC: Who is collecting in Iran now?

Sohrab Mohebbi: There is this wave of new, post-revolutionary, rich collectors [who] have money but don’t know what to buy. Many of the decisions are made depending on how and through whom they are introduced to the art world.

The Dubai scene has made Iranians outside more interested in collecting, and there’s some sense of a national pride involved, in collecting and also boosting the value of the art.

AC: What are the dangers inherent in this market boom?

Rose Issa: Now everybody is a collector, an advisor, a curator. Impressionist dealers and collectors and art funds are now “contemporary” experts, with exhibitions in London and the USA. Anahita Ghabaian-Etehadieh: [For] a gallerist, this Dubai effect has advantages — Iranian art is getting the reputation it deserves — and disadvantages — some artists’ prices are flying up, cutting out collectors who piece together collections over time. Most of the collectors are Iranian or based in the Emirates, which isn’t necessarily good for the presence of Iranian art internationally.

Fereydoun Ave: The generation that includes Mohammed Ehsai, Zenderoudi, Tanavoli, Saidi, and Assar is established, and finally getting prices above $100,000. This is justice. Farhad Moshiri hasn’t had his head turned by the auction prices and continues with a gradual pricing of his work, still putting his work on the market for $150,000.

Lili Golestan: But some young people, who don’t have a background, want the same prices, and can probably get them. But I’m not going to allow this in my gallery. I encourage these young painters to sell more for less and increase their collector base.

Sohrab Mahdavi: It’s too soon to say. The obvious danger, of course, is that some artists may go after what they think the market wants. Still, there are artists who have used the market boom to hone their skills and to critically look at their society and the world. For Rokni Haerizadeh, for example, Dubai has done good. Others, I’m not sure about, especially those who are now focusing on calligraphy simply because it may sell.

Amirali Ghasemi: From an outsider’s perspective, the current Tehran art market has an oligarchic structure. It’s a closed circle. This temporary, artificial power structure makes everybody speak about money. The artists I work with seem to ask “What’s in it for me?” more and more and are becoming disinterested in experimental projects or even international projects abroad. Dubai for me is a one-way export route: have you heard anything coming from Dubai to Tehran except gossip and auction reports? It’s fashionable to say that Tehran has nothing to offer except certain artists, but what we’re really missing is art education and research, and Dubai, with all its power, hasn’t invested in this at all. [In Iran] the toddling independent art scene is commonly ignored by both elite intellectuals and the few existing art magazines with their limited readership.

Kamran Diba: The Iranian government didn’t take the opportunity to collect [contemporary Iranian art], and now it’s likely that they can’t afford it. This is a national loss. There’s a strong regional museum building program, but the art world would appreciate more. Another point is that Tehran is isolated [internationally] — once artists make money and become secure, they think about leaving, and then we have a possible talent drain.

AC: Could it be a bubble?

Lili Golestan: Everyone asks this in Tehran, but we have a lot of very good young painters, such as Rokni Haerizadeh and Golnaz Fathi, and they should be famous in a few years – providing they have the support they need. This generation of young painters can hardly breathe at the moment, and they need time to know who they are.

Fereydoun Ave: There’s a flood of Iranians abroad wanting to sell their collections in Iran and Dubai. Is there an appreciation for art or just art prices? In Dubai, I fear some of the support is artificial.

AC: What impact is this having on artists?

Kamran Diba: It’s good for most artists — some have more money than their collectors now! Some will break away from the pack and lose the national tag — become “artists” rather than “Iranian artists.” Sohrab Mahdavi: We’ve seen higher prices for established artists, but I believe the third generation of Iranian painters — Ahmad Morshedloo, Golnar Tabibzadeh, Golnaz Fathi, Samira Alikhanzadeh (who is also working with photographs), Shantia zakerameli, for example — has been affected most, and it will continue to impact the next generation even more. Although, again, the Dubai phenomenon is in its nascence… Rose Issa: And it will be difficult for artists to work and sustain the prices without major public shows. Artists need exhibitions, publications, recognition, international exposure, and hopefully good representation, wherever they are. I’m happy that many are now living comfortably. That will encourage them to produce better works and enjoy the success.

AC: Obviously some artists, particularly painters, have been more “successful” — in terms of price, at least — in the Gulf than others. Has this created a two-tier system?

Fereydoun Ave: Yes. In Tehran, there are auction artists and non-auction artists, and the two camps are divided on price, even though the former might not be any more talented or international — they are just caught in the hype. Unfortunately, the auction houses want artists with an auction track record, so they end up with the same artists every time.

Amirali Ghasemi: Yes, to a degree. There are more and more young, middle- to upper-class artists joining in, especially in new media and video. They are not necessarily producing anything market-ready — safe from this fuss, they’re riding their own bicycles!

Sohrab Mahdavi: Artists making interesting work in video, installation, and photography — like Barbad Golshiri, Jinoos Taghizadeh, Neda Razavipour, Shahab Fotouhi, and Arash Hanai — don’t stand to benefit at the moment. These “minority artists” remain a force against the dominant current, even if they are outside the sphere of representation and the cycle of capital.

Ramin Haerizadeh: Although hopefully the ongoing Sharjah Biennial and the opening of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will build a wider platform for Iranian art, whatever the medium.

Sohrab Mohebbi: I personally don’t see that much of a two-tier system. The Tehran art scene is basically private. Galleries exhibit to profit, and even public places like Farhangsara Niyavaran or Tehran Gallery are state-run private galleries. You need permissions for publishing and performances but not for visual arts — I think that gave artists a better chance to evolve.

AC: Is the gallery system working?

Sohrab Mohebbi: Apart from Fereydoun Ave, most Iranian gallerists are still dealing with the new current in the art market. They don’t sign artists, yet expect them not to work with other galleries — so they end up losing the good ones. The prestige of a gallery in Tehran seems to be down to whether it is fully booked or not, rather than what it actually shows. The Iranian art scene still lacks professional workers — gallerists, curators, advisors, and so on — although with the rise of the market, some took on these roles. And “advisors” — people who know the artist or know people [who] have bought their work — appear out of the woodwork.

Ramin Haerizadeh: Rokni, Bita, and I discuss this — the whole “Dubai art affair” has started a new culture here in Tehran, and galleries are acting more enthusiastically than they used to five years ago. Even so, Dubai is more professional at the moment, and viewers there are more open [to new work], even though we share the same “red lines” [religious restrictions].

Fereydoun Ave: Many [new collectors] go straight to the artist, and there’s this mass-buying from studios. In general, there’s little allegiance and no contracts between gallerist and artist. So when it comes to the galleries, prices are stronger, but nowhere near auction houses.

Kamran Diba: And if artists sell out of their studios and become merchants, this weakens them and the gallery system.

Lili Golestan: Collectors do come to the gallery, they ask questions about the work and what they should buy. But we need more of this, more analysis, more discussion.

AC: So what about critical discourse, building a canon that isn’t “checkbook art history”?

Lili Golestan: The lack of critics is a problem — unfortunately, most of the media just describes what’s happening and the auction results, that’s it.

Bita Fayyazi: Yes. There’s a lack of in-depth professional discourse and critique. The movement is bringing increased recognition for artists, but it has a long way to go yet in terms of becoming a healthy, sound art scene.

Amirali Ghasemi: It comes back to the education issue. Many Iranian artists haven’t seen contemporary art beyond their books or computer monitors. There’s a lot [that] has to be done, from inviting international artists to hold exhibitions in Iran, to organizing workshops and talks to break the old-fashioned ways of categorizing art and opening up ideas of what can be considered contemporary. Rarely discovered places such as Azad Art Gallery are forward-thinking enough to host these kinds of gatherings.