Grigor Traces Avant-Garde's Return to Tehran Streets

By Loren Michael Mortimer - At a colloquium hosted on February 29, 2016 by the Department of Anthropology's Sociocultural Wing, Talinn Grigor, professor of art history at UC Davis, presented a talk entitled "The (re)Turn of the Avant-garde to the Streets of Tehran." Dr. Grigor explained how and why the avant-garde in Iranian art shifted away from monumental architecture and into the streets and art studios of post-Revolutionary Iran.

During the 1920s, the constitutional monarchy of Reza Shah Pahlavi used monumental architecture to define the political and cultural parameters of a modern, secular Iran. Professor Grigor explained that the government wanted to inscribe “timeless” Iranian values on a landscape through avant-garde architecture, sponsoring the construction of grand monuments at the tombs of national heroes such as the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam. These new monuments formed a new map of Iranian heritage—one on which old Shia routes were obscured by new, secular sites of pilgrimage. Former religious pilgrimage sites became new loci of national tourism.

Monumental obsession

The Pahlavi dynasty’s obsession with national monument construction continued during the reign of Reza Shah’s son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled from 1941 until his deposition in 1979. The Shah saw himself as the embodiment of the Iranian avant-garde movement, even if his monumental architectural projects, such as the Borj-e Shahyād, reproduced modern power structures rather than revolutionary values. (Built in 1971 to honor the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the first Persian Empire, the Borj-e Shahyād blended elements of Iran’s pre-Islamic past with modernist architecture in celebration of the Shah’s secular “revolutionary” modernization programs.)

As the Islamic revolutionary began to gain momentum in the late 1970s, the Iranian avant-garde could not muster dissenting philosophy of its own. To that end, most prominent artists fled the country with the Shah, including the architect who designed the Borj-e Shahyād, Hossein Amanat. After the 1979 Revolution, the theocratic government under the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini banned western-style art and abandoned Pahlevi-era monuments to Iran’s pre-Islamic past and secular monarch. Because it was a focal point for popular resistance against the Shah, Borj-e Shahyād was not destroyed. Rather, it was renamed Borj-e Āzādī—the “Liberty Tower”—and would remain a symbolic site of popular protest (notably in 2009 during demonstrations against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).

Revolutionary connotations

In the first decade after the revolution, the avant-garde vanished from the public sphere, as that realm became the domain of the state. By the early 1990s, however, the avant-garde re-emerged in Iranian paintings rather than architecture. The sites of production were the private studio or the home rather than the public streets of Tehran. Painting became subversive and the avant-garde took on revolutionary connotations, no longer simply serving as royal propaganda.

Avant-garde painting became overtly political during the 2009 Green Movement. Just as Americans plant lawn signs in their yard in support of a particular political candidate, Iranians painted their houses and neighborhoods during the 2009 Presidential elections.

Opponents of Ahmadinejad’s conservative government expressed their support for opposition leader (and painter) Mir-Hossein Mousavi with green paint, demanding extra protections for artists and artistic expression. Discourse, teaching, and display, they argued, must not be limited to a small circle, but must instead be returned to the public sphere. Mousavi’s campaign styled him as “revolutionary architect” of Iran’s tomorrow and featured campaign literature that seemed to echo the Shah’s use of the avant-garde in the service of a political agenda.

Visions of modernity

While the 2009 elections returned Ahmadinejad to power by 2/3 margin, widespread allegations of election rigging sparked mass protests in Azadi square. In response, Ahmadinejad’s government banned the public display of the color green—even the purchase of green paint was punishable by arrest and imprisonment.

Even though the avant-garde once again retreated to the private sphere following the 2009-2010 Green Movement, painting remains a vibrant force in political and cultural life in Tehran. In galleries and private homes, Dr. Grigor said, avant-garde painters use their art to articulate their own visions of Iranian modernity.

Learn more about Talinn Grigor at her faculty webpage.