Parviz Kimiavi’s Jardin de pierre, 1976.

PARIS - Beating queues that snaked around the entrance to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, I was privileged to catch Unedited History of Iran 1960-2014 bright and early on May 15 – before verdicts and reviews poured in. Co-curated by Morad Montazami, Catherine David, Odile Burluraux, Vali Mahlouji and Narmine Sadeg, this exhibition does exactly what the title suggests: dish up a ‘raw history’ that tells a spell-binding tale. The show is less about market-led artistic discourse and more about socio-political narrative, less visual arts and more artistic journalism – it is a crash-course in understanding a society whose conscience does not cease to question changes in the world and interrogate the trauma, hopes and despair to which it has been subjected.

Fabrice Hergott, the museum director, in his Introduction to the catalogue compares Iran to Egypt as the ‘cradle of civilization’ and sees the Iranian Revolution as the most important revolution of the 20th century alongside the Russian; he attributes the return of religious fundamentalism in the world to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and sees this nation’s geo-political position as vital to the balance of power in the region. With this weighty perspective, it is small wonder that due importance was given to this narrative of a show that examines, above all things, the chronicle of Iran in the modern and contemporary age.

Narmine Sadeg’s Homme-Oiseau, 2014. Collection de l’artiste.

Judiciously, the curators state in their mission-statement that they are not pursuing the Iran Modern model; rather, they wish to showcase profound expressions and connections between the visual culture and diverse legacies generated or re-channelled by means of a body of work that is at once coherent and heterogeneous, even if they seek ruptures as much as continuities. Simply put, the aim is to highlight the Iranian zeitgeist as we see it projected in social and journalistic commentary, cinema, caricature, plastic and visual arts. By reaching deep into the embedded layers of local society, the art on display here is quite different and more telling of a nation as a whole, than what we are accustomed to seeing at Biennales, fairs or other art shows. This is the story of modern Iran, as seen through the eyes of curators who are keen to avoid colonial perspectives and the road well-travelled.

Chohreh Feyzdjou’s Products of Chohreh Feyzdjou, 1988-1992. Courtesy Galerie Patricia Dorfmann, Paris. Centre National des Arts Plastiques, en dépôt au CAPC, musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.

Does it work? I have to say that on one level it was for me one of the most educational and eye-opening shows about Iran I have seen in recent times. The three themes of modernisation (1960 –78), the Revolution and Iran-Iraq War (1979 – 88), and the contemporary scene (1989 – 2014) are helpful in organizing some unwieldy material, marshalling works in a diverse range of media to unfold a narrative. It is difficult not to engage with the perspectives, insights and critical angles – from Ardeshir Mohassess’s satirical commentary to Vali Mahloudji’s expertly-curated section on the ‘archaeology of the final decade’ with the attacks on Tehran’s prostitutes. A nostalgic whistle-stop tour of the Shiraz Arts Festival followed by priceless material from photographic and cinematic archives made for fascinating viewing. A section on Iran-Iraq war martyrs presented by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary propagandist arm added a contrasting commentary.

Bahman Mohassess’ Portrait de la mère de Bahmanh, 1974. Musée d’art contemporain de Téhéran.

But the sections that most captivated me were first-ever showings of a magnificent group of works by Bahman Mohassess (mostly from TMOCA), Behjat Sadr, Mitra Farahani, and two exceptional installations by Narmine Sadeg and the late Chohreh Feyzdjou. This latter work, first shown in Documenta, is a tsunami of an installation: its physical presence overwhelms. Here I wished the show had delved deeper into the artistic, that the catalogue entry had told more about this extraordinary oeuvre – how it encapsulated the artist’s output like a sarcophagus; an abandoned workshop or putrified bazaar that wrapped everything up in wax-like containers, something at once mummified yet seemingly full of a past life. “Black,” said Feyzdjou as I found out later online, “is like darkness; you feel much better when you can no longer see the things you fear.”

And with this, I emerged into the dazzling Paris sunlight where people snacked on the museum terrace to Persian music, without a care in the world.