This article originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar Arabia magazine.

Underscoring the growing importance of the region, Sothebys recently staged five Middle East-related sales, re-launching London as the sale platform for Arab, Iranian and Turkish art on the international platform, and also showcasing a landmark, first-ever single-owner sale of an Iranian collection. It goes without saying that with the increased interest in the local art scenes, there were unprecedented numbers of first-time buyers, especially in the single-owner sale. The lifting of Iranian sanctions, still slow to be rolled out in its full version, has nevertheless instilled optimism and fevered interest in the future of that country's place in the regional art market. I am privileged to be frequently consulted about the status and potential of Iranian art, particularly with respect to new artists, and although the value still lies in the work of modern masters, we watch with keen enthusiasm the evolution of the local sales and auctions. Returning to Iran at the end of May for the first time after many years, it will be a fascinating experience to participate in an educational panel at the invitation of the Niavaran Cultural Centre where I was seconded from TMOCA to engage with an expanding strategy for art publications. The region is vibrant with possibilities.


Tehran in the 1970s was a time of heady artistic and cultural growth. Unsurprisingly, this was connected to two main factors: an oil-fuelled economy and the supportive and enthusiastic Empress Farah Diba. Already in the late 1960s, intellectual circles and artistic innovations by a handful of modern masters, who later came to be known as the ‘Saqqa Khaneh’ group, were pushing boundaries and coming away from the miniaturist traditions strongly taught in the Dar al Funun. The new idea of anthropology and the writings of Iraj Afshar veered cultural perspectives towards folklore and indigenous motifs as valid subjects of exploration. The enlightened circles were small, writers and artists knew each other and would often interact—though not as cohesively as with the Bauhaus movement, for example. Neighbouring populist cultures, such as Bollywood cinema (pervasive in Iran) or the prominence of Egypt as a key regional figure, subtly influenced thinking and evolution. Artists travelled more frequently abroad—as far afi eld as Japan, USA, Italy and Paris. These exposures meant a new artistic climate.


By the early 1970s, plans were afoot for major museum development, spearheaded by the passion of the Empress. The Carpet Museum, Negaristan Museum, Niavaran Cultural Centre and the now well-known Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, all opened or became dynamically active within a few years of each other. Mrs Naz Diba, cousin of the Empress, headed the Carpet Museum that was built in close proximity to TMOCA, in turn designed and headed by her architect brother Kamran Diba. The Negaristan Museum was directed by Dr Layla Diba, and the Niavaran Cultural Centre by the late Firouz Shirvanloo. It was a time of rapid change and exciting experimentation—some of which felt premature or ahead of its time. This too was occasionally the sentiment with the extraordinary Shiraz Arts Festival. A series of art events, performances, workshops, films, and shows that rivalled anything produced in the West, and that exposed the Iranian populace to what was happening in the rest of the world. While the newly formed country of the United Arab Emirates (1971) was also committed to an art programme in the Emirate of Sharjah, it is often ignored that the first regional Biennale happened in Tehran as early as 1958. There was a clear sense of cultural ‘pioneering’, and adventurousness in what could be accomplished. Assyrian artist Hannibal Alkhas and his generation created a sense of possibility and cross-fertilisation: Armenian, Turkic, Southern, and Assyrian artists expressed themselves as Iranians fi rst and foremost—in a country that has historically struggled with a tribal and ethnically diverse population. Avant-garde artists of the 1970s, the most important of which is the still-active Parviz Tanavoli, optimised this new sense of possibility by exploring and showcasing indigenous motifs and local heritage. It became trendy to show a local ‘adobelike’ landscape by artist Mohamed Radvand, while Monir Farmanfarmaian delved into the mirror-mosaics of shrines.


Freshly graduated from Harvard and after a few years at UNESCO, I was encouraged to return to Iran to play more of a role in this dynamic environment. As a gallery hand for Homa Zand in her eponymous gallery, which was a first of its kind (showing avant-garde Western art), I came to know the various artists that she and her business partner Fereydoun Ave represented. The Empress would attend some of the openings, and her personal attention drove home the importance of this aspect of life. Amongst the educated elite, an interest in art and culture became pervasive. But before too long, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art needed skilled staff. Kamran Diba invited me to join him as the fi rst employee in what was then a hardhat area, and within a year, the museum became ready for opening with a chief curator in the person of David Galloway, and American Judson Chrisney on the managerial side. We worked tirelessly around the clock to meet the launch deadline, and both His Majesty and the Empress paid unannounced inspection visits. The opening itself was second only to the glamour and importance of the 2,500 Year Celebrations in 1971. Dignitaries, art critics, artists and dealers from around the world attended the unveiling of what was undoubtedly the most progressive regional institution.

Meanwhile, parallel activities were happening at the Niavaran Cultural Centre where the focus was on publications. A major bi-lingual volume entitled The Avesta was published under its auspices, and well-known artist Massoud Arabshahi was commissioned to produce a large number of landmark illustrations. I was asked to do the translation, but years later when I tried to obtain a volume to gift to a library, I discovered that many copies had been destroyed, as they were not Islamic texts. Other important, award-winning publications for a young readership such as Little Black Fish appeared through the output of Kanoon-e Parvaresh Fekri-e Kudakan, many of which were under the supervision of the Empress’s office. Even the Iranian Radio and Television service, led by Reza Ghotbi, proactively promoted the appreciation of music—both Western and Iranian—performance, theatre, film, and so on, generating a rich cultural output that came to receive homage in a major 2014 show at the Paris Museum of Modern Art under the title of Iran: Unedited History.

Iran’s story of cultural and artistic evolution continues to be written. The next exciting chapter is still to come, and the world looks forward with anticipation and hope.