LONDON – Ahead of last month’s Orientalist and Middle Eastern Week sales, Sotheby’s in London invited guests along to a discussion on Iran’s flourishing art scene. The panel was chaired by Rebecca Anne Proctor, Editor-In-Chief of Harper's Bazaar Art Arabia and featured Roxane Zand, Sotheby's Deputy Chairman for the Middle East alongside Rose Issa, a pioneering curator, writer and critic and former gallery owner, and ShirinTavakolian, director and owner of Shirin Gallery in Tehran and New York. Take a look below at some highlights from the discussion.


Rebecca Anne Proctor:  Iran’s art scene has flourished recently. There was a beautiful retrospective of Farideh Lashai at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art which included a series of works of Western art that haven't been viewed for several decades. This was a real opening of the scene to the international public and it made headlines around the world. Roxane, you played an instrumental role in the museum in the 1970s. What memories do you have from those pivotal years?

Roxane Zand: It was quite a privilege to be among the first employees there. I started travelling to Dubai and Abu Dhabi for Sotheby's in 2006 and it was fascinating for me to draw parallels between the museum building that is happening today in the Gulf and what I experienced personally in Tehran in the 1970s. And you would be surprised: there were actually quite a few parallels. By that I mean that skilled labour was scarce, there were literally one or two people at the start who had the skills and then other expertise was hired from the outside. And as a girl Friday, I used to multitask so I would help hire a photographer, I would run errands, I would go down to the basement and clean; whatever came up I was tasked to do that.

RAP: You’ve worked with many artists and modernists. What do you remember about those moments?

RZ: Some of the artists were quite reclusive actually. There is this perception that there was perhaps an artists' salon or discourse but it wasn't so. People were disparate; even though I knew them personally and I would see them from time to time, there wasn't a gathering. There are 197 galleries in Tehran today. But what is an art scene? An art scene is a situation where people connect. How connected are the artists today in Tehran? That's the particular question.


RAP: Rose, you were also involved in the Tehran art scene during the 1970s. What are your memories of that time?

Rose Issa: The Seventies were a very short period of prosperity in the region. The price of oil had quadrupled. In Europe it was a crisis but in Iran it was the contrary: we could buy Rothkos and Jackson Pollocks, it was an extremely prosperous time. Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Elizabeth Taylor – everybody went to Tehran. So there were a lot of activities going on.

RAP: You were very instrumental in promoting Iranian artists abroad when you came to the UK in the 1980s. Why was it so important to promote these artists?

RI: Mainly because 30 years ago there was no platform here. There was no platform for any voices from the Middle East, for Iranian or Arab artists. None of us had really voted for any president or anything. So the only voice that you would hear was, in particular, political criticism of the region, and very few were talking about what was going down. And yet all these artists existed. I set up several exhibitions of Iranian artists at Leighton House and then the first major exhibition at the Barbican in 2001. The good thing about that exhibition was that the collection came from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. I wanted to show what Iran was producing both twenty years before the revolution and twenty years after it.

RAP: What did the public think?

RI: The public were fantastic and there was overwhelming attendance. The Minister of Culture came, the Iranian Ambassador came. Sotheby's very kindly launched a dinner and a lunch, and in fact that is when Kamran Diba met Alireza Sami Azar, who was then the Director of the Tehran Museum; many people met during that time. It is also thanks to Roxane, who introduced me to the Iran Heritage Foundation, who partly sponsored that event.


RAP: Shirin, you’ve opened a gallery in New York – how has it been perceived?

ST: There is a need. People are eager to know about Iranian art and, having my American passport, the States was an easier place for me to open up the gallery. So in 2013 I opened up this place which has been very good up until now and I'm surprised that it has been almost three years and a half years. If I can do it in New York I can do it everywhere I think.

RAP: Rose, how would you compare what was happening in Iran with what was happening in Beirut in the 1970s? How do you see those two distinct periods working with those artists? How did they mirror each other?

RI: Because the price of oil had quadrupled, people could still buy, and the galleries existed. But with the civil war Lebanon lost everything. People forgot Lebanon for fifteen years, the same way that after the Iranian revolution for ten years nothing was happening because Saddam attacked Iran from 1980 to '88 so everything stopped. For Iran the '70s were fantastic. 1978, ‘79, a fortunate, creative time. The museum opened, the Niavaran Culture Centre opened, then the revolution happened and everything stopped for another ten years. And it took a long time, almost till 2000.


RAP: In that dry spell after the Iranian revolution, was there art creation? Does trauma influence art?

RZ: In terms of art production, a war and political trauma does give birth to sort of a wave of production as we've seen. For example, the Qatar Museum Authority has started a massive archive of everything that has been produced artistically as a response to the Arab spring.

RAP: What about the Iranian public? What was their interaction with art in the 1970s and how does that compare to today?

RZ: I’m sure the Iranians amongst us today, who are of my generation, will remember that there was a certain disconnect between the Iranian public and the art that was being bought then to fill the museums. Even I would see several works of art which it took me some time to establish a relationship or a familiarity with because it was new to us. They could understand that there was something important there but they felt as if they were distant from it. One thing that strikes me about today and what is happening now in Tehran is that  there's a freedom for everybody to take part in art activities. Everybody can go to a gallery whereas in my day, being in Tehran in the '70s, it was still considered a very elitist thing. And the most recent demonstration outside the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, to keep the management or the Museum where it is, I think demonstrates the fact that people see the collection as belonging to them, as belonging to the nation, as being something that is for the people, so to speak, instead of being something private and moving on. So I think there is a shift in attitude about what art means, who has the ownership of that art, and how people relate to it.