Looking Beyond the Ayatollah to the Treasures of Iran

By Farah Nayeri

The organizers of a major London exhibition wanted to put politics aside and showcase the country’s rich 5,000-year-old culture. But politics kept getting in the way.

A room in the exhibition “Epic Iran” at the Victoria and Albert Museum that is devoted to Persepolis, the ancient city that was once the capital of the Persian Empire.
A room in the exhibition “Epic Iran” at the Victoria and Albert Museum that is devoted to Persepolis, the ancient city that was once the capital of the Persian Empire.Credit...Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

LONDON — The board game is roughly 4,500 years old. Shaped like a bird of prey, it has holes running down its wings and chest, where the pieces were once positioned. It’s one of a few dozen ancient objects that were set to travel from the National Museum of Iran for a spectacular exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum here. But they never came.

Other artifacts that were set to be shown — as detailed and illustrated and in the catalog for that exhibition “Epic Iran” — included a gold mask, a long-handled silver pan and a carved stone goblet. To secure the loans, the museum was in longstanding talks with the National Museum of Iran until early 2020, said Tristram Hunt, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, also known as the V&A.

“At a certain point, silence began to descend, and I don’t think that was internal to them” he said in an interview. “There were outside political forces.”

Ironically, the overarching purpose of “Epic Iran,” according to Hunt, was to put aside the political tensions that have dogged relations between Iran and the West since the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic Republic.

“We want people to take a step back and understand that Iranian history didn’t begin in 1979,” he said. The point was to look beyond “the paradigm of what is called Islamic fundamentalism, and concerns around nuclear testing and visions of the ayatollah,” he added, and “understand the richness, and breadth, and depth, and complexity, and beauty of Iran.”

On display in the V&A show, which runs through Sept. 12, are an astounding array of artworks and treasures spanning 5,000 years: from the remnants of the earliest civilizations to the creations of contemporary artists living in Iran today. The full gamut of arts and crafts practiced for millenniums in Iran is illustrated with centuries-old carpets, illuminated manuscripts, miniature paintings, sculpted ornaments, court portraits and fine textiles.

ImageSome pieces of 19th-century women’s clothing on display in “Epic Iran.”
Some pieces of 19th-century women’s clothing on display in “Epic Iran.”Credit...Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

More broadly, hostilities between Iran and the West were exacerbated during the presidency of Donald Trump. He pulled the United States out of a 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear capability, toughened economic sanctions against Iran and ordered the killing in January 2020 of Iran’s most powerful security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

Cultural collaborations between Iran and the West have suffered as a result, said Nima Mina, who taught Iranian studies for 20 years at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

“In post-Revolution Iran, everything has been politicized,” he said. Cultural institutions and artists had to align with “a certain ideological and political agenda,” as artists did in the Soviet Union, he said.

“The Islamic Republic is an ideological, autocratic regime, so it’s difficult to be apolitical, even if somebody tries,” he said.

The V&A is not the only Western museum to try and fail to secure loans from Iran. In 2016, a long-planned Berlin exhibition of works from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art was canceled when Iranian officials withheld export permits for the works. Half of these were by Western artists such as Picasso, Gauguin, Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon, and came from a collection assembled before the revolution by Iran’s empress, Farah Pahlavi.

Originally, the V&A — under its former director, Martin Roth — had planned to exhibit the private collection of the Sarikhanis, a British-based family from Iran who own hundreds of pieces of Iranian art and heritage. When Mr. Hunt took over the V&A in February 2017, he decided to turn the exhibition into something broader and more extensive, incorporating treasures from the collections of the V&A and other international museums.

Late-19th-century paintings of mosque dome patterns, from the V&A’s collection, are displayed above other artifacts from the city of Isfahan.Credit...Tom Jamieson for The New York Times
The Cyrus Cylinder, inscribed in cuneiform, dates from the sixth century B.C.Credit...Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

One of the most important objects in the show has been lent to the V&A by the British Museum: the Cyrus Cylinder, a small clay tube from the sixth century B.C. that Cyrus the Great, the Persian Empire’s founder, buried under the walls of Babylon after he conquered it. Etched in cuneiform — the writing of the ancient Babylonians — the Cyrus Cylinder was “a charter for good governance” in which Cyrus pledged not to “rule by oppression and dictatorship and tyranny,” said the exhibition’s co-curator, John Curtis, the British Museum’s former keeper of the Middle East department.

What the cylinder demonstrates is that Iran was a land of religious tolerance, and that it had enlightened rulers two and a half thousand years ago. The British Museum included it in a popular 2005 exhibition, “Forgotten Empire,” which also aimed to open Western minds to the country’s ancient culture and history.

That show received a very important loan from the National Museum of Iran: a silver tablet documenting the foundation of Persepolis, the Persian Empire’s capital city. The tablet traveled to London “in the face of quite considerable press comments and complaints that the British couldn’t be trusted to return them,” said Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director at the time. In return, Iran asked to borrow the Cyrus Cylinder, which traveled to Iran in 2010, amid trepidation in London that it might never come back. (Those fears were unfounded: The priceless object was returned.)

As well as artifacts from Iran’s past, two rooms of “Epic Iran” on modern and contemporary art show that Iranians were active participants in 20th-century art movements, and, today produce cutting-edge photography, painting and installations.

The high ratio of female artists on display — including the photographers Shadi Ghadirian and Shirin Aliabadi — demonstrate that Iranian women have transcended gender inequality and restrictions such as the compulsory veil to produce and display their work.

“Pupa,” center, a 2014 work by Shirazeh Houshiary, on loan from the Mohammad Afkhami Collection.Credit...Shirazeh Houshiary/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

This final section of the show — put together by the associate curator Ina Sarikhani Sandmann, whose family lent extensively to the exhibition — also coincides with the most recent period in Iranian history, a period of revolution and still-raw divisions. Wall texts seem to reflect those tensions.

They refer to “the monarchy’s authoritarian rule, its ties to economically exploitative Western powers, and its self-aggrandizing attempts to channel Iran’s pre-Islamic past,” which incited dissent and led to the revolution. Post-revolutionary Iran, on the other hand, is described as being “isolated” and attempting to open up to the rest of the world “despite hard line domestic policies and international economic sanctions.”

“The choice of words in reference to the Islamic Republic is very cautious,” said Mina, the academic. He said it was probably out of a desire not to “jeopardize” Iran-based artists participating in the show. As a rule, painters, photographers, filmmakers, and sculptors in general had to be “loyal, conformist, or at least not challenge” the government to continue their art practice, he said.

Despite the loan setbacks, Hunt, the V&A director, said he hoped the show would pave the way to collaborations: The exhibition was always intended as a two-way exchange, he said.

“It would always be nice to have a relationship with Tehran, which we’d like to build on in the future,” he added.