Art in exile: From Tehran to Brooklyn

BY News Desk  October 12, 2013 at 10:30 AM EDT

Nicky Nodjoumi’s artwork walks a fine line between art and politics. After the ousting of the Shah in 1979, the new Khomeini regime began strictly regulating artistic expression. Nodjoumi was exiled after a Tehran exhibition in 1980.”They saw the show and they labeled me as anti-revolution, anti-Khomeini, and anti-regime.” Click to enlarge additional images

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Through symbolism and caricatures of people in power, Nicky Nodjoumi’s artwork walks a fine line between art and politics.

NICKY NODJOUMI: I don’t have a clear idea. I play with ideas and put them together.

There is there is some ambiguity in the arts.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But that ambiguity didn’t prevent him from facing sharp criticism in his homeland of Iran after the ousting of the Shah in 1979, the new Khomeini regime began strictly regulating artistic expression. Artwork like Nodjoumi’s was considered off limits.

NICKY NODJOUMI: The art in Iran died for ten years almost after revolution. A lot of people went out. A lot of people went underground. A lot of people didn’t work at all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nodjoumi was exiled from Iran after an exhibition of his works in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1980.

NICKY NODJOUMI: They saw the show and they label me as anti-revolution, anti-Khomeini, and anti-regime. I had the call two days later. “Don’t talk to anyone. Just stay away. If you can, get out of the country.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you left?

NICKY NODJOUMI: And I left.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you left your paintings?

NICKY NODJOUMI: I left the paintings– all of them at the museum.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Where are they now?

NICKY NODJOUMI: -without any. Good question.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nodjoumi is not sure he’ll ever be able to go back to Iran, let alone show his work there.

But here in the U.S.A . He continues to paint and his work from before the revolution is garnering new attention for a time when art in Iran was not censored, but encouraged. Nodjoumi’s work from that period is part of a new exhibit of 26 modern Iranian artists at New York’s Asia Society. With more than 100 sculptures, paintings, and photographs, it is the largest exhibition of its kind outside of Iran.

In the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s, modern art in Iran was thriving. It combined Persian artistic traditions with avant-garde style. Artists traveled freely to and from the west, exchanging techniques. The modern art scene was so significant that Tehran had its own biennale – a worldwide art fair every two years.

MELISSA CHIU: It was when Iran, as a society, was modernizing. And so the artists were also modernizing their work in many different ways. And it became a real kind of cultural flowering of Iranian art during this time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Melissa Chiu is the Director of the Asia Society in New York. In the midst of increasing tensions between Iran and the West, she hopes the exhibit sheds a different light on Iran’s history.

MELISSA CHIU: The exhibition is about a period when actually Iran and the U.S. were quite close politically, and certainly culturally. So there was a lot more back and forth and closer communications– than we have now, with the political situation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And Chiu notes that artists continue to face censorship in Iran. What is it about art that is so dangerous to regimes?

MELISSA CHIU: Well, I think artists are often the voice of criticality. They critique– issues of power. They critique things that they see around them. And I think that can sometimes make it difficult for those in power, because they’re constantly questioning that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But art is almost impossible to suppress. The current art scene has been gaining strength in Iran in recent years particularly in film, animation and photography, artists from Iran have won world press photo awards and last year the Iranian film ”A Separation” won the Oscar for best foreign film — the first win for an Iranian film

And there are hopes that under the new government in Tehran, there will be some relaxation of Iran’s international relationships. And, with it, relaxation of restrictions on artistic expression that could allow Nodjoumi’s work to be seen in his homeland again.

All images by Nicky Nodjoumi. From top: The Invasion, The One Who Sees What Is Hidden, Let Me Describe It To You, The Accident, Hasty Retreat.