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The Little Art Gallery on Shah Avenue

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

26 May 2011 19:34Comments
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Nurturing new talent, catering to a local market, staying close to its roots.

[ dispatch ] It was 1968 when Wahed Khakdan took his first apprehensive steps into a gallery on what was then Shah Avenue in Tehran. It was there that he, then an 18-year-old painter, first met the vivacious gallery owner Masoumeh Seyhoun. The striking 23-year-old woman had an eye for new talent. "Are you an artist?" she quipped. "You should bring me some of your work."

The young painter was taken aback. "How did you know?" he asked.

"Because you look like an artist."

Now a renowned painter and illustrator based in Germany, Khakdan is one of dozens of successful Iranian artists who were taken under the wings of Seyhoun Gallery in the past 45 years. Founded in an era when the local modern art scene was in its infancy, the gallery discovered and raised some of most well-known names in contemporary Iranian art.

Its founder Masoumeh Seyhoun, who died of cancer last year at the age of 75, is widely credited for laying the foundations for Iran's current status as the most coveted art-producing country in the Middle East. On the First of Ordibehesht (April 21, 2011), artists such as Bahram Dabiri and Parviz Kalantari crowded their works into the small, 90-meter space near central Tehran's Beheshti Street to commemorate the owner of the longest-running gallery in Iran.

"In European countries, when an artist dies, they transform their home into a memorial or museum, and this was the house of so many artists," says Masoumeh's son Nader Seyhoun, 51. "They were not just exhibiting here -- they were practically living here. Their problems were my mother's problems."

It was this matriarchal approach that enabled Ms. Seyhoun to keep her gallery open through some the most turbulent points of Iran's modern history. Seated in his mother's former office in the back of the gallery, Nader Seyhoun rattles off minute details of the gallery's past as though he'd been hearing them since childhood.

"I have seen so many galleries open and close. Keeping one open for 45 years -- through revolution, war, recession, it's a big deal to me," he says.

Herself a painter and student at the Fine Arts Faculty at the University of Tehran, Masoumeh opened her own space in 1966, after her friend, the sculptor Parviz Taravoli, was slighted during an exhibition at another gallery. "The curator had moved his sculpture outside the main space because it was too big," says Nader Seyhoun. "Tanavoli was very upset. That night, my mother told everyone not to worry -- that soon she would open her own gallery." And she did, about three months later, on an unused floor in the family building.

The gallery's first event exhibited the works of Sohrab Sepehri, the modernist poet and painter. "On the opening night, the weather was stormy and terrible, and my mother worried that nobody would come," says Nader Seyhoun. But Masoumeh had influential friends, such as the feminist poet Forough Farrokhzad. According to Nader Seyhoun, Farrokhzad "left in her car and brought so many people that the event ended up being a huge success."

In the course of the following years, Seyhoun Gallery became the most respected in Tehran, and went on to hold more than 1500 exhibitions. But despite achieving almost instant acclaim, its early years were fraught with difficulties.

Censorship, a much-lamented problem of contemporary Iranian art venues, had plagued Seyhoun even during the Shah's reign. Once, before the revolution, Ms. Seyhoun organized an exhibition for Juan Martinez, an exiled painter from Frankist Spain living in Switzerland. The catalogs had been printed and invitations sent when Ms. Seyhoun received word that she could not show the paintings, whose subjects were depicted with gags over their mouths. "It was too political," Nader Seyhoun says.

The year 1979 was, unsurprisingly, one of the gallery's hardest. Many of Tehran's significant cultural institutions, such as the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, had been personally founded by Farah Pahlavi, and the new regime viewed them with hostility. As head of the foremost gallery in the city, Masoumeh Seyhoun was a persona non grata. "She was immediately considered an enemy," says Nader Seyhoun. "But as soon as she could, she started again."

Although forced to close during the events of 1979, the gallery reopened one year later. "Staying afloat in post-revolutionary Iran, during wartime, I really don't know how it was possible," says Nader Seyhoun. The gallery had always depended on local clients, whose appetite for buying art dissipated in turbulent economic times. "There were bills and paychecks to pay. She withstood it all because she had a real love for art."

Throughout the hard times, the gallery remained a sanctuary for its artists. "Every time you came, there would be a few artists hanging around, talking about personal problems, in which my mother would get involved," says Nader Seyhoun. "For example, if an artist was having problems paying rent, my mother would say, bring your works and I'll try to sell them. That was the relationship."

These days, Seyhoun Gallery is no longer at the epicenter of the city's volatile art beat. With the consolidation of the Dubai market and the recent successes of Iranian artists with global auctioneers like Christie's, hundreds of galleries have sprouted up in Tehran, catering to an increasingly international clientele. And, after 38 years in its current location near Beheshti Street, the gallery is now fighting against eviction by the building's landlord, who wishes to use the space for other commercial purposes.

But it seems the fighting spirit of Masoumeh Seyhoun is not lost. Not long ago, Nader Seyhoun visited the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to ask for help with the legal proceedings. "I said listen: there's only one gallery in Iran with 45 years of background, so whatever comes out of it is kind of a present from me to you," he says. "Just don't let this place be closed, because all of the most famous artists that you know today started there. It would be a pity to transform the place to a restaurant."

Together with his sister Maryam, who runs a sister gallery in Los Angeles, Nader Seyhoun remains committed to nurturing young artists and catering to a local, Iranian market. By way of describing his mother's commitment, he describes one of her last exhibitions. Called "The Remedials," it featured artists who in her view were talented, but weren't accepted to the Tehran Biennial. "She held it parallel to the biennial and challenged everybody to come and see which exhibition was better," he says.

"I would like to continue the same thing."

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Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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