Isfahan became the cultural capital of Iran when the reign of Shah Abbas the Great started in 1587. After decades of Mongolian occupation, Shah Abbas put the central Iranian city back on the map by building the monumental Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the second biggest square in the world (after Mao´s Tiananmen Square).

89´600 square meters: Der Meidān-e Naghsh-e Jahan. Foto: Philippe Stalder (Dezember 2015)
89´600 square meters: Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan. Foto: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)

The Shah´s passion for art and culture attracted the country´s most talented architects, painters and musicians. It was Isfahan´s cultural grandeur that was responsible for the famous 16th-century half-rhyme “Isfahan nesf-e jahan” (Isfahan is half the world). Until today, the city maintained its reputation as a living museum of traditional art.

Rampant art censorship

However, the Islamic Revolution took its toll on the freedom of contemporary artists. The central government prohibits any kind of politically critical or sexually suggestive artistic expression. Even non-vocal, traditional bands need an exceptional allowance to play concerts and exhibitions are strictly scrutinized by Ershad, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, banning many of the contemporary artists to the non-commercial underground. I had the chance to interview two upcoming Isfahanian artists in order to find out more about their inspiration, ambition and artistic struggle:

"Quote." Amir Moradi. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)
“The Islamic Revolution brought many limitations to the art.” Amir Moradi. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)

Amir Moradi is a 23-year old Cinema Directing student, script writer and musician from Isfahan. In his art he combines philosophy and psycho-analysis in order to approach interpersonal relationships and human behaviour.

"They are not only controlling the art, they are basically shutting it down." Amira Azizi next to a self portrait. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)
“They are not only controlling the art, they are basically shutting it down.” Sahar Azizi next to a self-portrait. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)

Sahar Azizi is a 24-year old painter, sculptor and teacher. In her work she is mainly dealing with the female body and sexuality which is a delicate taboo in the Islamic Republic. Her aim is to deconstruct the gender differences which are apparent in her society. Sahar also teaches artistic creativity in a local kindergarten.

DER AUSLANDSCHWEIZER: How did the conditions for Iranian artists change after the Islamic Revolution?

Amir: The revolution brought many limitations to the art. Today, it is almost impossible to make a living as an artist in Iran. This is why many artists have left the country in the past decades. The shortage of concerts and exhibitions have furthermore led to a decrease of interest and appreciation for art in the general population. The conditions have become very harsh.

Why is it so important for the government to control the art?

Sahar: They are not only controlling the art, they are basically shutting it down.

Amir: The government is afraid of the impact that the artists could have on society. Popular art is an effective way to transport alternative messages to the people. They just don´t want the artists to talk about ideas that challenge their power and the foundations of Islam, such as individual freedom, critical political thoughts or sexuality. Their aim is to filter all art that is not deemed consistent with Islamic values.

How does the government control the art?

Sahar: Control of the arts in Iran is a multi-layered affair, with artists facing a long sequence of hurdles, designed to censor and suppress artistic efforts at almost every turn.

Amir: The government controls the art in many ways. First of all, if you want to organize an exhibition or a concert you need a license. They will check all the pictures and the lyrics of the songs beforehand so they tell you what you are allowed to present and what not. If a gallery does not follow their instructions they can just simply close the gallery.

Legal art: Amir and Sahar visit an art gallery in Isfahan. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)
Officially approved art: Amir and Sahar visit an art gallery in Isfahan. Picture: Philippe Stalder (December 2015)

If I want to realize a movie I need to show them my screenplay too. They can either change certain dialogues or they can prohibit the whole project. Of course by now we already know which messages could be problematic so there is a lot of self-censorship too. An artist can always try to implement a project without a license but it is quite dangerous and usually more expensive.

How do you handle the political and religious limitations?

Amir: You can either go the official way and apply for a permission. Like a friend of mine who blends rap music with Persian classical poetry to condemn poverty, unemployment and other social issues. He spent four years struggling with Ershad (the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) in order to obtain a permission for his album. Getting an approval from the censors was a prolonged affair and was only granted after six songs from his original ten were deleted and inappropriate lyrics were changed. It killed him as an artist. However, I try to circumvent the limitations by pitching my stories abroad. But for an Iranian artist this can be really hard. You need to take the whole financial risk by yourself. However, this is the only way to do it if you don´t want to reproduce the government´s ideology.

Sahar: My main problem is that I feel like I am wasting my time here because I can not publish my art purely and therefore I am not recognized for who I am as an artist. I can not proceed my artistic development freely in this country. And I can´t keep my focus on the art itself, I am concerned with so many other issues that distract me from the actual work.

What are the risks of doing art underground?

Amir: The risks are high. If they catch you publishing anything critical, revolutionary or sexual they could give you an expensive fine or even put you to jail. And they will destroy your work.

Sahar: My biggest concern is not even my own fate but the one of my friends and family because they are endangered too, just because they are related to me.

How did art influence civic movements in the past decades?

Amir: The civic movements around the Green Revolution in 1388 (2009) were only partly influenced by art or lets say articulated through art. The poet Mostafa Badkoubei and the film maker Jafar Panahi protested the most vocal. Some of the artists including Badkoubei were jailed for that and some others left the country. We lost many great artists as the government tightened its control on the scene.

But I have to criticize the artists for not participating more directly in these protests. It was a good moment after all and I think we could have done more. But most of the people were struggling in their personal life during this time so they were not very much focused on the artistic protest. Many of them were also too scared.

Sahar: I didn´t see many artists influencing the movement, but the movement has influenced my art in a way. I feel so sorry for the ones who have lost their lifes for this pointless political game. And the worst part about it is how easily the people moved on and forgot about it. I guess this is one of the reasons why many of the characters in my paintings have a depressed vibe.

What about the connection and support between Isfahan´s artists?

Amir: The connection between the artists in Isfahan could be better, but we are all in touch with each other. We meet in cafes and galleries but we don´t have an official organisation that represents our interests. Also the different artistic cliques are quite closed and hard to get in. Everyone is focused on his own success and does not want other people to shine too much. This is what I don´t like. We share the same fate after all and we should have more solidarity with each other.

Sahar: It is different in Shiraz for example. When I went there many artists approached me and were interested in my work and pushed it. But here in Isfahan it seems the people just wait for picking on you and criticizing your work. I don´t know why there is not more support and appreciation among Isfahanian artists, but that is how it is.

Persia has a huge artistic legacy. What remained from that in modern Iranian art and how does it reflect in your work?

Amir: Our country has produced a number of timeless artists, especially poets such as Hafez, Rumi or Khayam but also many great painters, architects and musicians. Still today, you can recognize their influence in the poems of Hushang Ebtehaj, the novels of Ahmad Mahmoud, the movies of Asghar Farhadi or the music of Kayhan Kalhor to name a few.

Sahar: In my work I don´t reflect on the Persian art legacy too much. It is not particularly useful for my field anyway. I passed the legacy and I try to follow a more modern approach.

How strongly are you influenced by foreign art?

Sahar: I am influenced by foreign art a lot. I follow many European exhibitions on sexuality, gender types and ideals of beauty. When I see how free they are in their work it makes me feel depressed because I know that this is where I belong but I can not be there.

Amir: I follow a lot of art, it doesn´t really matter if its foreign or local to me. Although I have a soft spot for French movies I do not think that art is supposed to have any borders. Art is cosmic.