Art, diplomacy and a dash of controversy: 'Epic Iran' at the V&A

The exhibition is the first in the UK in 90 years to present an overarching narrative spanning 5,000 years of Iranian art, design and culture.
Art, diplomacy and a dash of controversy: 'Epic Iran' at the V&A

When introducing Epic Iran which opened to the public on May 29th in London, Tristram Hunt, the Director of the Victoria & Albert rightfully said: “Ninety years since the last major UK exhibition to cover 5,000 years of Iranian art, design and culture, Iran has undergone a total transformation and the cultural landscape has changed dramatically. Epic Iran serves a vital purpose in enabling audiences in Britain to discover more about one of the world’s great historic civilisations and its incredible creative output in the 21st century. This landmark exhibition unites the ancient and Islamic study of Iran – often seen as two separate disciplines – alongside a powerful modern and contemporary section,allowing the Iranian people’s artistic achievements across millennia to be considered in their entirety.”

And yet assembling this comprehensive look at the Persia of the past, all the way through to the Islamic Republic of Iran of our present, hasn't been without challenges and controversy.

Even though the exhibition succeeds wholeheartedly in doing what it set out to do, which is to shine a light "on Iran’s great historic civilisation and its journey into the 21st century, [by] showcasing works by leading contemporary artists based in Iran and overseas," Iranian authorities didn't necessarily see this as a good thing. A recent article in the NY Times chronicles the difficulties by the V&A in obtaining many of the artifacts which were promised by Iranian museum authorities at first, and later denied. "We want people to take a step back and understand that Iranian history didn’t begin in 1979,” Hunt is quoted as saying in the Times piece, by looking beyond “the paradigm of what is called Islamic fundamentalism, and concerns around nuclear testing and visions of the ayatollah, and understand the richness, and breadth, and depth, and complexity, and beauty of Iran.”

But while it's the best of times for Iranian art in London, it's the worst of times for diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran. Debts unpaid, contentions over the detention of an Iranian British woman in jail in Tehran since 2016 on espionage charges, and an overall distrust of the West by the Islamic Republic have made curating this exhibit more challenging than most.

And it probably doesn't help that a lot of the contemporary pieces shown in Epic Iran are by artists who have used their mediums to discuss the politics of their country -- something that isn't well tolerated by Iranian leaders.

Bottle and bowl with poetry in Persian, 1180-1220

Iran was home to one of the great historic civilisations, yet its monumental artistic achievements remain unknown to many. Epic Iran explores this civilisation and the country’s journey into the 21st century. Ranging from sculpture, ceramics and carpets, to textiles, photography and film, works reflect the country’s vibrant historic culture, architectural splendours, the abundance of myth, poetry and tradition that have been central to Iranian identity for millennia, and the evolving, self renewing culture evident today. From the Cyrus Cylinder and intricate illuminated manuscripts of the Shahnameh, to ten-metre-long paintings of Isfahan tilework, Shirin Neshat’s powerful two-screen video installation Turbulent, and Shirin Aliabadi’s striking photograph of a young woman blowing bubblegum, the exhibition offers a perspective on a country that is so often seen through a different lens in the news. The V&A has collected the art of Iran since the museum’s founding over 150 years ago and has one of the world’s leading collections from the medieval and modern periods. Drawing on well-known highlights as well as astonishing works that haven’t been exhibited in living memory, Epic Iran features works from the V&A alongside important international loans and works from significant private collections, including The Sarikhani Collection.

Shirin Aliabadi, Miss Hybrid #3, 2008, The Farjam Collection

Dr. John Curtis OBE FBA, co-curator of Epic Iran explained: “Visitors will be astonished by the quality and variety of objects from Ancient Iran, showing that it had a civilisation every bit as advanced and prosperous as those in neighbouring Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is clear that the Persian Empire, founded in 550 BC, inherited a very rich legacy from earlier periods of Iranian history.”

Epic Iran features ten sections set within an immersive design that will transport visitors to a city, complete with gatehouse, gardens, palace, and library. Designed by Gort Scott Architects, each section has a different atmosphere, reflecting the objects displayed as well as their time and place in history.

Sections include 'Land of Iran', 'Emerging Iran', 'The Persian Empire', The Book of Kings', 'Change of Faith', 'Literary Excellence' and 'Modern and Contemporary Iran' -- the last section.

Tim Stanley, co-curator of Epic Iran said: “This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to look at Iran as a single civilisation over 5,000 years. Objects and expertise have come together to tell one of the world’s great stories in art, design and culture. In the Islamic period, political power in Iran was recast in many different forms, but an overarching sense of history and a deep devotion to Persian literature survived the turmoil of events. In 1501 the Imami form of Shi’ism became Iran’s official religion, giving the population a unifying set of beliefs that set them apart from their neighbours. Shared beliefs, memories of a glorious past and a joy in Persian poetry are still a vital part of life in Iran today.”

Epic Iran runs at the V&A from 29 May – 12 September 2021.

The exhibition is accompanied by a new V&A publication, Epic Iran: 5000 Years of Culture, by John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley.

Epic Iran is organised with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection.

For tickets and more info check out the V&A's website.

Header image is by Shirin Neshat, Turbulent, 1998, two-screen installation © Shirin Neshat. Courtesy of the artist and the Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

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