21 Jun

Karnameh Exhibition: A Diorama of Arts for Iranian Children

It has often been difficult to trace the development of early children’s literature, widely practiced in the form of stories and songs for children, before printing was invented. Even after the spread of literacy and publishing systems, it took a while for societies to produce books specifically designed for children. In Europe, early children’s books were mere adaptations of stories intended for adults. Tracing the history of children’s literature in Iran is just as difficult. For in spite of the fact that a large sum of traditional Persian literature consisted of tales with didactic purposes, the absence of printing machinery, scarcity of fine manuscripts which were in possession of the nobility, and low rate of literacy made it more improbable for common children to access these stories by any means other than oral taletellers. A rare and recent attempt to undertake research on the subject started in 1997 by a team of experts including M. H. Mohammadali and Zohreh Ghaeni; a painstaking project that ended in ten volumes of historical enterprise and about 7000 pieces of archived documents, the oldest of which dates back to 1847.

Currently Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts is hosting an unprecedented public exhibition with the same concerns. Karnameh, Visual Culture of Iranian Children: 1950-1980, an ambitious project by The ABProjects and Studio Kargah, surveys through more than three decades of visual creation for children against the cultural and socio-political backdrop of the second half of the 20th century. Running from 25 May to 15 August 2016 at TMOCA, the exhibition and the accompanying bilingual book of the same title (an archival-research volume of about 441 pages) present a diorama of Iranian children’s literature and arts in the 20th century as they fluctuate between traditional practices and pieces affected by the social milieu of modernity. A joint-project curated by Ali Bakhtiari, Yashar Samimi Mofakham, and Peyman Pourhossein, Karnameh was initiated a few years ago with the goal of archiving the visual heritage of Iranian children after the 1920s. The book strictly follows a chronological order which makes it favorable for researchers, whereas the exhibition’s setting is less restrained and offers options for visitors of various ages from children to elderly. A journey through nine galleries familiarizes the viewer with early illustrations for educational books dating back to 1920s, photo documentaries of the 20th century modernized schools in Iran, as well as the pioneers of image-making and entertainment productions, namely animations and films.

Upon entrance to Gallery One, the visitor is exposed to full-height transparent calendars beginning with Colonel Reza Khan’s march to Tehran and publicization in 1921, and ending with the formation of the Literacy Movement in Iran and commencement of Iranian Oral History Project at Harvard in 1981. The main focus of all the nine galleries is, however, on a thirty-year span of time between 1950s and 1980s. “1953 is a pivotal year in the socio-political history of Iran,” says senior curator Ali Bakhtiari, “Following the implantation of Point Four Programme of Truman in Iran and the 1953 Coup D’etat, Iranian children’s literature undergoes major transformations along with other cultural arenas of the country.”

The geopolitical situation of Iran in the 20th century kept the country in a constant state of flux. “When the Second Pahlavi Dynasty came to power following World War II, Iran, under the influence of the cold war, became a country where the governments of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union spent much effort in affecting the culture and public opinion of its population.” They had realized that “in the future, supporting the masses may become a determinant factor for any government wishing to rule Iran.” One of the main ways for breaking up a culture is influencing its younger generation, and indoctrinating it with a new culture.” (Karnameh 146) Accordingly, one of the main programs of the United States during the cold war was the export of cultural products aimed at children and young adults. Walt Disney movies, television programs, American books and magazines, comics, literature, etc. were all part of this political agenda (148). This is the focal point of Galleries Two to Four, respectively titled “Iran: New Times”, “Forerunners: 1950s”, and “East and West”.

While Gallery 5, titled “Books Made in Iran,” traces the gradual growth of middle class in the 1960s, import of printing machinery, and call for more appropriate reading materials, Gallery 6 relates the “Birth of the Institute”(1) in 1965 and its breakthrough impact on generations of Iranian children across the country. Gallery 7 is a tribute to a prominent figure in the modern history of illustration: Farshid Mesghali. Gallery 8 themed on Religious Illustration may stand out at first, but as you move on in pursuit of visual signs of social flux in Iran mirrored in the works produced for children, you may notice that Gallery 8 featuring works by religious publishers Payam Islam and Meraj is in fact a harbinger of major transformations underway: the 1979 Revolution. Gallery 9 introduces the “post-revolutionary” New Era and the new models it has to offer: The Revolutionary Hero and the Martyr Hero are dominant figures in the posters, books, and films collected in this gallery where you cannot help responding to sudden change of setting and colors.

This is perhaps the only flaw of the exhibition: the exhibition’s meticulous effort to present a ‘truthful’ image of the dominant visual culture of each era has led to negligence, even suppression, of other (minor) voices. This being the problem with any linear, taxonomic and monolithic views of social history, is reflected in collection and selection of covers of popular, and often state-budgeted media and magazines such as “Keyhan Bacheha,” and subsequent elimination of actual underground or unofficial ‘reads’ of common children. One major factor missing from this strategy is the ‘readership’ or reception of publications for children. Do children, as well as their family units, passively consume publications promoted by dominant ISAs? Did we ever have resistant child readers, or alternative reading materials that would justify social resistance to radical modernization and succumb to the bosom of ideological didactism? These are the questions that any art historian should ask before roaming from one gallery to the next.

  • The Institute: the state-funded Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (IIDYCA)

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21 Sep

Rebellion against Oblivion

Rebellion against Oblivion:Visual Accounts on life and Works of Samad Behrangi

“Several Accounts of a Man Who Reunited with Aras” is the title of a group painting exhibition, curated by Arash Tanhai, that has recently been held at Dena Gallery (August 28 – September 14, 2015). Depicting 10 paintings and 48 documents including book covers, posters, and personal photos, the exhibition showcases the life and works of late Samad Beherangi, the prominent Iranian teacher, writer of children’s books, social critic, folklorist, and translator.

“I’ve been trying to come up with an unofficial undignified visual compendium of knowledge on Samad Behrangi in this exhibition. Like previous exhibitions, which were concentrated on an outstanding Iranian public figure of the recent past, I took aim at both oblivion on the side of young people and biased representation of these figures on the side of artists, critics, etc.” Arash Tanhai stated elaborating on the objectives of the exhibition. “Therefore, I selected a wide range of works by both young and veteran artists encompassing painters and illustrators, and figurative and street artists.” He added. Answering a question on research background of the exhibition, the curator referred to collecting documents and interviewing Behrangi’s close friends along with visiting his hometown, Tabriz.

Simultaneous with the 48th anniversary of Behrangi’s mysterious death, exclaimed the curator, the exhibition has tried to revive the significant impact of Behrangi’s works and thoughts on the society to date. The exhibition has tried to revive the significant impact of Behrangi’s works and thoughts on the society and to trace them up to the present time. “Laid on the Procrustean bed of political interpretations,” Tanhai added, “Samad Behrangi’s literary talents and educational heritage have been subject to negligence.”

Samad Behrangi (June 1939 – August 1967) was a short story writer, translator, critic, and prolific teacher. A graduate of English Literature from University of Tabriz, he wrote numerous short stories for children touched up with social concerns. Meanwhile, he contributed to many translations mainly from Azari to Persian. Among the short stories he wrote for children, ‘Ulduz and the Talking Doll,”Ulduz and the Crows,’ ‘Talkhoon,’ ‘One Peach and A Thousand Peaches,’ and ‘The Little Black Fish,’ can be regarded as examples, the latest of which brought him international reputation.

As a translator, he has contributed to two volumes of folktales, translated from Turkish to Persian, and many translations of the contemporary poems from Persian to Turkish and vice a versa. His criticism of the social issues especially those related to educational system resulted in publication of ‘ Investigations into the Educational Problems of Iran.’

‘The Little Black Fish’ is an allegory narrated through the voice of an old fish addressing many young fish. As an account on a long journey of a little black fish swimming against the main stream of the river, the book was banned for many years for political reasons.

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13 Feb

All Faces of Forough: an Iconographic Report

Arguably one of the most influential female poets of the twentieth century, Forough was a controversial modernist poet and an iconoclast. Born in Tehran in 1935, married at age sixteen and divorced tow years later,  she wrote and published The Captive in 1955, her debut volume contained mediocre sentimental poems on love, sorrow, and suffering. It was with her next volume, Rebirth, that the true feminine spirit of Forough and her poetic might was revealed to the literary world of the time.

Forough’s controversial poetry with strong feminine voice became the focus of negative attention and open disapproval. She not only contributed to the modernization of Persian poetry, but also to the evolution of Iranian popular culture. Her outstanding lucidity and her courage in going beyond cultural taboos provided her poetry with an inimitable originality. She benefited from the revolutionary circumstances of Iranian social reconstruction of 1940s and afterward to experiment with the idea of a redefinition of boundaries posed by tradition. Her poems are both emotionally and intellectually rich and they leave readers impressed with her ability to think her feelings and her passion in feeling deeply and truthfully. These unique attributes make her poetry full of thoughtful messages. Her use of language is original and aesthetic in the sense that she is able to create personal expressions. In Febuary, 1967 Forough died in a car accident at age thirty-two.

A Dweller of Nowadays: An Iconographic Report

79 years after her birth, an exhibition was held in Tehran in January 2014 to present the portraits of Forough made by a number of veteran and emerging artists,  each of which has focused on a particular aspect of the poet’s character.

A Dweller of Nowadays is curated by graphic designer Arash Tanhai. “I’ve always been concerned with discussing prominent cultural figures of contemporary Iran. I’d designed posters for seven contemporary artists including Forough for my BA thesis. The experience encouraged me to return to Forough – now as a curator,” Tanhai says.

The exhibition is consisted of two types of works, he adds. The portraits of Forough that have  already been created by eminent artists like Morteza Momayez, Ardeshir Mohasses, Behrouz Golzari, Giti Novin, Ebrahim Haghighi, Ali Khosravi, and Azadeh Akhlaghi; and the works specifically ordered for the exhibition.

Forough Farrokhzad has been compared, the exhibition’s manifesto asserts, with the American Merilyn Monroe. Elaborating on the comparison, Tanhai remarks, “Merylin Monroe’s image has been illustrated and symbolized more than any other woman among American visual artists. I  also wanted to symbolize a woman who has been illustrated more than any other figure among Iranian contemporary artists… Unlike Monroe, the prominence of Forough does not rely on her feminine beauty or its reinforcement through Hollywood and mass media, but on her manifestation of freedom of thought as a free woman. Standing on the point of equilibrium between physical and intellectual appeal as a free human being, Forough’s image is never to be reduced to a commodity.”

The success of this program “as the most visited exhibition of the year” shows that Forough is still an unrivaled star in the sky of modernist Persian Poetry.

 You can take a virtual tour to A Dweller of Nowadays here.