More than a decade after sculptor Parviz Tanavoli left Iran for Canada, he arranged to have his Tehran home and studio – including many works of art – donated to his hometown, which would open it to the public. The Museum of Parviz Tanavoli opened in May, 2003, and was promptly shut down by the newly elected mayor of Tehran – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is now the country's notorious president.
"Nine days," the artist says. "Shortest life for a museum in the world."
Tanavoli, 76, is telling the story in his oceanfront West Vancouver home, designed by Arthur Erickson, with an addition based on plans sketched out by Moshe Safdie. He has clearly created a good life for himself here. But he remains deeply connected to his homeland and the contemporary art scene there. He went to court to get his Tehran home back, and now divides his time between that house and the Horseshoe Bay architectural gem.
He can boast a long list of accomplishments. He was running the sculpture program at the University of Tehran until it was shut down following 1979's Islamic Revolution. He is a founding member of the artistic movement Saqqakhaneh, which integrates symbols of the Shia Muslim culture in art. In his studio, there are posters from his exhibitions around the world, including a retrospective at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. He also took part in the British Museum's important 2006 exhibition Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East.
Recognition in Canada has largely eluded him, but this no longer bothers him, he says. What he is eager to change, however, is the perception of his homeland, and the culture of the region. "Living in this city," he says, "I realize that people don't have any idea about what's going on in the Middle East, especially as far as the art and culture is concerned. The news that reaches here is all negative news about terrorism and wars and killing and so forth."
In Iran, Tanavoli says, contemporary art has become a refuge of artistic expression, a subversive opportunity to make a political point through abstraction and symbols that the authorities are not able to penetrate and decode.
The region's vibrant contemporary art scene is showcased in a new exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology, brought to Vancouver in part through Tanavoli's efforts. Safar/Voyage: Contemporary Works by Arab, Iranian, and Turkish Artists opened at the MOA on Saturday. Don't expect antiquities or artifacts.
Conceived and assembled by independent curator Fereshteh Daftari, Safar features work by 16 artists, including Tanavoli, many of whom have never shown in Canada. Much of the work is informed by the troubles of the region – approached at times with a dark sense of whimsy.
"The thesis of the show is voyage," says Jill Baird, co-ordinating curator for the exhibition. "Instead of art from the Middle East that you don't know or you haven't seen before, Fareshteh chose the theme Safar, voyage, and brought a whole bunch of stories together."
Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki arrived in Vancouver last week to install Destination X, the third time he has made the work (he has also created versions in Beirut and Dubai). Baalbaki asked MOA to collect household goods for the installation, and a car from the 1970s, the decade when civil war broke out in Lebanon. The work depicts a modern exodus for sudden refugees. Chairs, stools, bedding, a wok, a CD rack, an ironing board and more are piled precariously on top of a blue 1970 Toyota, suggesting a family in panicked flight from home.
"The artist understands civil war," said Baird during a tour of the show as it was being installed.
Gaza-born artist Taysir Batniji also landed last week at MOA to recreate his installation Hannoun. He's been sharpening pencils to create shavings which will cover the installation's white floor, resembling a sea of poppies. At the end of the pristine white installation space is a photo of Batniji's dusty, abandoned Gaza studio. The contrast is striking.
Mona Hatoum's Hot Spot is a large red globe, suggesting a radiant, brilliant but fragile world. It is both a tribute to the global village, and a warning: We have a tendency to think of far-away conflicts and unrest as having nothing to do with us. This work tells a different story. Political hot spots affect us all, as does, in particular, global warming, which knows no man-made borders.
"When one of us has a problem, we all have a problem," says Bob Rennie, the Vancouver collector who loaned the work to MOA for the exhibition. "Art has always been a way to create a dialogue around social issues."
In Mitra Tabrizian's Tehran 2006 is a tableau reminiscent of the work of the so-called Vancouver School, the figures in the photograph seemingly disconnected from their environment, and from each other, as Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei watch over them from a large billboard.
In Abidin Travels, Baghdad-born, Helsinki-based Adel Abidin uses black humour to tell the story of contemporary Iraq. By pairing the vocabulary and format of the travelogue with graphic images of war, he creates crushing satire in this interactive installation. There are also posters and brochures with tourist tips. Under useful items, for example: "Bulletproof vest, should also be stab-resistant." Welcome to Baghdad.
Tanavoli's piece, Oh Persepolis II, is an homage to Persepolis, a UNESCO world heritage site in southern Iran that, Tanavoli explains, was abandoned after the revolution and has fallen into disrepair. "It has a touch of politics in it," he says of his sculpture. "I thought if I make a piece in honour of Persepolis, maybe it will draw some attention … to avoid all this deterioration." The bronze work is massive and intricate, with hieroglyphic-like pictographs reminiscent of the wonders of the ancient site.
"It's a gorgeous piece, an amazing work," says Baird, adding that it's astonishing "that we don't know Parviz in our neighbourhood. An artist of his stature, who has basically been given credit for inventing a modern sculpture tradition in Iran, has lived in the Vancouver area since the 1980s. So it's important to discover the local in the global."
Safar/Voyage: Contemporary Works by Arab, Iranian, and Turkish Artists is at MOA until Sept 15.