Self-censorship on the rise in Iran's underground art scene
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Many artists in Iran lead two careers: a public one, and a secret one. They exhibit pieces that they know wouldn’t make it past official scrutiny at underground galleries. However, even there, they are increasingly walking on eggshells.
A painting displayed at an underground gallery in Iran.
Many artists in Iran have two careers: a public one, and a secret one. They exhibit pieces that they know wouldn’t make it past official scrutiny at underground galleries. However, even there, they are increasingly walking on eggshells.
In Iran, artists must apply for permits before being allowed to display their work publicly. Subjects that are political in nature or considered un-Islamic – for example women without veils, or nudes – have no chance of making it into an exhibit, and can get artists in trouble with the authorities.
This painting of an unveiled woman was exhibited at an underground gallery in Iran.
“There is so much fear that in the past year, my underground gallery hasn’t displayed any political work or even shown a single naked body”
Golchehrech (not her real name) is the owner of an underground art gallery in Tehran.
There are dozens of underground galleries in the capital. They are located on private properties, usually in people’s houses. Some are temporary galleries, others permanent. Exhibitions of permitless work are kept very, very private. Gallery owners know all their customers personally, and invite them by email. New customers get introduced to us by people we already know and trust. The artists range from amateurs to famous professionals, who also show their work in public exhibitions. As far as I know, no gallery has ever been discovered and shut down by the authorities.
Over the past year, however, there have been fewer and fewer shows of permitless works. While everyone involved in the underground art scene has always had to face a certain level of risk, the level of fear has gone up because artists are increasingly being summoned by the authorities. They reprimand the artists for things they do in public, for example things they say in interviews or write online. Hassan Rohani’s election has not changed anything at all. As a result, in the past year, in my gallery, we have not displayed any really controversial work. We haven’t displayed political pieces and have not even shown a single naked body. Buyers, too, are increasingly fearful; we know they’re not interested in owning political pieces, so we don’t even try to exhibit them anymore.
“It’s hard to imagine a day when we’ll be able to show artists’ work freely”
The naked bodies shown in our previous exhibits were not even graphic. For example, one artist painted bodies that were so deformed that there really was nothing erotic about it. The artists who paint nudes are mainly women, and the subject of their art is their own bodies and the issues that surround them.
The art market in Iran is really bad, and it only seems to be getting worse. [Editor’s Note: An art collector who spoke to FRANCE 24 explained that buyers often end up paying less than the marked price at underground galleries.] If there wasn’t this censorship and fear, the art scene would surely flourish. We are a generation of artists and art lovers that was born underground, and it’s hard to imagine a day when we’ll be able to show artists’ work freely. But until then, Iranian artists will keep getting the urge to give life to the art that’s within them, and we will display it because art cannot be denied.
More examples of paintings exhibited at underground galleries in Iran:
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ershad Alijani (@ErshadAlijani).