A look at the splendid, politically charged pieces at the Aga Khan Museum’s massive new Iranian art exhibition

A look at the splendid, politically charged pieces at the Aga Khan Museum’s massive new Iranian art exhibition

The Aga Khan Museum’s new exhibit, Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians, features 27 contemporary works by 23 Iranian artists, on loan to the museum from Iranian business consultant and art collector Mohammed Afkhami. The show was a mammoth undertaking: it took curator Fereshteh Daftari two years to organize, and she spoke to many of the artists about how their works celebrate and challenge conceptions of the country. “Look for what is camouflaged within the work,” Daftari says. “Don’t just be seduced by its beauty.” We asked Daftari to explain some of the hidden messages in the show, which is free on Feb. 11 and 12 as part of the museum’s Welcome Weekend.


Foreground: Oil Barrel #13
Shiva Ahmadi • 2010

“As a child, Shiva Ahmadi lived through the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. She would accompany her mother, a medical worker, as she tended to victims of bombings, where she saw people laying in hospitals with open wounds. She bought this oil barrel from an oil company in Texas. It is very ornamental, comic and pretty, but if you move closer, you’ll find motifs of wounds and animals in battle with their heads severed. This is about the lust for oil that leads to wars.”

Background: Tulips Rise from the Blood of the Nation’s Youth
Mahmoud Bakhshi • 2008

“The name of this piece is a revolutionary slogan that comes from an old Iranian song. The lights are shaped like tulips, which is the symbol for the martyrs of the revolution, but they actually represent the logo of the Islamic Republic or the word Allah. If you turn on a switch, they start spinning. Is it an advertisement for faith and revolutionary fervour, or the opposite? Bakshi always appropriates the visual imagery of the regime with a twist.”


3 Mirrors

The Lady Reappears
Monir Farmanfarmaian • 2007

“The artist is a 93-year-old woman who studied in the States in the 1940s and 1950s but is now back in Iran. She got the idea for this piece while flipping through the pages of a fashion magazine. It’s a human figure made of mirrors, and she leaves the head (and the headscarf) out of the piece. It’s funny and witty and sexy, all without violating the codes of the Islamic tradition.”



Parastou Forouhar • 2003

“In Iran, women are allowed to expose their hands and faces. Forouhar shows only a hand, but still makes it seem extremely erotic.”



Left: Memory
Shirazeh Houshiary • 2005

“That band of blue on white is actually two words written by the artist over and over again. They’re indecipherable, and she doesn’t tell the audience what they are. It’s like a mantra that she uses for meditation.”

Right: Pupa
Shirazeh Houshiary • 2014

“This piece is made from blocks of glass. It looks completely different from each angle as you walk around it. That’s the whole point: that everything is always in flux.”



Black Dome
Y.Z. Kami • 2015

“Kami lives in New York and creates pieces like this, which she calls domes. She makes dark domes and light domes, meant to symbolize the darker and lighter stages of life. I think he is one of the few artists who can successfully convey the idea of terror: if you look into this, you’re sucked into a pit, and you don’t know where it ends.”



Miss Hybrid 3
Shirin Aliabadi • 2008

“You come across women like this in Tehran, rebels that reject the dress code. They use Westernization as a tool against the regime—the artist talks about ‘cultural rebellion meets Christina Aguilera.'”


8 terrorist

Khosrow Hassanzadeh • 2004

“The artist posed as a terrorist after Bush declared that Iran was part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’ The artist is doubling down on his Persian, Iranian and Islamic identity in response: there’s a certificate on the side that declares his age, nationality and religion. He’s saying, ‘Look at me. I’m an ordinary working-class father with a son and a daughter and a father, and they call me a terrorist? It’s your inhumanity that doesn’t see my humanity.'”



Pillars: Article 47 and Untitled II
Nazgol Ansarinia • 2008

“These two works are by an artist who lives in Tehran. The pillar refers to a phenomenon in Iran: the rushed building of new houses for the nouveau riche. They’re affluent, but you never know how they get their money. They build their houses with these classical renaissance columns. She took a column, sliced into it and, inside, put an article from the Islamic constitution that reads, ‘private ownership legitimately acquired is to be respected.’ The carpet reflects a tradition of carpet making and floral ornamentation, but if you look closer, there are scenes from everyday life: drummers, satellite dishes, people in the city, kids lined up at school, anchormen from the news.”



Angels in Combat I
Afruz Amighi • 2010

“Afruz Amighi lives in New York. She had a bad experience with the bureaucracy of the medical system, so she used a woven material called pre-cap—they make refugee camp tents from it—to reimagine the tree of life being threatened by guardian angels who are carrying rifles. The caduceus, a symbol of the medical profession, is there at the bottom left, along with syringes.”


11 Carpet

Flying Carpet
Farhad Moshiri • 2007

“Moshiri was influenced by Afghan ‘war rugs’—people got so used to seeing drones and other aircrafts in the sky that they started including them into the designs of their carpets. The piece is made from 32 machine-made carpets. It represents an aircraft that has crashed into Eastern civilization and simply ripped it apart.”



Untitled (Metamorphosis Series)
Alireza Dayani • 2009

“This piece is about the theory of evolution. Dayani has an aquarium in his house, so he used some of his fish as models for this piece.”



We Will Join Hands in Love and Rebuild Our Country
Rokni Haerizadeh • 2012

“This guy is a jester personified. He lives with his brother in Dubai, and he can’t go back to Iran because his work is critical of the regime. The piece is about the movement to rebuild Iran after the war. He’s making fun of how the nation was all about that kumbaya spirit, equating it to everyone being crammed into an animal going nowhere. The man riding the animal is Mullah Nasruddin, a well-known comedy character who supposedly rode his donkey backwards. The figure to the side is a western photographer, watching the ludicrous spectacle.”


15 calligraphy

Left: Mohebbat
Mohammad Ehsai • 2006

“We close the exhibit with a more traditional aesthetic: calligraphy. Mohebbat means kindness. It’s written four times in four different directions, but the glue that binds they together is mohebbat.”

Right: Blue Heech
Parviz Tanavoli • 2005

“This artist created modern sculpture for Iran. Heech means nothingness, and he’s made these in all colours, mediums and sizes since the 1970s.”



Left: Becoming
Morteza Ahmadvand • 2015

“In this piece, there are three videos that show the three emblems of the Abrahamic religions—the cross, the kaaba and the star of David—slowly rotating and morphing into a sphere, perhaps a reference to our planet. There’s also a physical sphere, made from fibreglass.”

Right: We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet
Ali Banisadr • 2012

“This is a battle scene. The fury of the battle has shattered the fight into abstraction. Banisadr’s work is encyclopedic—it borrows from different places. This piece looks a mix of miniature Persian paintings and the grotesque work of Hieronymus Bosch.”


14 steel-2

Parsec #15
Timo Nasseri • 2009

“This piece takes cues from muqarnas, the characteristic honeycomb vaults in mosques. The title, parsec, is a unit of distance used in astronomy, implying that it’s an object that has come from outer space and is probably deadly.”


February 16, 2017

This post has been updated from an earlier version.