Iran is a fabulous place to visit – wonderful sights (and sites) to see, terrific food to enjoy and delightful people to meet. So good is it that J and I are going back again early next year to spend three weeks wandering the mountains and villages to seek out flowers and people and the rural lifestyle.
Enthusiastic as we are to return, we were never allowed to forget that this country is in the grip of an authoritarian and pervasive theocratic regime. In Shia Islam the ezan is called only three times each day and I have never before heard it made with such gentle and melodic voices. That said, you cannot escape it because even on a train in the depths of the metro system it will insinuate itself almost subliminally, like Muzak, over the speaker system. Public buildings are adorned every few metres with verses from the Koran in Farsi and English and the eyes of the Supreme Leaders, past and present, watch you from giant bill-boards!
With the election of the present ‘more liberal’ regime things are rather more relaxed – we saw no overt presence of the morality or thought police.
There are certainly clergy without number to be seen and I’m sure this must have a dampening effect on those who might want to express an opinion that differs from the party line. Despite 35 years of Jesuit-like control (‘Give me the child and I’ll give you the man!’), there is plenty of kicking back going on.
Rules that state that women must cover their hair for fear that the sight of a loose curl will turn men into ravening beasts is a case in point. Standing out from the crowds of conformists there are women sporting outrageous 60s beehive hair-dos with a strip of material clipped to the back! They are deliberately pushing the boundaries of stifling authoritarianism in the name of individuality – at least until the next clamp-down.
Alcohol is forbidden! That’s why Iranians do a lot of partying at home and I can tell you from personal experience that the stuff they brew under the kitchen sink might not win a gold medal in Paris but would certainly get a very honourable mention in despatches!
It’s the same with art. As long as it fits into neat, narrow, conforming boxes it’s OK. Try and be different and those baleful, dark-rimmed, Ayatollah eyes will be turned upon you – followed by a knock at the door. Dissent is dangerous!
So, imagine J and my delight when we were guided by friends to a location that they and a few artist buddies have turned into a monument to alternative expression – a real ‘Art House’. The building was scheduled for demolition but a kind-hearted, open-minded owner had let them hang out there and free their talents. The results are astonishing! Powerful! Deeply disturbing! Every part of the house, from the cellar to the toilet to every room and passageway is a statement – every one of them dissenting from the stifling, imposed norms. Contributors include street/graffiti artists; musicians; sculptors – some have spent time in prison for pushing back. Many of the rooms/works include sound which you, of course, can’t hear – strobe lights and other unconventional light effects. Faces have been blurred for obvious reasons – I apologise to you and our ‘rebels’ for turning them into zombies.
‘Children of the Light’ (luminescent)
‘. . it’s downstairs, second on the right’
critically endangered Persian Leopard – protected and hunted to death – a guardian faces execution for killing an armed poacher!
‘Indoctrination’ strobes and white noise
this is not up there – it’s down here
teaching the guys ‘pip-squeak’
the most dangerous street/graffiti artist in Tehran aka ‘Blackhand’ is No1 Sponge Bob fan not many people know that!
We had a great day with some great people – individuals bucking against the system. These photos look pathetic when compared with our actual experiences in the ‘Art House’. Wonderful memories and some pretty memorable gifts to bring home (ceramics; music CDs; ‘Blackhand’ original) – thanks guys – see you next time – either here or there. Oh, and do try and stay out of trouble!
Alan Fenn, Okçular Köyü
ps safe to put this up now as the place has been demolished