​in the middle east art scene, all signs point to tehran

Autumn is a busy season in the commercial art world. Just as European fairs Frieze and FIAC end, the tenth edition of Contemporary Istanbul opened. Following hot on its heels, Art Abu Dhabi returned with its sixth edition and featured strong showings...

by Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi
01 December 2015, 12:25am

Featuring over 102 galleries from 24 countries Contemporary Istanbul ran from 12th - 15th November at the International Congress and Exhibition Center in the upmarket Şişli neighbourhood. Much has been made of the rivalry between Istanbul's two art fairs Contemporary Istanbul and the younger fair Art International, each vying for the attention of regional collectors. Under the direction of Artistic Advisor Marc-Olivier Wahler, Contemporary Istanbul showed sensitivity to its context with the inclusion of many stand-out Turkish galleries. Established local gallery Rampa included Nilbar Gures whose irreverence was apparent in mixed media works of suspended figures grasping at fabric balloons and gently connected by thread. Less subtle, feminist provocateur Sukran Moral showed a gold-plated cast of her vagina in Artist's Pussy (2015) at Galeri Zilberman. At The Empire Project booth, Ali Taptik's luminous photographs appear as if they are back-lit while simultaneously masking the objects within them.

Ali Taptık, Untitled (2013C-007-53) from the series N. Archival pigment print , 90 x 90 cm, 2013 , courtesy of The Empire Project)

This year the Focus Contemporary Istanbul section centered on the Iranian capital Tehran, with the inclusion of four of the city's galleries. Aaran presented a sombre booth of installations that implied both personal and societal decay, while Assar featured just a single work of four mid-career artists including Mohammad-Hossein Emad's sculpture in aluminium and wood, reminiscent of a Louise Bourgeois spider. Shirin Gallery stuck to the large pieces that are usually an art fair staple with an installation of turquoise bricks by Hadi Hazavei, while the booth at Dastan's Basement was subtler, focused entirely on works on paper.

Mohammad-Hossein Emad. Untitled from the Lit Shadow Series. Cartonplast Sheet, Aluminium, Wood & Light. Courtesy of Assar Art Gallery

Following Contemporary Istanbul, art world aficionados moved south for the fifth edition of Abu Dhabi Art at the Manarat al Saadiyat, part of the cultural complex that houses the nearly completed Louvre and the yet to be built Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. With the creation of these mega-museums the Abu Dhabi hopes to establish itself as key location for cultural tourism, although pressure from activists and Amnesty International over the labour conditions of migrant construction workers has dogged construction. Until these venues open, Abu Dhabi Art provides a venue that functions as much as space of education as one for commerce, as school children flooded the exhibition hall and sketched the works. If rivalries persist between Abu Dhabi Art and the more established and better attended Art Dubai in the neighbouring Emirate they are less loudly articulated than in Turkey where the competition between Contemporary Istanbul and Art International is fierce. Abu Dhabi Art is a boutique fair, featuring a few blue chip galleries such as David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and Lisson, as well as a number of galleries active in the wider Middle East, whereas Art Dubai is the largest fair in the Middle East. Highlights at Abu Dhabi Art included Pouran Jinchi's abstracted calligraphy in a variety of media at the Dubai gallery The Third Line, while the work of rediscovered female artist Baya impressed at the Tunisian Gallery El Marsa.

Precipitated by Contemporary Istanbul, talk of Tehran was also heard in Abu Dhabi where much excitement surrounded the exhibition Towards the Ineffable: Farideh Lashai which opened at Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art last Friday, 20th November. The exhibition marks an important turning point in the museum's programme by reanimating its impressive holding of modern art through the display of works by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock alongside Lashai's early paintings, sketches and poetry. Mounted in collaboration with Italian curator Germano Celant and Farhyar Javaherian the exhibition takes a chronological and biographical approach to Lashai's oeuvre and creates a holistic picture of a well-loved figure who lived a full artistic and intellectual life. Lashai's later works, produced just before her death in 2013, remain a highlight. In When I Count, There Are Only You...But When I Look, There is Only a Shadow (2013), and El Amaal (2010-2011) her unique technique incorporating the projection of video onto painted canvas turns her paintings into stage sets where short animations unfold.

The spirit of collaboration that threads through Lashais' work, the curatorial approach and the museum's reception of the show further marks a new trajectory for the institution which recently announced pieces from the collection will tour Germany next year. This outward focus is echoed throughout cultural venues in the city. With tourism to Iran set to increase annually and the number of private galleries at 80 and counting, spaces in Tehran jostle for the attention of local audiences and increasing international visitors. Here are three new arrivals to the scene that really stand out:

Ab/ Anbar
Established in October 2014 and taking its name from the water storage facility the gallery inhabits, Ab/ Anbar is a family affair with the direction, management and design divided between siblings Salman, Yasaman and Amin. The gallery is focused on bringing Iranian artists in diaspora to show in Iran, including Babak Golkar, Reza Aramesh and Anahita Razmi. Alongside this, the gallery also curates two shows a year that attempt to build knowledge of the modernist period in Iranian art history.

Installation shot of current show "Callidrawing" by Reza Abedini, courtesy of Ab/Anbar

Ag Gallery
Ag is one of just two local galleries focused exclusively on photography. Set in a two-story house in the north of the city the space is comprised of gallery, book shop, specialist printing facilities and manicured garden. Throughout the year the gallery presents month-long shows of a roster of internationally acclaimed photographers, including Abbas Kowsari and Peyman Hooshmandzadeh. Martin Parr will be exhibiting there later this month.

Untitled from the "Reds and Greens" series, 2012-2014. Digital Photography, 70x105 cm, C-Print on metallic photo paper. Image courtesy of Abbas Kowsari and Ag Gallery

Dastan's Basement and Dastan +2
In just three years director Hormoz Hematian has opened two galleries around the corner from each other in the bouji Fereshteh neighbourhood. Each with a distinct focus, Dastan's Basement offers a platform for emerging artists in the spirit of experimentation, while Dastan +2 specializes in curated shows that draw out themes across modern and contemporary art practice. On show now Mossavar Nameh traces the use of illustration across artistic mediums and includes the work of treasured animator Ali Akbar Sadeghi as well as US-based Nikzad Nodjoumi.

Installation shot of current exhibition "Mossavar Nameh", image courtesy of Dastan +2


Text Leili Sreberny-Mohammadi
Main image Untitled from the Reds and Greens series, 2012-2014 Image courtesy of Abbas Kowsari and Ag Gallery.

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