"Why Ebrahim Golestan should be so vindictive is a mystery"
By Rose Issa
May 31, 2001
Response to Ebrahim Golestan's article, "Hormat",
on the Iranian Contemporary Art Exhibition at the Barbican, London. See
In his disgraceful article commenting on the Iranian Contemporary Art
exhibition on show at the Barbican art centre, London, the only accurate
thing Mr Golestan writes is that we have never met. This was intentional
on my part. His widely-known reputation as a misanthrope preceded him.
Mr Golestan seems to claim to be an expert and spokesman for Iranian
culture of the past several centuries, but there is little evidence that
he knows much about the current Iranian contemporary art or cinema - subjects
of which I have a professional, and internationally recognised, knowledge.
Nor is Mr Golestan known for his scholarly research and publications on
such subjects. (Why you granted him so much editorial coverage reflects
badly on you, too.)
True, he has a collection of Iranian artworks, acquired mostly during
the 1960s in Iran - like the 40-year-old photograph of himself that he continues
to publish as if it were taken yesterday! He also has produced some documentaries,
mostly commissioned. But does this entitle anyone to call themselves an
expert? What are his academic backgrounds? What is his contribution towards
Iranian cultural scene during the last 2-3 decades?
My past dealings with Mr Golestan were fortunately limited to one short
conversation on the telephone and one fax, more than two years ago, as I
was preparing the film festival at the National Film Theatre (London, June-July
1999), Art & Life; the New Iranian Cinema. The festival presented 56
Iranian films, from the silent era to the present, and was accompanied by
a book published by the British Film Institute.
At the time, I called Mr Golestan out of courtesy to inform him that
we were planning to show one of his films and Forough Farrokhzad1s documentary.
His first reaction was to ask for the list of other selected films! No one
else had asked such a question, as the final list of films is often subject
to availability, subtitles and the condition of the celluloid itself. I
faxed him a preliminary list. His answer was swift. He refused to participate
in such an event as "we were all bought, directors and organisers,
by the mollahs", and this included directors such as Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf
I decided that any further communication with him would be useless. His
reaction showed how short-sighted and fanatical his judgements are, and
how, contrary to what he pretends, he is the opposite of a liberal intellectual,
clearly stuck in a mental and physical time warp in his seaside retirement
resort in Brighton.
Therefore, when curating the exhibition that he so pompously dismisses
with several intentional false claims, I did not feel it necessary to meet
him. What is important to me is to grasp the opportunity of having works
brought out of Iran, when the doors are still open, rather than borrowing
works from a bitter, old, exiled collector. Does he resent the fact that
I found more valuable information talking in Iran to artists, collectors
and scholars, including his daughter, who directs a gallery in Tehran, and
to his son, who is an excellent, internationally respected photographer,
all far more generous in terms of knowledge and information?
Since the exhibition at the Barbican covers some key moments of the last
40 years (and not 60 years, as he falsely claims) of the Iranian contemporary
art scene, my co-curator Carol Brown and myself spoke to many collectors
and artists within and outside Iran. Carol Brown made the polite effort
to visit Golestan and photograph works in his collection, but I knew that
we could not count on him for any positive contribution, nor did I think
that he has any outstanding work for our purpose.
What Mr Golestan has in his collection are names that were considered
good commercial investments in Iran in the 50s and 60s, but many were of
little relevance to our project. We had better work coming from other collections
from Iran by the same artists.
Among the long list of artists, mostly of his generation, that he says
are missing from our exhibition are Nasser Assar, who has been living in
Paris for more than 50 years and considers himself French! He even refused
to be mentioned in the biographies. Yektai who lives in America has not
produced anything for more than 20 years. Other Iranian artists living outside
Iran claimed to be of different nationalities. Some asked to be exhibited
individually, but not in a group show! Yes I have met most of them, but
as a curator decided of the final selection for this specific show.
I can understand Ebrahim Golestan's frustration that some of whom he
considers the leading artists of the 1950s or 1960s are not represented.
But the show clearly states that it does not intend to represent all styles,
trends and times, while Mr Golestan avoids mentioning any young artist,
not having followed any artistic movements for more than two decades. And
when Sepehri, Saidi or Zenderoudi are present, he suddenly demands a whole
retrospective of each in one single group show!
As for his artistic comments, he is so scandalised that one of the artists
does not even paint but cuts out images, that you wonder if he has ever
been to any exhibition in the last 50 years, or heard of Marcel Duchamps,
Joseph Beuys, etc.. The worst is that the same artist he critises has one
of the best craftsmenship in terms of painting. Had he read the catalogue,
he would have found out that the man in moustache is none other than Jadidi,
the world champion wrestler. Probably art history and sport are not his
As to the catalogue on Iranian contemporary art, to my knowledge the
first of its kind, it is meant to be an introductory book, with all the
limitations and shortcomings that this entails. Can Golestan quote another
existing catalogue? Can he name any book on contemporary Iranian art? If
he could mention any such publication by anyone in Persian, English, French,
Arabic or any other language, we would be deeply grateful to know about
it! And while he puts my Iranianity into question, he should read Dariyush
Shayegan's preface on Border- crossers. Has anyone stopped him or any other
Iranian from publishing anything or researching their own contemporary visual
culture in the last twenty years?
What is very clear from Mr Golestan's article is that he has not seen
the exhibition he so strongly criticises, and simply flicked through the
catalogue to find out which of the "artist friends" in his personal
collection were not present. At 80, he may be excused of deliberately ignoring
the fact that the exhibition features only certain aspects of the contemporary
art scene of the last 40 years in Iran (even though the catalogue covers
a few Iranian artists outside Iran). That he finds a few minor mistakes
or quotes is only natural.
Why a man like him should be so vindictive and poisonous is a mystery.
Curators and film festival organisers are used to criticism of the events
they organise, but the uninformed, uncivilised and vindictive attack by
Golestan is the protest of a sick old man. That he enjoys his own verbal
diarrhoea is one thing, but that newspapers publish it reveals the low standard
of such decision makers.
There is no way that one exhibition or event can cover an entire spectrum
of artists or styles, which we have repeatedly made clear in the catalogue.
Curators take responsibility for their choice, and having spent time selecting
the works, reserve their judgements for what is suitable for each specific
Those who want their own exhibition, film, or festival, are free to go
ahead and organise one. But it is much easier to be a spectator than a creator
- it takes guts, courage, hard work, huge funds and a lot of skill and patience
to organise an event, while little energy is needed to be destructive and
negatively critical. To my knowledge, except for investing in some artists,
Mr Golestan has never organised a cultural event, or contributed in any
way to the enrichment of his country's cultural image, at least outside
I was too young to know what fantastic contributions he may have made
elsewhere. He seems to think that he, as a "pure sang" Iranian,
should be the sole spokesman. He will not be pleased that in Paris this
June a Tunisian-French curator is organising a major exhibition of Iranian
Golestan, who delights in insulting curators, sponsors and organisers,
should know at his age that what he does or says only reflects badly on
him, and reflects him. He should instead show us what he is capable of doing,
and have the courage to test his knowledge of the Iranian art scene in whatever
event or publication he can. His reviews only reflect his bad temper.
Maybe the publishers who print his comments should encourage him to put
his frustration and energy into writing his own book about anything he claims
to be knowledgeable about, rather than looking for scandalous and hyped-up
Rose Issa is the curator of Iranian Contemporary Art Exhibition at
the Barbican, London, and author of Borrowed
Ware, Iranian Contemporary Art, Barbican (Booth Clibborn editions,