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Iran, meet Mick Jagger:
Western-style art re-emerges years after going underground

BY: Drusilla Menaker
The Dallas Morning News
April 9, 2000

TEHRAN, Iran - Of course, after two decades of cultural isolation, putting on display what was previously off-limits does raise certain questions for Iran's patrons of the arts.

For example: Who is this Mick Jagger?

It might have been quite satisfying at the height of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution to make a public spectacle of slashing up the four Andy Warhol silk-screens of the Rolling Stones superstar. What better testimony to Western decadence and cultural imperialism than a wasted-looking rock singer turned into an international icon?

Instead, the Warhols and hundreds of other works by foreign artists collected late in the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi remained safely tucked away in the basement of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.

With the loosening of the conservative clerical hold on Iranian society since the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, museum director Sami Azar has been rummaging through his under-wraps archives.

First, in mid-1999, he exhibited abstract artists such as Picasso - including a nude, though no one could tell through the cubes - and Jackson Pollack. He followed up with pop art, mainly featuring Americans such as Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.

"We got no objections," Mr. Azar said. "We had thought American artists might make a political question that would make a problem for us. This means the society has greatly changed."

Iranians are increasingly impatient with the graying interpreters of Islamic rectitude who have formed a firewall between them and the outside world, particularly on matters of cultural taste.

Many manage a clandestine cultural and social life. Behind the apartment doors in Tehran's more affluent neighborhoods, the most popular film on video disk this winter was the steamy Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise. Bootleg CDs in any musical genre are available. And alcohol-free beer is turned potent with the addition of yeast.

But they are getting tired. Iran has a cultural legacy thousands of years old, but now it is falling behind. Until the recent contemporary arts exhibits, artists had almost no access to foreign works. A young couple reported with awe on a new coffee bar that stays open as late as 11 p.m. A key issue in the recent parliament elections was legalizing satellite TV receivers.

"No one in Iran is saying, "Do away with the Islamic revolution,' but they do want it out of their faces," one resident Westerner said.

With strict prohibitions on young men and women socializing, the comfortable couches lining the galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art provide a rare spot for couples to rendezvous in relative privacy. But Fatimah Nourbakh, 23, was happy for the chance to take in the exhibit as well, even if she'd never heard of the shaggy-haired, thick-lipped subject of the Warhol silk-screens labeled "Mick Jagger, 1973."

Informed he was a fantastically famous musician known for misbehaving in wild ways, and that he nonetheless was someone many men would quite like to be, she registered some shock.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, regretting that Western tastes took such odd turns.

Still, Ms. Nourbakh had no problem with the Warhols, having been advised by a friend that she should "just look at the colors."

"During the last two years, it seems something is changing [in Iran], and I don't know any reason why not to see such a collection," she said. "Our society needs to progress."

The multimillion-dollar assemblage of some of modern art's top practitioners is an odd legacy from the shah's monarchy. His wife ordered the museum built and handed a blank check drawn on oil dollars to her cousin, with instructions to buy up a world-class collection in just two years, 1976 to 1978.

He did, with indisputably good taste. But within another year, Iran had convulsed against the conspicuous consumption that let the elite of cosmopolitan Tehran live lavishly, propped up by the U.S. government in search of a strategic ally, while the countryside languished in backwardness.

Apparently determined not to be so oblivious to the mood of society - or to suffer a similar push into exile - President Khatami and other reformers are offering a vision of a more moderate Islamic republic.

"God bless this man, he has let us breathe!" gushed Khatereh Parvoneh, her eyes tearing as her clenched hands gestured toward heaven.

In Mrs. Parvoneh's case, he has let her sing. Before the revolution, she was one of Iran's most adored performers in the traditional style that sets Persian poets to music. But Mrs. Parvoneh was banned under the edict that it was sinful for solo women to be on stage.

She still quakes at the memory of being summoned to stand before a revolutionary tribunal at a Tehran prison in the early 1980s and told that the singing voice of a woman was inappropriately exciting to men.

"I always worked to show the culture of this country," she said. "They told me what I had done was "haram,' - forbidden - and that I was the worst woman. I wanted to throw myself in the river."

Then, after nearly 20 years, utterly unexpectedly, a letter arrived from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, newly under President Khatami's control, inviting her to perform for a university audience, albeit an all-female one.

"I wondered, who is going to know me? But I saw these young girls, 18 to 20 years old, and they were so excited," the 69-year-old singer said. "I asked them how did they know me, and they said, "Our mothers told us about you, and now we have come to see who you are.' "

Since then, she has performed several times, notably at the official Fadjr Music Festival in February. She concluded that concert for a standing-room-only audience of women with an emotional rendition of A, Iran, a formerly forbidden nationalistic song that also surfaced in February as a sort of protest anthem for reformers' campaign rallies.

Mrs. Parvoneh also dared to include a poem put to music that goes, as she described it, "if you close the place one goes to drink, you open the door to hypocrisy and lying."

* Drusilla Menaker is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo and a regular contributor to The Dallas Morning News.


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