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"Why Ebrahim Golestan should be so vindictive is a mystery"

By Rose Issa
May 31, 2001
The Iranian

Response to Ebrahim Golestan's article, "Hormat", on the Iranian Contemporary Art Exhibition at the Barbican, London. See Golestan's response.

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 and Mehrjui.

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 forte.

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 project.

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 Iran.

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 photography.

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 vanity reviews?


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, London 2001).

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