On 16 March 2014 renowned Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli awoke in his Tehran home to the sound of his daughter screaming. Twenty men had broken the locks on the door and entered his home. They refused to show identification, and
proceeded to seize all the artwork they could find.
Tanavoli’s daughter filmed the men as they bound the massive sculptures with metal chains and lifted them with small cranes onto pickup trucks waiting on the street outside. One rectangular bronze piece was not harnessed securely, and fell off its wooden pallet onto the street. Also seen in the video is Tanavoli himself. With a camera hanging from his neck, the 77-year-old artist chastises the men that he told them it would fall.
On that day, this group of 20 men working for Tehran municipality took 11 pieces from Tanavoli’s home. But this was not the first time these sculptures were taken away.
In May 2003, Tanavoli sold his home in Niavaran, north Tehran, to the municipality so it could become the Museum of Parviz Tanavoli. The city purchased 57 works in order to display them.
According to Tanavoli, the museum lasted only a few months. Shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected mayor of Tehran that same year, the museum was closed by his order and all 57 works were removed to the city’s warehouses. Tanavoli eventually got his house back, but not his sculptures.
At the time, Mohammad Khatami was Iran’s president and policies of cultural liberalisation were in effect. It was a moment in post-revolutionary Iran of relative freedom in the arts. Under the successive presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami, rules governing art, music and cinema had relaxed after the harsh censorship of the 1980s. The Museum of Parviz Tanavoli was to be one of the fruits of this openness. Like the museum, such perceived freedoms were short-lived.
After an interval of 11 years, for eight of which Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president, Tanavoli last year took the city of Tehran to court to get his sculptures back. Only 11 of the 57 pieces were returned. But then, weeks later, the city reversed its decision without explanation. Hence the raid, in which many sculptures were damaged.
In total, the 57 sculptures, many of them bronzes, are worth $20-$30m (£13-20m). Tanavoli’s works are the most expensive of any living Iranian artist. In 2008, he set a new auction record as a Middle Eastern artist when his sculpture The Wall (Oh Persepolis) fetched $2.84m (£1.87m) at a Christie’s auction in Dubai.
In a recent interview with ISNA (the Iranian Students News Agency), Tanavoli said the 11 sculptures were being held at the Imam Ali Museum, with the fate of the other 46 uncertain. Tanavoli mentioned rumours his pieces have been sold for financial gain.
In an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani in June, Tanavoli wrote that “in accordance with civil, religious and customary laws”, the artworks taken from his home should be returned. “I will fight for them with all my power as long as I am alive,” he wrote. “And after I go, I ask my children to keep after them until they are returned to their rightful owner.”
Though Tanavoli’s work has been displayed in some the world’s most prominent museums, including the British Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at home he still faces an uphill battle to show his work. In Iran, even an artist as prominent as Tanavoli is turned into a pawn in the country’s culture wars.
With the election of Rouhani came the hope that a moderate politician in favour of promoting the arts might reverse the damage done during Ahmadinejad’s tenure. As part of his campaign, Rouhani promised greater tolerance over cultural issues.
Upon his posting, Ali Jannati, the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, reviewed books rejected for publication under Ahmadinejad’s government. Jannati said that if God himself hadn’t sent it, Ahmadinejad would have banned even the Qur’an.
ouhani’s government has relaxed restrictions on Iran’s celebrated film industry and even re-opened The House of Cinema – the largest trade association of the industry and responsible for several films winning international awards – which had been closed in 2012.
In an address to six art and cultural guilds last January, Rouhani said: “Art without freedom is meaningless… Every system has its red lines, but it’s absolutely essential for these lines to be transparent and clear, so to avoid arbitrary restrictions.”
Both Jannati and Rouhani have pursued a policy of “minimum interference”, insisting it is not the role of the government to control Iran’s artists and cultural industry. But their views stand in contrast to those of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In his speech for the Iranian new year last March, given a week after Tanavoli’s home was raided, Khamenei asked officials to be alert to “dangerous cultural breaches and to perform their required and defensive duties”.
The conservative elements that control the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, who also wield power in the parliament, have not taken kindly to Rouhani’s non-interventionist policies. Jannati recently came under fire after he was critical of Iran’s judiciary in an interview with al-Jazeera television. Speaking about the changes between the current administration and those that came before it, Jannati said President Rouhani was “making more room for freedom of the press, for the publishing sector and the film industry and we are trying to create a more open atmosphere for artists”. Jannati suggested the judiciary needed to be “in tune with the changes that are taking place in our country”.
At a meeting of the High Council of the Cultural Revolution in December 2013, Khamenei quietly challenged Rouhani’s policies, stressing that “entrusting cultural issues to the people does not negate the regulatory role and guidance of the administration”.
In a climate where censorship and the freedom of expression ebb and flow, a reform-minded, artist-friendly president does not ensure change. In 1979, just after the revolution, Tanavoli nearly went bankrupt when he was blacklisted from exhibiting and selling his work. He left for Canada in 1989 to rebuild his career from abroad.
Tanavoli is not Iran’s only visual artist to have his work seized. In a recent interview, Nicky Nodjoumi said that over 120 of his paintings and drawings had been confiscated and never returned following an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran in 1980.
At that time, a critical review in a conservative newspaper called his work anti-Revolution and anti-Islam, and museum staff were notified a mob would attack the museum after Friday prayers. The exhibition was cut short and the work taken down.
Worried for his safety, Nodjoumi left Iran two weeks later. Years later when he returned to Iran and asked about the whereabouts of his work, he was told that no documentation existed. Later on, when 40 of these works were found, Nodjoumi was told he would have to “prove” they were his.
Works of Tanavoli and Nodjoumi appeared in New York in the Asia Society’s 2013 exhibition Iran Modern, showcasing 1950s-1970s Tehran in the largest museum display of its kind ever mounted outside Iran. One of the curators, Layla S. Diba, a scholar who served as an art advisor to Queen Farah Pahlavi in the 1970s, has followed the careers of Iran’s many modern artists, a number of whom, like Tanavoli and Nodjoumi, are now based in the west.
In putting together Iran Modern, Diba said that the freedom they had as curators would not have been available to them in Iran’s current climate. “Who owns Iran’s culture?” asked Diba. “Is it the community abroad who is supportive, or is it the Iranian state, which does not support [the arts]?” Diba noted that the power struggle in Iran over culture is a “struggle for the soul of Iran”.
Last week, the first retrospective of Tanavoli’s work at a US museum began at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College. While he faces a legal battle for the rights to his sculptures in Iran, on US soil he is being celebrated. As for the Museum of Parviz Tanavoli in Tehran, this dream has not died. Tanavoli plans to turn his home into a private museum.