The Next Great City for Contemporary Art? Tehran.
Dastan's Basement just made its debut at Art Basel Hong Kong, and founder Hormoz Hematian is on a mission to build new infrastructure for Iran's art scene.
The Fish and the Bird; After Robert Linsley, Sam Samiee, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Dastan's Basement.
In 2012, engineer Hormoz Hematian decided that there was space in his Tehran office that could be put to better use. “I had a big office and an engineering practice,” Hematian says, “And I thought perhaps we could have a part of the office where people came to watch films or see a small exhibition.” Hematian discovered he’d need a permit to realize his plan; the easiest to acquire was a gallery permit, which he duly secured.
Three months later, Hermatian closed down his engineering practice and opened a gallery named Dastan’s Basement. Almost six years later, Hematian’s enterprise just made its debut at Art Basel Hong Kong with a solo presentation by the Iranian-born artist Sam Samiee; in May, the gallery will show at Frieze New York. The international art world is taking notice of Hematian, and contemporary Iranian art in general. This is in part because the concerns of many Iranian artists—cultural identity, negotiating political and social upheaval—resonate with an audience more interested in political artworks in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, still navigating an international refugee crisis.
Hematian has established Dastan’s Basement representative of Iran in the international art scene, in part through the sheer volume of the gallery’s programming. It’s one of three permanent spaces that Hematian runs in Tehran: Dastan+2 shows more established Iranian artists, and Electric Room hosts weekly presentations and occasional monographic shows; Dastan Outside is a series of pop-up exhibitions. He estimated that between these spaces and international art fairs, he’ll mount over 80 shows this year. “There’s an incredible history of Iranian artists, and many contemporary artists. But there is no infrastructure to Tehran’s art world, limited critical writing, and no discourse around the scene,” Hematian said. “So I wanted to help create that context by doing different sorts of exhibitions, and lots of exhibitions.”
One of these artists is Sam Samiee, who curated Dastan’s Basement’s booth when they showed at the Untitled Art Fair in Miami in 2017; this year’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong was a monographic presentation of his work. “Good Iranian art has been there forever,” said Samiee. “It’s the contextualization that wasn’t there.” Samiee studied at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and has shown widely in the Holland, but considered it important to exhibit in his home country. “Iranian artists don’t come out of a vacuum. I grew up in Iran and my education was in Iran. I wanted to find a space where I could work collectively with my friends and where there were shared interests,” he said. “So when I started showing with Hormoz [Hematian], that aspect of the gallery was very important.”
Developing a critical context for contemporary Iranian art requires reckoning with a difficult past, and navigating the present-day ramifications of conflict between Iran and Western nations. Iranian-born collector Mohammed Afkhami showcased part of his collection last year at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, just after Donald Trump proposed a travel ban on Iran and six other Muslim-majority countries, and several US-based Iranian artists represented in the exhibition chose not to travel to its opening: they were afraid that they would not be able to return home. Afkhami’s grandfather collected Islamic antiquities, all of which was expropriated by Iran’s new hardline leaders after the revolution of 1979. Afkhami ended up recovering some pieces: “We have bought some back at auction,” he has said. “I love my country, but you have to let go of the past.”
Through his programming, Hematian wanted to focus on the way that artists can offer a way forward. “Tehran is this place that is polluted, going through a very difficult recession, and where there’s lots of anger and upset about not being a bigger part of the international community after the recent moves towards greater openness,” he said. “But then you visit artist’s studios and you see how they are changing things.”
Samiee’s presentation at Art Basel Hong Kong illustrates this tension between Iran’s past and its future. It consists of iPad paintings, furniture, objects, and wall installations inspired by “Adab,” a Persian philosophical concept that unites aesthetics and ethics. The works are legible to the international audience, but Samiee also makes cultural references a non-Iranian viewer would miss. “We’re not just becoming another part of the international game here,” said Samiee. “We’re setting the rules of what we can do and what we can achieve in Tehran.”
“Things will change,” Hematian said. “There will be more artists, more intellectuals. What the artists are doing is too great not to be part of the international community.”