Edward McDonald-Toone, UCL
Anew exhibition of works from the Barjeel collection recently opened at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art to considerable international fanfare. No reviews have appeared at time of writing (and this is also not one), but The Sea Suspended has been widely hailed as the first group exhibition of modern art from the Arab region ever shown in Iran, displaying 40 works by prominent Arab artists alongside 40 Iranian paintings. Ostensibly this is an extraordinary fact, given the geographical proximity and (when taking the long view) the history of engagement between Iran and its Arab neighbours.
Yet in the shorter view of history that inevitably dominates media analyses, the story of post-revolutionary Iran and its Arab neighbours to the west and south emphasises difference hardening into conflict.
A common narrative, simplistic (and apt to be satirised), but not totally inaccurate, positions the Farsi-speaking Shia Islamic Republic in opposition to the Sunni-dominated Arab states clustered around the Gulf (Iraq an important exception), with Saudi Arabia as their hegemonic power, and the US and its allies aligned with them. Proxy groups continue to vie for influence in Palestine, Lebanon and beyond, while proxy military confrontation continues in the catastrophic wars in Syria and Yemen. Rhetoric, money, arms and direct intervention flow in different directions – from Tehran on one side, and Riyadh working with Abu Dhabi and other neighbouring capitals on the other.
Abdul Qader Al Rais (Dubai), Untitled, c.1970 | source: Courtesy Barjeel Art Foundation
In the context of this fraught historical moment, Tehran’s new exhibition is being promoted as a bracing act of cultural diplomacy. The exhibition is a collaboration between the government-owned TMoCA, the commercial Mohsen Gallery, and the Emirati Barjeel Art Foundation. It encompasses work from a variety of Arab countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the UAE, alongside a selection of work by Iranian modernists. This juxtaposition has prompted the rhetoric about the exhibition being a cultural “dialogue” or “bridge” and the idea that it is doing something, through art, which formal diplomacy cannot achieve.