Stanford’s Iranian Studies Program highlights Iran’s art, culture via new initiatives
Over the past several years, the Stanford Iranian Studies Program has focused on bringing important Iranian artists to Stanford and building awareness of Iran’s art history and culture through new programs and classes.
Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker and playwright Bahram Beyzaie was censored for decades in his home country and was not able to screen or publish many of his artistic works.
Now a Stanford lecturer, Beyzaie directed and staged a nine-hour, two-part play last spring as part of the Stanford Festival of Iranian Arts initiative, launched by the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies.
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He said he felt a freedom he once believed was unattainable.
“It was hard to leave my country,” Beyzaie said. “I love my country … but this was not believable for me to do in Iran.”
Since the Stanford Iranian Studies Program’s inception 10 years ago, its director, Abbas Milani, has worked on bringing artists like Beyzaie to Stanford to highlight different forms of art in Iran and promote discussion about Iranian and Iranian-American culture.
“One of the most telling facets of every culture is the art,” said Milani, who is also a co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. “And you can’t understand Iran today unless you understand what is happening on the street, in the underground theaters, poetry readings, fashion shows and raves. All of that is part of Iran.”
Art censorship in Iran
Iran’s rich history of culture and art can be overlooked against the backdrop of its government’s actions, notably its targeted censorship toward art and film after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Beyzaie, 78, whose films focus on Iran’s history and cultural identity, lived under the government’s censorship for many years while working as the director of the Theater Arts Department at Tehran University. But life was hard for him and his family, he said.
“It was very difficult to survive,” Beyzaie said.
In addition to being constantly censored, Beyzaie was eventually banned from teaching at Tehran University because of his parents’ Bahá’í faith, which came under persecution after the Islamic Revolution. The followers of that religion, which is considered to be the world’s youngest monotheistic religion, have faced harassment, discrimination and even execution in Iran.
When an opportunity to teach at Stanford arose six years ago, Beyzaie said he had to leave to ensure a better future for his then 14-year-old son, who wouldn’t have been able to get an education in Iran because of their family’s association with the Bahá’í faith.
“It was disappointing, but we had to leave,” Beyzaie said.
Beyzaie said his first time putting on a play at Stanford was liberating.
“That’s when I realized: ‘Oh, we could do that here? Oh, we are free,’” Beyzaie said. “It was a mixture of happiness and sorrow.”
Old art, new movements
In addition to attracting Iranian artists and scholars, the Iranian Studies Program also has created several initiatives, including sponsoring the recent effort on Art, Social Space and Public Discourse in Iran, to bring art exhibitions, film screenings and music from Iran to Stanford and the surrounding communities.
The new effort aims to showcase different types of Iranian public art, stimulate discussions about public art and its definition, and foster collaborations between Iranian artists and artists in the San Francisco Bay Area through new classes, events and panels.
“One of our objectives with the initiative was to open a window to Iran that goes beyond media representation and what occupies contemporary popular imagination,” said Ala Ebtekar, a lecturer with the Department of Art and Art History, who is leading the new initiative. “It is precisely in these public practices that we find connections and similarities to other social practices across cultures.”
A unique aspect of Iranian art’s history is Naqqali, a genre of oral storytelling primarily performed in coffeehouses. As part of this performance, a Naqqal, which means a storyteller in Farsi, retells a well-known story from classical Persian poetry.
This celebrated art form, which was unofficially banned in Iran for some time after the 1979 Revolution largely because of its association with political activism, was added in 2011 to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
But in recent years, new generations of artists in Iran have rediscovered the practice of Naqqali as well as experimented with other forms of public art, such as graffiti.
“The art scene in Iran is booming right now,” Ebtekar said. “Galleries are popping up everywhere.”
Bringing attention to the old and new art forms of Iran was part of the goal of a three-day symposium in the fall that kicked off the public art initiative. As part of the event, two Naqqals performed at Darvazeh Ghar coffeehouse in Tehran, which hasn’t held a Naqqali performance since pre-revolutionary time. Segments of the show were broadcast live at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
“This special performance reignited the performative potentialities of the site and introduced a unique type of storytelling to a new audience at the Asian Art Museum,” Ebtekar said.
As part of the initiative, Ebtekar is also teaching a course, Public Space in Iran: Murals, Graffiti, Performance, where Stanford students learn about Iran’s older traditions of performing arts as well as contemporary art practices.
In the course, students interacted with Ghalamdar, a U.K.-based Iranian graffiti artist, who created three new art pieces during his month-long stay at Stanford, one of which was displayed inside the Coulter Art Gallery at the McMurtry Building. His other two works, on which he collaborated with local artists, are murals that are located in San Francisco’s Mission District and at Jack London Square in Oakland.
The Iranian Studies Program’s art initiatives have not only illuminated the current art scene in Iran but also brought together members of the Iranian diaspora community, a large portion of which is located in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A recent highlight of that collaboration was the nine-hour performance of the traditional Iranian play Tarabnameh last year. Directed by Beyzaie, the play was staged with an ensemble of 40 largely nonprofessional actors, most of whom were part of the Iranian diaspora in the U.S. or in Europe. Some traveled directly from Iran to participate in the play, which Milani described as “a historic moment for Iranian theater.”
“Beneath the radical veneer of Iran’s current regime, there is another Iran,” Milani said. “Appraising the full complexity of Iran requires understanding the country in its entirety, and art and cultural history is essential to that.”