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Epic Iran

The Victoria & Albert Museum, 29 May – 12 September 2021

Review by Sana Nassari

However impossible it seems to gather 5,000 years of art, design and culture into a single exhibition, the Victoria & Albert Museum has nevertheless brought more than 300 items of a great historic civilization together. The first UK exhibition dedicated to the art of Iran in 90 years, Epic Iran covers from 3200 BC to the present day with a fascinating collection of items such as sculpture, jewellery, illustrated manuscripts, textile, carpets, painting and video. Divided into 10 sections, the exhibition is designed to reflect chapters in Iran’s history from the Persian Empire to the present-day Islamic Republic.

Unlike exhibitions in which viewers are invited to begin with the sketches made from a Western viewpoint, by Orientalists and travel writers, Epic Iran seeks to represent the inner nature of Iran and its heritage, before and then after the Islamic conquest. It draws a succinct diagram of Iran’s political, historical and cultural milestones through its art and architecture.

The exhibition starts with ‘Land of Iran’, a screen display of Iran’s natural landscapes which acknowledges the wide-ranging cultural achievements spread out over its vast territory. It is in the next phase, ‘Emerging Iran’, where objects are first encountered, in a room of ancient relics surrounded by mud-brick walls that recall the ziggurats of Iran.

Epic Iran uses technical aids to add value to a mere showing of objects and elements. In the following ‘Persian Empire’ room, coloured lights are employed to imitate the original bright colours of the monumental stone slabs of Achaemenid relief carvings; and in ‘Royal Patronage’, the domes of the mosques of Isfahan are displayed overhead as patterns on a large-size screen hung from the ceiling, leaving this viewer with a great passion to visit the real Isfahan – the heaven of geometric-vegetal ornamentation.

‘The Book of Kings’ centres on the Shahnameh, that great monument of Persian literature which could be considered the heart of Epic Iran as an exhibition. This one-thousand-year-old epic of the Persian kings by the poet Firdowsi represents the determination of Iranians to preserve their language and identity, despite Muslim rule. The illustrated folio on display is from the sixteenth-century Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp, loaned to the V&A by the British-based Sarikhani collection.

The last section of the exhibition ‘Modern and Contemporary Iran’ is dedicated to art, divided into two main sections: before and after the Islamic Revolution. Pre-revolution, Iran’s modern art is covered to a great extent by artists such as Siah Armajani, Behjat Sadr, Bahman Mohasses, Massoud Arabshahi and Farideh Lashai. Post-revolution, the display reveals the intricacy of the Iranian art world in an age of the internet. Artists simultaneously experienced the freedom of being connected to Western art and the internal suffocation of censorship. All the White Horses by Avish Khebrehzadeh exemplifies this plight in a hand-drawn video animation of horses running freely on a black background. Set on a loop, the installation symbolically restarts their splendid journey again and again, as if they face transparent boundaries. It serves as a metaphor for defining the essence of Iran’s situation, with its art as an evolving legacy.

Photo courtesy of the Estate of Shirin Aliabadi