For Years, Iran’s Art Scene Has Been a Pioneer in the Middle East. Now US Sanctions Are Knocking Its Artists Back to the 18th Century

All-cash deals, logistical nightmares, scarce art materials—this is what life is like for artists living in Iran under crushing sanctions.

An Iranian woman walks past an Iranian flag painted on a wall in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Artist Tarlan Rafiee returned to Tehran after a visit to the Venice Biennale last month teeming with ideas. But when she visited her local art supply store to buy 20 pieces of Rosaspina Fabriano, a specialized paper for printmaking, she was told she could only have one. As a result of strict sanctions placed on Iran by the US over its nuclear program, “we have limited supply and we need to share it with the other artists,” the seller told her.  

Rafiee left in disbelief. How could the situation have gotten worse in just a few weeks? “Now I need to paint like in the 18th century,” she said. These sanctions have harmed art and culture more than the censorship inside the country.”

Since US President Donald Trump announced the country would withdraw from the controversial international nuclear deal last May, his administration has imposed the toughest ever sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Iran is no longer able to buy American dollars, trade in gold, aluminium, steel, or its own currency, the Rial.

Under the terms of the sanctions, Iranians cannot wire money to any foreign bank account nor can they receive international wire transfers. Many European, British, and international companies are also withdrawing from Iran to protect themselves from US sanctions. As a result, the country’s economy has plummeted and inflation has skyrocketed. By the end of 2018, Iran’s currency plunged 70 percent on the open market.

The panel of judges at the TEER Art Fair. Courtesy of TEER.

The panel of judges at the TEER Art Fair. Courtesy of TEER.

Although art, which is classified as “informational material,” is technically exempt from sanctions, the situation poses great obstacles for the country’s artists and galleries, who remain unable to receive money into their Iranian bank accounts.  

But those active in the Iranian art scene are going to great lengths to keep the flow of art and ideas moving. Iranian artists continue to participate in blockbuster shows internationally: a number of them are included in the exhibition “City Prince/sses: Dhaka, Lagos, Manila, Mexico City and Tehran,” which opens June 21 at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, and Iran launched its pavilion at the Venice Biennale last month. Meanwhile, the second edition of the Teer Art Fair will return to Tehran from June 24 to 28, showcasing 19 Iranian modern and contemporary art galleries—nine more than its inaugural year.


The Struggle to Make a Living

As a result of sanctions, Iranian artists, gallerists, and collectors must navigate a complex labyrinth of global transactions in order to receive money for their art. Artists without international bank accounts must often pay additional fees to bring money in through so-called exchange companies. Artists with foreign bank accounts, meanwhile, struggle to cash checks abroad with Iranian passports. Sometimes, an artist will fly to collect the money from a gallery and bring it back to Iran physically.

Iranian artist Sahand Hesamiyan had to wait until his dealers, Franz and Heidi Leupi of the Swiss gallery AB Fine Art AG (formerly AB43 Contemporary), traveled to Tehran so they could pay him for the sale of two of his works in cash. Another artist who works with the gallery, Fereydoun Ave, says he is still owed more than $60,000 for several sales, even after repeated follow-ups and lengthy correspondence. (In a letter to several artists awaiting payment, the gallery blamed “extreme regulations on the part of the banks in Switzerland.” When reached for comment by artnet News, Franz Leupi said that “in the future, we will no longer work with artists from Iran.”)

Installation view of Dastan's Basement presentation at the Outsider Art Fair, 2016. Courtesy of Dastan's Basement.

Installation view of Dastan’s Basement presentation at the 4th Annual Outsider Art Exhibition. Courtesy of Dastan’s Basement.

Inflation has also made it difficult for artists to fund their day-to-day work. “From the cost of materials and their availability to the increased living costs, it is not the best time for production,” said the founder of Tehran’s contemporary art gallery Dastan’s Basement, Hormoz Hematian.

Meanwhile, the cost for local galleries to participate in major art fairs has skyrocketed for dealers who must pay with devalued currency, while security checks often delay shipments and staff are frequently unable to obtain visas. While Hematian spends a significant amount of time exhibiting at art fairs around the world, such as Art Basel and Frieze, “we are certainly not able to do as much as we potentially could or did before,” he said.


The Struggle to Show

While artists struggle to be paid at home, Iranian curators face a different challenge: organizing shows abroad in countries that are unable to take their money. Iran’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale is an example of the superhuman determination required to present Iranian art to the world today.

The Tehran-based curator Ali Bakhtiari, who organized the pavilion, had to carry lots of cash with him to Venice in order to pay his staff, his hotel, and other expenses since Iranian bank accounts do not work abroad. He spent a month looking for an insurance company before he found one that would agree to work with him. “We have been labeled as terrorists by US government and it was very important to exhibit in Venice with a message of peace and a belief in a better future,” he said.

Installation view of work by Samira Alikhanzadeh at the Iran Pavilion. Courtesy of the artists.

Similarly, the London-based nonprofit Parasol Unit had to rapidly adapt to new regulations when sanctions were reimposed well after the group had begun planning an exhibition of work by nine Iranian artists in Venice to coincide with the Biennale.

“I called all of my staff into a meeting and told them that regardless of what is taking place we needed to do everything in our power to abide by correct measures,” says Iranian-born founder Ziba Ardalan. That meant booking artists’ tickets from London and reserving them rooms in Venice rather than wiring money to them to make their own arrangements, among other adjustments. In the end, two artists were still denied visas to the UK to attend the opening of the London branch of the exhibition.


The Struggle to Buy

The difficulty of moving money in and out of the country has also severely hampered Iran’s art market. “We have no clients abroad due to the sanctions,” said Shirin Partovi, founder and director of Tehran’s Shirin Art Gallery. “We have local clients only.”

“The situation is becoming really very difficult,” says an anonymous Dubai-based Iranian collector. “I cannot send money even from a UAE bank account abroad because I have an Iranian name.” In order to pay for his artwork from Iran, the collector uses exchange houses, a service Iranians have long employed to send or receive money. But they have recently become so expensive that they are no longer cost-effective for transactions less than $20,000.

Some galleries are engaging in creative deals with patrons in order to keep their businesses afloat. A leading gallery in Tehran recently inked a deal with the Dubai-based collector Mohammed Afkhami to buy a number of works—priced between $2,000 and $3,000—for a set budget over the next six to 12 months. (He is paying with money he already has in the country.)

“They told me that I would really help the market and would be doing a great service to Iranian artists if I was seen as actively buying again,” he said. “So we agreed to add at least 50 Iranian artists from the 1940s to the present to my foundation’s collection.”

Visitors at a show by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian in Ab-Anbar Art Gallery in Tehran, Iran. AB-ANBAR is an independent space in Tehran, committed to discovery and experimentation of contemporary art in Iran. (Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images)

But while it is difficult for many collectors outside Iran to buy art from the country, the art trade has also become a popular way for wealthy Iranians to move money out. This January at the 10th Tehran Auction, a work by the late Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian hammered at 40 billion Rials ($400,000), setting a new auction record for the artist.

“Who knows where the money went?” said one Dubai collector. “It could have stayed in Iran or it could have been sent abroad. This is a light form of money-laundering but it is how some people are surviving.” Oftentimes, works will achieve large prices in Tehran and then be sold at a gallery or an auction house abroad in dollars or euros and deposited into a foreign bank account. 

Alireza Sami-Azar, the founder of Tehran Auction, said “it is possible that the works are being resold abroad but we don’t have any concrete examples. What is fact is that… it’s much better to buy at the Tehran Auction than to sell. Our main target is to boost the domestic market in order to support the foreign market of Iranian art.”


Sanctions, Stereotyping, and Resilience

The sanctions are also having a less practical, but no less insidious, personal impact on Iranian artists: isolation.

“The really sad thing for me is to witness how the word ‘Iran’ has often become a synonym for paranoia,” said Geneva-based independent curator and art consultant Dina Nasser-Khadivi. “This leads to either not wanting to deal with anything that has to do with Iran or to Iranians having to work 10 times harder to find legal loopholes in order to get things done. Either way this situation often leads to discouraging people inside and outside the country.”

She points to a collector in Paris who was unable to receive a work of art she purchased from an artist of Iranian origin after the collector’s bank declined to pay the shipping company. “Their compliance team had Googled the artist and seen that he was originally from Iran,” Nasser-Khadivi said.

Meanwhile, four years ago, the UK-based art nonprofit Magic of Persia, which supports emerging Iranian artists, had to change its name to the MOP Foundation. “Barclays Bank closed our account because of the word ‘Persia,'” said founder Shirley Elghanian.

Iranian demonstrators carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and an effigy of US President Donald Trump during a rally in the capital Tehran. (Photo by STR / AFP/Getty Images)

Against all the odds, however, the Iranian art scene continues to exhibit remarkable resilience. The show has gone on—inside and outside of the country.

Hematian of Dastan’s Basement encourages travelers to visit the country, where they can help “build infrastructure and be ready for the day that Iran finds its place back into the global community.” They can also go home with affordable art. “What $10,000 can buy is almost quadruple to what it would have been 15 months ago,” he noted. “I think this is a really great time to start collecting Iranian art.”

“We want the international art community to understand that we are all working so hard,” Hematian said. “To say Iran game over is not going to happen. We are going to keep going.”

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