10 Iranian Artists Who Are Shaping Contemporary Art

Leila Sajjadi
Sep 17, 2019 9:56PM
Newsha Tavakolian
I am Eve, 2010
ILEX Gallery

Despite its very unique and challenging sociopolitical position, Iran can arguably be considered one of the most prolific and progressive countries when it comes to art. The country’s recent history is filled with artists seeking to create a visual language that is native yet modern.

Iranian art has often been associated with visual poetry, subtlety of expression, and penetrating intelligence. During the past four decades of post-revolution, Iranian contemporary artists inside the country and of its diaspora have been using the power of art to break conventions, pierce through stereotypes, and critically examine and challenge their own society and the world more broadly.

Today, Iran’s contemporary art scene is shifting dramatically. A new generation of Iranian artists are eagerly working to make a new impression. Now, more than any other moment in history, Iranian artists are developing a universal discourse to build a place for their work within the global art scene. At the same time, they are shedding the expectations, restrictions, and labels that long ruled Iranian creativity.

This list of artists brings together emerging and established Iranian artists working within the country and beyond its borders. Their work offers a fresh introduction to this exciting and underrecognized art scene.

Nazgol Ansarinia

B. 1979, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran.

Nazgol Ansarinia
Attempts at building a wall, 2018
Green Art Gallery

Nazgol Ansarinia examines the everyday contemporary Iranian experience. Her works are often directly inspired by the transformations of urban life and the fast-changing landscape of her hometown, Tehran.

Through working with a variety of media—video, 3D models, sculpture, drawing—she addresses notions of loss and rebirth. She also examines the psychological effects of the shifts from the known to the unknown, a constant in modern Iranian life—seen, for instance, in the massive ongoing reconstruction projects in Tehran and other cities.

Ansarinia took part in Iran’s national pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, in 2015, and at the 10th and 12th Istanbul Biennale, in 2007 and 2011, respectively. She was also the recipient of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize in 2009.

Avish Khebrehzadeh

B. 1969, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Avish Khebrehzadeh’s psychologically charged works are imbued with her experiences of migration and living in different countries. Notions of dislocation, suspension, mystery, and estrangement are present in her striking yet melancholic works. Khebrehzadeh harnesses traditional media such as drawing, painting, animation, and film, as well as unconventional approaches like olive oil and resin on paper.

With research and experimentation at the core of her practice, Khebrehzadeh is known for narrative paintings that are largely inspired by her education in the West, her roots and heritage in the East, and the contradictions at play between the two. Her drawings and video works are subtle and spontaneous; in them, she frees herself from expectations, as if flowing into the unknown.

Khebrehzadeh has presented her works in worldwide institutions such as the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in the U.S., MAXXI in Rome, and the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia. She has participated in the Istanbul Biennale and the Cologne Kunst Film Biennale; at the Venice Biennale in 2003, she was awarded the Golden Lion for the best young Italian artist.

Y.Z. Kami

B. 1956, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in New York.

Y.Z. Kami
Man with Violet Eyes, 2013-2014
Y.Z. Kami
Untitled, 2010

Y.Z. Kami’s long artistic career has seen him explore topics relating to religion, literature, and philosophy. In his work, Kami pursues an art-historical quest to identify abstraction, mystery, mysticism, and meaning through material forms.

Kami first gained international acclaim for his large-scale portrait paintings. His meditative, intensely direct pieces offer viewers an emotional encounter with his subjects, which includes friends, family members, and strangers. His sfumato-filled portraits are direct expressions of the contradiction between the familiar and unfamiliar, and the duality of our perceptions.

In his long artistic career, Kami has projected his desire to communicate universal truths about humanity. Through all of his work—collages, sculptures, abstract paintings, and monumental photographs of Islamic sites—Kami invites his viewers to think beyond common knowledge of cultural contexts, religious doctrines, or geographical regions.

Kami has exhibited extensively, and his works have been collected by institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and London’s Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art.

Mohammad-Hossein Emad

B. 1957, Arak, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran.

Mohammad-Hossein Emad, Untitled, 2013, from the “Lit Shadow” series. Courtesy of Assar Art Gallery.

One of the most celebrated Iranian sculptors, Mohammad-Hossein Emad creates highly imaginative and abstract art. His remarkably progressive works take on form and meaning that inspire contemplation.

Emad’s unrefined surfaces and undefinable forms are meant to be completed by viewers as they examine the details and care that the artist puts into his work. Emad places an emphasis on the contradictory yet complementary notions of void and mass. His multi-dimensional creations also engage with the philosophical implications of existence and our relationships with space.

In addition to his own work, Emad has trained a generation of Iranian sculptors. He is the recipient of many awards, including an honorary diploma from the fourth Tehran Contemporary Sculpture Biennial in 2005, and was also selected as artist of the year at the same event. He has been commissioned to create public art for spaces across Iran, including Tehran’s Gofteman Park and Shahid Beheshti University.

Meghdad Lorpour

B. 1983, Shiraz, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran.

Meghdad Lorpour, Ardeshir’s Throne, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the most promising new voices in Tehran’s artistic scene, Meghdad Lorpour creates paintings that are enigmatic, at times mysterious. Employing mainly acrylics and a light color palette, he portrays subjects including still lifes, landscapes, and figures.

Taking inspiration from literature, oral history, mythology, and personal travels, Lorpour begins each new series with a crucial phase of research and technical experimentation. His dreamlike subjects often convey a sense of poetic aloofness or tranquillity; his works tend to cultivate imagination or communicate a sense of escapism.

His series “Daryábár” was inspired by this ancient Persian word for “a city located at the sea’s coast,” which can also refer to a “large sea” and “heavy rain.” Water is regarded as precious or even sacred in Persian mysticism. Lorpour depicts the ways that humans and nature itself inflict change on various lakes and bodies of water across Iran.

Parastou Forouhar

B. 1962, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Germany.

Parastou Forouhar
Swanrider III, 2004
Pi Artworks Istanbul/London
Parastou Forouhar
Swanrider I, 2004
Pi Artworks Istanbul/London

Parastou Forouhar creates some of the most searing political works among Iranian artists working today. She is the daughter of well-known secular activist parents, who were both brutally assassinated in their home in 1998. Forouhar’s works are deeply charged with the suffering she has endured for over 20 years.

Her deeply emotional installations often consist of repetitive texts, forms, and signs, through which she finds catharsis. For her ongoing “Written Room” installation project, for instance, she writes Persian texts all over the walls of exhibition spaces. These texts follow the traditions of calligraphy, but they do not harbor any specific or tangible meaning. They are intended to convey a sense of liberation from restraints.

Forouhar aims to create spaces to reflect on the agony of her backstory and the injustice she endures as an immigrant. Her work, she has said, is about the “simultaneity of beauty and harm.”

Forouhar has exhibited widely in Iran and around the world at institutions and biennials such as MANIF D’ART in Canada, the Villa Stuck Museum in Germany, the fifth Moscow Biennale, and the Gothenburg International Biennial for Contemporary Art in Sweden. Her work has also been collected by major institutions such as the British Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery.

Tala Madani

B. 1981, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Tala Madani
Sex Ed by God, 2017
Pilar Corrias Gallery

Tala Madani’s art is playful and perverse. Her paintings often feature pastel-colored, cartoonish characters engaged in odd, erotic, or grotesque activities. Inspired by her observations growing up in Iran, her peculiar depictions toy with gender roles, as well as sexual and psychological frustration—topics that are extremely complex and taboo in her homeland.

Madani moved to the United States at age 10 and earned her MFA from Yale University in 2006. Her debut New York solo exhibition, at Lombard-Freid Projects in 2007, featured her now-popular “cake paintings”—a series in which men engage in ridiculous and amusing acrobatic-like activities in or around lavish birthday cakes.

Her work has been shown worldwide, including at the Venice Biennale, the Marrakech Biennale, and the Whitney Biennial in New York.

Newsha Tavakolian

B. 1981, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran.

One of the most unique artists of her generation, Newsha Tavakolian is a self-taught photographer. She began her career as a photojournalist shooting guerrilla fighters in the Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria; at age 16, she started contributing to Iranian press, and later went on to collaborate with the New York Times. Throughout her career, Tavakolian has covered a wide range of current events, such as Iran’s 1999 student uprisings, the Iraq war, and presidential elections.

Tavakolian’s work later shifted to a mix of art and documentary photography. Her socially engaged, humanistic works often depict societies on the verge of change. Some of her more personal works have been the subject of many exhibitions around the world. For instance, she presented intimate images of the private lives of the middle-class youth in Tehran—inspired by the stories of her close friends and neighbors—in an exhibition at London’s Somerset House in 2014, titled “Burnt Generation.” The images were intended to combat stereotypes of Western media, offering a more realistic portrayal of life in Iran.

Her works have been presented widely at international institutions, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the British Museum; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tavakolian has earned many accolades for her work and became a Magnum associate photographer in 2017.

Iman Afsarian

B. 1974, Tehran, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran.

Iman Afsarian, 2006. Courtesy of Assar Art Gallery.

Iman Afsarian, 2006. Courtesy of Assar Art Gallery.

The celebrated painter Iman Afsarian creates enigmatic depictions of empty rooms, derelict and forgotten spaces, and neglected objects and furniture. His nostalgia-rich works suggest the fragility of human existence.

Working with oil and acrylic, and dedicated to traditional painting methods, Afsarian is specifically celebrated for playing with light and shadow. Through applying layers of glazing, he is able to evoke sentimental feelings and nostalgia. Afsarian has a strong sense of attachment to his chosen subjects, leading him to undergo a lengthy process to prepare for and execute his works.

An accomplished writer as well as an artist, Afsarian has taken part in various exhibitions in Iran and around the world since his debut solo show in 1994 in Tehran. His latest solo exhibition, opening at Tehran’s Assar Art Gallery in September 2019, consists of seven new paintings depicting details of interiors and exteriors of long-abandoned homes in Tehran where the artist has spent time.

Mehrdad Afsari

B. 1977, Khoy, Iran. Lives and works in Tehran.

Mehrdad Afsari, from the series “Desolation Memories,” 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Mehrdad Afsari is a photographer, documentarian, and video artist, as well as an honorary member of the Iranian Visual Arts Society. His mesmerizing works typically exclude human subjects; instead, they depict the mystical and pristine elements of nature and landscapes, while pointing at life’s fragility and limitations.

Travelling across Iran in search of vistas, Afsari captures poetic aspects of his chosen landscapes that may go completely unnoticed by others. Through the use of analog photography, he invites viewers into his journeys to uncover illumination, balance, and beauty. He captures the transience of life and the relationship between humans and nature.

Afsari’s works have been presented at prominent art venues worldwide, including the Venice Biennale; Paris Photo; the Queens Museum, New York; and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Leila Sajjadi