For Iranian Collector Mohammed Afkhami, Art Reflects His Country’s History and Future
Portrait of Mohammed Afkhami. Courtesy of Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.
Monir Farmanfarmaian, The Lady Reappears, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.
Mohammed Afkhami’s foray into collecting was a fate that was practically preordained. The Iranian businessman was born into a collection of over 20,000 Islamic antiquities and artworks that his grandfather and his mother built through research and close friendships with scholars such as Géza Féhérvári and Basil Robinson. The family lost 98 percent of the collection during the Iranian Revolution, but “those friendships with like-minded people stayed with us,” Afkhami said. This family legacy has imbued the collector, now in his mid-forties, with an intuitive but refined approach to building a collection that is “broadly representative of what’s going on in Iran and outside,” he said on a recent Sunday afternoon, standing beside Farhad Moshiri’s Flying Carpet (2007). The intriguing sculpture of a fighter jet’s silhouette carved into a stack of 32 Persian kilims is among 27 artworks in the exhibition “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” at the Asia Society in New York, which curator Fereshteh Daftari assembled from the 600 artworks in Afkhami’s collection.
The show’s 23-artist roster is a microcosm of Afkhami’s acquisitions of poetic juxtapositions on contemporary Iran either directly from the motherland or through diasporic experiences. The melting pot of voices represented across the show illustrates the country’s post-revolution landscape shaped by displacement, longing, and perseverance. Nine of the featured artists, such as Mahmoud Bakhshi and Morteza Ahmadvand, are based in Iran, while another nine, including Khosrow Hassanzadeh and Parviz Tanavoli, split their time between the country and elsewhere. Shirin Neshat, Ali Banisadr, and three other artists reside in the West full time.
Farhad Moshiri, installation view of Flying Carpet, 2007, in “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” at Asia Society Museum, New York, 2021. © Bruce M. White. Photo by Bruce M. White. Courtesy of Mohammed Afkhami Foundation and Asia Society.
Afkhami walked through Shiva Ahmadi’s painted steel barrel piece Oil Barrel #13 (2010) and Shahpour Pouyan’s suspended iron and steel sculpture Projectile 11 (2015) brimming with pride and eagerness about holding one of the most impressive regionally specific private collections of contemporary art. He noted Ahmadi’s meticulous miniature painting on steel and Pouyan’s ability to conjure ghostliness out of iron with a curator’s attention to nuance and a parent’s admiration.
Though his family had a long history of collecting antiquities, it was contemporary art that caught Afkhami’s attention, like love at first sight. During an extended stay in Tehran in 2004, he visited Mah Gallery, where he stumbled upon an abstract painting by Sirak Melkonian. The artist’s delicate, anatomical black lines over white canvas were different from anything in Afkhami’s vintage poster collection. His anticipatory hesitation about the work’s price was eliminated upon learning it was an affordable $500. “This is when there were only a handful of art galleries in the city, unlike over 150 at the moment,” he remembered. “One-third of the galleries today are women-owned, while 40 percent of the artists are women—you cannot say the same about the West.”
Khosrow Hassanzadeh, Terrorist: Khosrow, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.
Shiva Ahmadi, Oil Barrel #13 , 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.
That initial acquisition had a domino effect, which led him to acquire 300 artworks in just the next four years. Advice from his mother, who holds a master of philosophy in Islamic art from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has come in handy. But Afkhami generally finds his own path through auctions, private sales, and Middle Eastern galleries.
The Dubai-based collector (who also maintains homes in London and Switzerland) launched the Mohammed Afkhami Foundation seven years ago out of a desire to create more scholarship and exhibitions based on his acquisitions. That same year he met Henry Kim, then director of the Aga Khan Museum, who offered to exhibit works from Afkhami’s collection at the Toronto museum. The first leg of “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet” opened in February 2017, around the same time as Trump’s controversial ban on visitors coming to the U.S. from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Iran. The exhibition was not only an artistically sharp look at the nation’s contemporary art, but also a celebration during a politically challenging period. It eventually became the most visited exhibition in the Aga Khan Museum’s history, and its success led to a subsequent stint at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Afruz Amighi, installation view of Angels in Combat, 2010, in “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” at Asia Society Museum, New York, 2021. © Bruce M. White. Photo by Bruce M. White. Courtesy of Mohammed Afkhami Foundation and Asia Society.
Shahpour Pouyan, Projectile 11, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.
The pandemic delayed the show’s arrival in New York by a year, but the hurdle was a blessing in disguise: Because of it, the show was able to take over two floors of the Asia Society’s galleries as opposed to the original single-floor layout. The artworks range in medium, from neon to resin to paper, but they also vary in scale, as well as the ways they convey their statements. “If I am taken over by a piece of art, I don’t spend too much time thinking about it,” Afkhami said.
Most museums may be able to accommodate Afruz Amighi’s woven polyethylene and plexiglass light sculpture Angels in Combat I (2010) or Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s wall-spanning mixed-media work Terrorist: Khosrow (2004). But Afkhami’s acquisition habit sometimes requires adapting the architecture of his home for his art. He has combined five units on the 50th floor of a high-rise overlooking Dubai’s financial district and changed the spaces to accommodate works in a range of scales. “My wife complains that we live in a mild fridge,” he added, referring to the experience of living in a climate-controlled setting. “The house is built to exhibit art and we only live in a few rooms.” A quarter of the collection is on display at his different properties, he said, rotating works annually, and the rest are kept in storage facilities in Dubai and Geneva.
Ali Banisadr, We Haven't Landed on Earth Yet, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Mohammed Afkhami Foundation.
For Afkhami, as much as collecting comes from an urge to tell new stories, it is also a game of critical decision-making during chance encounters—he learned as much with the acquisition of what he called “the crown jewel of my collection.” When he first saw Farhad Moshiri’s Yek Donia (2007) in a Christie’s auction catalog in 2007, Afkhami overlooked the artist’s rendition of a world map encrusted with 90,000 Swarovski crystals, and thought the $80,000 high estimate was unrealistic. On the day of the auction, he landed in Dubai earlier than expected and made it to the sale. “The work, which had a magnificent light effect, was installed at the entrance—I couldn’t believe it was the same work,” he recalled. “I didn’t have the budget when the seven-foot piece skyrocketed from the estimates.” He overlooked his financial constraints and made the winning bid, fetching the work for $601,000, or nearly eight times the estimate—a record for Moshiri’s work, and one of the highest prices ever paid for a contemporary Iranian artwork. The piece currently hangs in Afkhami’s living room, but its global impact reaches far beyond. “It set the motion to the whole region and showed that Middle Eastern art can be valued at a price comparable to Western auctions,” he said.
Besides aesthetic and analytical motivations, artistic friendships are instrumental in Afkhami’s understanding of collecting. Ali Banisadr’s 82-by-120-inch, blue-washed painting We Haven’t Landed on Earth Yet (2012) carries signature traits from the Brooklyn-based artist’s visual lexicon, such as a gestural horizontality, demure chaos, and poetic drift. “Pick any spot and you will discover another detailed brushstroke,” Afkhami said of the nocturnal painting. He finds Banisadr’s amalgamation of his post-revolution experience melded with homages to the canon of European history painting inspiring, while the artist feels similar about having a friend and patron who is invested in change. “One of the most important topics in our discussions has always been about how culture and art can show a different side of the way Iranians are seen in the media,” Banisadr said. “You can see from this show how passionate he is about art and the artists who he collects.”
Morteza Ahmadvand, installation view of Becoming, 2015, in “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” at Asia Society Museum, New 2021. © Bruce M. White. Photo by Bruce M. White. Courtesy of Mohammed Afkhami Foundation and Asia Society.
Iran’s ongoing financial challenges have prompted Afkhami to support emerging artists as well. After Trump’s departure from the nuclear deal three years ago, Afkhami created a list of artists with Tehran’s influential Dastan Gallery to roll out an annual acquisition calendar. He is planning to expand the touring exhibition currently at the Asia Society with new stagings in the Middle East and Europe, as well as spearheading a survey on the history and evolution of calligraphy. The collector’s biggest investment lately is digitizing the collection. The virtual museum—which will be part of the website for the Mohammed Afkhami Foundation launching January 1, 2022—will engage audiences with interactive offerings. “Imagine viewing Moshiri’s Flying Carpet from multiple angles,” Afkhami said.
Afkhami sees his collection as a potential catalyst for connections at a moment when so much of the world feels increasingly closed off. When he loaned Morteza Ahmadvand’s three-channel video installation Becoming (2015) for an exhibition during the Venice Biennale in 2019, a group of representatives from the Vatican visited the work, which focuses on the connectivity between the three main Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). For him, moments like this prove art’s ability to foster change.
“Behind the political curtain, there is a thriving art market while the general market is suffering,” he said, reflecting on Iran’s blossoming art scene. “One of the last things people there will compromise is their cultural identity.”