The Shiraz Festival of Arts was held annually for 11 years from 1967 to 1977 in the city of Shiraz in central Iran. Accompanied by symposia and debates, the festival program included music, dance, drama, poetry, and film. It was performed in a variety of venues in Shiraz and its surrounds, and was positioned as one of the most prominent international arts events held at that time. Focused on traditional and avant-garde arts, the festival welcomed artists from across the globe. It also sought out and showcased Iranian artists internationally, who relished sharing the stage with fellow artists from India, Indonesia and Japan, and those from further afield: Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. In 1978, the revolution put an end to the festival, leaving its archives banned, destroyed or dispersed around the world. Vali Mahlouji, an Iranian curator based in London, succeeded in gathering the remaining archives of the festival under a project called Archeology of the Final Decade, which aims to revive conversations about the significance of the event and its position as a remarkable contested space.
What happens when one gets access to a silenced archive? In interpreting a historical archive, objectivity becomes irreconcilable in many ways. The prejudices of the interpreter inevitably come from the historical reality of their being, and it is this prejudice that largely contributes to the presentation of a controlled picture of the past and the present. So what does Mahlouji’s interpretation of Shiraz Art Festival reveal to its audience? He introduces the event as “a temporary autonomous zone outside conventional systems of art production and political dogma”1, a unique international event that failed to get recognition for its radical approach in establishing Third World-ism as a postcolonial model, due to what he merely calls “internal anxieties”.2 Mahlouji’s curatorial decision, for the most part, is to leave out of narration the extent and the reasoning behind the antagonism that followed the festival. Where and from whom did it come from?
With applying Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory in the social sciences, we can explain the regularities in individual action by recourse to their positioning vis-à-vis others; from that perspective, we can try to analyse the sociology of art in Iran. Modern societies that emerge as a result of processes in which hierarchies have formed disintegrate into numerous fields, and each of these fields have their own rules of the game, their own subjectivities and values. The structure of the field has a direct link with the state of power relationships between each social agent, that in turn struggles to establish itself as dominant. It is considered that this entanglement produces an indication of the potential force exerted on individuals, but inescapably, this motivational force impinges “from the inside”, as opposed to those produced through external compulsions. Motivation is accordingly considered to be the paramount example of the social structure in action, as opposed to a residue of chance or freedom. Cultural capital cannot be inherited nor obtained without motivation; it requires the agent’s gradual and persistent effort in the appropriation of knowledge through learning and acculturation. If and only if there is an alignment between different artistic fields and the government—a monarchy in this case, which is the biggest sponsor and the administrator of artistic practices in terms of art theory and what each perceives as art—then one can be hopeful about what is produced as cultural capital. Without this alignment, any effort coming from the administrator, whether organising an art festival or giving women the right to vote, will not be a appreciated by a society that instead sees it as a gesture of contempt and a mockery of their values.
Shiraz Art Festival never gained popularity and acceptance with the majority of the public, including leftist intellectuals, students and many artists of the time. Mahlouji fails to dig deeper into this matter; it doesn’t have a place in his interpretation of the archive, however it does have a place in mine. Shiraz Art Festival was funded by Empress Farah Pahlavi and organised by her trustees, an important fact undermined by Malouji’s selective gaze. Leftist movements were opposed to the festival—they had no trust in any political, social or culturally progressive move coming on behalf of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran), and considered any such gestures to be a tool in favour of deceiving the masses and distracting them from resistance. Most of what was displayed in the festival over the years had little to do with the reality of Iranian society at the time, and was deemed detrimental to the process of societal transition from tradition towards modernity. In making the process difficult and problematic for the public, it brought out people’s already existing cynicism towards Western cultures and values by presenting acts that were seen as disrespectful towards the national or religious traditions valued by the majority. This cynicism, among other factors (such as the speech made by Khomeini3 in 19774 condemning the festival as an event that displayed nudity and explicit acts in public space5), contributed to the agitation and anger that subsequently fueled the revolution6. This outcome makes one ask, who was the target audience for the festival?
In an interview with BBC, festival director Farrokh Ghaffari mentions that: “One of our goals from the beginning was to introduce Iranian society to Western music and literature. Our focus was on contemporary art, however, we were not neglecting traditional arts and rituals. By introducing Iranian traditions to the West, we aimed to break the inferiority complex of our own artists. The concerts held by Iranian artists were as praised by Western audiences as the ones held by Indians or Japanese. On the other hand, the art festival paved the way for Iranian artists to find their way in the cultural societies of Europe, and to introduce Iranian traditional music and dramatic arts to them.”7
Farah Pahlavi organised a festival that was clearly meant for the amusement of Western audiences using public funds. The festival’s curatorial strategy was not to “circumvent binary notions of modernism and traditionalism, the native and the alien in order to assert a democratic relational sphere”, as Mahlouji states (8). The goal was to build an image of a modernised Iran based on Western values for the Western world to see, admire, and exotify. The inferiority complex of the subjugated never gets broken as long as they seek to be redeemed through the gaze and the praise of those deemed superior. Shiraz Art Festival was pursued as a continuation of the Shah’s ambitious project of establishing Iran as ‘the great civilization’ it once was, hence the choice of Persepolis as the location.
Vali Mahlouji writes about how Shiraz Art Festival functioned within the Cold War by working around it, and facilitating the exchange of information beyond the Iron Curtain; in the case of Poland, it provided an important platform for exposure. This happened at a time when Russian artists were being awarded in European festivals for the alternative images they were presenting of Soviet propaganda. Shiraz Art Festival functioned in the same framework—the Polish artist wasn’t invited to be the voice of communist concerns, rather, they were invited to work against the Eastern Bloc to gain the Western Bloc’s approval. Also, I should mention that while Spanish artists were escaping Francoist Spain to find some form of freedom of artistic expression in Iran, Iranians were being exiled in Europe in search of the same freedom. To name a few: Ehsan Tabari, an intellectual, and founding member and theoretician of the Pro-Soviet Tudeh party; Bozorg Alavi, an influential Iranian writer, novelist, political intellectual, and founding member of the communist Tudeh Party of Iran who spent the rest of his life in exile in Germany following the 1953 coup against Prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh; Bijan Jazani, a painter, and a major figure among modern Iranian Socialist intellectuals who was sentenced to life in prison and was killed by execution shortly before finishing his sentence; Farideh Lashai, a painter arrested and jailed soon after her return to Iran after years of living in Germany; Khosrow Golsorkhi, a journalist, poet, and communist activist in Iran during the Cold War, whose execution was broadcast on state television in 1974, along with that of director, poet, and communist activist Keramat Daneshian.
The examples are numerous. People’s concern was not only with the progressive nature of societal changes, but also with those instigating them. All these changes were proposed and acted upon by the Shah or the Empress at the peak of the Shah’s dictatorship, strengthening the political impasse between the monarchy and the intellectual movements. It is necessary to ask how a system that is persecuting people by means of imprisonment, torture, and execution can ever ask for any type of reform, and claim to be the promoter of arts and culture on an international scale? Under the direct patronage of such a system, what kind of autonomy can one assume exists, and in the face of this, what does it mean to be radical? What does it mean to glorify such an event by de-contextualising it from the pain, exile and execution embodied in its context?
When our present is troubled, our first reaction might be to satisfy the urge to look at history through fragments that help us construct a nostalgic and dignified image of the past. If we become aware of our imprisonment inside this circle of false consciousness, then there is a possibility for liberation. However, I would like to remember that propaganda is sometimes true, and that even a voided interpretation is but one interpretation. Sometimes wading through the void can reveal a pathway to the truth.
*This text has been informed by conversations with Habibollah Peyman, founder and leader of the Islamist Socialist political party Jonbesh Moslamanan Mobarez, and one of the leaders of the influential Iranian opposition political alliance, the Nationalist-Religious Forces; and Marzieh Mortazi Langroudi, Iranian political and women’s rights activist. I am grateful for their input.
1 Mahlouji, Vali. “From Radical to Radial: Perspectives on the Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis.” Guggenheim, 16 July 2017. https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/map/from-radical-to-radial-perspectives-on-the-festival-of-arts-shiraz-persepolis.
2 Mahlouji, Vali. Ibid.
3 Ruhollah Khomeini was an Iranian Shia Muslim religious leader and politician. He was the founder of Iran as an Islamic republic and the leader of its 1979 Iranian Revolution that resulted in the overthrowing of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. Following the revolution, Khomeini became the country’s Supreme Leader, a position created in the constitution of the Islamic Republic as the highest-ranking political and religious authority of the nation, which he held until his death in 1989.
4 Ḫumainī, Rūḥallāh Mūsawī. Ṣaḥīfeh-ye Imām: An Anthology of Imam Khomeinīs Speeches, Messages, Interviews, Decrees, Religious Permissions and Letters. Tehran: Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imām Khomeinīs Works (International Affairs Dept.), 2008.
5 “The Squat Theatre, an experimental Hungarian troupe based in New York, staged a production of its show Pig, Child, Fire! in an empty storefront window in the main Shiraz bazaar. In the play’s climactic scene, a young mother is raped by a soldier in front of her child. The atmosphere in the bazaar was already close to combustible, with American tourists buying trinkets from stall owners broadcasting cassette tapes of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini calling for revolution and railing against the American influence. By way of coincidence, the Shah’s granddaughter, Princess Mahnaz, was in the bazaar that day, and overheard Khomeini’s voice. She stumbled across Pig, Child, Fire! mid-scene, and noticed the crowd starting to boil as the rumor spread that the actors had actually performed a live public sex act. Police officers rushed to the bazaar to prevent an outbreak of rioting, but public revulsion could not be contained. From Najaf, Khomeini issued a statement condemning what he described as the “indecent acts” perpetrated on the people of Shiraz, and demanded local religious leaders “speak out and protest”.” (Cooper, Andrew Scott. Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran. S.l.: PICADOR, 2018.)
6 Parsons, Anthony. The Pride and the Fall: Iran, 1974-1979. London: Cape, 1984.
7 Khoshnam, Mahmood, “Shiraz Art Festival According to Farokh Ghaffari”,
BBC Persian, 20 December 2011, http://www.bbc.com/persian/mobile/arts/2011/12/111219_l78_farrokh_ghaffari.shtml#sa-link_location=more-story-1&intlink_from_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fpersian%2Farts%2F2013%2F07%2F130706_l41_theatre_sadressin_zahed_interview&intlink_ts=1509111052662&story_slot=1-sa
8 Mahlouji, Vali. Ibid.