In a story rarely told before, this is an invitation to discover a different and surprising Iran, and to experience its dynamic art scene. Most art forms in Iran are closely monitored and artists have to perform discretely, staging shows in caves, private art galleries or isolated fields where officials won’t see them.
The capital city of Tehran is the vibrant epicenter of arts and creation in Iran—for both the official and the underground scenes.
I spent several months between 2013 and 2014 following vivacious young actors, dancers, performing artists and musicians all resilient in producing their passions outside the confines of censorshipâ—âas well as inside.
While some were working officially, others preferred to go “underground”, seeking a greater freedom. Although the Islamic Republic has established a number of rules and limitations regarding arts, some are stricter than others and navigating these restrictions has become an art form itself.
Above the AV theatre group performs its play “Melpomene” in old underground thermal baths in the center of Tehran. Inspired by “Gardzienice,” a Polish experimental theatre, the AV theatre is based on music, movement, dialogue and close relationship with the audience.
Above actresses from AV theatre wear masks inspired by traditional fashion from Bandar Abbas in southern Iran. Most of the members are professionals, although some are still studying theatre at Tehran Art University. The group is currently composed of roughly 30 actors, all between 20 and 30 years old.
Below, the Nyia theatre group rehearse in a private studio in Tehran. In a few weeks time this blend of professional and amateur actors will attend the Iran International Festival of University Theatre.
Authorizations to perform plays are not easy to obtain. To go public, a play has to be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
In addition, there are rules actors and playwrights must follow. For instance, female performers must be covered (arms, legs and head) and actors of the opposite gender must not touch each other. Furthermore, the play should not mention anything related to politics, religion (unless it’s in a laudatory way) and nor should it talk about sexual issues.
The famous director Ali Raffi said, “The censors interfere with your work, watching your every move and ultimately the final decision is up to them, in other words, it is up to them if your work will develop or not.”
Nevertheless, performers do get a chance to work and have their art seen by the public. Censorship is never an unsurmountable obstacle, quite the contrary. It incites artists to be more creative and innovative, pushing the limitations each time a little further away.
Above you see an actress getting dressed for a rehearsal of Ali Raffi’s adaptation of “Yerma,” Federico Garcio Lorca’s play. Agents from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance regularly attend rehearsals to ensure that female performers in Iran cover their hair and bodies at all times, and that other rules and guidelines are being followed.
Following its success in the ancient baths of Tehran, the AV group this time performs in a natural arena—the first of its kind in Iran. Four buses were chartered to the public and more than 200 people made the trip up to see the show, which took place in Roodafshan cave, two hours drive from the capital. The performance was legal but closely watched by agents of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Iranian artists can navigate between the more mainstream and underground scenes as well. For example, an artist will often be taking part in an official performance whilst also working on different underground or illegal projects.
Some theatre groups choose to leave the capital for a few days to find peace and freedom in the mountains. Below you see the “Nyia” theatre group rehearsing, meditating and doing team-building activities in the Mazandaran region, north of Tehran.
If theatrical activities remain to some extent accessible to Iranians, it doesn’t go as easy for other domains—such as the music industry, where the limitations are very tough and somewhat peculiar.
Women vocalists are not permitted to sing solo in front of a male audience and they also do not have the right to record their voice, in part because of a long-standing idea that a woman’s voice will incite sexual excitement among men. However, thanks to the Internet, solo singers are now able to broadcast their music illegally via social networks such as Facebook and YouTube.
Such women are an inspiration for the Iranian youth. They demonstrate that creativity associated with courage can open great possibilities.
S., 29, a professional singer in a band, defies the law. This recording will soon be available online. Most well-known Iranian singers, such as Googoosh, live in Los Angeles. Iranians listen through satellite, although they are also officially banned.
In recent years, art galleries have also begun to take more risks. Like the notorious Shirin Gallery, nestled at the foot of the mountains in ââVelenjak, a wealthy neighbourhood north of Tehran.
Above, an artistic collective presents an exhibition called “Open Source” at the Shirin Gallery. An underground and hybrid performance where sculptors and painters create works directly in front of the public, everything is washed down with deafening experimental music that makes for a very surreal scene in this country.
Iranian coffee shops are prized for their relaxed atmosphere and the intimacy they provide. Café Yalda, near Sepah Square, is one of the places that artists come to meet—film screenings, poetry readings, and concerts are organised. Only one hundred meters away is a military camp. Cafés can lose their license at any time and sometimes for no reason, however this does not prevent some owners taking risks and putting on this kind of evening.
Iranian artists show formidable creativity and determination to cope with censorship. Tehran’s art scene is growing fast, giving birth to new talent and producing inspiring works.
The recently elected president, Hassan Rohani—a moderate politician and cleric—is said to be in favor of promoting art and giving more freedom to artists. Despite the fact that musical instruments are still frowned on as a form of moral deviance and never shown on TV, in January 2014 a famous Iranian band called “Pallett” was able to perform live on national television for the first time in thirty years of Islamic hegemony in Iran.
Does this mark the beginning of an era with increasing civil freedom and flourishing liberal arts in Iran?
Only time will tell…