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Arts

Wild nights at the museum: Long-hidden pictures reveal Tehran in the late 70s

Sensational photos taken at the opening of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in the late 1970s were hidden away for decades. Now they are on display in Berlin.

What a party! For three nights in a row, dancers, performers, half-naked figures in shaggy red costumes and fantastic creatures shackled to one another writhed through the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA) while scantily clad men danced in front of a painting by Picasso.

In the midst of it all were the Shah and his wife Farah Diba, Empress of Iran and initiator of the museum. While Iran's ruler had more of a penchant for tanks and fast cars, he joined his wife for a night at the museum - and an embarrassing moment.

That night in 1977 was like no other in Iran, before or after. Celebrities from around the world - including the US vice president - traveled to Tehran for the opening of a museum designed to be a symbol, putting the country - oriented toward the West at that time - firmly on the map of international art, and amazing the world with a unique collection.

Undocumented fauxpas

"I was very young and at the time, I didn't know much about the art being celebrated there," says Jila Dejam, who had the only official license to take photos at the museum. She shudders, however, when remembering the moment when Shah Reza Pahlavi stopped to look at a Japanese artist's work, a basin filled with a shiny black liquid.

Shah Reza Pahlavi and his wife Farah Diba (picture-alliance/ dpa)

Shah Reza Pahlavi and his wife Farah Diba

The shah laughed in disbelief when he was told the liquid was oil, and stuck his arm into the canister - only to pull it out, soiled and oozing black oil. Someone snapped a picture, but within seconds, the notorious Savak secret police had confiscated every roll of film taken that night. So there are no photos from the opening night at the TMoCA - but plenty of pictures of the party nights that were to follow.

Sensational photos from the 70s in Iran

Photographers live dangerously in Iran - they do now and they did then. The emergence in Berlin of 40 marvelous documentary photographs from the late 70s in Iran is particularly surprising, as few people even knew they existed.

Jila Dejam, 64, kept them hidden for decades. "I've protected my photos for 40 years," Dejam says, adding that they are priceless. But the time has come for these "contemporary documents to finally come to light, and help come to terms with Iran's history," Dejam argues.

Flirting with art

Jila Dejam peers at Berlin's "Box Freiraum" art location with great pleasure. Her black-and-white photos look good on the rust-colored walls of what once was a horse stable, much more so than in any White Cube environment. The photographer has never before seen her work in such a setting - framed and hung on walls.

Iran expert Anahita von Plotho chose 40 pictures for the exhibition, but the photographer has hundreds more.

Dancer in front of a Picasso painting (Jila Dejam 1977)

A performance in front of a Picasso at the Tehran Museum of Modern Art

Jila Dejam points out what she regards as one of her best works, a photo that shows Farah Diba bowed over the portrait of a woman as if flirting with the artwork.

Symbolic execution

The photographer remembers the opening night of the museum four decades ago. She noticed even back then that people from different social levels were present, veiled women and the intellectual elite. "It was baffling to me, but I sensed possible clashes."

She was right. The museum's "spring" was short-lived. In 1979, just two years after the opening, revolutionary guards occupied the museum, stormed the depot and grabbed the art. In a symbolic execution of the empress, they savagely destroyed a portrait of Farah Diba by Andy Warhol, even burning bits of the slashed canvas.

Jila Dejam has photographic proof of those times. The TMoCA mirrored the country's fate, and Dejam's photographs virtually condense the era's attitude toward life.

Suspended due to missing permits

Coincidentally, the TMoCA was also the very museum that was to lend works by modern masters, including Rothkos, Rauschenbergs, Bacons and Giacomettis, for a long-planned show scheduled to open in December 2016 in Berlin, and which was cancelled at the last minute. The official reason given was that Iran refused to grant an export permission. The real reason is presumably much more complex.

Farah Diba Pahlavi and Andy Warhol (privat)

Andy Warhol portrayed Iran's Empress

Jila Dejam would have welcomed the whole world finding out about Iran's fantastic art treasures, but she says she understands "Iranians' justified concerns that the works of art might not all be returned, and that the wealth we have held on to so tenaciously might inadvertently be lost."

The spirit of the TMoCA has made it to Berlin nevertheless in the form of Jila Dejam's photos - and there is no better way to grasp Tehran in the 70s, a city teeming with alcohol, mini skirts and fast cars.

Jila Dejam (DW/W. Bloch)

It's time to show the photos of the museum opening, Jila Dejam says

 Alongside Beirut, Tehran was the New York of the Middle East.

Long history, valuable collection

Iranian culture is uniquely present in Germany these days in other ways, too

Through April, the renowned Goethe-Institut in Berlin presents a program on Iranian art, music and literature, while the documentary film "Der verborgene Schatz" (The hidden treasure) by German TV correspondent Natalie Amiri focuses on the history of the TMoCA - which, of course, includes Jila Dejam.

 

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