On its bucolic campus near Boston, the Davis Museum at Wellesley College held a symposium in April titled “Art & Reality, Middle Eastern Art in Context.” Artists, scholars and curators, museum, gallery and auction house leaders, publishers and policy makers traveled to Massachusetts from around the world to dialogue for a day about art in the Middle East. Their gathering pulls back the curtain on a remarkable story, revealing how inspired women built a powerful platform for cultural diplomacy, collaborating with experts and artists, to change the world.
The symposium was hailed as “a bit of magic” for its rare assembly of 25 leading lights who conversed on the power of art to transcend borders, elevate dialogue and promote freedom. The unusual event attracted the likes of Sotheby’s and stewards of some of the world’s most important art collections to survey the status of Middle Eastern art and its role as a force for good in civil society. Panelists discussed Arab and Iranian art in museum collections and noted the region’s growing artist communities, education programs, galleries and museums. Experts described the challenges of institutional capacity and assessed the emerging visibility of Iranian art. Specially featured Iranian, Moroccan and a Saudi Arabian artist relished their out-of-studio opportunity to visit with cognoscenti.
The symposium, and its anchor event, the Davis’s groundbreaking exhibition featuring Iranian-born sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, reflect a dramatic development. The Davis has a new patron. Class of ’89 and Trustee, Iranian-born Maryam Eisler, with her husband Edward Eisler, recently established The Eisler Fund on Art and Visual Culture of the Near, Middle and Far East at Wellesley College.
Davis Director Lisa Fischman, herself long-fascinated by Middle Eastern art, has a powerful partner in Eisler, who occupies influential Middle East art-related leadership roles at the Tate and the British Museum as well as the Guggenheim Museum in New York and enjoys a rarified contact network. Kindred spirits, the two are determined to promote the arts from a region whose cultural achievements are often overlooked.
The Eisler Fund has put the Davis on the art map in a big way. “As the Davis takes a new leadership role in fostering dialogue with the Middle East arts world,” Fischman told The Arab Weekly, “we see great promise of confluence and connection. The Eisler Fund enables this special opportunity for us as an academic museum.”
“Everything I do is strategic,” says Eisler. “Built on its cross-disciplinary platform—[our] fund will finance exhibits and programs to promote American understanding of and engagement with the rich heritage and contemporary vibrancy of art and artists in the Middle East.” She’s counting on “art winning over politics and changing misguided perceptions to show the depth, beauty and breadth of Middle Eastern art and Iranian art in particular.”
Brainstorming ideas since just last October, Eisler, Fischman and co-curator, Dr. Shiva Balaghi, Visiting Scholar at Brown University, set their sights on the work of Parviz Tanavoli. Critically acclaimed as the Father of Modern Iranian Sculpture, Tanavoli had left Iran, for Canada and was virtually unknown to Americans. Considered one of the greatest contemporary artists, his work is owned by museums worldwide.
Remarkably installed in record time, this Tanavoli exhibit is his first American retrospective and exhibition here in four decades; it spans 50 years, with nearly 200 pieces from collections worldwide and generated unprecedented media coverage for the Davis.
Tanavoli is most famous for his prolific wrestling in abstractions. His forms seem possessed by longing in motion as they evolve or devolve. His thematic contemplation on “the Heech” evokes the Farsi word for “nothingness” –a concept which has tested artists and philosophers for millennia. Contrasting emptiness and form, his Heech figures, sometimes given anthropomorphic names, interact in different sizes, solo or entwined, erect, leaning or blending; one recurring Heech evokes the 19th Arabic letter. From his shining silver families to bronze patinas and even colorful neon, one might wildly leap to ascribe their possible meaning as the potential for dialogue to fill the emptiness. His oeuvre includes painting, printmaking, ceramics, rugs, and jewelry. An artist-intellectual, Tanavoli is also a renowned teacher, collector, scholar, and poet.
“This show is significant for Wellesley on so many levels,” Fischman told The Arab Weekly. “It allows the students and faculty the privilege of being first to see works by a true master and, it creates opportunities for curatorial, scholarship and cultural exchange that would otherwise simply not exist.”
Happily counteracting acrimonious discourse, there’s serendipity in this “Iranian moment.” The Davis is joined by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York and shortly, the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC –all featuring major Iranian art exhibits. Above the fray, the art world’s public diplomacy is in full gear, gloriously navigating across rough cultural seams.