‘We’ve still got a hell of a lot of dynasties to go,’ sighs my fellow gallery-goer. Flying through five thousand years of history from 3200BC, Kensington’s V&A offers up its itinerary of Iranian must-sees. Expect robes, domes, and Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) (900s), a neat narrative topped and tailed with timelines. To proclaim this ‘our story’ paints a false, singular narrative. It’s the tale of European-aspirant elites, the patrons portrayed by seventeenth-century Armenian Christians – all modern clocks, uncomfy clogs, and shrivelled-up lapdogs.
But beneath this epic lie precious pockets of everyday Persian life. Architectural sketches reveal the mathematical precision behind Isfahan’s impressively decorative domed mosques. Manuscripts depict miniature manufacturers, construction workers chipping bricks and hauling clay.
Genuinely ancient reliefs are remarkably well preserved. Centuries-old pots and pendants look lifted from shop shelves. Many haven’t had so far to travel. Some are royal loans, others plundered from the British Museum, British Library, or the V&A’s extensive (and essential) ceramic collection. Any faded facades are overshadowed by boldly coloured tiles. The blues and whites of ‘Chinese’ porcelains are exposed as the creation of Iranian workshops, swapped in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. By the 1600s, it was Iran producing cheap copies of Chinese goods, and borrowing the black backgrounds and golden outlines of tianqi lacquers to liven up their literature.
Some chapters of exchange are more violent, with ceremonial robes of honour chopped up and altered to fit Christian Orthodox bishops. Curated as a series of dynastic successions, these plural Persian cultures often come off imposed, the outcome of conquest by Greats, not grassroots experimentation.
Still, Epic Iran captures the essential paradox of Persian identity, as something persistent, but the product of centuries of cultural exchange. The show itself is collaborative, shared by the V&A, Iran Heritage Foundation and Sarikhani Collection. But even as early as 550BC, Ionian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures collided in the city Persepolis, King Cyrus’ characteristic Achaemenid capable of accommodating both old cuneiform scriptures and modern Elamite.
Irrespective of tongue, the very use of language itself seems central to all Persia’s peoples and periods. Lengthy narratives aren’t confined to lithographs, divans, or anthologies (awesome though these texts are). Whispered lyrics lick round a yellow crevice at the exhibition’s core. Poems are plastered on pots and pans, or picked to complement their objects’ purpose. Hafiz’s couplets cover carpets, calling for sitters to join them. Wine cups remark of their sippers’ ‘rose-coloured cheeks’.
Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) calligraphy details Quranic verse in cutting clarity, its makers anxious not to cloud the literal words of God. But Arabic, ‘the language of intellectualism’, also adorns everything from armour to astronomy, the Book of Constellations (1260-1280) to mystic Sufi texts. Shah Ismail, who established Shi’ite Islam as Iran’s state religion, would no doubt despair at the religion’s contemporary monolithic misinterpretations.
Meetings of modernity and tradition culminate in Epic Iran’s thrilling conclusions. Into the twenty-first century, Bita Ghezelayagh reinvents the tradition of Arabic armours for political ends, fashioning felts with juxtaposed metal keys and machine guns. Elsewhere, perfectly modern polo players canter out of centuries-old sketches. Naturalistic chador-clad women sit aside dancing demons in al-Mulk’s Exorcist (c. 1900). And propaganda posters highlight how, from the 1920s, Reza Shah used hybridity to put Iran on the map, his cherubs bearing slogans of nationalist sentiments.
Other saqqakhaneh artists reinvented religious traditions through pop culture. And nothing is off the cards, from Zoroastrian motifs in Arabshahi’s android Farvahar (1977), to robotic reimaginings of the Shahnameh’s static gender politics.
In taking such a broad brush to history, the exhibition sometimes perpetuates misleading stereotypes. You may even be forgiven in thinking women were altogether absent prior to the twentieth century. Striking are the stares – imagined, or perhaps photographed – of the collectives of women in harems. But they are framed in relation to men, the mothers of some of the three thousand descendants of Fath-‘Ali Shah Qajar (1797-1834). (For further assurance of the King’s cockiness, look no further than his famous commission, an adaptation of Ferdowsi’s epic, titled The Book of King of Kings). Short skirts for their turn-of-the-century sisters are credited to Naser al-Din Shah’s love of European ballet. Such stages are a distant cry from the exhibition’s finale, which features Shirin Neshat’s woman hauntingly singing and screaming to an empty auditorium, the only space in which she is permitted to do so.
Too often, Iran’s turbulent twentieth century is glossed over – a blip in an otherwise plural past. But the diversity of modern Iranian art demands more than the final throes of an exhibition, or closing credits of the likes of BBC’s Art of Persia. It should be celebrated in all its guises, for it is this Iran that perhaps captures Persian pluralism most vibrantly.