What is our art doing in their capitals?

Why is the Western public sphere so shocked that Tehran is hosting a vast collection of Western art?

It makes no difference if you are reading about the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in the New York Times, the BBC or any other Western media organisation - the subtext is always how 'surprising' it is to find 'Western art' in 'the East' and especially in a widely and vastly alienated country like Iran, writes Dabashi [Wikimedia commons]

Where do priceless works of art belong – where they were created, where they were plundered or where they were eventually sold and museumised?  I have had occasions before on these pages to argue why cliche East vs West binaries need to yield to conceptions of art beyond artificial borders – that the very works of art we love and celebrate must be allowed to reimagine our geographies.

Recently I was reminded of that argument once again when a new book brought the question of “Western art collections” in “non-Western capitals” back into the art and design pages of the New York Times.

Donna Stein’s book The Empress and I: How an Ancient Empire Collected, Rejected and Rediscovered Modern Art was published in February 2021. It received a detailed review in the New York Times a month later.

Hired by the Empress of Art at Tehran’s Hidden Museum, reads the provocative title of the essay by the Times’s veteran Iran specialist Elaine Sciolino. “Donna Stein, in her score-settling memoir, reveals how she helped Farah Diba Pahlavi create a museum whose collection is valued at $3 billion today.”

The issue is very simple. During the last years of the Pahlavi dynasty, the then-Queen Farah Diba used her resources and privileges to procure a major collection of modern and contemporary art in her country that included some masterpieces of European and American art. They built a museum for this collection, but soon the revolution happened and the ruling regime changed.  The Pahlavis did not take this collection with them when they left, because it did not belong to them. The new regime did not destroy this collection when they came, because it did not belong to them. The collection was, and remains, the collective treasure of a nation. Regimes come, regimes change, the nation remains constant.

It took a while for the revolutionary dust to settle, so the artworks in this museum were kept safe under lock and key. Eventually, in 2005, they were curated and showcased to the public once again in an extensive exhibition. The museum reopened this January after a 32-month renovation with “an exhibition of conceptual photography and selections from 700 artworks donated by the estate of a well-known Iranian collector”. So what is the big deal, you may wonder.

At the very centre of all this fascination with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran and its collections is the daunting question of why this major collection of “Western art” is in Tehran, rather than say in London, Paris, or New York.

“Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art is a surprising haven of creativity in the middle of Iran,” other outlets have claimed for long, with the emphasis on “surprising”. But why is it “surprising” for a Picasso, a Chagall, or a Matisse to be in Tehran or Cairo rather than in London or New York?

Where do works of art belong? Where they were created, sold, plundered, or museumised or where they can help us imagine a different geography, a different world?

Location of culture

It makes no difference if you are reading about the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in the New York Times, the BBC or any other Western media organisation – the subtext is always how “surprising” it is to find “Western art” in “the East” and especially in a widely and vastly alienated country like Iran.

There is a sense that pieces of “Western art” that are housed or exhibited anywhere in the “East” are nothing but “hostages” there. The American Hostage Crisis of 1979-1981 has left such an indelible mark on the “Western” public sphere that this sentiment is even stronger when it comes to “Western art” collections in Iran.

It was fine for former Iranian Queen Farah Diba, who like most other upper-class women of her generation made herself look like Audrey Hepburn, to collect “Western” artworks. But these bearded ayatollahs and their nefarious ideology? Could they be trusted with “Western masterpieces”  Surely Chagall, Picasso and Warhol, not just their art but themselves, are now “hostages” in Tehran.

“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” as their infamous poet Rudyard Kipling put it. The presence of such museums hosting works of art from “the West” in the East offends their sensibilities. The East must remain East, the West must remain West. They should never meet, embrace, exchange glances. It is sacrilegious. “The West” is untouchable, untranslatable, immutable, iconic.

Plundering the world for ‘Western museums’

There is nothing weird, strange or outlandish about a collection of European or North American art in Iran or India or anywhere else in the world. They are perfectly safe, perfectly happy where they are, as safe as the stolen artefacts from around the world that are in “Western museums”.

The question to be sure can be reversed, but it scarcely is: What are the massive bodies of Asian, African and Latin American art doing in European and North American museums, the ones that Europeans stole from their former colonies to create and curate their national museums?

European and North American museums are filled with purchased or stolen artefacts from around the globe. Yet, this is rarely seen as an oddity or a problem in “the West”.  What offends the Eurocentricity of the colonising imagination is how Tehran or Cairo or Istanbul or Delhi could be, as they are, the cosmopolitan capitals of multifaceted cultures.

There are far more Iranian, Arab, Asian, African and Latin American artefacts collecting dust in European and North American museums than the other way around. Paris, London, Amsterdam, or New York have no exclusive claim on cosmopolitan worldliness on this planet. Mexico City, Istanbul, Cairo, Tehran, St Petersburg, Delhi, Tokyo or Hong Kong each have equal if not even more such historic claims on our planetary imagination.

Pages of the most precious illustrated manuscripts of the Islamic world have been torn from their binding and sold to the highest bidders around the European and North American auction houses. Among such precious books has been the legendary Shah Tahmasp’s priceless Shahnameh that had found its way into the hands of an American industrialist named Arthur A Houghton Jr who mercilessly tore it to pages and sold them to the highest bidder.

Houghton donated 78 of the Shahnameh folios to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972, and the rest he began selling around the world, including just one folio he sold in 1976 for $464,800 through Christie’s of London.

Back in 1994, a few torn pages of the Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh were returned to Iran in exchange for a $20 million Willem de Kooning painting called Woman III. Give us our art back and we will give you yours – as if we are swapping hostages.

Just keep them where they are

It is understandable to be outraged about art that was stolen from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But at the same time what do we prefer – for historic works of art to be kept safely in “Western museums” or to be destroyed by ISIL in Syria or Iraq?  We must never forget the cruel destructions of ancient and medieval sites especially in the Syrian cities of Palmyra and Hatra, or countless other mosques, churches, monasteries, libraries, museums across the region at the hands of ISIL barbarians. The equally barbaric Taliban did the same with the Bamiyan statues of Buddha, destroying them into dust.

Who owns these priceless works of art, whether pages of the Shahnameh or paintings of de Kooning? It no longer makes any difference, so far as they are preserved under proper conditions and made available to the public’s observation and enjoyment.

Artefacts should just remain where they are, for they are at once signs of civilisations that created them and the barbarities that stole, destroyed or abused them. Today, after all those bloodied histories on this scorched Earth, let’s just do our best to preserve them.

There must be an international commission like UNESCO in charge of the safety of these artworks and artefacts. This commission must not only keep them safe, but also make sure that they are available to the public, including artists, art historians and other scholars. If museums and galleries that own these artworks and artefacts want to create books about these collections and sell them at very high prices, all the power to them. But they must also be required to give one free copy to a public library for each copy they sell at full price.

Works of art will perish to oblivion if they are not publicly exhibited, loved, admired, criticised, celebrated, questioned and preserved for posterity with generations of critical reflections on their origins, provenance, vicissitude, and the aura of authenticity they gain and lose far beyond their immediate location of creation.

A Picasso in Tehran is as powerful and beautiful as a Behzad in New York. Works of art, whoever created them, wherever they are now, should serve as tools to help us imagine and create a different geography, a saner world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.