Epic Iran: A spellbinding journey from past to present

A celebration of one of mankind's most illustrious civilisations, the "Epic Iran" exhibition is a spell-binding exploration of ancient pasts and near presents [Wellcome Collection]
6 min read
05 August, 2021
In what is the UK's first major exhibition on Iranian civilisation in over 90 years, the Victoria and Albert Museum's 'Epic Iran' exhibition has been a resounding success in presenting the majesty of Iranian art and culture, and in dispelling myths.

The Epic Iran exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) takes visitors on a fascinating walk through history and ends with an amazing insight into the modern art of the country.

It is the UK’s first major exhibition on Iranian art and culture in more than 90 years, bringing together 300 objects from ancient, Islamic and contemporary Iran, exploring 5,000 years of art, design and culture and shining a light on one of the greatest historic civilisations, its journey into the 21st century and its monumental artistic achievements.

The exhibition is a welcome break from the negative news about Iran which focuses on the continued detention of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe and several Iranians with British connections and the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia fought in Yemen for over six years.

 The way Iran has been treated in the past is to defuse the components in a way that people do not have a well grounded idea of how important Iran was and how long its artistic and historical traditions have continued

Politics has had its impact on the exhibition which was organised in partnership with the Iran Heritage Foundation and the Sarikhani Collection.

“Obviously it’s been a very difficult time to put together an exhibition. It hasn’t been possible to bring objects from Iran,” the co-curator of the exhibition and curator of pre-Islamic exhibits at the V&A John Curtis said referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and sanctions re-imposed on Iran after former US President Donald Trump exited a 2015 nuclear deal in 2018. “That made it impossible to get insurance for artefacts sent out of the country so there are no items from the National Museum,” he explained. 

John emphasised that there is a big appetite in Britain to learn more about Iran. “It’s true that on the political stage Iran has an unfortunate reputation, but everyone who has been to the country will know people are warm and friendly and anxious to make contacts with the West. People want to see the positive side of Iran.”

Detached folio from an illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kings (Shahnameh) for Shah Tahmasp, 1525-1535, Tabriz, (Pic:The Sarikhani Collection)
Detached folio from an illuminated manuscript of the Book of Kings (Shahnameh) for Shah Tahmasp, 1525-1535, Tabriz, (Pic: The Sarikhani Collection)

Speaking about the aim of the exhibition co-curator Tim Stanley described it as an attempt at an overview of Iran. “You wouldn’t need to do an overview exhibition for other great traditions of Europe or Asia. An exhibition of Russia or China isn’t necessary because people already have an idea about what the strengths of those civilisations are," Tim said.

"That is not true of Iran. We think the way Iran has been treated in the past is to defuse the components in a way that people do not have a well-grounded idea of how important Iran was and how long its artistic and historical traditions have continued,” he added. 

Everything on show, expertly displayed to the best advantage, is a treasure to behold.  The objects on show, include ancient treasures, leaves of illuminated manuscripts, a golden bowl from 1200-800BC with exquisite gazelles bursting from it, an armlet with horned griffins (mythical beasts), a real chunk of reliefs from Persepolis, exquisitely carved metalwork, ceramics, carpets, textiles, photos and the latest modern art.

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Iran is portrayed as a place of astonishing cultural pluralism where Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sufis and Muslims all mixed. There is an insightful video about the Zoroastrian religion that focuses on its beliefs and ornate rituals centred on the everlasting flame.

Artistry went into overdrive when the Safavid empire united Iran behind Shia Islam in the 1500s. The V&A makes its dazzling capital Isfahan materialise around the visitors. It can do so because the Victorian founders of the museum commissioned full-sized copies of some of Isfahan’s most beautifully decorated walls and domes. These flow up around the visitors, their colours merging with video images of Isfahan’s architecture on a dome-shaped screen above.

City Walls of Isfahan
A hanging projection of the ancient city walls of Isfahan [Epic Iran]

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is 15th-century potentate Iskandar Sultan’s horoscope a visually dazzling map of the Zodiac specifically fiddled to give the impression that Iskandar possessed the requisite heavenly qualities to rule.

The many varied items come from the V&A’s extensive collection and loans from institutions ranging from the New York Metropolitan Museum to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Louvre the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The exhibition is divided into ten sections: the land of Iran; emerging Iran in 3200BC; the Persian Empire when Cyrus the Great was crowned king and united Iran politically for the first time and created the wonderous capital Persepolis; the last of the ancient empires when Alexander the Great overthrew the Persian Empire in 331BC; the book of Kings which tells Iran’s story before the coming of Islam; change of Faith with exquisite Qurans and lavishly illustrated manuscripts and military costumes; literary excellence when from the 10th century Persian written in Arabic emerged as a literary language and poetry became part of visual arts because of the use of  poetic inscriptions; royal patronage from the 13th Century AD onwards characterised by  lavish art and architecture; the old and new when the Qajar dynasty looked back to their predecessors to legitimise their power while also seeking to modernise and establish new relationships with Europe and finally modern and contemporary Iran with a focus on art.

Iran is portrayed  as a place of astonishing cultural pluralism where Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sufis and Muslims all mixed

“It is probably the first time the modern art of 20th century Iran is being shown in a way that is worth taking note of and we realise that the modernism of the non-Western world outside Europe and America has not been taken into account in the way that it should be," Tim continued.

“Maybe this exhibition will be a way of counteracting that. After the 1990s you have an explosive production of art in Iran and that is also included in the story. It also provides an opportunity for the V&A to expose parts of its collection [from earlier times] that have been hidden for a very long time.” 

Among the most impressive modern works is Shirin Neshat’s 1998 video Turbulent where two singers face each other on separate screens: a man sings a medieval love poem by Jalal al-Din Rumi while a woman, alone in the dark responds with an anguished wordless wail. There is seating around the videos so visitors can soak up the powerful emotions and atmosphere.

Turbulent, by Shirin Neshat, two-screen installation, 1998 (Pic: Shirin Neshat)
Turbulent, by Shirin Neshat, two-screen installation, 1998 (Pic: Shirin Neshat)

Other thought-provoking modern works include an installation of a fraught man kneeling beside the grave of his brother killed in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) with images of his ancestors and children of the future generation hovering above. The last work on display is a video of galloping white horses by Avish Khebrehzadeh which seem to have emerged from the past and, like Iran, are moving forward confident and mighty into the future.

A hefty £40 catalogue accompanies the exhibition which will continue until September 19. The V&A also has an imaginative programme of events to continue the education about Iran. These include a forum on contemporary art from Iran, a conference on ceramics from Islamic lands and a workshop on drawing geometric designs.

Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic Affairs. She is also the author of ten books. Her latest, biography, Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition was published by Al-Saqi in July.

Follow her on Twitter: @KarenDabrowska1