Written by By Tamara Kunuk , CNN
The Aligharh Museum of Iranian Contemporary Art occupies the down-town basement of the high-end French high-rise Saarinen building in downtown Chicago. Historically, it has served as home to a non-descript collection of art collection that might not look out of place in a hip gallery, were it not for the imposing older black-and-white facade, as well as the fact that it houses a widely acclaimed trove of one of the biggest shows in town.
This year, the Aligharh has welcomed an awe-inspiring exhibition that tracks the history of women’s art in Iran and draws attention to the hidden accomplishments of its most influential female artists in recent decades. And yet, even now, more work by women needs to be seen and heard.
This past summer, I was given the unprecedented opportunity to attend the show’s opening-day reception. Though an enormous draw for the crowd gathered in the basement, I was amazed to find it almost entirely dominated by women. A handful of men were also present, largely at the invitation of Art Institute member Melissa Kluck, who knew I shared the museum’s enthusiasm for the show. But the vast majority of guests at the opening were women, speaking English, French, German, and Italian, as well as several Iranian. The scene showed that this exhibition was not only a smash success for Chicago’s art scene, but a conversation changer.
In 2012, Iranian artist Saman Fareed raised her eyebrows with an unsettling piece of art: the body of a young, largely naked female body sliced in two with a silver knife. In its aftermath, a pair of white desert sand wedges, carved with a piece of human skin, slowly emerged from the shape. For many in the United States, it would seem that this provocative piece was an allegory of oppression. But in Iran, it was perceived as self-liberation. It speaks to the power of art to be both the vehicle of and an extension of cultural change.
The Expanded Foreign Policy Journal, a new publication of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, describes Iran’s artistic revival as a challenge to the regime — but also illustrates why art matters for art’s sake and for a free society.