Art from Iran Exhibition: A Review from Edinburgh


Sumeet Grover – TRANSCEND Media Service

The National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, has brought home the nostalgic story of an historic and culturally rich civilisation through the ‘Art from Iran‘ exhibition. In merely seven objects dating between 13th to 21st first century, this exhibition captures volumes of beliefs, mythologies, monarchy, traditions and the poor as well as the riches of a nation where artistic craftsmanship, expression and their advancement was an integral part of society. There is explanatory text accompanying each object on display, along with banners describing further historical as well as cultural context of the arts in Iran across last eight centuries. Amongst several other purposes, the arts have been used in Iran to infuse Islamic thought and philosophy into contemporary life, and they have also been used as a means of encouraging dialectical thinking on the changes that have occurred in society.

Surrounded by enormous natural light in a dedicated space at the museum, each object at this exhibition embodies the culture, creativity, social dialogue and history that the Iranian civilisation has experienced in the past; even though its present is embroiled in the dictatorial ideas of a regime that is swift to regard freedom of speech and democratic thought as ‘crimes against God’ (Moharebeh), leading to imprisonment, torture and even execution.

One of these objects, a ceramic water pipe base with painted images, shows us how people of the past indulged in enticing extravagance of a possession that four centuries later we can only smile at. It is an important lesson for our highly evolved societies where we are still equally enticed by present-day insatiable consumer culture.

This ceramic water pipe base from 17th century makes us think of how infectious the indulgence of smoking tobacco through water pipes attached to these bases must have been, and equally, what value the artistic expression on these bases would have held for people. These were bought by the poor and the rich alike, where the former went to the extent of having to save money to buy luxurious ones.

Moving further, a brass comb case from mid-19th century narrates the Iranian mythological tale about a lion killing a snake-like dragon to assert its power over the creature that was thought to be a destructive force. The tale goes on to liken the lion to a king who would slay such a dragon to re-assure his people of his power to govern them. For a dramatic story like this to be etched on such an everyday object can be seen as a subliminal love of mythological tales as well as of the institution of monarchy. Images from this tale are visible on the comb case in the form of multi-layered carving that is thought to have evolved in Iran around 16th and 17th centuries.

Also not to be missed is the large-sized ceramic serving dish from mid-17th century, which features images painted on geometrical patterns. Such an artwork draws upon certain Islamic beliefs of capturing patterns from the natural world into art objects to remind us about an order inbuilt into the world by God. Although I have differing artistic opinions, where I believe that the arts should be free of set patterns and should be interpreted freely and phenomenologically, I still found this artwork as visually engaging. Further on, the most important result of this large-sized serving dish is the cultural story that it carries. It is the story of togetherness, of opening one’s home to others, and dining with friends, family and neighbours.

With careful attention in the very relaxing atmosphere of this exhibition, many such stories of Iran, its traditions and its people can be found in the minute details of these objects. They capture the history of a nation free to express, and I hope one day the young people of Iran currently in a strict state of censorship will once again enjoy a continuation of their rich past.


Sumeet Grover:
– Member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and of the TRANSCEND Art & Peace Network
– Coordinator of Global Poetry
– A software engineer originally from India, based in the UK.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Mar 2013.

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