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What is our art doing in their capitals?

10 12 36

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........

© Al Jazeera

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