OUR INSPIRATIONS | Vali Mahlouji


Mahlouji Vali

Vali Mahlouji is a London-based curator, writer, translator, and current independent curatorial adviser to the British Museum on its modern and contemporary Iranian collections. His recent curatorial work included guest curator at Foam, Amsterdam (Kaveh Golestan—The Citadel) and co-curator at Musee d’Art Moderene de la Ville de Paris and MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome.

His research platform, Archaeology of the Final Decade, engages in curatorial and educational programs, events, and publications with the aim of raising awareness about contested areas within arts and culture that have remained obscure, under-exposed, over-looked, or destroyed. The first phase of this research has produced to exhibitions shown at the Musee d’Art Moderne and MAXXI entitled, Restaging the Contested Space of the Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis (1967–77), and Recreating Shahr-e No.

Kaveh Golestan

So the portraits that we are looking at produced by Kaveh Golestan, beyond the fact that I think there are the most sophisticated, interesting, and intimate group of works studying the female, they also are loaded now with the weight of history. The destruction of the area also meant that the peripheral cultures which included song and dance and film and socializing – so it included drinking houses. It included cabarets. It included meeting places. Even there was theatres in the neighborhood – it also eradicated that culture which is a segment of our popular culture, really. It certainly wasn’t an elitist culture. So it becomes interesting sociologically even in terms of the erasure of urban areas and redefinition of those areas. It just raises questions which are interesting to be critically investigated, and that’s where the arcosia is digging down to bring out the object, but I’m interested in a much wider understanding.

 

Tehran’s Red Light District, Newtown

The history of the area is interesting, especially because it ends in a kind of annihilation, in a kind of erasure, because when in the ’20s, some women were expelled from the inside of the city walls of Tehran. There was already political motivation linked to this decision. …There was a desire to again public support by showing that one is being very proactive in creating a safe and clean space, urban space within the city, et cetera. So these spaces have often been used politically to attract, support, motivate the masses to rally… But it’s almost mythological, and it’s very interesting within the Iranian kind of mindset that the story is linked to British diplomats who had arranged to visit a particular brothel on a particular night, and that this is leaked, and then the space is raided, and these diplomats are embarrassingly arrested, and it is hugely exploited in the political scene that these colonial sort of diplomats – not that Iran was a colony, but there was this sort of anxiety about the British role in Iran that they are up to no good, basically. In some factions, they extended it to the infidel sleeping with the Muslim woman, that sort of thing. Of course, there’s always the religious tone comes in whenever power is involved in the Iranian scene. And then Reza Khan, not yet king, used this to have them expelled… And the women are flogged in public and humiliated and then expelled from the city, and there’s huge grand act of expelling them. And then the story goes that other women are expelled as well. But a new neighborhood is provided for them, and it’s called Newtown.

 

Shiraz Festival

Shiraz became a platform for promoting exactly that kind of innovation that was basically not possible through the traditional channels which were governed through the ministry. Censorship is a big issue, but also I think the aesthetics that was being promoted by Shiraz was so transgressive and experimental that aesthetically, it was difficult to be comprehended in a way. So, Shiraz becomes a liberal space. Also, it’s inside of Iran, and that’s very, very interesting. The link between the contemporary expressions which are also rooted in tradition is another very interesting nativist experiment that happens all across Africa and Asia that performers in their search for identity not only return to their traditions, but actually appropriate them. So they create contemporary expressions by appropriating what is a traditional myth or what is a traditional ritual. … The Shiraz Festival is interesting in that respect because it’s not operating only during that decolonized era of anti-imperialism and national sovereignty and national independence and assertion of native identities, but is also operating across exactly that thought line, which is the Cold War.