IRANIAN ART & THE SANCTIONS
In March 2011, the Leila Heller Gallery in New York City held an exhibition of 38-year-old artist Shirin Fakhim’s provocative found-object sculptures of Tehran streetwalkers, her first solo show in Manhattan. A number of works were sold, for around $10,000 apiece.
But Fakhim lives in Iran, which has been targeted with a range of economic sanctions by the U.S. and other countries around the world. Most of the Iranian artists Leila Heller represents live and work outside of Iran, but not Fakhim, who resides in Tehran. Getting her artwork out of Iran and paying the artist for sales of her work in New York can be tricky.
According to regulations first established by the U.S. Department of the Treasury following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, “goods and services of Iranian origin may not be imported into the United States, either directly or through third countries.” A ban on “any brokering function from the United States or by U.S. persons, wherever located” is also in place. Banks in the U.S. cannot transfer money to Iranian banks.
So how is an art gallery devoted to showing contemporary Iranian art supposed to operate?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the third-party brokering prohibition is routinely ignored. The country of Dubai is helpful to the trade in Iranian art, since it is located near Iran and has not placed any embargos on Iranian goods and services, nor are there any U.S. sanctions against Dubai. It also hosts the Dubai Art Fair (with Abu Dhabi Art as well in the neighboring emirate), which brings the work of artists living in Iran out of the country for collectors to buy.
It is in Dubai that the Leila Heller Gallery obtains works by Shirin Fakhim. “She produces in a studio of a friend of hers in Dubai the works that we show in our gallery,” Leila Heller said. Of the sales from Fakhim’s show earlier this year in New York, sales were made to buyers in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, and the artist was given her money in Dubai, “where she has a network of friends and connections” that enable her to take it back to Iran. “It’s a bit challenging, but we’ve found ways to work with her.”
The market for contemporary art by Middle Eastern artists is growing, and many of the most noted artists are Iranian, if for no other reason than the fact that Iran is the most populous nation in the region. The auction-house presence in the region confirms the trend. Christie’s held its first sale in Dubai in 2006, followed by Sotheby’s (in Doha, Qatar), and these have become twice-annual events.
Getting around the sanctions against Iranian trade is just one more art to be mastered by all involved. “We go through third-party countries,” said Mamak Nourbakhsh, owner of Gallery Mamak in Tehran, which has been exhibiting the work of contemporary artists since 2001, “particularly those from Turkey.” The majority of the gallery’s clients live in the West, “Europeans more than Canadians and Americans.” The sanctions have not really hindered the careers of emerging artists in Iran, Nourbakhsh said, but had made “more complicated.”
Things can become even more complicated when Iranian government officials get involved. Ray Waterhouse, co-owner of London’s Waterhouse & Dodd (which dubs itself “international art brokers”), noted that one artist he represents, a photographer who lives and works in Tehran and whose work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the British Museum, the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, had the experience seeing one of her politically charged works destroyed by customs officials in Iran. “So, the Iranians may find ways of sanctioning their own artists’ work,” Waterhouse said.
But in the end, the biggest factor in the growth of the Iranian contemporary art market is the fact that a sizable number of these artists no longer live and work in Iran, “or they don’t live there full-time,” said Omar Mazhar, one of the directors of the London-based Rose Issa Projects. “They work outside of Iran, they ship us their work from so many other countries. The sanctions really don’t create a problem for us.”
DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and the author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books.