Though the vast majority of the Met's Islamic collection comprises historical artifacts, we have recently started collecting contemporary art from the regions represented in our galleries. Deciding what exactly is included in the field of contemporary Islamic art is an issue that has been heatedly debated in past years, including most recently at a conference, Contemporary Islamic Art, Design, and Architecture 2015, that I attended in Singapore just a few weeks ago. Scholars have differing opinions of how to define or label works from this category, and our department takes its own particular approach. For us, the collecting mandate is that modern and contemporary works must relate to the historical collection.
A popular theme for some contemporary Iranian artists is to use iconography that refers to the Persian national epic, the Shahnama (Book of Kings), originally composed by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020). In the work above, Rustam Returns at Age 30 after Being Brought Up Abroad, Iranian artist Siamak Filizadeh uses new media and popular culture to reference the hero Rustam. This same character appears in illustrations found in various manuscripts of the Shahnama, including the famous sixteenth-century version created for Shah Tahmasp.
Identifiable by his leopard-skin helmet in both the historical and the contemporary depictions, artists have usually portrayed Rustam in a manner that highlights his bravery and strength. In Filizadeh's work, he represents Rustam the hero as a muscular bodybuilder, with the letter "R" covering a red-and-yellow Superman logo on his bare chest. Here, he holds a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with a small decal of the film character Rambo and wears a Dolce and Gabbana belt. Contemporary Rustam appears with a tiled Safavid-style arch and rocks akin to those found in Persian miniature painting, as well as the Shahyad monument (Burj-i Azadi) built in 1971, considered to be the quintessential symbol of and gateway to modern Tehran. The work is a whimsical creation of an immediately identifiable character and uses visual cues to bridge chronology between historical and contemporary Islamic art.
Meanwhile, in Sadegh Tirafkan's Multitude 10, the artist creates a digital photo collage of young Iranian girls performing exercises in a gym class.
They are each dressed in a blue rupush, a version of the required female covering consisting of a scarf and button-down tunic. Layered upon the image of the girls wearing school uniforms, the artist has superimposed a battle scene from a Qajar-lithographed Shahnama. The style of military dress and headgear and the facial features of the warriors are similar to figures in the court scenes on a Qajar lacquer pen box that depicts Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and his court, as well as the courts of other legendary kings from the Shahnama.
Tirafkan's work is part of a series of ten digital collages—many of which consist of densely arranged cutouts resembling a piece of fabric or a carpet—that reflect issues of Iranian identity, culture, and history. The artist has stated that: "The carpet is emblematic of Persian culture. It is a symbol of culture, seasonality, richness, diversity, and continuity—in time and in history. As such I have been obsessed by the parallelism and marriage between this symbolic, intricately loomed object and the people to which it belongs."
Filizadeh and Tirafkan are just a few of the contemporary artists who have toyed with reviving the Shahnama epic in their work. Shirin Neshat, another Iranian artist who works with photography, created an entire exhibition titled Book of Kings. As for the other contemporary works in our collection? That roster continues to grow, and can be accessed through The Collection Online.
RumiNations: "Exploring Persian Literature in Bazm and Razm" (May 19, 2015)
Now at the Met: "Celebrating Nauruz with The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp" (March 17, 2015)