An Iranian Curator on Art’s Power in an Uprising

Nazy Nazhand was born in Tehran in the 1980s in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. But she remembers thecurfews, alarms, bombs and missiles of the Iran-Iraq war. She remembers feeling skeptical that taking cover in parts of the home she shared with her parents and her siblings would keep her safe. In 1985 her family arrived in Athens as refugees. In 1987 they immigrated to Alexandria, Virginia.

“It seems like somebody else’s past, to be honest,” she said, speaking in a Zoom interview from New York City, where she has lived for almost two decades. “But all the trauma comes back.”

Feb. 11 marks 44 years since the end of the Iranian Revolution and the establishment of a theocracy in the country, yet Ms. Nazhand still feels its impacts.

When protests in Iran broke out in September over the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died in custody after being detained by the morality police for supposedly violating dress rules, Ms. Nazhand said she felt shaken. She thought of the Iranians who were displaced and wondered if they also realized they were carrying the trauma of their parents who had survived the revolution.

“I realized that everything I’ve done up to this point has been so shaped by conflict in Iran without me realizing it,” she said.

Living in the United States, she felt an “otherness at all times” until she eventually found community in artists, especially those that explored their Iranian identity. “I have never been able to tell my story,” she said. “But I’m really grateful that artists have told the story.”

Ms. Nazhand began her career at Artnet in 2008 where she started a column that discussed the rapidly growing Middle Eastern art world and market. In the early 2010s she began her own project, Art Middle East, a collective that sought to promote emerging contemporary art from the region and “to foster the relationship between East and West through cultural and economic dialogue,” according to an archived page of the collective’s website.

The Protests in Iran

The death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of the morality police led to a nationwide uprising against Iran’s theocratic rule.

  • A Deadly Crackdown: Since the protests began in September, Iran’s security forces have killed hundreds of people. Here is a list of the Iranians who have been executed and those who are on death row.
  • The Protesters: Iranians who have taken part in the demonstrations spoke to “The Daily” about why they are willing to brave such severe punishments to help bring about change.
  • U.N. Ousting: In response to Tehran’s crackdown on the demonstrations, Iran was kicked out of the United Nations women’s agency — the strongest symbolic gesture taken so far by the organization.
  • Morality Police: The unit, which was one of the main triggers for the protest, was shut down in a concession to demonstrators.

She has gone on to work with various artists and as a consultant, curatorial adviser and writer with a focus on contemporary art, specifically in the Middle East and Latin America. One of her most recent projects is an installation with D.J. Carl Craig, a leading figure in Detroit techno. The exhibit, “Party/After-Party,” which explores how Black electronic music belongs in the lineage of American and European art and industry, was originally shown at Dia Beacon in 2020. She is bringing the exhibit to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in April.

She spoke to The New York Times about how generational trauma and conflict in Iran has affected her and the artists with whom she finds community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What have the protests in recent months in Iran brought up for you? Does it feel like an extension of the 1979 revolution?

I can only really speak of myself and my friends of my generation: We don’t remember the revolution. I don’t remember the revolution, but I remember the war.

I’m very lucky in that no one in my family was jailed, beaten, tortured, raped; we escaped. But all of this trauma was never resolved. And the trauma that my parents carried, they pass it on. They never really dealt with it, so they just keep carrying it year after year.

I also think my parents’ generation all lived with what I call a delusion that the regime will change. That it’s going to change in a year, in two years, in three years, in 20 years, 25 years.

All of a sudden, what’s happening now is bringing all of that old trauma back. And while there is a sense of helplessness, this feels very different. There have been many attempts of uprising, of revolution, but it feels different because there is less division.

The regime has thrived on the trauma of its people. It has thrived on the trauma and the separation of Iranians who all escaped very early on. There are different classes, different ideologies. Those who believe in the royal family, those who are against it.It’s all a weapon of division. But now everybody is united in this.

What role do you feel social media has played in how the current conflict in Iran is being both portrayed and perceived?

You have to be careful what you share because you have to make sure it’s accurate and not someone’s propaganda. The regime is very — it pains me to use this word — sophisticated. It has been for a long time. They are powerful. They are technologically savvy, and they’re doing a lot of targeting on social media, hacking into the accounts of dissidents and protesters.

Women march in Tehran in March 1979 after losing freedoms under Iran’s new Islamic government.Credit…Richard Tomkins/Associated Press

It’s a war of information.

Early on, the protests were incorrectly framed in news outlets as if these woman are just in the street chanting, like the way the Women’s March occurred the day after Trump’s presidential inauguration. There was this false idea that these two protests were the same. Meanwhile they’re arresting these protesters and raping them in Iran. Many spoke up on social media and corrected some of this misinformation.

It has changed the playing field.

Iran’s identity has been in flux, informed by political conflicts in it and around it. Previously you’ve said that “Iran has always been on the periphery because Iran is not Arab.” How does art help define Iran outside of the confines that are often used by the West to define the Middle East?

I believe that artists and the arts have the power to effect social change. As artists, we shine a spotlight on matters that are harsh, on matters that no one wants to address. And so I have always believed artists from Iran, whether from inside or outside, are the voices that we need to speak of these atrocities.

An artist I always use as an example is Shirin Neshat. Since the ’90s she has shown women in chador. She got a lot of criticism about celebrating the thing that was forced upon women. But she’s not celebrating. On the contrary, she’s showing the pain and agony and the confusion because it’s not as if Iran was a religious nation throughout history.Imagine one day, you and I wake up and then this dress code is forced upon us.

You seem to have found a home in art. What have artists helped you process and understand about yourself?

Everything, honestly.

What have they helped you understand about Iran?

It sounds like such hyperbole, but we’re talking about one of the most complicated, complex, ancient civilizations that has been held hostage for almost 50 years. And yet you have all of these voices that keep coming out.

There’s a saying called shir zan. It means “lion woman.” A lion is a symbol of Iran; it was the old flag. The first thing the regime did was take that symbol away. But we’re all descendants of shir zan, of warrior women, in my opinion. It’s the reason this revolution is led by women now. And I see this in the stories that have been told, are being told.

Some stories haven’t even begun to be told, and I hope that we’re all part of it and that incredible personalities, voices and films will come out. We’re going to see a lot more of that.

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