Parviz Tanavoli and the Lions of Iran, a new exhibition opening July 2 at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, promises to be nothing less than a journey through the soul of the nation.
A confluence of 100 lion-inspired works by Tanavoli, including sculpture, paintings, jewellery and rugs, and 150 lion-related pieces from the artist’s personal collection - as well as pieces on loan from the National Museum of Iran that date back two to three millennia - the exhibition has been a five-year project in the making.
Its culmination this summer comes at a pivotal time, with Iranian elections looming large in the artist’s mind.
A win for the hardliners, he says, might make things difficult.
“The way it works in Iran,” explains the venerable 80-year-old artist, whose love affair with the lion began in 1968 when he acquired a lion rug in Shiraz, “is that if the cabinet changes, then entire ministries are purged.”
So far, he relates, everything is “going very well” with Ministry of Culture and museum officials, but that could all change after the May 19 elections.
“The hardliners,” explains Tanavoli, who was patronised by Empress Farah in the 1960s before going on to international fame, “don’t like to celebrate Iran’s pre-Islamic past.” They prefer to fund religious institutions rather than art and culture.
And yet, if anything, the planned exhibition is a powerful platform for uniting Iran’s ancient and Islamic traditions. With items ranging from the golden dagger of Darius the Great through to depictions of the lion in artwork venerating Imam Ali, and on to Tanavoli’s bronze and ceramic lion sculptures from more recent decades, the show connects the past and the present in a visceral way.
Tanavoli notes that, for Achaemenid (550–330 BC) and Sassanian (224-651) kings, “the lion was a symbol of bravery”.
Its importance as a symbol was not diminished by the advent of Islam, he says, but rather “reappeared in ceremonies and rituals and as motif on bowls, vases, incense burners, locks and water faucets”.
And by the Qajar-era reign of Mohammad Shah, the lion holding the two-pronged sword became the official emblem of the nation.
As Tanavoli writes in an essay for the catalogue in progress: “It was impossible to ignore such an ancient and powerful icon. Collecting and researching the lion rugs and other related objects became a passion, as did the desire to share my findings with the rest of the world.”
In addition to bridging ancient, Islamic and contemporary culture, the exhibition - fittingly for one dedicated to the lion motif that Tanavoli says “crosses national, religious and cultural boundaries” - also bridges cultures and national institutions.
The artist originally intended to hold the exhibition in London, but was encouraged by the UK-based Iran Heritage Foundation to “bring it home” to Tehran.
Collaborators include Venetia Porter of the British Museum and Dr David Galloway, art critic and chief curator at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art from 1977-78.
Porter, one of the contributors to the catalogue, along with several other critics and curators who have been asked to write on different aspects of the lion in Iranian art, says that Tanavoli has “put together an amazing object list - from pre-Islamic to contemporary”.
Tanavoli, she says, “has a unique perspective that comes from his deep love of Iranian culture”.
The exhibition will show, she says, the juxtaposition of the tribal depiction of lions and “his own recreation of them in the form of stunningly beautiful sculptures based on bachtiari rugs”.
“When you look at the traditional bakhtiari [southwestern Iranian tribal] lion rugs - and then his own rugs - you can see how closely he worked with the weavers.”
For Tanavoli, she contends, “it doesn’t matter whether something is 19th century or pre-Islamic - it’s all part of the material culture of Iran, all part of an ongoing narrative”.
The narratives the lions relate, she says, are fascinating - from symbolising heroism to Safavid associations with Imam Ali - to magical anthropomorphic transformations.
In the case of weavers of bakhtiari rugs from the 19th century, she notes: “Most of these women had never seen lions before, so they wove in the faces of their husbands or sons.”
Porter hopes that the exhibition will be able to travel abroad. “There are strong poetic aspects that would make for compelling public programming.”
Tanavoli also hopes that the exhibition will travel internationally and has had some interest from American and British institutions. But much will depend on the outcome of the elections.
“The lion is a symbol of the Persian spirit,” says Tanavoli, “and my intent with this exhibition is to show the Persian spirit that has survived for thousands of years.”
Unfortunately, the actual Persian lion has not survived in the wild, and became extinct in the 1960s. The Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) will be participating in the exhibition, contributing photographs, videos and reports showing the current environmental condition of Iran’s wild cats.
As for the lion of the Iranian art world, Tanavoli’s timely exhibition is not merely a vehicle for an exploration of the history, patrimony and soul of a nation, it promises to be a compelling crucible for a country poised between hard line intransigence, and openness to the world.