IRAN X CUBA: Beyond the Headline

An art exhibition celebrates Cuban and Iranian artists as their countries move towards reconciliation with the U.S.

By Roya Khadjavi

For the first time in the United States, a single art exhibition is celebrating the diverse works of emerging Iranian and Cuban artists. Moving past the sensationalist headlines, this exhibit reintroduces the often-overlooked dimensions of the people, culture, and artistic vibrancy of Cuba and Iran.

With the recent thaw of relations between the United States and its two former adversaries, there is renewed interest in rediscovery and travel to both countries. IRAN X CUBA: Beyond the Headline is without question timely and unique.

Iran and Cuba have little in common historically, their languages, religions, and geographical locations bear no similarities. However, they are both defined by pivotal revolutions in the 20th century, events that left both countries isolated and economically challenged. The Cuban revolution erased religion by force, for it had no place in the secular communist ideology. In Iran the Islamic Revolution strengthened religion as a state institution, and an umbrella under which all changes in the country were justified.

Sasan Abri — Dormant Yellow (2016)

Years of isolation and economic sanctions have prevented both countries from fully participating in the global economy, but instead of passivity one finds a positive struggle, a relentless drive to survive, and a tremendous amount of hope. More surprising is that despite all of the restrictions and hardships, both countries have thrived artistically.

When I visit Iran and Cuba, despite the visible challenges and restrictions, I see the beauty of the land, the pride of the people, and the history and culture which permeates every aspect of life. I see passionate, generous, lively and colorful citizens. I see the creativity and innovative spirit. I see courage and patience, which empowers Cubans and Iranians to fight for their rights with dignity while enduring injustices and roadblocks at every turn.

Adrian Fernandez — Monument to the Incomplete Man (2015)

In recent years, the emerging generation of Iranian artists has started to make their way into the western art world through limited programs, residencies, and the support of art patrons in diaspora. These participations however are limited because acquiring visas to travel is still extremely difficult for Iranian artists.

On the other hand, in Cuba, the visual arts are already globalized as some privileged artists are allowed to travel, exhibit, do residencies, and even live abroad for part of the year. The vibrant Cuban diaspora keeps Cuban culture alive, even in the U.S. This freedom of exchange however remains a dream for most Iranian artists. I have therefore made it my mission, my manifest to cultivate audiences by representing talented but under-represented Iranian artists and to promote and share their works through exhibitions, performances, public programs, and partnerships in New York City.

IRAN X CUBA: Beyond the Headline is the portrait of a generation of artists whose perspectives represent the turmoil of their cultural backgrounds with bold individualism.

Independent of genre or style, all the artists came of age in a period of political and socio-economic challenge, in the aftermath of revolution and during continued isolation from the United States.

Rather than simply presenting a new frontier of the ‘Western’ traditon, the exhibit seeks to showcase the unique work of those who have been unable to speak the language of the expected.

With this presentation I hope to build a playground for both groups of artists to exercise their freedom while signaling the social underpinnings of a complex period in their respective histories. In my exhibition truth, beauty, color, technique, and subliminal or explicit concepts rule. I try to demonstrate what happens when willpower and culture is used to bring us all together.

Leslie Sardinas — Naufragio [Shipwreck] (2014)

Individual freedom unfolds in the realm of artistic play; the creative impulse of Iran and Cuba’s contemporary artists strive to share. History has proved that closed societies cannot contain the arts; soon enough artists take the matter into their own hands and create virtual artistic escapes away from the tight grip of authority:

“The detachment these artists have made has provided them the comfort zone they require to construct their own imaginary world yet they are still influenced by their history, their origin.” — Sohrab Kashani

Through satirical paintings, imaginary watercolors, political posters, art installations, and other means, these artists communicate with us on the issues paralyzing their societies. These artists are fully conscious and present, proud of their oeuvre, and excited about the opportunity. They are ready to have their stories told.

Roya Khadjavi is an independent curator and cultural producer based in New York. Prior to founding RK Art & Design LLC, she was VP for Yves Saint Laurent as well as Lord + Taylor.