Haydeh Ayazi, Untitled, 2019, mixed media on paper. From the Carnegie International.

As a survey of the contemporary art world, the Carnegie International embodies the present, but sometimes current events make the exhibition even more pertinent.

The 58th Carnegie International kicks off its months-long free speaker series at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 13, at the Carnegie Museum of Art with a focus on Iran where anti-government protests continue sparked by the death of a young woman while in the custody of morality police.

The presenters are Solmaz Sharif, who was born in Istanbul, Turkey, to Iranian parents, and Negar Azimi, an Iranian who lives in New York. Azimi co-curated an exhibition of Iranian art with International 2022 curator Sohrab Mohebbi that is a subset within the larger International.

Both women are active participants in the literary world and as such fit in with several underlying exhibition aims: to contribute to the global dialogue on socio-cultural issues, to open new communication networks for such exchange, and to support substantial research based on query and discovery.

Sharif, an assistant professor of creative writing at Arizona State University, is the recipient of numerous poetry awards. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times, among others. While earning a degree at the University of California, Berkeley, Sharif engaged with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People project and is inaugurating a Poetry for the People program at Arizona State.

Azimi is editor-in-chief of the publishing and curatorial project Bidoun, which explores Middle Eastern arts and culture. Selections from the Bidoun Library were included in the 2013 Carnegie International as a reading room-style installation that educated visitors about stereotypes of the Middle East prevalent in the West.

Polaroid of Fereydoun Ave from the Carnegie International.

The show she and Mohebbi organized is the Laal Collection, selections from thousands of artworks and archival materials assembled over decades by artist, curator and collector Fereydoun Ave. The International catalog describes him as “one of the most consequential Iranian cultural figures of the past five decades.” He was born in 1945 in Tehran and now lives in Paris. The collection is named after his mother.

Ave’s eclectic tastes are reflected in this show-within-a-show (one of several in this International) including 64 artworks created between the 1970s and this year in a range of styles and mediums. Realism, abstract expressionism, calligraphy and landscapes hang together.

Political content may be blatant, as in Haydeh Ayazi’s untitled 2019 mixed media on paper rendition of the Statue of Liberty with drooping crown, or subtle, at least to Western eyes, as in Shirin Aliabadi’s 2005 large color photographic print Girls in Car 4,” of young women without male accompaniment driving and riding in a car with loosely arranged hijab.

Two 2008 pieces are by Rokni Haerizadeh, one of two Iranian artists in the 2013 International.

Six works by Ave (pronounced Ahv) are prints or mixed media works that feature a muscular male figure named Rostam. The actual image appropriated for these works is of the famous Iranian wrestler Abbas Jadidi, someone widely recognized in Iran where wrestling is a national sport. But Rostam is a legendary hero in Persian mythology who unwittingly and tragically killed his only son thereby ending his own line of succession. Ave surrounds the hirsute medal-decorated sports figure with flowers to make a critique of the Iranian “macho mystique.”

Fereydoun Ave, “Rostam in Late Summer 3,” 1998, digital print, from the Carnegie International, courtesy of the artist.
Fereydoun Ave, “Rostam in Late Summer 3,” 1998, digital print, from the Carnegie International, courtesy of the artist.

Archival materials include exhibition invitations; theater posters; a memento of dinner at the Four Seasons in Tehran with the late American artist Cy Twombly, who Ave met in France; and Polaroids taken during weekly art world gatherings Ave hosted.

The mix of art and objects offers an insider look at the storied arts figure as well as the pre- and post-1979 Iranian Revolution art world.

Ave studied theater and film in the U.S., returning to Iran in 1970. He worked as a curator, set designer and artistic director at prominent art institutions such as the avant-garde Theater Workshop, Zand Gallery and the Iran-America Society Cultural Center.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, in a very different arts landscape, Ave began exhibiting artists in an abandoned gardener’s shed on his family’s property. When interest grew, he reviewed overflow work in his family’s Olympic-sized swimming pool that had been emptied, “because you can’t have people going around half naked in swimsuits anymore,” Ave says in a catalog interview.

That evolved into 13 Vanak, an independent experimental space that continued to inspire artists past its 2009 closure.

The speakers are the first in the Refractions: 58th Carnegie International Conversation Series, events designed to stimulate dialogue about issues raised by International artists. They will be held on 10 Thursday evenings during the run of the International. Conversations are free and museum admission is not required. Registration is encouraged.

Mary Thomas is a longtime Pittsburgh art critic.