Tehran, Iran: Traffic crawls. The Sun boils. Smog fills the air. Doesn’t it make you just want to . . . go out into the street and paint?
A surprising number of Tehranis seem to think so. Never mind that the overcrowded, dusty metropolis needs beautification. Throngs of painters wend their way out of cramped studios through the honeycomb of alleyways into the open streets. Their aim? Capture Tehran’s vanishing old neighborhoods on canvas—and in doing so, help keep them alive.
Many areas in Tehran have been bulldozed. Cranes punctuate the skyline. Goodbye, 19th-century buildings. Hello, modern high-rises.
“The paintings link us to past designs and feelings that are disappearing,” says Morteza Rahimi, a 32-year-old carpenter, art aficionado, and resident of downtown Tehran. “They help us remember . . . See how many old beautiful buildings have turned to rubble.”
Beside him, painter Hassan Naderali uses loose brushstrokes and bright colors to capture the play of light and flicker of movement. Naderali seeks to depict the beauty in his dilapidated surroundings.
It’s no wonder Tehranis feel such nostalgia. Iran is an old, old place. Once in the kingdom of Persia (where the biblical Esther was forced to marry King Ahasuerus, aka Xerxes), Iran has faced multiple political and religious uprisings and revolutions over the centuries. Some of the city’s 19th-century buildings were crafted by the Qajar kings not long after they moved Iran’s capital to Tehran in 1796. These have been lost. New apartment towers stand in their place.
During Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Shiite Muslim religious leaders came to power. This repressive regime outlawed modern art and even sought to ban painting. The Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art’s extensive collection, worth billions of dollars, sat in its vaults.
Eventually, though, the winds of thought changed. Leadership came to appreciate the art made during the grisly Iran-Iraq war that began in 1980. Paintings that lionized the leaders of the Islamic Revolution sprung up on the city’s drab walls.
Priceless artworks—including Monets, Picassos, and Jackson Pollocks—had been bought during Iran’s wealthy days in the mid-1900s. Back then, Iran’s oil was selling and money was pouring in. These once-secreted treasures have been brought out in recent decades as cultural restrictions eased.
Iran’s religious government is still repressive. State authorities strictly control what airs on TV. But Iranians enjoy some freedoms too. Young Iranian artists flock to art school. Iranian state TV regularly broadcasts paint-along lessons, including the late American painter Bob Ross’ beloved PBS show The Joy of Painting.
Why? God is Creator, and He gifts people made in His image with creative skills too. Longing for art—to make it and to enjoy it—is part of human design with value to be honored within its right, wholesome, and God-glorifying boundaries.