The strength of soft power

The British-Iranian art collector Mohammed Afkhami hopes that a new, not-for-profit, free-to-use virtual museum of contemporary and modern Iranian art will offer an alternative perspective and broaden the narrative on Iran, away from the headline news.  

From bridging cultural divides to providing fascinating insights into societal developments, the visual arts have long played a multi-faceted role that extends well beyond their aesthetic appeal. 

And, at a time when so much of the world news we’re confronted with is bleak, art lovers such as Mohammed Afkhami, a British-Iranian collector based between Dubai and Switzerland, are hoping that this important and influential vehicle may offer a welcome antidote to this negativity overload.

“I’d become fed up with seeing only bad news being reported on Iran and was keen to help portray the country in a more positive light,” Afkhami said. “I felt that I could use art to show a more positive and human side of Iran.” 

Coming on the back of decades of political turbulence, those media reports have been dominated most recently by the ongoing civil unrest in Iran, where demonstrations have routinely taken place in protest at the country’s strict hijab laws and violent crackdowns, including the high-profile death in police custody last September of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested for allegedly violating the dress code. 

Fast forward a year or thereabouts and the final preparations are now under way for the phased launch of the ‘iii’, a not-for-profit, free-to-use virtual museum and legacy project which is set to help Afkhami achieve his aims.

Created as part of a new foundation, the museum will gradually unveil an extensive collection of contemporary and modern Iranian art, built up over the past decade. It will also provide a valuable archive, charting the development of the modern and contemporary art scene in Iran, with educational events, including programming and exhibitions, among the plans.

Afkhami’s passion for art was almost inevitable, given his roots. Born into a family of art lovers, he grew up in a home where lively dinner parties attended by Islamic art scholars and activists, among others, were a regular occurrence, complete with excellent Persian food. “I used to soak up the entire environment in those early days, listening to the discussions and points made by guests that included Géza Féhérvári and Basil Robinson, while also enjoying the cooking of course!” he said with a smile. 

Afkhami’s mother, together with his grandfather, had built a vast collection of around 20,000 antiquities and Islamic artworks, which they regularly exhibited in art shows held across Iran. Plans were in place to begin exhibiting abroad before, devastatingly, almost all of the collection was lost in the revolution. 

“The family was left with just a small collection of carpets and other pieces held in storage abroad – perhaps around 1% of the size of the original collection,” he said. “But still, my mother was determined to use them as the foundations for building a new Islamic collection.”

While his childhood experiences gave Afkhami an invaluable insight into the Islamic art narrative, it was a trip to Iran in 2004 that paved the way for him to create his own path as a collector and expert by opening his eyes to the contemporary Iranian art scene. 

“I was aware that my mother’s focus was on Islamic art and antiquities and that my tastes were different – I was less interested in the academic dimension, for example,” he explained. “On this particular trip, new galleries were beginning to open in Tehran, showing works by a new wave of artists exploring different themes. Walking around the streets, I spotted all this fantastic local, experimental art in the gallery windows. When I realized that it was also genuinely affordable, I felt inspired to start buying it.” 

Since then, Iran’s art scene has gone from strength to strength, mirroring the expansion under way across the industry regionally. “In fact, I’d say the number of galleries in Tehran had risen from around half a dozen on that earlier trip to around 150 when I was there last,” Afkhami said.

Demand for Iranian art remains high, and, despite the crackdowns on the protests, local artists and the diaspora have found myriad ways of exploring and commenting on topical issues in their work, as Afkhami explained. “Art has always been a static reflection of its time and society, so the scarf issue and Iran’s broader societal limitations are bound to feature in the work of the country’s contemporary artists,” he said. “However, what you notice is that they often make their comments with subtlety rather than overtly, with messages that are perhaps semi-hidden or given ironic treatment, requiring audiences to study the work and seek them out.” 

These observations were in evidence in several of the artworks from Afkhami’s collection that featured in a landmark exhibition titled “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Collection”. Curated by Fereshteh Daftari and presented at several venues across the US and Canada, the multi-media show included works by around 20 artists from Iran and its diaspora in which they explored a wealth of themes, ranging from war and religion to gender identity, sometimes obliquely through subterfuge, humour or by playing with the aesthetics, for example.

Afkhami is delighted that the region’s art is generating interest internationally, noting that demand is broad based and certainly not limited to members of the diaspora. “We know that 20% of art from the region is in the hands of global collectors, so its appeal extends well beyond geographical borders and bodes well for the future,” he said.

The new virtual museum will showcase a diverse range of Iranian art, augmented in six-month increments over the coming years, with the first pieces – approximately 10% of the entire collection – now available to view at Created during the last 75 years, the collection spans a breadth of mediums that include oils on canvas, video installations and fibre-glass sculptures. Audiences will, over time, have the opportunity to view over 600 pieces by around 140 emerging and established Iranian artists, ranging from Monir Farmanfarmaian, Shirin Neshat and Parviz Tanavoli to Abbas Kiarostami, Farhad Moshiri and Parastou Forouhar. 

Afkhami explained that while the collection inevitably reflects his personal journey as a collector, featuring artists he has chosen to collect vertically, he has also taken steps to add works of significance. “Historically, I’ve focused on selecting works that align with my personal tastes, collecting 90% with my heart,” he said with a smile. “But I’m aware that there is a broader narrative at play here now and I’m also keen to ensure that artworks don’t wind up languishing in storage. It’s really important for me that the collection is seen and enjoyed.” 

Building on this aim, the project is set to include a robust schedule of shows and educational programmmes, alongside planned collaborative regional projects.

“Art is a fantastic example of the impact that soft power can have on the broader narrative and encouraging people to look at issues from different perspectives,” Afkhami said. “It’s exciting to be contributing to these important discussions.”

To access the iii Museum, go to

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