Worlds apart, united in art

Roya Khadjavi, the New York-based independent curator and cultural producer, talks to Artscoops about her commitment to helping emerging Iranian talents navigate the international art market, at a time when creative voices are giving the WOMAN, LIFE, FREEDOM movement a major boost.

Roya Khadjavi at 'Underskin' at the Milan Image Fair

Talk us through your journey to becoming an independent curator and cultural producer.

After a 20-year long career in fashion merchandising, sales and marketing, I took a break in 2000. My children were young and my travel schedule took me away from home way too often. I resigned as VP of Sales and Marketing North America, for the fashion powerhouse YSL and started volunteer work. 

I served on the board of the Lycee Francais de New York for 10 years and co-founded the Iran Opportunity Fund for the Institute of International Education to help Iranian students living in Iran.

In 2003, I started my own collection of contemporary art which brought me into contact with many people in the art world. Soon I was invited by various institutions to serve on various committees relating to the art of the Middle East, from acquisitions and exhibitions to development and events.

On a memorable day in August 2008, I set foot in my native Iran for the first time in 30 years - something I had promised myself never to do again. The memory of leaving my home and everything I loved behind, including all our assets which were confiscated by the new Islamic regime, was too painful. But as we got close to Tehran Airport and I heard the official announcement in Farsi that we were soon landing, I became overwhelmed with emotion, a swell of feelings that I never expected. 

On that first trip for a family wedding, inspired by my deep reaction to my homeland, I began exploring Tehran, visiting galleries and meeting artists. Surprised by the thriving art scene, and the diversity of the art being exhibited, I began to explore it more deeply. The renewed connection with my country was made possible through the arts and for that I will forever be thankful. It was on that trip that I made it my mission to introduce to NY the talented, but under-represented Iranian artists. After several trips back to Iran, I founded Roya Khadjavi Projects in 2014 and opened my first exhibition, titled ‘Portraits: Reflections by Emerging Iranian Artists’ in September 2014 at Rogue Space, a pop-up venue in the heart of Chelsea’s art district in Manhattan. This was the beginning of my new career. I had reinvented myself.

You focus primarily on promoting young Iranian artists based in Iran and elsewhere. What are the rewards and challenges of working in this sphere?

Promoting and working with young Iranian artist is very rewarding and exciting because you are there with them from the beginning. You get to enjoy their accomplishments and are there for them as a mentor, a support system and a guide.

At the same time, they have so much to teach me because they grew up in an Iran that is totally different from the one I lived in, in the 1960s and 1970s. My artists are like an attachment, a lock that connects me to my past, to my culture, to my country from which I was expelled over 40 years ago.

We enjoy each other and our relationships are extremely tight and mutually respectful. In addition to representing them, I have made it my job to build a community for those artists living in the diaspora, far from their families, friends and culture. This community is something very precious, something they were missing. I am happy and proud to have built it.

The challenges are many. Years of isolation and economic sanctions have prevented Iran from fully participating in the global economy, which includes the world of art. The Iranian artists’ concerns are grounded, particularly, in the lack of opportunities and the disappointment of being bound by place. In many cases, their incapacity to travel, to participate in exchange programs or fellowships abroad is most detrimental to their artistic practice. Added to these problems are the currency devaluation, which makes pricing their works almost impossible, payment for artworks in Iran, which is against the sanctions, and getting visas for them to attend their exhibitions and participate in art fairs.

Despite these roadblocks, their desire to stand alongside their counterparts on the international stage is unwavering. With Iranian artists living in the diaspora, there are more opportunities available and I work very hard to open as many doors for them as I can.

Memory of a Birch Tree by Bibi Manavi

You have been recognised for your accomplishments with several accolades over the years. What landmark moments have brought you the greatest satisfaction in your career to date?

Next year I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Roya Khadjavi Projects. An idea that came to me 16 years ago has now blossomed into a well-respected and well-recognised operation. My role in supporting my artists is a stepping stone. I prepare them to reach their goals, to become recognised for their talent, to sell their works, to place their art in foundations and museums, introducing them to good international galleries and getting them launched in the press. I would say any of these landmark moments and achievements give me great satisfaction.

What are your thoughts on the role that the art world is playing in highlighting the current protests against the compulsory hijab and, more broadly, women’s rights in Iran? 

Art has always played a major role in the struggle for human rights. The power of storytelling through songs, performances and the visual arts has amplified the social issues and the sexual apartheid in Iran. Art and resistance, hand in hand, impact our contentious time with creative voices. We are witnessing the power of this narrative as we defend our basic rights to a free and creative expression in Iran.

‘WOMAN, LIFE, FREEDOM’ has awakened and mobilised the Iranian diaspora like never before. Artists and creatives are breathing life into a movement that binds culture and creativity to new visions of community and democracy. I am not at all surprised at the depth and scale of visual arts being created in relation to this topical issue. There are hundreds of exhibitions, online or in actual spaces organised by communities with the help of people like me to support the uprising.

Underglaze earthenware painted by Navid Azimi Sajadi

Tell us about the response to the curated section you presented - ‘Underskin’- in Milan.

The response to ‘Underskin’ at the Milan Image Fair was amazing. The support from the curator, Rischa Paterlini, and the management of the photography fair was incredible. Our stands were partly sponsored by an Italian patron who also hosted a beautiful dinner for all of us and our artists and members of the press, collectors and friends. The Italian collectors loved the works, sales were fantastic and my artists got great press coverage in major newspapers and art magazines. We were thrilled.

What can we look forward to seeing at your upcoming project in May in London?

I have a full programme in London. I will be exhibiting six photographers, namely: Ali Tahayori, Dariush Nehdaran, Mo Jahangir, Maryam Palizgir, Tahmineh Monzavi and Farsad Labbauf at Photo London at Somerset House, from May 10 – 14; and three artists - Bibi Manavi, Rana Khadem and Navid Azimi Sajadi - during London Craft Week at Cromwell Place, from May 9 – 14. We are also receiving a lot of support from Photo London this year, which is dedicating 100 issues of its magazine to the Iranian photographers being exhibited and their galleries. In addition, there will be related events and programmes. We are deeply grateful for its support.

On a final note, which young Iranian artists are exciting you right now?

There are so many brilliant Iranian artists that are exciting me now. It gives me great pleasure to work with many of them and I can say proudly that a significant number are women. The contemporary art world is an international phenomenon in which education, exposure, connection, recognition, media attention and the press are all vital to move an artist’s career forward. Iranian artists have been disadvantaged for over 40 years. For them to move forward, they need to trade in the international art market. It is precisely for this reason that I have made it my mission to give them this chance and, by doing so, simultaneously educate the Western viewers who don’t know much about Iranian contemporary art, other than through the work of a few artists who are continuously in the spotlight.

Burqa by Rana Khadem

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