As reported by the New York Times today, Dr. Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran (“[and] a former Revolutionary Guards commander, retired pilot, and the loser of two presidential elections,” the article piles on neutrally) has ordered all of the city’s 1,500 billboards (a significant source of income from advertisements) to be replaced with copies of iconic works of both Western and Iranian art.
The project, installed almost overnight, was organized by the Organization of Beautification of Tehran, a municipal coalition created to improve appearance of parks and public areas. Mojtaba Mousavi, a representative counselor, commented to the Times, “Our people are too busy to go to museums and galleries, so we decided to turn the entire city into a huge gallery.”
Ghalibaf’s sudden zeal for visual art, the article notes, is likely politically motivated. A “canny and ambitious politician despite the two defeats,” Ghalibaf may intend to run for office in the 2016 presidential elections. Art collector and historian Hamid Taheri told the Times, “[This project] is clearly an attempt to win [the people’s] favor. I don’t mind though, it’s amazing to see art across the city.”
Now rising above the streets of Iran are images of Rembrandt paintings, photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Rothko Nos. 3, 10 and 13. Also included is a reproduction of Munch’s The Scream, a choice that will no doubt strike certain residents of Tehran (“who spend hours a day on congested roads”) as empathetic.
The Iranian works, on the other hand, had been selected with far more precaution, or, to put it less euphemistically, with a censoring eye. In Mousavi’s words, “some of the more modern work could lead to objections that we wanted to avoid.”
Only pieces by deceased artists were considered, resulting in the choice of relatively tame images of Persian carpets, paintings inspired by the Book of Kings, and works by painter Bahman Mohassess, fondly known as the “Persian Picasso.”
The local response appears to be one of unanimous enthusiasm. A physics student is quoted in the article saying, “This really inspires me to go to a museum for the first time in my life, instead of again going out and smok[ing] a water pipe.” Another, older, citizen of Tehran said he loved the idea, but added, “the city shouldn’t forget the sidewalks need to be cleaned as well.”