MoMA Takes a Stand: Art From Banned Countries Comes Center Stage

The Matisse gallery, where the masterworks “Dance” and “The Piano Lesson” hang, has been refitted with a large, intricate work on paper by the Iranian artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi. In his “Mon Père et Moi” (1962), stylized gold hands and feet accompany jam-packed squares containing concentric circles and dancing glyphs. Are the two figures performing sujud, the act of prostrating oneself during Muslim prayer? They are too abstract to say with certainty. Like Matisse, Mr. Zenderoudi translated bodies into pure shapes, informed by patterns gleaned from the decorative arts.

“The Prophet” by Parviz Tanavoli, center, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

An untitled canvas covered in dried, cracked earth, by Marcos Grigorian, who grew up in Iran, now hangs amid similarly geological works by Alberto Burri and Antoni Tàpies. The gallery devoted to futurism has a small bronze totem by Parviz Tanavoli, one of Iran’s foremost sculptors. (Mr. Tanavoli, who divides his time between Iran and Canada, was briefly detained last year by Iranian authorities.) Now, next to Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” is a painting by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect who died last year.

Hadid’s depiction of Hong Kong as an allover composition of interlocking shards satisfyingly fractures the gallery’s timeline of art around 1900, and other works, too, are installed almost as intentional disruptions.

A massive 2011 photograph of three billiard balls by Shirana Shahbazi — who has German citizenship but whose Iranian birth means she is now barred from this country — incongruously dominates the gallery devoted to Dada, right behind “To Be Looked At …,” Marcel Duchamp’s impish painting on glass. Next to a large, Expressionist street scene by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a 2007 video, “Chit Chat,” by Tala Madani, who was born in Iran, plays on a loop. The frames of the stop-motion animation derive from bold, brushy compositions Ms. Madani paints and repaints. But where Kirchner depicts the streets of Dresden with a certain alienated distance, the video — depicting men grabbing each other by the throat and vomiting up yellow paint — is quietly urgent.

“Chit Chat,” a video installation by Tala Madani, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

America’s leading museums have been vocal in the past week about their opposition to Mr. Trump’s executive order, which is still being enforced at some airports. James Cuno, who leads the Getty in Los Angeles, called the order “ill advised, unnecessary and destructive.” Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggested that the blockbuster “Assyria to Iberia” might never have happened under Mr. Trump’s rules. Artists have participated in protests, especially in Los Angeles, home to the largest Persian community in the United States. The order will also have a negative effect on arts journalism; Roxana Azimi, the arts correspondent for Le Monde, is no longer able to enter the United States, as she was born in Iran.

But the speed and directness with which MoMA — not an institution usually thought of as nimble — has responded to Mr. Trump’s ban are especially impressive. Its particular force comes from the curators’ decision to present these works on the fifth floor, in the galleries most steeped in MoMA’s flowchart narrative of Modernist development. The Iranian, Iraqi and Sudanese art does not merely disrupt the old timeline of art history; it disrupts MoMA’s own institutional character. It says: Even the room in which Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” hangs is not irreproachable, but rather a particular story told by individuals, who at times must speak out.

The institution, of course, has never been divorced from power and politics. (MoMA’s continued sponsorship from Volkswagen — which admitted to installing illegal software in 11 million cars worldwide, resulting in more than $4.3 billion in fines — especially rankles.) But in the years to come, all institutions, from the most experimental to the most established, will have to decide whether to keep their heads down or whether to reply. This welcome new voice, less Olympian and more pluralistic, is not how MoMA has spoken in the past — but, then again, this is not how presidents have spoken in the past, either.





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