On January 4, 2011, Prince Ali Rezi Pahlavi, the youngest son of the Shah and Shahbanu of Iran, left this world under unclear circumstances. A few days later, a photograph of his grieving mother, now known as HRH Farah Diba Pahlavi, caught my attention. The accompanying story shared the difficulties of the Pahlavi family in exile after being overthrow during the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
The women of the Pahlavi family are often overlooked. After years of studying the revolution in Iran, the one person I’ve read the least about is Farah Diba. Except for a few references to indulgent spending and opulence, history seems to ignored what I have discovered is her true legacy; that of Art Visionary.
Even those who acknowledge her impressive contribution to art and culture in Iran and on behalf of Iranian diaspora, like to poke fun at her for statements about what she’s worked to accomplish:
“Less than 10 minutes into my interview with Her Magesty Farah Pahlavi, she has already mentioned serving the people of Iran twice. First to explain her reasons behind pursuing architecture at Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in Paris in 1957 – “It meant building for the people. Not in the terms of houses, but as a society. And second when I ask her what inspired her cultural contribution to Iran – “My country is so culturally rich, I wanted to protect what we have historically for the people. We can’t only live in the past, and I wanted to support young Contemporary artists for future generations.”
Canvas Magazine, The Queen of Culture
In her case, tooting her own horn seems in order. The world seems almost oblivious to her activities on behalf of art and culture in Iran.
What exactly has she done to warrant the title The Queen of Culture, or as I have stated, art visionary?
Behold, under her watch Iran created:
- 12 artistic institutions that specialized in both classical Iranian arts and crafts, and a Tehran MOCA;
- 26 Educational, health, sports, and cultural organizations, including NGOs;
- Building a modern art collection that is today worth approximately $2.8-3 billion dollars;
- The Shiraz Art Festival that focused on global avant-garde performance art took place annually from 1967-1977;
- Patronage of traditional Iranian art forms like weaving, singing, and poetry recital;
- A national trust of Iranian artifacts bought back from Western institutions, and creating museums to house the works and make them available to the public. Museums and cultural centres created under her guidance include the Negarestan Cultural Center, the Reza Abbasi Museum, the Khorramabad Museum with its valuable collection of Lorestān bronzes, the National Carpet Gallery and the Abgineh Museum for ceramics and glass works;
- Supporting modern Iranian art by encouraging patronage by private businesses individuals, and government agencies, to build collections and publish books;
She’s been following this vision for more than 50 years. She’s not afraid to let people know, unequivocally that despite what people think about her, or her husband’s regime, she is Iranian, she deeply loves her country and believes its talents should be shared on the global stage. She has devoted her life to building a culture of culture, and to bringing together the dispersed pieces of Persian history and placing it back into the public realm of Iran, where it belongs. I believe she wanted all Iranians to appreciate art and history, and to have access to it, in the same way as poetry or music.
In the context of my current project about Art Dubai, I can’t help but think about how interesting it is that more than 50 years ago, one woman had a passion and a vision to to strengthen art and culture in her country, and employed diverse methods of supporting and promoting the arts, much like what we see happening in the Gulf today.
Another similarity is that she was working in time when revolutionary fever and nationalism were rocking the planet. I believe she felt herself part of those sweeping in change and strengthening a Persian/Iranian perspective that could stand side by side with a western one. She believes in the power and importance of art and culture in enriching the world we live in. Like her, I believe life without art would be empty, and supporting art and culture is important work. Much like any other art lover, experiencing art and the greater world created a desire to highlight the strengths and creativity of her homeland, and to engage with other creators and patrons on a collaborative plane.
She has been a true advocate for the arts, a statement I doubt any would dispute. It’s a legacy she can be proud of.
Resource: The Shiraz Arts Festival: Western Avant-Garde Arts in 1970s Iran by Robert Gluck PDF: leon.2007.40.1
The Queen of Fashion
Another title she could easily hold is The Queen of Fashion. A google search of her name will bring up thousands of photographs of the glamourous ingenue, the young queen, the wife and mother, the maturing woman of the world, the Empress of Iran, and the world traveling art patron. Today she still maintains an air of regal elegance. While watching the 2008 documentary The Queen and I, I was struck by her poise, dignity, and intelligence. She’s what I would call one classy lady, with an outstanding personal style. Today you’ll find her wearing elegant pant suits instead of the flowy, embroidered dresses or animal prints and knee high boots of her youth. Always well coiffed, she obviously still takes pleasure in fashion and beauty.
Her most exciting fashion moments included the best of East and West. Her wedding gown, Dior by YSL in 1959, she chose Dior again in 1967 to design her Empress coronation cape, this time by Marc Bohan. The cloak was sent to Iran for additional Iranian embroidery by Pouran Daroudi, and her crown a Van Cleef and Arpels, designed by Pierre Arpels in Tehran. The lady has international flair with an Iranian twist, or perhaps it’s the other way around!
Beyond style, Farah Diba has really inspired me by her life long devotion to art and culture. One could say, of course, she has the means and that status to carry out such initiatives, so why all the accolades? But even when she was the Queen, and then the Empress, she has to convince the Iranian regime to spend money and resources on art and culture during a time when art and culture were not so highly valued. When she lost her title, she continued to contribute and advocate for Iranian artists. Her story is about perseverance and devotion to her beliefs, no matter what the situation or obstacles, and I find that very inspiring indeed.