Akhlaghi’s main concern before the show opened was that, because she depicts pre-revolutionary events, the women in her scenes sometimes show off their hair. “I was really worried about that. I was ready to say, ‘Don’t worry, they’re wearing wigs, that’s not real hair. “In the end, they didn’t even ask.” So it’s about being smart about the way you work? “You have to be smart about everything. This is what we artists have to do. “
While many Iranian artists have emigrated or live in exile, Akhlaghi and others stay not because they have no other choice, she points out, but because they want to. “I have Australian nationality,” she says. “I worked in Melbourne, London, New York. But I prefer to work in Tehran. It’s my country, the place that gives me ideas.”
What will happen next in Iran, which has been hit hard by Covid-19, is one to guess. In June, the hard line Ebrahim Raisi became president in election critics say was rigged, and there are fears that a crackdown on civil liberties, especially those of women, will result. It remains to be seen if President Biden’s US administration to honor pledge to reinstate JCPOA nuclear deal and reduce the sanctions that hit the Iranian economy. Even less clear is when, or even if, international travel – and international art lending – will pick up on a large scale.
Akhlagi and others I speak to are pessimistic about the bigger picture, but say that the art continues as it always has, even in the most difficult times of the Iran-Iraq war or under the Conservative regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005-13. “The people working in the government are Iranians and Iranians are proud of their culture,” Noebashari says. “Even conservative politicians recite poetry in their speeches. Art has been in Iran for 5,000 years. He will survive.
In the meantime, it’s up to us to adjust our gaze – in particular our view of the art of Iranian women. “We make ourselves understood in black and white terms,” says Afkhami. “And in Iran, absolutely nothing is black and white.”
Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians – The Mohammed Afkhami Collection is at the Asia Society, New York, until May 8, 2022.
And if you liked this story, subscribe to the weekly newsletter on bbc.com features, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.