Finding (And Teaching) the Ceramics of Iran in a Contemporary Context

Jillian Echlin looking at artwork by Abbas Akbari: My city Kassan, Kah, Feshan, Kashan, 2017.  200x50x30 cm.

The history of the contemporary ceramic arts in Iran is a case study for the way ceramics has changed over the course of the last century and into this one. Iranian artists are answering the technological, ideological, and aesthetic challenges of contemporary artistic practice with unique responses in ways that, perhaps not surprisingly, are unknown to many people outside of the country. Unfamiliarity prevents Western artists and educators from moving beyond a fashionable enthusiasm for the art of others and recognizing the unique contribution that Iran is making to contemporary craft culture. Stereotypes of Iran—of religious extremes, political maneuvering, and international posturing—should be cause for us to reconsider the ways in which we present both historic and contemporary ceramic objects. Whether formally or informally in these roles, we are responsible for offering richer and more nuanced ways to navigate discussions about ceramics in different global contexts.

Iranian ceramics has been redefined alongside major sociocultural and political shifts, starting with the Qajar dynasty (1785-1925) and continuing to develop at the behests of the Pahlavis dynasty (1925-1979) and the Islamic Republic (1979-present). Beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, some Iranian potters responded to marginalization as a result of the global industrial revolution by reviving the artistry of their ceramics heritage. This historicism moved closer to situating pottery as symbols of identity—the embodiment of a desired cultural heritage. However, traditional potters struggled to compete with factory production, and many closed their doors over the next fifty-odd years.