The Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis was an arts and performance festival held in Iran every summer between 1967-77, in and around the city of Shiraz and the ancient ruins of Persepolis. Taking place during a time of radical shifts in global narratives and power dynamics – in the wake of rapid decolonisation, and at the height of the Cold War – the festival echoed the high ambitions of modernism and responded to aspirations for an emancipated, democratic, liberal and equal space beyond the hierarchical strictures of dominant European discourses. The Festival became a post-colonial intellectual project, and an artistically pioneering world stage proposing a radical cultural model. It brought to the centre what had been peripheral: the ‘third world’, the dissenting, the unorthodox, and the counter-cultural. 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the festival.
Archaeology of the Final Decade has unearthed archival materials, audio recordings and film footage which document the revolutionary spirit of the Festival, displayed in exhibition touring Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2014), MAXXI Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo (2014-15), Whitechapel Gallery (2015), Bergen Triennial (2016), Open Eye Gallery (2016) and Dhaka Art Summit (2018).
The archives reveal a kaleidoscopic range of performances in music, drama and dance which were presented and commissioned by the Festival, and brings attention to the Asian and African contributions, alongside the significant presence of the international avant-garde. These materials enable us to articulate and appraise the implications of this decade-long episode in the twentieth century’s artistic narrative, and address the notion of a universalist arena of experimentation that remains a high watermark of modernist ambition.
The Festival introduced artists and expressions from the Global South into international cultural discourse on an unprecedented scale, radically dismantling dominant hierarchies. After Iran, the most highly represented region was South Asia, re-invigorating strong but dormant cultural intra-Asian ties, which had been severed through colonial rule. In the immediate aftermath of decolonisation, Shiraz-Persepolis would shift the cultural centre of gravity towards the re-emerging ‘other’ – consciously attempting to bypass the hierarchies and conventions of the European cultural terrain.
Domestically, the festival also opened up a transgressively liberal space within culturally conservative and politically restrictive Iranian condition. On 28 September 1978, the Festival of Arts was declared decadent by religious decree, and since the Iranian revolution of 1979, materials associated with the festival have been removed from public access. These materials remain officially banned in Iran.
Fifty years on, and after the extensive unearthing of banned archival materials, Archaeology of the Final Decade explores the genealogies and implications of the Festival’s modernist ambitions, using it as a lens through which to reconsider the legacies of modernism’s radical progressive arc, as a potent and unresolved symbol of its aspirations and contradictions. Embodying an optimistic drive to reimagine the world as a universal arena for mutual exchange, the festival exalted in the dawn of the post-colonial age, aspiring to new solidarities and connections which would emerge as part of the new world.
The history and the destiny of the festival reflect the dual reality of modernism itself, which in spite of high progressive ideals, was faced with the seriousness of the scars of this contentious historical moment. The deep fractures of the centuries-old colonization process, and its profound social, cultural, political, geographic, linguistic, spiritual and psychological traumas were not to simply dissolve overnight to make way for a new world.