The pastel shades of green and blue that dominate Mehrdad Robert Rahbar’s poster for the Norooz Art Festival signify spring, which is appropriate. Norooz—or Nowruz, to use the more common spelling—is the Persian equivalent of New Year’s Day, but it coincides with the vernal equinox rather than the bleak midwinter. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll find that Rahbar’s symbolism goes much deeper. Pictured in the artist and architect’s colourful design are seven indicators of a happy Persian New Year: fruit, flowers, fish, vinegar, garlic, coins, and wine. But the fish are West Coast salmon, not the traditional koi; the coins are Canadian; and the wine is probably from the Okanagan, rather than the once-fabled vineyards of Shiraz.
Implicit in the poster image, and in the programming of the Norooz Art Festival, are two linked notions. One is that the Persian diaspora has turned Nowruz into a global celebration, and the other is that art can help bring democracy to a land that is now battling a repressive theocracy. Nowruz literally means “new day” in Farsi, and a new day is what Rahbar hopes is on the way for Iran. And when it comes, he says, art will have played a major part.
“As a dictator or a ruler you may imprison people; you may arrest them, intimidate them, torture them, and kill them,” he explains, on the line from his West Vancouver office. “But you cannot destroy a work of art—especially today. It’s been distributed, it’s been on Facebook; our new technologies are making art more and more immortal.”
Ironically, he adds, the Iranian government’s repressive cultural policies have only strengthened the importance of art in Iranian society. “That’s why you have thousands and thousands of artists coming out, and most of them are under 30 years old,” he says. “They’re growing in huge numbers, and arming themselves with the weapons of art: pens, paper, canvases, and cameras.”
Iranian artworks that can’t be shown at home—whether because they carry a political message, or simply because they depict a naked human body—are the main focus of the Norooz Art Festival’s visual-arts component, which can be viewed at North Vancouver’s Café for Contemporary Art (140 East Esplanade), beginning next Saturday (March 27).
“I told the artists, ”˜I won’t be interested in your piece of art if it can be hung in Iran right now. It could be the most beautiful piece, but you could have a gallery there show your work,’ ” says Rahbar. “So we narrowed it down to works that would be forbidden.”
Also planned are three evenings of performance, also at the Café for Contemporary Art. Opening night features the politically charged Iranian pop of the Asrar Ensemble; the festival closes with a screening of four short films on April 10; and on April 2 the Montreal-based poet Hossein Sharang will read his powerful lyrics of exile and hope.
In Iran, as Rahbar points out, poetry has traditionally been a venue for dissident thought. And, naturally, Sharang’s reading will reflect a side of Iranian culture that rarely finds public expression under Islamist rule.
“We’re thinking ”˜Dim the lights, use candles, serve wine,’” says the festival organizer. “It’s a traditional Persian way of celebrating Nowruz, so you’ll sit on the floor, and there’s candlelight and live music playing, and wine spilling on the carpet—things like that. We want to make it an experience.”