Emkan, Tehran

Interview with Behzad Nejadghanbar, founder of the gallery Emkan in Tehran

My trip to Iran was one of the most beautiful travels I have ever done. One of the person I have to thank for is gallerist and curator Behzad Nejadghanbar, who showed us Tehran’s contemporary art scene and also its people’s generosity. Here is his story.

When did you start your gallery and why?

The first show of Emkan was held on Oct. 30, 2015. Before that, I used to collaborate with other galleries in Tehran here and there as a curator and you know when you work with other galleries and institutions with a fixed agenda, you don’t have that much freedom to do what you really want to do. There are always these guidelines and policies that can be problematic for what you have in mind or plan to do. So I thought of opening my own space and what I had in mind was a sort of critical approach to Tehran art scene. To be precise I should say I had a privative attitude. I mean there were certain things I was sure I did not want at Emkan. The mainstream, exotic, orientalist and politicized (but not political) approaches were the things I wanted to exclude from my list. I was convinced that there are some other considerable perspectives in Iran’s contemporary art which had been mostly disregarded and I always thought there must be a place to support them and give them a platform to be seen altogether under one umbrella. On the other hand, I always wished for creating a dynamic atmosphere in which holding exhibitions and selling art is not the only priority. By dynamic I mean a place where there is an ongoing dialogue between artists and audiences, our artists themselves, and me and artists – almost everybody who comes and cares. It could open up possibilities for our space to be more than just a gallery.

What is your background? 

I have a master degree in Dramatic literature although I did not do much professional works in this field and after graduation professionally I was more involved in visual arts than theatre. Before starting the gallery I used to work in a Japanese firm to make money and survive, but honestly also to be able to travel to Tokyo from time to time to visit amazing extraordinary art scene in there. So by the time I was saying goodbye to my well-paid job with the Japanese, I also had some experience of doing things related to art like writing, translating, curating and giving advice to a couple of friends who were collecting artworks. I mean I tried to change their views on buying art from a mere leisure to a serious project through which they can shape something continuous and valuable. I worked with a couple of art magazines in Iran, most importantly and until recently “Herfeh: Honarmand” quarterly (translated as Profession: Artist) as editor of a section in the magazine which was mainly focused on writing reviews about exhibitions in Tehran. So what I had to do was to navigate the things happening in town to detect the exhibitions which I thought were worth writing about. So With other writers and editors, we used to visit the exhibitions and talk about them to see what to write about. Therefore, it was an interesting communicative intellectual relationship between me and other writers who are also good friends that helped me a lot to learn from them and also deepened my understanding of art to shape my own critical viewpoints.

What does the name of the gallery mean?

Emkan means possibility in Persian. I can vividly remember the time this name sparkled in my mind. I was accompanying a photographer friend to north of Iran who had a project to take photos there and as he was driving on the road, we were brainstorming names for the new space. I can clearly remember that it was quite close to the city of Manjil with a lot of windmills at both sides of the road that after spelling out a couple of words, I said “Emkan”. The meaning was just right for the idea I had in mind in the first place – which I mentioned earlier in your first question. It felt so right. I liked it and right away texted it to others and everybody instantly agreed. So it was how Emkan was named.

You just moved your gallery, can you tell us about the new and the old space?

This is a very important question because the physicality of Emkan is one of the key features of its character. The old Emkan was a 50-year-old residential building located deliberately in the center of Tehran. The neighborhood was historically inhabited by middle class Armenian communities but in the recent years transformed into an area of clothing workshops. The ground floor was our exhibition space as I insisted for the show space to be small because in my idea Tehran did not lack large and popular art spaces and what I had in mind did not require somewhere big. There was also a room on the second floor that we changed it to a cozy café but later we used it for our sound project called SEDA (sound in Persian) which is focused on electronic and experimental sound installations. So the characteristics of the space, specially its size provided us with the chance to collaborate with some interesting artists for various events. But the time came that we had to return the house to the owner as the contract had been terminated and coincidentally as we were also financially in critical condition, I decided to close Emkan at the time. It is a long story but we were on the process to close Emkan forever that one thing led to another and we found the current space which is not far from the other one but is located inside the cultural neighborhood of Tehran. It is also an old residential building. The showroom is a bit bigger than the previous one. We already had 5 shows here and I think we are happy here.

What is the program of your gallery? 

For me, it has been always a challenge to call Emkan, a gallery. We have deliberately tried to call it Emkan and not more or less because things we do and how we do them can go beyond a gallery. The most important thing is this “program” that you are asking about. Running Emkan is somehow democratic. All the decisions are made through dialogues between me, artists, team members and friends and because of that I always say “we”.

Our focus is on Iran’s contemporary art but we don’t oppose working with non-Iranian artists – we have worked with a couple of European artists in our new space. We also don’t have solid criteria for age, medium or experience of the artists we work with. That is maybe the reason why Emkan is more like a curatorial project than a gallery. Our taste in art has been shaped over time and the artists who fit into it are welcomed in our space. That is the reason why there is somehow a connection between the arts our artists do. We tried to highlight traces of Iran’s contemporary art scene which we think had been fully or partly neglected or were continuing their existence through individual or isolated movements and maybe this helped them to attract more attention and to be received better. Regarding younger artists, I regularly visit studios and go to art universities to find serious artists to include in our program but also it is always a learning process for me too. I really learn a lot from young artists and what they bring to Emkan and the sensitive way that they monitor, criticize or evaluate our shows and activities is very valuable for me.

Another significant part of our program is keeping up a conversation with art world outside Iran. We want to show those trends mainly appreciated as Iranian art in West are not the only ones here inside Iran and there is an esteemed and important part of Iranian contemporary art which is not that much introduced. Aiming at this, we have plans of holding exhibitions and talks outside Iran, publishing art books and so on.

What does it mean to run a gallery in Iran? 

In Iran, we don’t have such things like nonprofit organizations or independent foundations with the same structure of constitutions as Western countries. You must be financially capable and secure to run somewhere without counting on making profit or having income; or you must work under government’s support and supervision which has its own limitations and problems. Of course there is one or two experimental spaces here trying to manage with the funds they get from institutes outside Iran but it is not a feasible alternative for us. We have a certain taste and approach for our space and it is salient for us to stick to it all the way. So the only possible way for us to cover the expenses of rent, our team’s salary and most importantly to work with our group of artists or in other words to survive, is selling artworks which is our main income although it is not as considerable as a usual commercial gallery because we only sell artworks of the artists we are working with. I mean unlike many other commercial galleries we rarely deal art. So far we have not attended any fairs or collaborated with auctions.

How do you combine your work as a gallerist and as a curator? 

As I mentioned earlier, Emkan is more like a curatorial project for me and these two curating and owning a gallery – are not that much separable for me. I do some curatorial projects outside the gallery. Last year I curated a small show in Berlin and also I have done a couple of shows outside my own space in Tehran. They have been very good experiences. They are all about Emkan again. Curatorial projects should be related to Emkan’s taste. It helps me to learn how to curate a bigger space and how to increase my flexibility. By curating projects outside our usual space, I can experience working with other artists and at the same time seeing Emkan from an outsider point of view.

Can you tell us about Tehran’s art scene and art market? 

Tehran’s art scene seems to be very flourishing from outside, having more than 100 galleries which are increasing day by day with an insane rate. But if you look closely there are at best 15 or 20 galleries working specifically on contemporary art at a professional level. By the way, it is a very dynamic atmosphere. It has some serious persistent audiences and we have three or for professional journals. I must add that a couple of new art magazines have been opened in recent months. It all shows there is something considerable going on here.

Besides, I don’t deny the fact that the market has been improved in recent years with more local and international collectors, fairs, auctions, etc. – all of them have their shortcomings but it is not the time and place to talk about it. Sanctions and political issues also have their own effects. Anyway, there is always a complicated relationship between art and market around the world and I hope the atmosphere becomes more open in favor of independent activities.

Who are the artists that you are working with at the moment? What do they do? 

I work with a variety of artists in sense of age and experience. As I said their work include different mediums. Our current show is Ghazaleh Hedayat’s new series. She is one of the most noticeable Iranian photographers whose work goes beyond photography at some levels. The next one will be Maryam Espandi, who experiments different mediums and the other artist which will soon have her next exhibition at Emkan is Shahla Hosseini.

If you would have given three wishes, what would you wish for your gallery? 

  • To be able to survive in current difficult situation and to deepen our project and broaden our horizons.
  • To be in a more open atmosphere and to be faced with more and more serious artists and audiences.
  • To go beyond Iran’s art scene in a more systematic way so that there will be a permanent, fruitful dialogue between us and art scene around the world.