Perspectives on the Shiraz Arts Festival: A Radical Third World Rewriting

By Vali Mahlouji

 “The philosopher, as a necessary man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,
has always found himself. . .in opposition to his today.”
- Nietzsche

“One of the distinctive virtues of modernism
is that it leaves its questions echoing in the air long after the questioners themselves,
and their answers, have left the scene.”
- Marshall Berman

The artistic territory of the annual Shiraz Arts Festival (1967–1978) remains, despite the passage of almost half a century, a remarkably contested space. It represents possibly the most controversial trajectory of cultural attitude, policy, and intercultural contact in modern Iranian history. Paradoxically, and apart from Iranian political and cultural sensitivities, the Festival is recognized as one of the most uniquely transformative inter-cultural experiences, perhaps the most radical multi-disciplinary crucible of any commissioning festival in history. Its contested space represents one of the last unresolved artistic complexes of the pre-revolutionary period.

The present paper aims to show that a study of the eleven catalogues produced for the annual events points to a hitherto rejected or over-looked, precociously profound and sophisticatedly novel post-colonial posturing, that introduced distant voices from Asia and Africa into the international cultural discourse and juxtaposed them alongside western neo-avant-garde expressions in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation. This policy of resisting and eliminating established narrative structures sought: firstly, to shift the contemporary cultural reality of Iran through a self-confrontation within an intercultural discourse; and secondly, to destabilize the hierarchical strictures of dominant European discourse and challenge a hegemonic Eurogenetic view of culture. In doing so it had the function of facilitating a liberal space across political restrictions and a relatively conservative national cultural terrain. It became a platform for new articulation and expression that was culturally and politically challenging at home. Internationally, it shifted the centre of gravity of cultural production and politics towards the (re-emerging) other. It was, in essence, what Homi Bhabha would call a “third world re-writing”.1 It focused on a radical cultural shift towards the ‘present’.

Conceptualizing the terrain of the Festival today demands first, that we regard it as historical—we must pass beyond the value judgments of yesterday and break clear of accepted scripts. Furthermore, critical observation of the Festival’s aesthetic and cultural genealogies must steer clear of oppositional paradigms, didactics of time and place and a reliance on over-simplified, reductive, and dichotomous representations of both the modern and the traditional. Such polarities inform clichéd attitudes not only to the actualities of the Festival, but also to the totality of our contemporary condition, and serve to negate the evolutionary historical process. They serve distortions from within and from without to perpetrate the catastrophic notion of a clash of civilizations. The Festival itself was created and curated in opposition to precisely such reductive reactionisms by asserting a democratic relational sphere, both temporally (by including a wide spectrum of performances from across artistic
historical periods) and spatially (by improvising alternative performing spaces across the city and in the natural setting). Indeed, the Festival self-consciously set out to map
coexisting heterogeneous truths within a modern discourse providing meaning to possibilities of disjointed, dispersed, and interchangeable points of view.

In its critique of Eurocentrism and its affirmation of non-European sensibilities, the Festival articulated the necessity for putting cultural expressions produced prior to European colonialization by those east of the Black Sea and south of the Mediterranean on the map as valuable and equal. The Festival articulated a paradigm-shifting arbitration in opposition to, and beyond, the authoritarian hierarchical model of the European mission civilatrice (civilizing mission). The process of discovery, deconstruction, and reorientation found a natural ally in the internationally fluid and subversive western avant-garde, whose modernities sought a break from the constraints, and stabilities of their own traditions. The Shiraz Arts Festival became an artistically pioneering world stage proposing and initiating a radical cultural model for a post-colonial necessity—a global exhibition predating the 1986 Havana Biennale by nearly two decades.

The rhetoric of the festival, as articulated in its publications, returns regularly to the theme of universalism and the dream of unity calling for, in Edward Said’s words, “a post-colonial intellectual project” looking to “expand the area of overlapping community between the metropolitan and formerly colonized societies.”2 This dream of unity rejects any unifying reductivist principle that subsumes world cultures under the rhetoric of a globalized culture. Conversely, it focuses on achieving a fertile dialectical between values of permanence and change, eternal and new, in what Marshall Berman refers to as “a contradictory unity, a unity of disunity.”3 Here, the juxtaposition of the anti-and post- colonial are complementary, relationally reinforcing or extending a whole.

The traditions and sensibilities of China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and various African impulses provided abstractive capacities, which resonated with neo-avant-gardist drives as they had done for Nietzsche, Artaud, and others. The performative, represented by the ‘primitive’, was once again encouraged to supplant the textual, or European tradition. The investigation of ritual promised insight into the unconscious world of the collective in line with earlier trajectories of David Émile Durkheim and Adam Smith on the basis that it brought theatre closer to its essence.4

With the recent involvement of the Third World, a new perspective has been
opened in this theatre of evolving forms. As the experiments in dramatic
presentation have touched cultural elements not yet deadened by “Broadway”
or “boulevard,” world theatre seems even closer to achieving the goals set by
the visionary Artaud. . .The traditional and folk presentations serve as
reminders of the origins of pure theatre, created in a specific cultural context,
to provide what Artaud would indicate as “ecstatic” communications. An
important trend of the avant-garde is devoted to developing this kind of
expression for an intercultural audience.

8th Shiraz Arts Arts Festival5

Artuadian ideals of catharsis, communality, and return to origins in a “desire to connect with the emotional core of the drama,”6 for an example, informed the seminal collaborative piece from 1971, Orghast, created by Iranians Arby Ovanessian and Mahin Tajadod; directors Peter Brook, Andrei Serban, and Geoffrey Reeves; and poet Ted Hughes. Its performers hailed from Cameroon, England, France, Japan, Mali, Portugal, Spain, and the United States. In a return to ancients, Tajadod and Hughes developed a script for Orghast based on Middle Persian. Incomprehensible even to the modern Persian speaker, its primary intention was the omission of text as carrier of symbolic meaning. This was consciously in line with Artaud and Derrida’s defense of Artaud’s thesis, where “the logical and discursive intentions which speech ordinarily uses in order to ensure its rational transparency” are subordinated “to purloin [the theatre’s] body in the direction of meaning.”7 Attainment of meaning would transcend the need for rational discourse and bring the audience to alternate modes of consciousness forming a new community “beyond any fixed, stable identity.”8

Transgressive creativity was not always easily received:

The Sixth Festival was considered by many to be the most ‘difficult’ to date.
[...] There was little appeal to ‘popular’ taste, a sure sign that Festival
organizers now knew what they wanted and were prepared to present it
regardless of critical comment, which was not slow in coming. The
controversy that boiled over in normally placid Shiraz was rightly considered
part of what the Festival is all about, and as a welcome stimulus to artistic
creativity and art criticism in Iran.

- 6th Shiraz Arts Festival

The Festival adopted a Faustian motto to embrace and contain developmentally necessary cultural controversy, despite, and even in opposition to, popular tastes and consumptions. The disturbance of “orderings of subject and society alike,”9 what Julia Kristeva calls, putting “subjecthood in trouble,”10 exposing it in crisis “to register its points not only of breakdown but of breakthrough,”11 became the Festival’s own curatorially avant-garde articulation in relation to the Iranian production of art.

Across national agendas and the Iranian cultural terrain, the Festival was aimed at broadening parameters of theory, practice, discourse, and criticality.12 Exposure and exchange was a means of oxygenation and a necessary aid to edification and transformation of the cultural sphere. No volume of investment, sponsorship, or residencies abroad have the same efficacious impact as that of creating an actual base for intercultural exchange at home.13 This was a more democratic model. Affordable season tickets were provided to students and university dormitories opened their doorsand housed students from all over Iran. These enthusiasts mainly came from middle and lower economic backgrounds—those less privileged in terms of exposure to the international scene. Interviews conducted with the younger generation of
festivalgoers—both performers and spectators—attest to a unique provision for growth, experience, exchange, and exposure.14 Performance artists such as Reza Abdo, Sussan Deyhim, Susan Taslimi, Shohreh Aghdashlou, Mohammad-Bagher Ghaffari, Attila Pessyani to name a few, belong to the generation who benefitted from such exposure.

Attention was focused on critical evaluations of local modes, including the commedia dell’arte style ru-hozi performance,15 the reconceptualization of the previously banned ta’ziye ritual performance, and a focus on musical traditions. The late twentieth-century renaissance in Iranian music could be directly traced to the crucial work of the Festival. The Festival commissioned new innovations in Iranian theatre such as City of Tales by writer/director/performer Mofid (the seminal socio-critical play which had been shelved by the Iranian Ministry of Culture) and A Modern, Profound and Important Research into the Fossils of the 25th Geological Era by writer Abbas Naalbandian and director Arby Ovanessian. Scores of Iranian theater talents such as actors Parviz Sayyad and Ezzatolah Entezami and writers/directors Bahram Beyzai and Ali Nasirian performed. A fledgling Iranian cinema found an ally and a platform in the Festival, which afforded Iranian filmmakers such as Parviz Kimiavi, Nasser Taghvai, Fereydoon Rahnema, Dariush Mehrjui, and Arby Ovanessian visibility alongside recognized auteurs, such as, Yasujiro Ozu, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, Sergei Paradjanov, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Satyajit Ray and Marguerite Duras, to name a few, and initiated the Iranian artists’ entry onto the international scene.

Local Iranian artistic production shared a stage with the likes of Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin, Ram Narayan, Vilayat Khan, Rwandan percussionists, and Japanese Noh, Balinese gamelan, and Indian kathakali performers, as well as creations (in many cases commissioned by the Festival) by Tadeusz Kantor, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Shuji Terayama, Joseph Chaikin, Andrei Serban, Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson (who was commissioned to create early epic performances such as KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia Terrace), Maurice Bejart, John Cage, Gordon Mumma, Iannis Xenakis (who had fled the Greek junta), Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Valda Setterfield, Robert Suramaga, and Núria Espert (who found relative freedom in Shiraz from the dictatorial constraints of Francoist Spain).16
Seminal experimental works were commissioned, at a time when most of the artists remained marginal in their own countries. Many, such as Stockhausen, found the Iranian sphere without cultural baggage and therefore a facilitating and mediating encounter in contrast to the uneasy dialogues with their home audiences.

If there were an economy of prestige at play in this space of cultural negotiations, then it would be most safely placed amongst the forces of the peripheral, the ‘third world’, the dissenting, the unorthodox, the counter-cultures, the outsiders. This new reading is aimed at re-conceptualising and re-contextualising the Shiraz Arts Festival in order to offer new post-colonial meanings to the dynamics at play that render old clichéd criticisms of elitism, ‘westoxication’ (‘gharb-zadegi’) and cultural irrelevance obsolete. In essence, not only was the project not an elitist or ‘westoxicated’ one, it was a far more complex impulse towards an ideal transcendent model, a far cry from the now obviously defunct politicized accusation of being “the wrong act at the wrong time in the wrong place”.



1. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture. (London: Routledge, 1994), p.2.

2. Edward Said, “Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World,” in Salgamundi No.70/71 (New
York: Skidmore College, 1986): 46

3. Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1982), p.23.

4. Erika Fischer-Lichte, Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual, Exploring Forms of Political Theatre
(London: Routledge, 2005), pp.32–33.

5. Quotes are taken from the original catalogues of the Shiraz Arts Festival.

6. Arnold Aronson, American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History. (New York: Routledge, 2000),
p 104.

7. Jacques Derrida, “The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing
and Difference, Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, 1978), p.240.

8. Erika Fischer-Lichte, Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual, Exploring Forms of Political Theatre
(London: Routledge, 2005), p. 228.

9. Julia Kristeva, cited in Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, Mass.; London:
October Books/MIT Press, 1996), p.153.

10. ibid.

11. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, Mass.; London: October Books/MIT Press,
1996), p.157.

12. Author’s interview with Empress Farah Diba, patron of the Festival and Bijan Saffari,
architect, artist and co-organizer of the Festival.

13. ibid.

14. Author’s interviews with Saddreddin Zahed (actor and scholar), Mohammad-Bagher
Ghaffari (actor and director), Atilla Pessyani (actor and director), and Shohreh Aghdashloo

15.  Ru-hozi is a form of comic improvisatory performance in Iran whose roots are
obscure. This type of performance has been compared to similar traditions across
cultures in Asia and Europe, including Indonesian ludruk, Malaysian boria, Indian
forms and the late Italian Renaissance commedia dell’arte. There are reasons to
believe that these folkloric traditions shared a common root in ancient antiquity. In
Ru-hozi the central figure is a clown and there are stock figures like the Haji
(traditional merchant), a king or ruler, a woman (played by a man), a youth, courtiers,
and sometimes other specialized characters such as doctor. the stories are simple and
often taken from Iranian folklore and sometimes literature. For further information
see Prof. William Beeman, Comic Improvisatory Theater in Iran and its Influence on
Modern Drama, presented at Iran: New Voices, Barbican Arts Centre, London
November 2008.

16. Author’s interview with Nuria Espert.