Artist and Aga Khan award winner architect, communicator and facilitator, Diba conceived, designed and built Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art which was inaugurated in 1977, the Muslim world's first such cultural edifice.
"Modern art has always been current in Iran," Diba reflects. "I remember when I was in High School in 1950s Tehran, local ironmongers used to make what they themselves called 'Picasso doors' wrought-iron gates for the capital city's modern style villas.
"Architects brought modernism to Iran," Diba contends. "They totally changed the fabric of Iranian society by breaking up the old Persian cultural and religious tradition of the 'birooni and andarooni'." This historical and socially important concept is literally translated to mean the "inner and outer " quarters dividing houses into two separate parts, neither to be trespassed by the other. One section housed the extended female members of the family, and the other served as the living quarters for the men and boys of the household.
Cultural and artistic norms have deep social origins in any society, and the Middle Eastern Moslem tradition of dividing (or subjugating, as many would claim) men and women from childhood have profound consequences for society as a whole, and for artistic manifestation in particular.
"The modern architectural social concept," Diba continues "was a form of lifting the veil on communal living in Iran. The buffer between Inner home and street was broken and the Iranian nuclear family was born."
"Western art and architecture came in waves into Iran...awareness began to grow and there was a fascination with twentieth century contemporary figures such as Picasso. Those same ahangars (ironmongers) Structured and painted their doors and gates in Geometric Cubism!"
Diba, a self thought painter while studying architecture in US, started painting in the 1960s when the modernist Iranian art movement was moving into new renditions of traditional Persian calligraphy. "The, Sagha-khaneh school, which looked at the inner and religious beliefs prevalent in popular culture of Iran, was short-lived ; I was already painting pure abstract calligraphy in the 1960s, even before (Hossein) Zenderoudi," Diba states.TMOCA collection, Tehran.(ref.image)
Diba propagated memari mardomi (human sensitive architecture) in Iran during the 1960s and 70s.To emphasize his ideas he commissioned Parviz Tanavoli to make realistic figures in bronze, interacting with the visitors to his buildings; consequently figurative sculptures and statues of ordinary Iranian people were placed in the city's public spaces and parks," His first painting & installation was in Gallery Seyhoun, 1967 and in 1975, he began combining performance and painting at Gallery Zand, 1976 Tehran. As a first cousin of the exiled Farah Diba, the former Empress of Iran, Kamran Diba used his Imperial Court connections to push for public 'art' spaces in the rapidly expanding capital's metropolitan expanse.
For many social and political historians, accelerated drive for modernization and social change sparked religious reactions, eventually turning catapulting the tide of revolutionary fervour towards the end of the 1970s.
"You have to remember," Diba is emphatic in his body movement to make the point "that in the 1960s, artists were painting in isolation, not communicating with each other. There was no flow of ideas between them and a great deal of straight approbation of Western art movements was in practice." He helped set up an art club in Tehran where artists would gather to exchange ideas and to show their works. "The TMOCA was the culmination of these activities. We built the museum to give artists historical legitimacy and the socio-cultural base for ordinary people to go and see Iranian and international art for the first time."
In regard to creating TMOCA "My intention was to make a strong collection of Iranian artists and the Queen (Empress Farah) not only supported the museum, but she also pushed the Government to buy Iranian artists. My purpose was to place the local artist in a national and international context." Diba says. He not only designed and built the museum with the help of xxxx, putting together the staff and hiring international curators to create exhibits, but even trained the guards "not to pick their noses" and the janitors "to clean the toilets" regularly. When the museum was inaugurated in October 14, 1977, Diba, as its initiator and first director, managed to put a sizable collection of Iranian and western art on view in the presence of a host of international art dignitaries and the former vice president of USA, Nelson Rockefeller, an avid art supporter.
"Art and culture has not only to do with artists, but more importantly, it has to do with institutions," Diba continues in a passionate vein. "You need institutions to be engaged in art with historical perspectives. In retrospect, the only institution which is concerned with the conservation of recent history of art in Iran is the Tehran TMOCA." The museum today not only boasts the best collection of modern and contemporary Iranian art, but also houses one of the most sought after and comprehensive collections of Western modernist and contemporary works in Asia, with an estimated attached current value of well over billion dollars.
"Alas," Diba laments, "In spite of many good Iranian artists, we lack authentic voices in the contemporary Iranian art movement today. With no properly functional institutions, curators, authoritative critics...the TMOCA itself has been left adrift, its first show of the collection held 25 years after the revolution by Alireza Sami Azar(the former only real director after Diba). There are also some fake (Iranian artworks) around without anyone being able to authenticate the real from the fake reproductions. With the recent high prices being fetched at auction for Iranian modernist and contemporary works, some people are being cheated and there's not much we can do about it."
"Art is not fashion but in today's marketplace, Iranian art has become somewhat like the Paris season fashion shows. But where else in the region do you find such artistic passion and ferment?" he concludes.