By Kyle Sherard
There are roughly 200 connections between Asheville and the Iranian Revolution of 1979. No, really. It just so happens that one of the largest privately held collections of posters from the Iranian Revolution, nearly 200 in number, resides here in Asheville.
For the next two months, 146 of these posters are on view as part of In Search of Lost Causes: Images of the Iranian Revolution: Paradox, Propaganda and Persuasion, a multi-institutional exhibition series and program, showing at three institutions across Asheville.
Thirty posters hang in UNCA’s Ramsey Library, 10 line the walls of Firestorm Cafe and Books and the remaining 106 fill up two floors in the Phil Mechanic Studios’ Flood and Courtyard Gallery in the River Arts District.
The weekend-long schedule began at UNCA on Thursday, Oct. 17, with an opening reception, film screening and lecture by Dr. Hamid Dabashi, an Iranian-born scholar, cultural historian and the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Using a N.C. Humanities Council grant, Dabashi traveled to Asheville to co-curate the exhibitions with Steward, and give a series of lectures and presentations on the collection’s historical and contemporary significance.
The collection belongs to Carlos Steward and Cynthia Potter, who operate the Courtyard Gallery in the Phil Mechanic Studios. They received the posters in 1999 as a gift from a source they will not disclose. Dabashi believes the donor was heavily involved in the inner-workings of the revolution, which took place between 1977 and 1979.
The posters span from the Revolution’s build-up in post-coup, 1960s Iran to the height of the Revolution to the aftermath in the early ‘80s.
They come in every shade imaginable, though black and red are dominant. Thick text runs throughout many pieces, appearing in Arabic, French and English, among others. Most of the posters feature a cast of heroes and villains that include pre- and post-revolution governmental officials, individuals, and groups of activists and laborers. The pictures depict individuals who are wounded, dead or dying — both innocent and guilty. Some wield AK-47s, others pray.
Several works celebrate music and working-class peasantry, while some criticize U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup that ultimately set the Revolution in motion. Still others contain bold designs wrapped around thick Arabic script.
“They’re the perfect marriage of art and politics,” says Mark Gibney, a professor of political science at UNCA who helped anchor the exhibition.
Dabashi describes the collection as a socially and politically comprehensive view of the Iranian Revolution. It’s a museum in and of itself, he said, “one of a national revolutionary consciousness — a cataclysmic event that included millions of millions of people.”
Steward initially contacted Dabashi, via email, in June 2010 after reading his book Staging a Revolution. The book had information on the Revolution’s graphic and artistic works, Steward says, “and a lot of them were similar to these posters.”
Steward’s message was short and direct, according to Dabashi: He had nearly 200 posters from the Revolution — was Dabashi interested in looking at them?
Dabashi admitted that he was initially hesitant to jump into the matter. He and Peter Chelkowski, a colleague from NYU, had spent years amassing similar imagery from the revolution. They compiled the imagery and wrote “Staging a Revolution,” which cataloged evidence from all sides of the movement, rather than taking a one-sided approach. This allowed for a fully-documented picture and a greater conceptual view of the Iranian Revolution.
“I did the book,” Dabashi says, “and I thought it was out of my system.”
Neither Dabashi nor Chelkowski had come across such a large collection of ephemera, posters specifically, in such pristine shape. “They were all in mint condition,” he says, “and I thought, how do you have these in Asheville, North Carolina?”
“Streets and lamp posts,” Dabashi says, “that’s where these things belonged.” In other words, the posters should be ragged and full of staples, nails and tack holes, not in the flawless, fresh-pressed condition of Steward and Potter’s Collection. Either that or they would’ve been trashed decades ago.
“The posters [are] remarkably representative of the Revolution,” he says. “It’s proof that the Revolution wasn’t from just one ideology.” Instead, there were many factions working together to overthrow an oppressive power.
And these posters didn’t just come from Tehran, he notes. They were made in all regions of Iran and from surrounding countries. They hailed from Eastern Europe to India to London and even Salt Lake City.. “Anywhere where there were Iranian students, they came together,” he explains.
The collection’s geographical and ideological differences are further proof of the movement’s breadth.
The artists and the revolutionaries saw their cause in other movements, Dabashi says. They promoted movements from all over the globe: women’s rights in the Middle East, Palestinian exile and even the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. One poster features an outstretched Iranian arm beside a similarly-posed black arm, both in protest and clad in broken shackles.
According to Dabashi, the collection has universal themes. “They carry … a relation to any movement or ideological revolution,” he says. And because of that, they draw us into comparing them to the present. “What about now?” he says. “What about us?” They encompass the past and inform the present, he says.
Dabashi no longer looks at such collections as stagnate or placeholders of an era. Rather, these collections carry contemporary weight. “It’s a way to touch base,” he says, “to revive the cosmopolitan disposition.”
The lineage of all of the work that formed Staging a Revolution is buried in Stanford University’s archives, says to Dabashi. “It’s collecting dust.”
Such is the fate of many similar academic endeavors. But Dabashi and Steward plan to keep the posters and photographs in motion. They’ll travel from Asheville to Los Angeles, then New York before heading overseas.
During the question and answer session, several attendees noted the shift in media presentation, asking if the digital age had snuffed out print media’s representation in the modern revolutionary landscape.
“I’m neither antiquarian, nor beholden,” he said of the posters’ vintaged, material physicality. “The fact is, the digital age is no joke. It has traction, both negative and positive.” The immediacy and global reach of such social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, he says, is powerful, immense — unstoppable even.
“We must be aware of the material significance,” he said, adding, “but the ideals are the same, only the technology has changed.”
In Search of Lost Causes is on view at UNCA’s Ramsey Library through Wednesday, Oct. 30, the Flood Gallery through Friday, Nov. 29 and Firestorm Cafe through late November. An opening reception will be held at the Flood Gallery on Friday, Oct. 18, from 6-8 p.m. At 8 p.m., the Courtyard Gallery will be screening Chicken with Plums on the top floor of the Phil Mechanic Studios. On Saturday, Oct. 19, Firestorm Cafe and Books will have an opening reception from 7-9 p.m. The evening will feature a brief presentation and book signing by Dr. Dabashi. The events are free to attend. Exhibition catalogs are available for purchase at all locations.