Monday, November 27, 2023

A Revolution on Canvas: Nodjoumi’s Stolen Report on the Revolution

When Nikzad (Nicky) Nodjoumi had exhibitions at MoMA and the British Museum, any pieces he loaned them were scrupulously returned. That was not the case with his “blockbuster” solo show, “Report on the Revolution” held at the Tehran Museum of Modern Art in 1980. Over forty years later, Nodjoumi is still trying to recover the work that inspired riots and forced him into exile. From the safety of Brooklyn, Nodjoumi reaches out to Iranian contacts who might be able to help, while taking stock of his life, work, and family relationships in A Revolution on Canvas, an HBO-produced documentary co-directed by his daughter Sara Nodjoumi and her husband Till Schauder, which opens Friday in New York.

While studying in New York, Nodjoumi was an ardent member of the militant Iranian Student Association, protesting the Shah, the Vietnam War, Israel, and the West in general. His wife, artist Nahid Hagigat, was not so sure, but she went along with him for his sake. When he returned to Iran, Nodjoumi immediately joined the street demonstrations, but as soon as Khomeini and his clerics assumed control, he realized life in Iran was about to get far worse. He even joined demonstrations critical of the new regime, which he barely survived.

As a result, Nodjoumi was not actively promoting his latest work. Nevertheless, Masud Shafie Monfared, the museum director, approached Nodjoumi, suggesting a retrospective of his revolutionary era work. When it opened, gangs of thugs loyal to the new regime rioted in the museum. The next day, the state-controlled newspaper attacked one painting in particular with such incendiary terms, Monfared removed it for safe keeping—or so he told Nodjoumi at the time. Soon thereafter, Nodjoumi fled Iran in one of the last flights that left Tehran before Iraq bombed the airport. None of Nodjoumi’s work on display in the museum has been seen publicly since then.

Strangely, Monfared, who now splits between the Sacramento and Iran, could not remember any of these events when he sat for an interview with the Nodjoumis. Strange, right? You would think he would remember a riot in his museum and handling an ideologically radioactive painting that the new regime had so vociferously condemned. It certainly looks like he is covering for the crimes of the Iranian regime, while enjoying America’s hospitality.

For his part, Nodjoumi readily admits the Ayatollahs’ current Islamist regime is far more brutal than life under the Shah. However, he is so laden with personal regrets, the documentary often takes uncomfortable detours, airing out awkward dirty family laundry. Arguably, his judgment as a husband was as flawed as his judgment as an activist.

Revolution on Canvas
is a fascinating documentary when it pursues the trail of Nodjoumi’s missing exhibition art work. In some ways, it is a perfect symbolic microcosm of the Revolutionary government’s war on free expression. You could say Nodjoumi’s exhibition was stolen, just like his revolution. The family angst is not always as compelling. The act of making the documentary was probably quite therapeutic for them, but perhaps some of that could have remained private. Still very much recommended for its insights into Iran, post-Islamic Revolution, A Revolution on Canvas opens this Friday (12/1) at the Cinema Village.