By Nazanine Nouri

The first major show exploring the social and artistic role of cabarets, cafes and clubs around the world just opened at the Barbican Art Gallery. Rasht 29 —a private members’ club for Tehran’s artistic community during the late 1960s — is one of the spaces featured in the exhibition, alongside clubs in New York, Paris, Berlin and Mexico City.

Nestled in a small street north of Tehran Polytechnic (now Amirkabir University), the three-story Bauhaus-style space at Number 29 Rasht Street was established by architect Kamran Diba, artist Parviz Tanavoli and musician Roxana Saba (daughter of the Iranian musician Abolhasan Saba) in 1966 for avant-garde painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and filmmakers to freely discuss their practices.


Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art, Installation View © Max Colson

Diba has no idea how the Barbican found out about Rasht 29.  “In Iran, a lot of people talk about it,” he explains in a Kayhan Life interview. “Many used to go there, and have written their memoirs.  At one time, it was banned to talk about it, because it had served drinks.  But in those days you could have a beer: it wasn’t a big deal.”

More recently, “people became very curious, and it was written up in a lot of books here and there,” he adds. “Someone even recently wrote a thesis on the subject and gathered a lot of material.”

The exhibition focuses on both famous and little-known sites of the avant-garde from the 1880s to the 1960s where artists could exchange novel ideas and create new forms of artistic expression.  The exhibition “casts a spotlight on some of the most electrifying cabarets and clubs of the modern era,” says the Barbican’s Head of Visual Arts, Jane Alison.  “Whether a creative haven, intoxicating stage or liberal hangout, all were magnets for artists, designers and performers to come together, collaborate and express themselves freely.”

© Kamran Diba

I’m a Clever Waterman, 1966 Collection Kamran Diba

Rasht 29 opened at a time when there were few places for artists to congregate, in the context of several key developments on Tehran’s art scene: the opening of the Tehran College of Decorative Arts and the forming of a new artistic movement, Saqqarkhaneh, which combined traditional practices and modernist aesthetics to create a new visual language.

Diba and Tanavoli, who had recently returned to Iran from the US and would get together after work in Tanavoli’s studio with Saba and Hossein Zenderoudi, decided to create a gathering place for artists.

The club opened, serving lunch and dinner with a menu of Iranian and foreign food. It had a well-stocked bar, and membership cards were issued for the art crowd, who showed up en masse.

Patrons included such figures as artists Sohrab Sepehri, Behjat Sadr, Sadegh Tabrizi, Monir Farmanfarmaian and Leyly Matin-Daftary; the poets Ahmadreza Ahmadi, Nader Naderpour, Yadollah Royai, Esmail Shahroudi and Bijan Elahi; novelist and critic Reza Baraheni; and filmmakers Ebrahim Golestan and Kamran Shirdel.

Hippies passing through on their way to Katmandu as well as participants in the annual Shiraz Festival also hung out at the club.

“I had this space in my office in a three-story office building,” Mr. Diba recalls.  “I was using the upper floor as my studio for my architectural practice.  The ground level was empty so I thought of using it for artists.  I had been a painter in the US and had had a solo show in a gallery in Washington D.C., so I had this artistic background in addition to being an architect. “

“I discussed my idea with my close friend, Parviz Tanavoli who had a lot of contacts in the art community. When I went back in 1965, I didn’t have a lot of architectural projects and had a lot of extra time, so I thought I would create this club. I hung out with artists more than with architects who were more competitive.”

“Tanavoli was the spiritual soul of the place,” adds Mr. Diba, “because he knew the poets and intellectuals and attracted a lot of them.  So he gave the club a kind of legitimacy.  I could have created a lot of stigma because I was related to the royal family.”

“In those days, there was a separation between men and women and all gatherings among intellectuals were limited to men who didn’t even bring their wives along. I wanted to make a mixed gender club, so we brought in Roxana Saba, the daughter of a famous Iranian composer as a third partner.”

Rasht 29 consisted of a very large U-shaped bar serving drinks and an open dining area on the ground floor where members — male and female artists, poets, musicians and filmmakers — gathered, their conversations often leading to artistic events or prompting developments in their own practices.  “It was kind of a hangout,” says Mr. Diba.

Mr. Diba’s architecture studio was located on the top floor of the same building – the place where he designed the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA), which houses one of the most important collections of Western art outside Europe and the United States. (Mr. Diba would later serve as the museum’s founding director from 1977 until the advent of the Iranian Revolution.)

Rasht 29 was never intended as a gallery. Yet its members’ works were regularly displayed for limited periods across its social spaces, sometimes exchanged by the artists as payment for meals served in the restaurant.

The club hosted after-parties for the exhibition openings of the artists. It also acted as a facilitator of Tehran’s emerging art market, holding a weekly street sale of its members’ smaller works and sketches on the pavement outside the club every Thursday.  (The club did not take commission and all proceeds went to the artists.)

In many ways, Rasht 29 was an incubator for the Iranian modernists. The first-ever auction of Iranian contemporary art was held there, attended by Empress Farah, cabinet ministers and patrons and collectors.

The club also staged poetry readings and experimental film screenings, and street musicians occasionally performed there. Music by the likes of Janis Joplin, The Beatles, The Supremes, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra, which were not readily available in Iran at the time, was played continuously throughout the spaces.

“We tried to do something different,” notes Mr. Diba, “as this was during the time of the flower power movement – a very liberal era in the US. Globalization and the concept of a global village had also been introduced during that time so I had this idea of creating a half-Iranian, half-international place.”

© Parviz Tanavoli

Parviz Tanavoli Heech and Hands, 1964 Collection Parviz Tanavoli

The club hosted parties whenever the American collector Abby Weed Grey visited Iran. Ms. Grey would go on to amass one of the largest collections of Iranian modernism outside Iran, creating a permanent home for her collection at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.

,“Well-to-do people also wanted to come to the club, but we snubbed them,” adds Mr. Diba.  “I had told the bouncer not to let in people with fancy cars. I didn’t want these kinds of people because I wanted the artists to feel comfortable.  This was not a place for rich people.  As a result, we gave some kind of prestige to the art community because automatically Iran’s educated elite realized that artists must be important. Until then, artists were looked upon as craftsmen but then they realized that these people have something beyond their craftsmanship.  They have ideas and they project on the future, on life, on culture.”

Sadly, the club closed its doors after nearly three years, as Messrs. Diba and Tanavoli’s respective practices grew, and they shifted their focus to their own work.

“When I moved my office out of the Rasht 29 building,” Mr. Diba recalls, “I noticed that the level of our clientele deteriorated – it was no longer what I had envisioned it to be.  We were not making money and were just paying our expenses.  People started complaining to me and I realized I couldn’t handle it from a distance and didn’t have the time to go there every day. Tanavoli was very supportive. “

While many more galleries and salons opened from the early 70s onwards, none of them quite resembled Rasht 29. The club remains one of the only art cafes founded and run by visual artists in Tehran.

“Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art” runs through January 19 at the Barbican Center in London.