LONDON – Iranian artists are just one of many groups hit hard by the crackdown on freedom of expression that followed the country's tumultuous June election — a crackdown which continues as tensions escalate between Iran and the rest of the world. Not to mention the country's fierce recession.
But that does not stop them.
Shirley Elghanian founded the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize — an art contest set up in the United Kingdom to support Iranian artists both within Iran and abroad. For Elghanian, it is a crucial time to support individual expression and creativity coming out of the struggling country.
"The events of the past few months have had a great impact on all Iranians, whether inside Iran or out," Elghanian told Fox News. "Any sort of social or political disruption deeply affects art production. For example, the worldwide recession has affected artists with regards to the materials they have at their disposal and the number of exhibitions taking place. This all affects the market heavily."
The Magic of Persia prize recently went to artist Mahmoud Bakshi Moakhar, who specializes in installations involving flags and tulips. Tulips are the symbol of martyrdom, a prevalent theme in Iran, especially given so many young Iranians died in the eight-year war with Iraq, as well as the country's recent domestic bloodshed.
There is a belief in Persian mythology that tulips grow where the blood of martyrs lies.
"Following the presidential election in which Ahmadinejad was accused of fraud, many people went onto the streets in support of (Presidential contender Mir Hossein) Mousavi. Some were killed. They died as martyrs." Bakshi Moakhar told Qantara, an online magazine.
"I covered the walls of the gallery with black cloth, as one does at a funeral. Most martyrs die anonymously and without a funeral, and I wanted to draw that to people’s attention."
Bakshi Moakhar's prize includes a solo show at London's Saatchi Gallery next year, which he said "is great."
"I hope this could happen each year, and better and better, to support young artists," Bakshi Moakhar told FoxNews.com.
Shirley Elghanian said about Bakshi Moakhar’s work, "Mahmoud studied art in Iran and draws inspiration for his works from the political and social issues that surround him. He is truly a brave young man that has poured his heart into his work. We wish him all the best and can’t wait for his solo exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in the autumn of 2010."
One of Bakshi Moakhar's featured installations is called "Air Pollution of Iran" and consists of eight Iranian flags, symbolizing eight years of war with Iraq, and they are stained with exhaust fumes. When asked to describe the meaning, or layers of meaning here, he said he leaves it to the viewer to decide.
Another well-known piece is his American flag doormat, his way of expressing his feelings about the trampling of flags.
"In the Islamic Republic, there are American flags painted on the floor in front of many ministry buildings or other public buildings," Bakshi Moakhar told Qantara. "If you want to get into the building, you have to trample on the American flag. It’s a humiliation which one is forced to carry out. In effect, I was making a joke about it."
Other art that finished with acclaim includes embroidered photographs of surveillance cameras called "From Russia with Love," possibly a reference to the belief held by many young Iranians that Russian technology is supporting the Iranian government.
Art from Iran is a hot international commodity these days. There are many young artists whose profiles are gaining international status. But it is difficult for artists to get their works out of the country. And to get paid, due to the sanctions on banks.
It was hard for most of the short-listed artists in the Magic of Persia competition to get visas to travel to London, because the British Embassy closed down briefly due to political turmoil.
Some U.K. Embassy staff members were expelled from Tehran, and some of the local staffers of the Embassy were arrested after the disturbances last summer.
“It was very unfortunate that some of the artists could not get visas as we wanted all of them here in London for the three day exhibition," Elghanian told FoxNews.
The winner, Bakhshi Moakhar, managed to get his visa.
And the show went on. Given the current circumstances it may be more important than ever.
“By publicizing the works of short-listed artists on a global scale, the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize serves as a vehicle through which artists are provided with a much-needed platform they need on the international stage,” said Elghanian.
“One of the most important goals for us is to foster a relationship between the founding members of contemporary and modern Iranian art and the new emerging artists. Magic of Persia has created a trajectory through which emerging contemporary Iranian artists can gain support and worldwide recognition.”
The finalists were selected from over 120 artists nominated from members of the Iranian and international art community.
Bakhshi Moakhar plays down the vibrance of the Iranian art scene and claims it does not generate much interest inside Iran. That may be modesty, or it may be his take on things.
But abroad, the combination of a growing interest in Iran for political reasons as well as the recognition of a vast pool of talent has made Iranian art in the west increasingly sought after.