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A Utopian Stage, installation view, 2019. All photos: Sumugan Sivanesan

The Festival of Arts, Shiraz-Persepolis ran for a decade between 1967 and 1977 in Iran. Generously funded by the government, oil companies and the Festival’s founding patron Empress Farah Pahlavi, it was described as ‘…the most important performing arts event in the world’ by Professor Enrico Fulchignoni, director of UNESCO’s International Committee for Cinema and Television, 1975, Afshar 2015, p. 2 [1]. An ‘artistic pilgrimage’ which promised to open cross-cultural dialogue in a post-colonial world, it was held annually in Shiraz, city of poets, and staged at one of Iran’s most spectacular sites, the ruins of Persepolis, a ceremonial city of the Persian Empire built circa 515 BCE.

Held during a period of heightened tensions between the monarchy and groups pursuing constitutional reforms, the Festival was described as a ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ by Vali Mahlouji, curator of A Utopian Stage. Organised under the auspices of National Iranian Radio and Television, a committee of artists and intellectuals sought to invite work from around the world. During a time of post-colonial optimism and possibility, this signaled a move away from European domination and the emergence of Third World confidence, giving way to a fluid exchange ‘across geographies, histories and forms’, on a scale that we might still marvel at today, Mahlouji 2019, p. 5 [2]. However, regardless of accolades, the Festival troubled Iran’s internal security forces, Shia clergy and hardline Leftist organisations and was closed down in 1978. The following year’s revolution replaced 275 years of Shah rule with an Islamic Republic.

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A Utopian Stage, exhibition view, 2019

National Iranian Radio and Television amassed a considerable archive that included videotapes of most festival performances, audio archives of the daily public forums and seminars, filmed artist interviews, photographic prints and negatives, festival catalogues and news bulletins. It was a significant time capsule of this period that was effectively destroyed after the revolution, Afshar 2015, p. 6 [4]. A Utopian Stage gathers remnants of these documents as an ‘excavated archive’ alongside material sourced from artist publications and documentaries. SAVVY Contemporary’s director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung announced that A Utopian Stage ‘explodes’ the archive to explore its legacies and resonances. As an object of study in our current moment of authoritarianism and nationalism, it’s hard not to approach the exhibition, divided into three acts, as an echo of the Festival’s celebrated stage at Persepolis, ruins of a glorified past.

Act I: The Shifting Sands of Utopias: A Cultural Atlas is a timeline/conceptual map that challenges Eurocentric accounts of influences passing from West to East. Clustering and linking together figures, movements and political events from the 1770s until the 1980s it presents a means of thinking history in a non-linear way, and is a significant addition to the exhibition developed with SAVVY Contemporary.

Act II: Shiraz-Persepolis: The Excavated Archives arranges the bulk of the material chronologically and thematically.

Entering the space, visitors encounter a film montage juxtaposing Balinese gamelan Gong Keybar musicians and dancers, the percussionist and civil rights activist Max Roach and singer Abbey Lincoln, a nine-piece Rwandan Drum Ensemble and men playing tombak, an Iranian hand drum. Gleaned from documentation of the 1969 Festival it represents what Mahlouji described as a ‘turning point’ in its trajectory.

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Shifting Sands timeline, A Utopian Stage, 2019

In 1968 the Polish-US pianist Arthur Rubinstein was the Festival’s guest of honour. In a scene captured in Tony Williams’ documentary Sound the trumpets, beat the drums, 1969 [3], he is asked if he was inspired by Indian classical music: ‘This is a music which is folkloric. I am a classical musician. I am belonging to the art of the music, you know. The build-up, the architecture. I’m a transmitter.’ The following year, and in response to Rubinstein’s arrogance, the Festival chose the theme ‘Percussion’, a form of expression arguably less evolved in Europe.

In 1970 the Festival sought to further disengage from Western epistemologies under the theme ‘Ritual and Theatre’, the organisers celebrating Asia as a ‘storehouse’ of ritual and ceremony. However, according to Mahasti Afshar — a television producer and director at that time, whose text ‘Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis or You better believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast’, 2015, [4] is an invaluable resource — it was Polish theatre-maker Jerzy Grotowski who set the tone of the 1970 programme with Laboratory Theatre’s renowned version of The Constant Prince, a religious play written by 17th Century Spanish playwright, Pedro Calderón de la Barca. She describes:

Groups of forty spectators seated inside the Delgosha Garden pavilion watched in awe and dread as Ryszard Cieslak enacted the anatomy ofresistance, anguish and pain with perfect control over every muscle, sinews and vein in his body. Afshar, 2015 [1]

By 1971, Malhouji reflects, the Festival was ‘…operating meta-politically across first and third worlds’. Orghast, a major commission from this year, is a play based on the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods and in this staging was collectively directed by Peter Brook, Arby Ovanessian, Geoffrey Reeves and Andrei Serban. The text was by poet Ted Hughes and linguist Mahin Tajadod, who invented a language based on Middle Persian Avestan and Ancient Greek that reduced speech to sound, arguably comprehensible to audiences as music. As an experiment in pure communication Orghast sought to bring audiences into new modes of consciousness and communion.

In the same year Iannis Xenakis was commissioned to produce a sound and light spectacle for the Festival opening — ‘a visual symbolism’. An electro-acoustic tape composition played across 100 loudspeakers throughout the ruins, fireworks, projections and lasers illuminated the site, and scores of torch-bearing children formed symbols and words on the surrounding hillsides. An eight channel audio mix of this piece was presented in Berlin during the combined opening of A Utopian Stage and the MaerzMusik festival’s major exhibition TELE-VISIONS, a media archeology of New Music on television between the 1950s and 1990s.

A screening program about the Festival of Arts featured in TELE-VISIONS furtherconnected the two exhibitions, nevertheless I can’t help but read SAVVY Contemporary’s positioning of A Utopian Stage as a critical counterpoint. Xenakis, as a prominent figure in both archives, accentuates the documentation practices of such figures now canonised contra to those relegated to the footnotes of avant-garde music history. Illustrating this point, A Utopian Stage places excerpts from Pierre Andrégui’s 1971 portrait of Xenakis at Persepolis made for French television, opposite footage of a Balinese Kecak ritual-dance overseen by Sardono W. Kusumo in 1970. A choreographer who combined local dance traditions with modern dance techniques, Kusumo featured in the 1976 Festival of Arts, and documented much of his work from this period on 8mm film.

With such dialectical designs, A Utopian Stage challenges MaerzMusik to reconsider the kinds of New Music it commissions and showcases. In its fifth edition this year, under the direction of Berno Odo Polzer, MaerzMusik continues to politicise the field of avant-garde music, notably via its discursive programme and opening weekend symposium ‘Circluding History’ [5]. During this, Rolando Vázquez, a scholar and co-organiser of the Decolonial Summer School in Middleburg, cautioned audiences about the ‘cannibalism’ of counter-hegemonic discourses accompanying the ‘decolonial turn’ in European culture (see Frieze, 2018 [6]), as organisations uphold the very histories, hierarchies and epistemologies they are simultaneously critiquing. One might then ask: are the celebrated composers and musicians of today still only to be found within the conservatories of Europe and North America? Where is the spirit of Persepolis now?

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A Utopian Stage, installation view, 2019

Introducing the African Drummers of Joy during Act III: Invocations, Ndikung urged the audience to dance and improve its ‘corpo-literacy’. In doing so, SAVVY Contemporary’s founder evoked the Festival of Art’s emphasis on expressive forms that were arguably restrained in Europe by classical traditions. Egyptian filmmaker and author Jihan El-Tahri spoke of the erasure of the Black history of Egypt’s first pharaohs, describing how music became a mechanism of survival for Nubian people and their culture after their homelands were destroyed. In dialogue with musician Hasan El-Malik, who went on to demonstrate that he too is a transmitter of language, story and struggle, their discussion moved to the current popular uprising in Sudan, which borders Southern Egypt, and which in the following weeks toppled the al-Bashir government [7]. Here was an imminent people’s revolution largely ignored by Western media.

The event closed near midnight with a performance by Jessica Ekomane, a French-born Berlin-based artist who, recalling her African heritage, links ideas drawn from folk and traditional music with contemporary musical experiments. Through a multi-speaker array, Ekomane unraveled and tweaked a polyrhythmic landscape composed of tones, buzzes, clicks, and whirrs. Circluded in sound, obscured in darkness, we were transported.


Sumugan Sivanesan is an anti-disciplinary artist, researcher and writer based in Berlin.



[1] Ghotbi, Sheherazade Afshar and Ovanessian, Arby (2018). Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts (1967 – 1977), detailed catalogue of events. http://www.festivalofartsshira…

[2] Mahlouji, Vali, 2019. A Utopian Stage curated by Vali Mahlouji/Archeology of the Final Decade, (concept notes), SAVVY Contemporary, March 2019.…

[3] Williams, Tony (dir), 1969. Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.…

[4] Afshar, Mahasti, 2015. ‘Festival of Arts Shiraz-Persepolis or You better believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast’.…

[5] A word invented by artist and theorist Bini Adamczak as the antonym of penetration.

[6] Frieze 2018, ‘Decolonial Documents’, Frieze, 29 October.…

[7] Ahmed, S., 2019. ‘Sudan Uprising — We’re On the Verge of History, Even As the World Looks Away’, All Africa, 8 April.…


A Utopian Stage, SAVVY Contemporary, 24 March–28 April 2019

A Utopian Stage, ACT III: Invocations, SAVVY Contemporary, 28 March 2019

MaerzMusik, Festival for Time Issues, Berliner Festspiel/various venues, 22–31 March 2019