Since 1979, tens of thousands of Iranians have lived in exile in the United States. The Iranian Revolution forced large numbers of the population out of the country, and many have never returned. As Persian New Year, referred to by Iranians as Nowruz, approaches many look back on old photos and remember an Iran they used to know. The holiday happens annually on the spring equinox and symbolizes a rebirth in Persian culture. Iranians in the U.S. now experience new lifestyles and culture that make Nowruz’s themes of rebirth more real than they had imagined.
The Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian are giving Iranian-Americans in exile access to a rich history that they left decades ago. The gallery is home to hundreds of photographs by Antoin Sevruguin, a late 19th and early 20th century Iranian photographer. It is one of the most prominent collections of Iranian works in North America. Some of the photos will also be on display during the Freer and Sackler’s Nowruz celebration. The entire collection is also viewable online.
“[Nowruz] is something that I grew up with in Iran,” said Massumeh Farhad, chief curator at the galleries and an Iranian-American. “I think [the event] is a wonderful way to celebrate the beginning of a new year. You realize how important it is to have something to look forward to and to celebrate the idea of renewal.”
In addition to giving Iranian-Americans a space to connect with their past, the event also benefits the Freer and Sackler Galleries’ research.
“During Nowruz, we display the images on a large screen and we frequently get people telling us they recognize people and places that help the museum with research,” said Allison Peck, head of public affairs at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.
There is also an option to contribute details online. In one case, David Hogge, curator and head of the Freer and Sackler Archives, said that the Russian Embassy in Tehran emailed the galleries providing details about visiting royalty in a group photo Sevruguin took in 1933.
The gallery doesn’t intend for the collection to stop at Sevruguin’s work.
“We’re trying to expand beyond just Sevruguin. Sevruguin is good but he certainly isn’t the whole story,” says Hogge. “Our long-term goal is to have a comprehensive representation of early photographic explorations in Iran.”
While the photos serve as beautiful examples of Sevruguin’s technical mastery of light and composition, they also chronicle pivotal historical events like Nasir al-Din Shah’s funeral, as well as daily life, capturing moments like Nasir at the dentist and Persian children buying ice cream.
The Freer and Sackler’s Nowruz event is scheduled to take place at the gallery in Washington D.C. on March 7th from 11am to 5pm. Sevruguin’s work will be shown both days and can also be seen on the galleries’ website. Nowruz proper falls on the spring equinox, which this year is on March 20th.