Maryam Athari

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20242025 Forum on Keywords

Maryam Athari

Art History

Northwestern Universtiy

Maryam Athari is a historian of twentieth-century global art, specializing in Middle Eastern and Iranian art. She earned her Ph.D. in Art History from Northwestern University, along with certificates in Middle Eastern Studies and Critical Theory. Her research explores mid-twentieth-
century Iranian art, focusing on transregional exchanges between Iran, the United States, Europe, and East Asia. She has also worked on the history of modern Iraqi architecture and photography, for which she received AMCA’s 2020 Rhonda A. Saad Prize for the best paper in Modern and Contemporary Arab Art. With experience in curatorial departments at various museums nationwide, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the National Gallery of Art, and the Menil Collection, she is also an alumna of the Center for Curatorial Leadership. Her writing has appeared in the Iranian art journal Herfeh:Honarmand, in, and is forthcoming in Third Text.

Nodes of Connectivity: Jahani and Iranian Modernism’s Worldly Belonging

My project rethinks artistic modernism in Iran by recuperating the Farsi keyword of jahani, which I translate as “being situated in world-space.” My work on jahani underscores the challenge of translating socio historically specific keywords to assimilate them into a universalist lexicon and pre-established systems of knowledge categorization. Jahani reimagines a set of non-hierarchical and interdependent connections between the self and others, as well as the local and global scales of human experience. I foreground how a group of mid-twentieth-century Iranian artists practiced jahani to inhabit and mediate differences with global others by reconfiguring relationships between people, sites, animate, and inanimate phenomena. My project addresses a historiographic lacuna by challenging the prevailing art historical views of Iranian modern art as state-enforced narratives limited to identitarian tropes of Shiite religious icons and calligraphy. Such imagery emerged from the post-coup cultural policies of the Shah when his secular state paradoxically promoted “Islamic Iran” as its hallmark of modernity. Embittered by the coup and the imperialist rivalry between the US and Soviet Union over Iran’s natural resources, jahani artists resisted the ethno-nationalist framework of the Shah’s puppet state, while unyielding to both the West’s universalizing modernism and the Soviet Union’s socialist realism. Through their blend of literary and visual works the figures I study emphasized nature, transience, and corporeal change as sensory representations of being in a world marked by constant flux. Contemplating themes of birth, demise, and the mundane, they treated the surface of their paintings and drawings as a thing of physical substance that engaged with the world and solicited the viewer’s perception to experience the sensible world through their jahani work.