Paintings reveal nostalgia for the beloved Ayatollah

Written by D Ward and Rosana Hajdari, CNN Rosana Hajdari is Iran’s deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance. She recently received the Most Excellent Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Award.

(CNN) — When Iran’s vice president Alaeddin Boroujerdi asked for an exhibition of art inspired by Paykan cars in 2016, few were surprised that the result was a powerful one.

With the Sharedana car — a World War II British-made, rear-engined, four-seat behemoth often referred to as the “Ayatollah” car — symbolized by the controversial Islamic Republic’s national emblem, the problem with Iran’s national identity in the post-revolutionary era is that it is most often interpreted as, quite literally, a car by the Iranian people.

For decades, the image of the Paykan has taken on a near-mythical status. It’s as if money doesn’t matter and status isn’t material but in some way a godlike combination of fortune and destiny.

Fifty years after the Iranian Revolution, one cannot go anywhere in the country without seeing images of the legendary, magnified Iranian Buick, completely out of context and mangled into something nearly unrecognizable.

The Ayatollah from the Paykan car. Credit: Mostaquez Hosseini

And that’s what makes Shojaian’s exhibition even more interesting.

A lifelong collector of vintage cars who traveled to Tehran to paint the cars, the Iranian artist unveils deep meanings behind the images not only expressed in specific words but also the whole purpose of the car.

“The essence of Paykan cars is to prevent a distraction from the cultural identity of the nation,” says Shojaian. “The Paykan was the national car with a big reputation in its original days. It could work as an appliance, a companion and a private or family car — it’s non-commercial, luxurious, acceptable, safe and durable. All these qualities mean different things to different people.”

Shojaian’s paint job for one of the Paykan cars. Credit: Mostaquez Hosseini

Perhaps more than any other artists of his generation, Shojaian has the ability to relate the idiosyncrasies of old cars to contemporary society.

He explains his affinity for old cars and the Paykan with the example of the Wernher von Braun car. This iconic Bimmer was built in the 1940s as an Americanization of the Persian paykan, with plenty of chrome, flash, unnecessary lights and chrome leaf springs added to the design.

“I don’t think anyone could ever forget the Wernher von Braun Paykan,” says Shojaian. “I feel very attracted to the striking beauty of the Paykan but more important, I really love the car.”

“I don’t think the Wernher von Braun car had a niche, but it provided so much national pride.”

Boasting an almost monumentally unattractive figure with its misplaced tailfins, their square to beige buttons and a grille that appears to have been cooked on a griddle — the beauty of the front-end, however, is nonetheless undeniable.

Paykan cars from the 1980s were also collectible. Credit: Siamak Moustafa/Haber Design

“I like how the Paykan is different from almost every car in the world,” adds Shojaian. “It’s a classic car and extremely unique. It’s not made to look great on the road, it’s made to look great on the plate, with expensive wood and leather finishes.”

At the same time, Shojaian gives it a new layer of meaning by stripping its common elements — the car is restrained in the absence of even a shoulder cushion, it’s ill-suited to an everyday life, yet it’s a perfect fit for the Iranian lifestyle.

“It symbolizes the nation in a very poetic way. After the revolution, the country was much poorer and not able to afford to spend money on luxury,” explains Shojaian. “When this car was built, the government spent all its money on the war, and the country really didn’t have the budget for buying expensive cars. It was always a bad purchase.”

The image of an Ayatollah from the Paykan car. Credit: Mostaquez Hosseini

In the 70s, the Ayatollah car became

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