Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Super Sohrab. Iran's own superman stands in front of Tehran's famous Azadi Square, the site of the country's 1979 Islamic revolution as well as the mass popular uprising of 2009. His cape is a piece of green cloth, the battle armour his own underwear and on his chest is the abbreviations for Super Sohrab in the Persian alphabet. He is a symbol of the contemporary Iranian art world, whose creative wings have been clipped.
"He doesn't do many impressive things," said Sohrab Kashani, the artist turned superman. "He washes the dishes, makes pasta, does the laundry, checks his Facebook profile. He is actually very isolated."
Super Sohrab plays a leading role in Kashani's photographs, videos and comics. His life mirrors that of the average Iranian artist plagued by domestic censors and blanket international sanctions. Recently, Kashani was due to speak at Iran: Art and Discourse, a symposium in New York hosted by the Asia Society and the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. But to the dismay of organisers and participants, gathered to study Iranian contemporary art, Kashani was unable to participate because the US authorities did not respond to his request for a visa in time. Another guest speaker, Hamid Keshmirshekan, an art historian and editor from Tehran, was issued a visa but not in time.
Kashani attended the seminar via Skype and introduced the Sazmanab Platform for Contemporary Arts, where he organises the schedule of exhibitions and lectures, and hosts artists who are independent and look for alternative spaces. In his talk he voiced his frustration at the extent to which the Iranian artistic community has been hurt by western sanctions.
"Sanctions have directly affected Iranian artists," Kashani told the Guardian in a phone interview. "There are certain materials artists here can't find, there are paints they can't buy and digital equipment they can no longer access."
In the past few years, as the US and its European allies have tightened their grip on Iran, squeezing its economic and international movement, Kashani said several artists have been forced to abandon their work.
Iranian government officials, meanwhile, appear to be able to travel more easily. In September, Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, attended a Q&A session in New York held by the Asia Society. "There are sculptors who are unable to work because they can't find the materials and some have instead turned to video art," he said.
Monroe Price, the director of Centre for Global Communications Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was disappointed not to have the two important figures attend the conference.
"In our work on information flows in Iran, we continuously search for zones of creativity. Each zone has a specialised interaction between citizen and state, between creativity and control. Each zone has a different relationship between the outside and the in, the diaspora and the home," he said.
"We think it's important for a larger public to see these processes so they have a more educated sense of Iran as a society, different from the monotone portrayal that usually abounds."
Experts, curators and gallery owners participating at the Asia Society conference echoed Kashani's frustration. Fereshteh Daftari, an Iranian curator who recently put together an exhibition of modern Iranian art for the Asia Society, said the complications of sanctions meant she could only bring one piece of work from Iran.
Samuel Cutler, a policy adviser who has dealt with sanctions in the past, said the import of Iranian artwork is, for the most part, exempt from sanctions.
"Complications on the US side may arise when it comes to shipping Iranian art or paying Iranian artists for their work," he told the Guardian.
"There are a number of scenarios where a gallery interested in importing Iranian art will need to perform activities that may still be subject to the regulations. This would require a specific licence from the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac), which for this type of transaction can take four to six months, though to my knowledge Ofac is always happy to grant such licences."
Cutler said that a major obstacle is a lack of understanding on the part of the US art galleries as to what exactly is and is not allowed under the law.
Shiva Balaghi, a cultural historian of the Middle East at Brown University, decried the resulting lack of Iranian art in the west. "Iran's artists and film-makers are, in my opinion, some of our most important public intellectuals," she said. "In the 20th century they supplanted the poet as the voice of Iranian society. Iranian art, then, both reflects and helps shape Iranians' attitudes on a range of issues."
Sandra Skurvida, a New York-based independent curator and the convenor of the symposium, said many art institutions in the US anticipate difficulties and don't make the effort to bring in Iranian work.
She pointed out that art is categorised as information – which is exempt from sanctions. "This is the kind of meta-space of nominal freedom that we claim as actual freedom," she said."Despite this legal definition of art as information and therefore exempt from sanctions, many art institutions in the US pre-emptively apply these restrictions to themselves."