A Friendly Exchange

U.S., Iran Forge Bonds in Small Steps

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mitra Kavian, an Iranian painter with dangling earrings and a bold silver necklace, did not know what to expect when she and 13 other young Iranian artists landed in the United States on Saturday. She thought the security personnel would go through her suitcase and throw much of her stuff away, damage her artwork and then interrogate her at length.

"What surprised me and affected me was that it was no different than going to Europe," the 46-year-old Kavian said yesterday. "I was welcomed just the same -- and even more."

At a time of rising tensions between Tehran and Washington -- and after 27 years without diplomatic relations since the Iran hostage crisis -- the Bush administration has attempted to break the ice with a series of cultural and artistic exchanges.

The $5 million program began with little fanfare last year with a series of visits by Iranian medical doctors and researchers and a trip to Iran by the U.S. wrestling team to compete in matches before 3,000 fans. State Department officials said they have received no reports that previous visitors had problems upon returning to Iran, making it easier to recruit Iranian citizens for future visits. All told, U.S. officials hope to bring about 100 Iranians to the United States by the fall.

This afternoon, the program will get a high-profile boost when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tours an exhibit of the Iranian art at the Meridian International Center titled "Wishes and Dreams: Iran's New Generation Emerges," the first Iranian art exhibit sponsored by the U.S. government. Rice hopes to meet with the artists and plans to speak about the administration's desire to reach out to the Iranian people. The exhibit will open to the public on Friday and runs through July 29.

The exchange program is managed by Assistant Secretary of State Dina Habib Powell, and the costs of visits are underwritten by U.S. taxpayers. But nongovernmental groups such as Meridian have organized the trips. Nancy Matthews, vice president of Meridian, made two week-long trips to Tehran to help select the artwork that would be represented, working with the Tehran University Art Gallery. Meridian has planned a three-week tour of the United States for the artists that will take them to New York, Kansas and New Mexico.

The artists' visit comes as the Iranian government this week detained a prominent American academic, Haleh Esfandiari, making her the third dual U.S.-Iranian citizen whose passport has been confiscated in recent months in apparent response to the administration's $75 million program to promote democracy in Iran.

"Whatever problems we may have with the policies of the Iranian government, we don't want to put a chill in those people-to-people contacts. We think that those are really important," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters yesterday. "It would be a real shame if these actions by the Iranian government in any way put a crimp in those kind of exchanges."

The art represented in the exhibit is striking. Kavian, one of three artists who agreed to be interviewed, paints bold canvases with vivid shades of blue, depicting dreamlike images of women that include mini-paintings floating in the canvases. Kavian's official portrait shows her wearing a hijab, but the heads of the women in her paintings are not covered.

Golnaz Fathi, a bubbly and enthusiastic 34-year-old, trained calligraphy, traditionally a male-dominated genre in Iran, but has had huge success by over time stripping the letters of any of their meaning. Now, her paintings are mostly black and white, with bold splotches of red or maybe blue, filled with random letters that make sense only in the imagination. "I treat letters like a form, a dance of alphabets," she said. "I like the tension between readability and unreadability. These are the unwritten, unspoken words."

Behnam Kamrani, 38, who produces mystical digital art and video art and teaches university students, said that already the exposure to American museums and artists was invaluable, especially because he could finally see artwork that he previously only taught from books.

Fathi, who had visited the United States once before, said that when she encountered one of Robert Motherwell's massive canvases for the first time, she plopped down on the floor in front of it in awe. "I had only seen it in a book," she said.

Kamrani said the contemporary art museum in Tehran plans to invite U.S. artists to join an upcoming exhibit on peace. "In my opinion, art and culture is ahead of politics," he said. "Through cultural and artistic exchanges we can bring people together."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company