Iranian Artists Bridge Cultures

Samira Abbassy's
Samira Abbassy's "Birds of Intoxication," an oil collage, reflects the unease of an Iranian living in Britain. Birds represent the embodiment of the human spirit in the artist's psychic self-portrait. (Courtesy Of Samira Abbassy)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran have remained frozen for nearly 30 years, but the ice is thawing a bit this summer in Arlington and Tehran with two exhibits of work by Iranian artists -- from inside and outside Iran -- seeking to bridge the divide.

Late last month, the Arlington exhibit, "Transform/Nation: Contemporary Art of Iran and Its Diaspora," opened at the Ellipse Arts Center. About 400 people squeezed in to view paintings, videos and painted cushions and exchange insights on a country most Americans don't typically associate with contemporary art.

"We wanted to give people a different alternative than what is represented in the media," said Nikoo Paydar, co-curator of the exhibit and one of the founders of Iranian Alliances Across Borders, which co-sponsored the exhibit. Planet Arlington, a county organization that raises awareness about immigration, globalization and the environment through arts and humanities programs, is the other sponsor.

"We felt like there was a real need for different visual representations of Iran and Iranians," said Paydar, a Washington resident.

Describing most Americans' images of Iran as involving "anger" and "a lot of black," she said, "We wanted to give a more diverse and complex view of Iranians and how they choose to represent and identify themselves."

It wasn't hard to find artists who shared that view. A call for submissions elicited more than 150 responses from artists in North America, Iran, Europe and Australia, many of whom came of age after the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic theocracy.

Fourteen artists were selected for the Arlington exhibit, and 12 for Tehran. Four of the artists attended the Arlington reception; two missed it because their visas to travel from Iran did not come through in time.

Artists were not the only ones who had a hard time traveling. In a few cases, the art did, too. Some artists hand-carried their work through customs; despite trade sanctions, U.S. customs allows entry of contemporary art from Iran, said Narges Bajoghli, co-curator of the exhibit and the other founder of Iranian Alliances Across Borders.

But California artist Amir Esfahani worried that his 3-by-3-foot painting would not make it to Tehran if sent by conventional method. So he cut it up and mailed each piece in a separate envelope.

"If not all the pieces get there, that's okay," Paydar said, because Esfahani wants to "document the whole process, that this is how difficult it is to get my artwork to Iran."

Several of those pieces were still in transit when the Tehran exhibit opened last Thursday, organizers said. About 100 people attended.

Bajoghli, a Springfield resident, said she was surprised at the boldness of some of the art destined for the Tehran show, which included a video installation showing murals exhorting women to cover themselves.


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