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Journey between cultures
Artists inspired by life in Iran and America

By Maryam Ovissi
May 14, 1999
The Iranian

Many Iranian artists in the United States have become integrated into the contemporary art world. One of the most well-known is Shirin Neshat, who has presented her Iranianess with a language that has gained wide respect and appreciation.

In this article, I will present five other well-known and upcoming contemporary Iranian artists in the United States. Of course, there are numerous others that could be mentioned, but Seyed Alavi, Hadi Tabatabai, Afarin Rahmanifar, Aylene Fallah and Maryam Javaheri will provide a glimpse as to the range of art and styles being created.

Art categorized according to a specific cultural affiliation be judged within cultural paradigms or what the culture connotes. The primary goal of this article is not to present what is similar among the five Iranian artists, but to reflect the diversity of their work and various forms of inspiration these artists find in life and Iranian culture.

Since 1996 I have founded and organized an annual Iranian exhibition, Evolving Perceptions, sponsored by the Iranian American Cultural Association and Evolving Perceptions, Inc. in Washington DC. I am continuously impressed by the number of submissions and range of work being created by Iranian artists in the United States.

Many of the artists are inspired through their cultural heritage, while others create because of their sheer desire to make art. The followings based on personal interviews with each of the artists.

Aylene Fallah, Washington DC area:

When one meets Aylene Fallah, she greets you with a warm optimistic smile, bright eyes and a voice that always carries a smile. Yet, her work is heavy, tragic and very depressing. Internally, Fallah is processing the suffering and tragedy of the human condition. The manifestations of her thoughts are delicate, contemplative and beautiful works of art.

Fallah is a young and promising artist. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in May 1998. Her concentration was sculpture.

Motivated through the themes and subject matters she chooses to explore; Fallah seeks out materials or processes that will allow her to creatively explore the topic(s). Most of the work explores the human experience and condition, primarily centered around tragedy. She tackles topics that are relevant to Iran and expands them- making them universal. Her choice in subject matter also correlates to questions and issues in defining her own identity and her Iranian heritage.

For example a recent series of sculptural works explore veils, maghnaehs and chadors. She has created delicate and ghost-like life-size sculptures out of tea bags depicting chadors and maghnaehs. Her initial interest in tea bags emerged from her personal inquiry about the importance of tea in Iranian culture.

Her fascination of this sacred liquid in Iranian culture led her to study and look at tea and tea bags through different facets. She says she uses the tea bags (not the tea leaves), because they symbolize the filtering process where as something enters - something leaves. The tea bags are a metaphor for the veil, where perceptions are filtered in and out through the veil, chador or maghnaehs.

Fallah has also been working on a series that deals with the tragedy of war; specifically the Iran-Iraq war. These works appear to be two dimensional, but upon close inspection the viewer finds layers of transparencies, gauze and other raw materials.

How does a viewer approach Fallah's works when it alludes heavily to Iranian culture and history? She remarks that "people bring their own experiences to a work of art."

For instance, at the opening of one of her shows, a viewer who was looking at her series about the Iran-Iraq war, remarked that he had never seen such strong representations of the Vietnam War. He also said that he found it interesting that she used the Arabic script beneath these images although the war took place in Vietnam. Fallah did not reveal to him that the images were about another war and human tragedy, because the works of art were about the same human condition of war, suffering and death.

I asked Fallah about the reaction she receives from individuals who are not familiar with Iranian culture. "If people do not have a connection with Iranian culture, they tend to deal with the work on a material or process-orientated level," she says. "The dwell more on the materials I use, than the topic or theme of the work."

Fallah is the youngest artist presented in this survey and will certainly make her mark in the arts as she progresses.

Seyed Alavi, California

Seyed Alavi is a conceptual artist. His works are manifestations of his exploration of ideas and concepts. He does not use any specific materials or work in a particular style or size. He is best known as a public artist, creating large and small projects for various communities and in non-traditional settings.

Alavi does not believe that art speaks only to a few. Art is a universal language that should be enjoyed and utilized by all. Therefore, Alavi wants his work to be accessible. Alavi's hopes about his art is reflected in a quote by Henry David Thoreau : "I want my writing to be as clear as the water; to see through without my being in between in any way."

Alavi defines his art as visual poetry. He describes it as a building comprised of various layers. The various components or the combination of the components attract different types of people and experiences. He also defines poetry as a dialogue among people soaked in love. His favorite poets are Attar, Mahmood Shabistari and Rumi.

In an article, Alavi wrote: "By creating art works which are engaging and that are formally and metaphorically available to the general public, in short by creating visual poetry, I believe that it is a possible to create quiet places in which we can begin the reintegration of deep and ultimate meaning into our lives." ("The Garden of Secrets and Visual Poetry: The Art of Seyed Alavi" ARTS Magazine.)

Alavi began his higher education at San Jose State University as an engineer and later made a transition to art. He graduated with a degree in graphic design. He cannot pinpoint an event that caused him to shift towards art. He continued his education at San Francisco Art Institute.

Alavi has mostly created art for non-traditional spaces such as highway concrete walls, libraries and even mountain sides. In the last two years, he has been creating more work for galleries and museums. He says most of the works he creates for the gallery and museum environments deal with ideas and concepts inspired by Sufi or mystic poets.

His most recent exhibition at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University, California, called The Canticles of Ecstasy, is comprised of five site-specific installations. This exhibition draws completely from his multilayered definition of art, where each work is part of a whole. When one first enters the de Saisset Museum, they are greeted by the first installation "Search" comprised of large Farsi calligraphic letters painted on the foyer wall which read (translation):

There is water in the well,
yet we wander about complaining of thirst;
The Beloved is in the house,
yet we roam around the world in our search

The foyer also houses a fountain, which adds the continuous sound of floating water, and a mirror located on the upper mezzanine.

Another installation, "Union", houses a collection of mystical love poems translated into English and written on Post-Its arranged along the gallery wall - creating a pattern of waves.

Hadi Tabatabai, California

When I first encountered Hadi Tabatabai's works in 1995, they were full of organic figurative forms filled with fantastic layered colors. His early work spoke more of his world, of his life, of his stories. Then a few years ago, Tabatabai decided that his stories carried no importance and what was significant to him was the creative process. Two years ago his work took a dramatic turn and he began creating works on paper and canvas covered in neutral colors and lines.

Recently, he has begun drawing, carving and weaving delicate lines and patterns. His work is spiritual in that it allows one to remove herself from the immediate material world (from all that is familiar) and become mesmerized in line and pattern. This feeling of spiritual emancipation is also experienced through the patterns of Persian carpets or in the tile work of mosques.

Tabatabai calls himself a mark maker, creating patterns and textures through the use of simple lines and neutral colors. He seeks to be pure and honest with himself and the audience. Although, he finds this to be challenging at times, "because what may have been true yesterday may not be true today." But we are sometimes misguided by comfort and therefore, Tabatabai continuously tries to be truthful with himself and others.

As a child, Tabatabai did not take art seriously. As he grew older, he became aware of its presence and importance. For six years he worked in the industrial technology sector after receiving his bachelor of science. In 1977, he moved to Los Angeles, and began drawing and sketching. With the support and encouragement of his friends, he pursued his interest. For two years, he studied oil painting with Payman, at Payman's Art Studio in Los Angeles. Later, he moved to San Francisco. In 1995 he obtained his bachelors of art from San Francisco Art Institute.

He left Iran at the age of 13, but hopes to return in the next few years. I asked him what he felt was Iranian about his work. He answered, "The fact that I am making them and that I have Iranian sensibilities. Many have said that my work seems Islamic because of the patterning."

Patterns found in Iranian textiles and rugs inspire him. One of his most recent works include the use of string. He began to play with string less than a year ago and wove a grid out of knots (about 3 x 4 feet). He attached the string grid to a previously painted gray canvas. The feeling of awe is overwhelming when one views the delicate nature of the weaving laying flat against the gray canvas.

A biography about Tabatabai would not be complete without acknowledging the importance of music. For several years, he has been studying the accordion. He says one of the reasons he enjoys the accordion is because the whole body is involved in playing this instrument. The rhythms and patterns he hears in music and sees on a sheet of music inspire him to bring the same types of sounds and rhythms into his work. Currently, Tabatabai resides in Berkeley, California, and continues to create art.

Maryam Javaheri, New York

Maryam Javaheri has had the longest artistic career of the five artists presented. She received her fine arts degree from Tehran University and continued her advanced education at New York University and the Art Students League of New York in the early 1960's. Her impressive list of private tutorledges includes important American artists such as Ad Reinhardt, Adolf Gottlieb and Will Barnett. Today, some of the artists she admires are Jackson Pollock, DeKooning and Helen Frankenthaler.

Javaheri has been aware of her relationship with art from a very young age. In elementary school, teachers became aware of her artistic abilities and encouraged her parents to help her pursue this path.

Her art before the 1960's were mostly figurative. Later, in the mid 1960's she turned to non-objective abstract works of art. Today, she continues to create paintings and collages using clean vivid colors, strong forms, shapes and continuous fluid movement. Her work allows the viewer space for interpretation. Javaheri has no mission or purpose in creating art. Even in her creative process, she doesn't plan her work ahead of time. Instead she simply sits in front of the canvas and creates. The colors and composition are composed through an impromptu effort.

Javaheri exhibits in Iran every two or three years. Her past exhibitions in Iran were held at Gallery Seihoun, Gallery Litho and Talareh Gallery. When in Iran, she says that her work is well received mostly by foreigners and those who have studied abroad. In Iran, she says, people do not have enough access to contemporary art. This has kept the arts from moving forward.

Javaheri resides in New York with her husband. She continues to create art and periodically visits Iran.

Afarin Rahmanifar, Connecticut

Afarin Rahmanifar's works explores the issues of beauty and femininity. Non-traditional materials merge with themes of beauty and femininity - the ideal Persian beauty versus American beauty. She uses American icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Barbie dolls with their blond hair and blue eyes juxtapositioned with Persian icons, such as Qajari women with dark eyes, dark eyebrows and long dark hair. Her work is includes layers of mark making and application of collage and wax.

Rahmanifar began her artistic training in Iran with the study of Persian miniature paintings. In 1989 she moved to the America. Art helped her make the necessary adjustments between her two homes in Iran and America.

"As an Iranian in the first part of my life, and now living in America, I feel distant from my culture. This distance has caused me to expose my memories and find a linkage to the past. Art allows me to shift between two cultures, two eras, and two places at once," she says.

Rahmanifar's work allows her to cross cultural boundaries. The medium she uses is also an allegory where she uses rice paper and watercolor to represent the East and collage and oil to represent the West. She uses the perspective angle common in Persian miniatures in the composition of her work, from top to bottom.

Over the last several years, Rahmanifar has been working with several series. Inspired by the "1001 Arabian Nights," her first series is called Shahrzad's Encounter with Never Never Land. "I tried to put myself in her (Shahrzad's) was very difficult for me to adjust to life here in America and I knew that I had to be very strong. I related to Shahrzad."

These works are biographical pieces of one woman's journey between cultures. Another series entitled, Barbie and Legends of Hollywood are not as personal but speak more from a general woman's perspective.

Afarin Rahmanifar teaches art at the University of Connecticut and does freelance graphic designing.

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