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Maryam Ovissi's pioneering work for the young Iranian-American community

By Persis Karim
july 12, 2001
The Iranian

In the last several years, individual Iranian-Americans have begun to make their mark in every aspect of American life -- everything from literature, architecture, film, music, to the visual arts. While this emerging presence has much to do with the slowly-fading memories of events and tense relations between the United States and Iran, little has been made of the fact that children of immigrants have largely begun to pioneer an entirely new culture for Iranians living in North America.

Some folks may still feel uneasy with the term "Iranian-American," but many of us have begun to see and appreciate the necessity of distinguishing ourselves from our immigrant parents. And though the experience of living most, or all our lives in the United States may have challenged our parents' perceptions of our "Iranian-ness," the emerging generation of writers and artists who draw on both Iranian and American roots has lent a new understanding of the evolution of Iranian culture abroad.

One of the many pioneering individuals who has contributed to this evoltion is Maryam Ovissi, the daughter of a well-known artist, Nasser Ovissi, who has earned a reputation in her own right as artist, curator, and, more recently, as owner of Gallery Ovissi in Emeryville, California. Since 1998, Ovissi and her husband and partner, Daryl Pendleton, have dedicated themselves to creating the first gallery in the U.S. to feature the work of Iranian, Iranian-American and other artists of Middle Eastern origin.

Ovissi, who came to the U.S. after the revolution with her family, had an early introduction to art through her prolific painter father. Hers was a world steeped in paint, color, and the vivid images of an old and ancient culture captured in her father's work. But as she grew up in Washington D.C., she saw her own interest in art develop into a kind of companionship and intimacy that grounded her in this country.

Ovissi attended college at James Madison University and graduated with a degree in art history. "It was there that I began seeking out scholarships that supported Iranians in the arts," Ovissi said, "but no such support or scholarships existed. Those were the early seeds of my ideas for how to make Iranian-American artists visible." Ovissi pursued a master's degree in arts management from Boston University and maintained a strong interest in Iranian art and the work of Iranian artists in the United States.

In 1996, Ovissi along with several other D.C.-based painters, sculptors and curators, established "Evolving Perceptions," an organization whose mission is to curate and exhibit the work of Iranian and Iranian-American artists as well as to provide support and networks for artists. "It was through Evolving Perceptions that I discovered how much talent was out there and I increasingly felt that I wanted to not only curate exhibits but to create a space that would commit itself to displaying Iranian and Iranian-American artwork."

In 1998, Ovissi and Pendleton relocated to Northern California where Ovissi took a job at the Persian Center in Mountain View. "I knew that I wanted to be involved in creating and building institutional support for Iranian culture in this country," said Ovissi, "and little by little I was led back to my roots as an artist." When Ovissi and Pendleton were searching for housing, they happened upon some newly-converted warehouses in the small Bay Area town of Emeryville; it was then and there that Gallery Ovissi was born.

For many of us who have passed through Maryam and Daryl's cozy three-story warehouse space, Gallery Ovissi was more than a home for these two people. It was a spiritual place where we began to see our own reflections and where our individual contributions as writers, artists, musicians, would find a collective voice and vision where previously there had been none.

When the book I edited was published in the spring of 1999, Ovissi generously hosted a reading of and arranged for a musical performance by jazz saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh. The enthusiasm at this event was like so many other events I attended at the gallery: Bay Area Iranian-Americans found themselves surrounded with interesting, warm people and walls adorned with beautiful art. We felt honored, welcomed, and celebrated by Ovissi and Pendleton. It was there that we truly began to feel that we had a community.

Sadly, this month, after three long hard years of work, the owners of Gallery Ovissi will be closing their doors to relocate to Washington, D.C. where they will begin another chapter of their lives. While we feel sad for the loss of this unique Bay Area-haven for Iranian-Americans and their artistic contributions, we celebrate the accomplishments of Ovissi's pioneering efforts not just in this community, but across the country.

Like so many other individual Iranian-Americans who have become visible through their writing, speaking, filmmaking, etc., Ovissi has raised the consciousness of Americans and Iranians alike. "I think the most important contribution of the gallery is one of education and awareness," said Ovissi. "Even if people never actually viewed any of the work we displayed here, there was a sense that there was something unique about Iranian art and there was a space to highlight that uniqueness," Ovissi added.

In addition to cultivating an audience for this work, Ovissi believes the gallery made it possible for artists to see themselves as part of a larger movement and community. "In a sense we helped to build a positive identity for these artists where previously they were working in isolation," said Ovissi.

While Gallery Ovissi will be closing its actual doors this month, its virtual ones will soon open on the internet. Ovissi's move to Washington D.C. will enable her to continue the work she started five years ago with Evolving Perceptions and the gallery will, in the future, become a virtual, online gallery under the auspices of Evolving Perceptions. The hope is that the website will introduce the work of Iranian and Iranian-American artists every eight weeks to an international audience. "While we'll miss the actual physical space of the gallery and the opportunity for audiences to interact with the art in its physical environs," says Ovissi, "the digitized images of Gallery Ovissi online, will help our artists to gain a global audience."

Ovissi's contributions to the Bay Area extend beyond her proprietorship of the gallery. She also committed a portion of her time to the Asian Art Museumof San Francisco where, under the auspices of the New Asian Project, she made it her personal goal to have the museum make a commitment to integrating Persian and West Asian culture and art into its programming and exhibition planning.

When Ovissi started work with the New Asian Project Office, there was no Persian Art Gallery in the architectural plans for the new museum. As she departs the Bay Area, she happily can report that designers have integrated a Persian and West Asian Art Gallery into the plans. "This is one of the greatest personal accomplishments I have been able to make in the Bay Area," says Ovissi.

Ovissi and Pendleton will be moving to D.C. in the middle of July and Ovissi plans to actively pursue and expand the goals of Evolving Perceptions as it continues to build a strong base of support for Iranian-American artists. In addition to curating a major exhibit of Iranian women's art for the California State University system for 2003, she also intends to build and promote the Iranian Artist's Scholarship -- a newly established fund founded by Ovissi, Pendleton, and a group of donors. The first recipient of this scholarship fund was awarded to Amir Fallah, an art student at the Maryland College of Art in February 2001.

Although we'll all miss the exhibits, readings, lectures, and parties at the Gallery on Park Avenue in Emeryville, we can rest assured that Ovissi will dedicate herself to newer and bigger endeavors in service of our community and the artistic contributions of Iranians and Iranian-Americans. Thank you Maryam and Daryl for making so much physical and spiritual beauty possible.


Persis Karim is co-editor of "A World Between: Poems Stories and Essays by Iranian-Americans" (George Braziller, 1999) featured in >>> See here

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