Maryam Ovissi's pioneering work for the young Iranian-American
By Persis Karim
july 12, 2001
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
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
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,"
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
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 iranian.com >>>