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Women, life, freedom, art

Local artists respond to the conditions of women in Iran

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Art as Activism 1

Following the death of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly in September 2022, protests have engulfed Iran. The terrible conditions that women face in Iran have inspired many to take to the streets — these protests being the most widespread challenge to the Iranian government since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The “Art as Activism” exhibit, now showing at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, highlights four local Iranian artists and their responses to the crisis enveloping their home country: Audineh Asaf, Nakisa Dehpanah, Sadaf Sadri, and Parmida Ziaei.

The most visually intense piece of the group is created by Sadri, a UW doctoral student. They splice together the famous “Buy the World a Coke” advertisement with a video explaining an international tool of revolution — the Molotov cocktail.

A firebomb created from a fuel-filled glass bottle, Sadri combines videos of the iconic symbol of insurgence from its use in Iran to the war in Ukraine to the streets of the United States. The juxtaposition of the global, diverse imagery from the Coke advertisement and the videos of international resistance represents a striking, cross-continental statement of solidarity.

Asaf’s “Woman. Life. Freedom.” series is a haunting set of mixed media works, combining discolored images of protest, graffiti, and other symbols that flow seamlessly into each other. The works take on a dreamlike feeling, as images of Iranians expressing themselves freely and protesting cast shadows on walls covered with revolutionary song lyrics and slogans of resistance.

Asaf, a UW alum, has been working to put together Iranian art exhibits across the country. The fact that this was the only exhibit on this topic in Washington shocked her.

“The art world says they want people to be free, but if they're not helping to promote human rights and freedom for all it’s a big oversight,” Asaf said. “They're supposed to be cutting edge and keeping up with what's going on currently, and giving visibility to artists that are creating work around these movements.”

Both Asaf and the Jacob Lawrence Gallery are motivated to feature Iranian artists due to the lack of knowledge and coverage surrounding this issue for American audiences.

“People are desensitized to all of the terrible things happening in the world, and I think that's why art is so important,” Asaf said. “It really does mitigate the desensitization, and it helps people feel a connection on an emotional level.”

Asaf’s father was born and raised in Iran, and left shortly before the revolution in 1979, initially believing the political strife would blow over. More than 40 years later, he has yet to return. Asaf has never been to Iran out of fear that the government could easily prevent her return to the United States, causing a difficult disconnect from her family and culture.

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“I was definitely energetically connecting with the protesters, and artists often have to do that in order to make the work resonate,” Asaf said. “But I was also really trying to honor them and portray them in a way that they would want to be seen.”

Asaf described how the imagery of the protests consumed her. Specifically, a video of a woman in a pink dress, her hair down and dancing in the street, was the initial inspiration for her works.

The motifs of dancing and hair are present throughout all the artists’ pieces, each with great significance — since the 1979 revolution, dancing in public has been illegal. Thus, throughout the protests, dancing has held importance as an act of resistance against the Iranian government.

“Dance in Iran is such an important part of the culture, and the fact that it's considered immoral by the government, it is taking away something that's so important — the ability for them to express themselves,” Asaf said.

Ziaei, another artist showcased in this exhibit, demonstrated the power of dance in her performance piece “Journey.” “Journey” presents the conflicting emotions involved in deciding between immigrating or staying, and what it means to leave a life behind or to stay and fight.

Dehpanah, a digital artist featured in the exhibit, created the dynamic backgrounds of Ziaei's performance. Dehpanah’s work was mainly composed of collages, brought together with Arabic calligraphy that allowed names of the dead and revolutionary songs to form women’s hair and fields of tulips.

According to assistant curators Amelia Ketzel and Sofia Gerrard, the gallery hopes that this exhibition will become the first in a series of exhibits under the “Art as Activism” name, each highlighting art in social movements and continuing on the social justice spirit of the gallery’s namesake.

“Art as Activism” will run Feb. 14 through Feb. 25, with an artists’ talk event on Feb. 22.

Reach contributing writer Theron Hassi at Twitter @theronhassi

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