Modern perspectives on an ancient land: CVPA unveils Contemporary Iranian Art & The Historical Imagination 


A&E Section Editor 

Photo Credit: Pamela KarimiMichael Kilbride, Gabriella Barthe 

 “I’ve reached the end of this great history and all the land will fill with talk of me. I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save my name and reputation from the grave.” – Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi, 940-1020 C.E.  

This line ends the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, an epic poem which has captured the hearts and minds of readers across the world with a blend of sacred history and legendIn the centuries since its inception, the Shahnameh has become the backbone of Iranian literary and cultural canon. Even today this national epic, on par with the Iliad and the Odyssey, inspires artists and poets alike from Tehran all the way to UMass Dartmouth. 

And it is here at UMass Dartmouth where one can find Dr. Pamela Karimi (Associate Professor of Art History), her ARH359 undergraduates, and the CVPA’s latest exhibition Contemporary Iranian Art & The Historical ImaginationThis show seamlessly unites two worlds, one of 16th century antiquity and another of 21st century socio-political commentary on the modern Iranian state.  

Walking into the gallery, one can see that this show is designed with a purpose. Jagged and off-kilter geometric shapes painted on the walls of the space break-up the stark white surfaces normally found in an art gallery. A quiet stream of water is heard from a video installation in the back room, and it is almost as if one has left UMass Dartmouth and entered a space all its own.  

 The content of Contemporary Iranian Art & The Historical Imagination is almost too involved to mention in text. The show covers topics ranging from the phenomenon of self-censorship, political revolution, the military industrial complex, the rights of women, and the celebration of Iranian culture.  

Throughout the exhibit, perspectives of Iran and the greater Persian region are displayed through mixed media, paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, and video works. These all work together to tell the history of Iran to an audience who’s only exposure may be the very room they’re standing in.  

However, it is important to note the piece chosen as the logo of the show. Painted by artist Mojtaba Tabatabaei, this work depicts the democratically elected leader of Iran Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with his face blurred and his mouth obscured by a rose. This represents the coup d’état engineered by the British MI6 and American CIA in 1953 that affected the future trajectory for the nation of Iran.  

This painting is placed on the only “ruined” wall of the exhibit with broken brick and crumbling mortar. Which is, as explained by Karimi, a callback to 19th century orientalism. A style that depicts the Middle East as a land forgotten by time, exotic and dangerous. This intentionally contradicts with the message of the show, celebrating the diversity of Iranian culture and art through the centuries. 

And this exhibit certainly does display century’s worth of art. Through working with curator Hamed Noori and Ars Libri Ltd. the university was able to acquire two examples of illuminated manuscripts dating from the 16th century. These beautiful miniatures along with other priceless artifacts act as a historical cornerstone which supports the contemporary art displayed alongside it in the show.   

Cynthia Raposa (Art History, 2021) was the student entrusted to assist with the handling and transportation of these artifacts. She worked directly with artists to bring the pieces from storage in Boston and in private collections to UMass Dartmouth to be displayed.  

Raposa, who worked closely with Karimi, was also able to share valuable and eloquent insight about the show and Karimi’s process when designing it. “I learned to just stand and listen” said Raposa. She went on to explain that it was clear that Dr. Karimi had a vision and was meticulous in ensuring its realization.  

The Torch had the opportunity to sit down with several other students from Dr. Karimi’s class, Art and Politics in the Middle East to discuss their involvement with the show. The Torch spoke to them about what drew them to this class, the task of installing an exhibition, and their own experiences with the CVPA and Art History. 

 Grechel Rosado (Illustration/Printmaking, 2020) was drawn to the class because of its ties to her own capstone research concerning Puerto Rico’s social and economic crises. She found that the issues surrounding Iran and the Middle East gave insight into her own work, as well allowed her to expand her view of the world to a region often misunderstood by Americans.  

Rosado’s involvement included painting the walls with geometric patterns and speaking at the opening reception. When asked about the class Rosado explained that having a course that focused on the professional aspects of being a fine artist was immensely important to her education. Rosado went on to explain that classes teaching professional skills like how to lay vinyl lettering and hang paintings are desperately needed, yet sadly lacking in the CVPA.  

Noah Tavares (Photography, 2021) spoke to the torch about some of the challenges he faced when working on a fully fledged art exhibit. He told the Torch “It was at times challenging working with a professor who has such experimental visions for exhibit design.” Tavares went on to say that it was rewarding however to work in an environment that pushes creative boundaries in a way not often encountered by students.  

Regardless of the student or their role within the show, one thing they all had in common was a genuine enjoyment and interest in the content of the class that is rarely seen in most university courses. They especially recommended that any student, CVPA or otherwise, with an interest in curation take a course with Dr. Karimi.  

Contemporary Iranian Art & The Historical Imagination is on display until April 1, 2020. This reviewer cannot express enough how impactful and important this show is. I recommend that everyone with even the slightest interest in Iranian art contemporary or otherwise, should check out this wonderful exhibit. Just as Ferdowsi wrote at the end of the Shahnamehthe history of the Persian region will be remembered, in this case through artwork that continues to be made to this day.   

The CVPA campus gallery is open from 10:00am to 4:00pm Monday through Thursday, and 10:00am to 12:00pm on Friday.  

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