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

By SAWYER POLLITT A&E Section Editor Photo Credit: Pamela Karimi, Michael 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 that has captured the hearts and minds of readers across the world with its blend of sacred history and legend. In 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 North Dartmouth. And it is here at UMass Dartmouth where Dr. Pamela Karimi (Associate Professor of Art History) and her ARH-359 undergraduates conceived and executed the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ latest exhibition, Contemporary Iranian Art & The Historical Imagination. This show unites two worlds, one world of 16th century antiquity and another of 21st century socio-political commentary on the modern Iranian state. Entering the gallery, it is clear 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 can 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 show covers topics that dominate socio-political thought in Iran. Artwork that represents acts of self-censorship, political revolution, the rights of women and the celebration of Iranian culture meld with ancient motifs and aesthetics. Throughout the exhibit, perspectives of Iran and the greater Persian region are displayed through mixed media, paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture and video works. These mediums cooperate to tell the history of Iran to an audience who’s only exposure to this ancient land may be this very room. However, it is important to note the piece chosen as the logo of the show. Painted by artist Mojtaba Tabatabaei, this work depicts the first democratically elected leader of Iran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, with his face blurred and his mouth obscured by a rose. This deliberate obfuscation represents the coup d’état engineered by the British MI6 and American CIA in 1953 that forever changed the future trajectory of Iran. This painting is placed on the only “ruined” wall of the exhibit with broken brick and crumbling mortar. Which is, according to 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.

Putting it all together

And this exhibit certainly does display century’s worth of art. Through working with curator Hamed Noori and Ars Libri Ltd., UMass Dartmouth acquired 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 to UMass Dartmouth for display. “I learned to just stand and listen,” said Raposa, who spent hours in the gallery working with Karimi to bring the exhibit to life. She went on to explain that it was clear that Karimi had a vision and was meticulous in ensuring its realization. Grechel Rosado (Illustration/Printmaking, 2020) was another student who had a hand in making this exhibit a reality. She was drawn to this project because of its ties to her own capstone research on Puerto Rico’s social and economic crises. She found that the issues surrounding Iran and the Middle East gave insight into her own work, and 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 focusing on the professional aspects of being a fine artist was hugely important to her education. Rosado explained 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. “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 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 not often seen in many university courses. They especially recommended that any student, CVPA or otherwise, with an interest in curation take a course with Karimi. Contemporary Iranian Art & The Historical Imagination is on display until April 1, 2020. Just as Ferdowsi wrote at the end of the Shahnameh, the 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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