Advocartsy pop-up honors the diversity and complexity of Iranian women

By Stephanie Case

Part of “Art Brief III: The (Un)Draped Woman,” mixed media artist Shadi Yousefian’s “Social Identity” engages and subverts cultural assumptions

Two years ago, Roshi Rahnama looked at Los Angeles and saw something missing: the art of her own culture.

The city is home to the largest population of Iranians outside of their home country, but within the walls of L.A.’s art galleries there was no sustained platform for the vibrant Iranian creative scene that Rahnama, an arts advocate and museum consultant, knew so well.

Her solution was “Art Brief,” a series of public pop-up exhibitions run by her organization, Advocartsy, that exclusively feature contemporary works from Iranian artists around the globe. “Art Brief III: The (Un)Draped Woman,” the series’ third show, opens this Thursday at Santa Monica’s Arena 1 Gallery.

As its title suggests, the exhibit focuses on depictions of Iranian women in all of their diversity and complexity.

“You can’t put the image of the Iranian woman in a box,” says Rahnama.

Sandra Williams, the assistant curator of the Art of the Middle East Department at LACMA, agrees.

“External appearances, whether fully exposed or not, are rarely a gateway to comprehending female identity,” she writes. “These artists seek to capture a deeper truth: that identity is ever-changing, and what is publicly presented is only a partial expression, if that, of each woman’s — or man’s — true sense of self.”

In “The Earth is But One Country (Eastern Bred, Southern Fed),” a woman lies on a couch with a fedora obscuring her face, her skin an artificial tangerine hue. It’s a portrait by Amir Fallah, a Highland Park-based Iranian-American painter who intentionally subverts the conventions of portraiture.

“I never paint their skin color the natural skin color; it’s always some sort of artificial color,” Fallah says. When it comes to ethnicity, skin color, gender and age, “I don’t think that stuff tells you much of anything who a person is.”

LEFT: Artist in exile Firouz Farman-Farmaian’s “A Woman with a Veil
in Purple” evokes ancestral tales passed down by his grandfather
RIGHT: Los Angeles photographer Hadi Salehi’s “Surrender”
is dreamy and surreal

Instead, he lets her personality tell the story. She’s surrounded by objects that unveil the depth of her identity: an antique hatchet; a Navajo-patterned blanket; a framed photograph of Baha’u’llah, the religious leader of the Bahá’í Faith. It hints at the life of a very interesting woman, straddling traditional Iranian culture and a love of Americana.

The real Iranian woman who inspired the portrait — a friend of Fallah’s named Mitra — drives a pickup truck, loves Waylon Jennings songs, frequents food-eating championships and has a tattoo of a hotdog on her thigh.

“She has this very spiritual side,” Fallah says, “but then the next day, she’s buying a Harley and seeing a country band play in Anaheim.”

For photographer Hadi Salehi, born in northern Iran and now an Angeleno, the Iranian woman that sparked his artistic inspiration was a near stranger.

“She showed up for 15 minutes for the shoot and then left,” he remembers.

Their fleeting encounter is permanently captured in “Surrender,” an analog photograph taken with a large-scale camera. Salehi layered the woman’s portrait with another image, soaking her figure in a warm, distorting glow.

“The mix with the other materials makes her quality, her beauty, a little more surreal and dreamy,” almost spiritual, he says. “Maybe women are sacred, in my mind. My mother: she suffered through her life, compromising a lot, just to bring me up as a human being. So women have a special place in my heart.”

For artist Firouz Farman-Farmaian, “A Woman with a Veil in Purple” is his ode to a woman he never knew. An Iranian exile who’s spent his life residing across Europe, Firouz is drawn to historical images of 19th-century Iranian nomads, imagining the lives of women long before him, drawn from the ancestral tales passed on by his grandfather.

When he stumbled upon an old photograph of a Qajar-era woman cloaked in a ceremonial veil and crown, it reminded him of his great-grandmother, “a woman that was always a figment of stories and memories, who came through the generations to me,” he says.

In “A Woman with a Veil in Purple,” he shapes that archival image into his imagination of the past, colored with oil pastels and drenched in a dreamy indigo pigment, giving it an air of imagination.

“I’ve always wanted to address the position of the woman in the Muslim world, especially the woman of the nomadic tribes,” he says. “These women, for a long time, have been put in the shadow.”

With 11 other artists presenting their own visions of Iranian women, curator Roshi Rahnama hopes that the collection as a whole helps attendees question and broaden their own cultural perceptions.

“To take in such a vast array of representations of these women and their experience, and to be exposed to diverse versions of their reality, can thereby expand our reality,” she says.

“Art Brief III: The (Un)Draped Woman” opens with a reception from 7 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9, and continues from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Feb. 18 at Arena 1 Gallery, 3026 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. A closing reception and talk happens from 3 to 5 p.m. on Feb. 18. For more information, call (310) 820-8529 or visit advocartsy.com.