Artists explore Iranian identity in Stowe exhibit

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(Host) The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran in the late 1970s, in the wake of the hostage crisis. Since then, there have been exchanges between the two countries in areas like sports and science. Now, a touring exhibition of contemporary art from Iran has come to the U.S. The Helen Day Arts Center in Stowe is the only New England stop on the ten-city tour of the exhibit, called A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the work reflects a nation in transition.

(Zind) As a young woman, Bahar Behbahani is part of a sizeable majority in Iran. Three-quarters of country’s population is under 35 years old. As an artist, she’s documenting a major cultural shift in her country. She says Iran is experiencing an identity crisis:

(Behbahani) ” A new generation is growing up, influenced by Western culture, by the Internet, by satellite programs. I think just now it’s a time that we don’t know where we stand. I think it’s a crisis.”

(Zind) Behbahani says Iran is caught between the modern and traditional worlds. That’s reflected in the 80 contemporary paintings by Iranian artists on display at the Helen Day Arts Center. Behbahani has one painting in the show. She traveled to Stowe for last week’s opening. A small but interested crowd turned out on a weekday morning for a guided tour of the show. (Sounds of visitors discussing a painting.)

The paintings have some common elements – like the use of deep, vibrant colors. But the styles and materials are wildly different. Artists mix and match traditional and modern mediums and themes.

(Behbahani) “Iran is a modern society, beside a very traditional society. Someone paints in a traditional way, classical and very realistic. Someone has a modern attitude and he paints in an abstract style. It’s exactly Iran.”

(Zind) There are restrictions in Iranian art. Nudity is prohibited. Love is expressed in spiritual or platonic terms. Art isn’t used as vehicle for political protest. Behbahani says she doesn’t feel limited by these rules.

Iran is an Islamic society governed by religious law. The country has a popularly elected moderate president, but conservative clerics are the ruling establishment. Behbahani says since the election of President Mohammed Katami six years ago, artistic freedom has flourished.

(Behbahani) “I myself, as a young artist, am very comfortable to work, to make art in Iran.”

(Zind) Marcelle Leahy is on the board of Meridian International Center in Washington. She’s the wife of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. The center arranges art exhibitions between the United States and other countries. Leahy says when governments aren’t in contact, people have to find other ways to communicate.

(Leahy) “And this way it’s artists talking to artists. Average people talking to average people in other countries.”

(Zind) This is Behbahani’s first visit to the United States. She’s spending a few months with relatives in Boston.

Until now, her style has been abstract. But Behbahani says her art is changing. Finding herself in unfamiliar new surroundings, she’s is being drawn to a more realistic, narrative style – as if she’s trying to preserve the memory of her native land as it begins to change.

(Behbahani) “And I don’t know what it is. Maybe my loneliness in the U.S. Something changed in my work. Look at my life, my childhood, my past, my history in Iran. It brings me to my past, my country, my heritage.”

(Zind) The exhibition of contemporary art from Iran will continue at the Helen Day Arts Center. A number of discussions and events are also planned around the show.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Stowe.

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