In Dialogue: Artists from Denver and Iran collaborate across borders

In the United States, the prevailing notion of Iran is one of religious fundamentalism and political oppression. “Iran” conjures up images of veiled women, state-sponsored terrorism, and nuclear weapons; rarely is it connected with contemporary art. “Dialogue,” a new exhibition of collaborative U.S.-Iranian art, opens January 29 at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport. The show presents a very different reflection on Iranian culture and its relationship with the United States.

The two hundred paintings, drawings, photographs, and videos that comprise “Dialogue” are the culmination of a year of communication and collaboration between twenty artists from Iran and the United States. The exhibition was initiated and coordinated by Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari, who came to the United States after completing a B.A. in Communications and Media Studies in Tehran. As an art student at Denver University she devoted herself to clarifying common misconceptions about her home country. After she gave a talk on Tehran’s underground art scene in 2008, students from the Denver artist cooperative Kinda Collective (now called Creative Pockets) approached her about “the possibility of working around the concept of underground art in Iran to confront the misconceptions between our cultures,” according to the exhibition’s website. Soon after, the IRUS (Iran-United States) Intercultural Collaborative Art Project was founded in order to create dialogue through collaboratively produced works of art.

“It is so weird that anytime the name of Iran comes up, many people in America think political not cultural,” Allahyari wrote on the IRUS project blog. “I started IRUS project because I was frustrated with the one-sided, dark image of Iran that American media continues to promote. I wanted to break down the cultural barriers and help to give a more balanced view to Iran.”

In the spring of 2008, Allahyari assembled a team of ten American artists, musicians, and performers, and contracted illustrator Negin Ethesabian, a friend from her studies in Tehran, to head the Iranian team. Thus began the year-long collaboration. Each artist started a work of art and then shipped it to a co-artist in the other country for completion. The exhibit debuted in Denver at the end of March 2009.

While the internet allowed for easy communication between the two teams to coordinate and plan the pieces, physically transporting them was difficult. Because no mail service exists between the U.S. and Iran, works had to be shipped via Istanbul. Allahyari relied on friends and relatives living in Iran to move works across borders, and artists in Iran had to deal with customs scrutiny and avoid attracting attention from Iranian authorities.

Although “Dialogue” seeks to unseat stereotypes, the works that comprise the collection skirt issues of religion and politics, focusing instead on cultural similarities. Andrew Blanton worked with M. Moin Samadi to create a sound sculpture blending Persian and American folk music and poetry, and Richard Burges worked with Vana Nabipour and Shabnam Khoshdel to create a pop-up book illustrating the games and social activities that are popular in each country. In addition to pair-works addressing a variety of cultural themes, the exhibit includes a wall with visual comparisons of Scheherazade and Mark Twain. Early in the project, the Iranian team suggested producing works in response to Scheherazade because the story is a “symbol of peaceful dialogue in Persian culture,” Allahyari said in an email. The American team came up with Mark Twain as the American voice of peace and dialogue.

The works in “Dialogue” also testify to differences in the meaning and practice of art in each country. “In the process of the collaboration, I think Iranian artists were more collectivist and the American artist were more individualist,” says Allahyari, adding that “most of the artworks of the Iranian artists are very symbolic, and that’s not necessarily the case in the West. Artists in Iran are much more limited to express themselves.” But if Iranian artists are more restricted in what they can convey, citizens in both countries are limited in what they can see, hear, feel, and understand about the world. “Dialogue” is a step towards loosening those limits.
Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219-21 S. Morgan St. January 29-February 4. Opening reception Friday, January 29, 7-10pm. Discussion panel Saturday, January 30, 5-7pm.