Photo exhibit explores Middle East culture

Editor’s note: An article published in The Metropolitan on Feb. 8 misinterpreted the Presence: Reflections on the Middle East exhibition at the Center for Visual Art. Through photography, the exhibition explores the presence and absence of people, the influence of culture, the repetition of pattern and the idea of trace in photography – the idea that photos can hold memories of the past. The Metropolitan regrets the error.

Middle East

Left to Right: Artist Samira Yamin and co-curator Leila Armstrong discuss with a friend the success of the opening night of Presence: Reflections on the Middle East in Denver on Jan. 3. Photo by Kylie Henson •

The Center for Visual Art was brightly illuminated for the opening of the Presence: Reflections on the Middle East exhibition on Feb. 3, 2017.

The walls were covered in pieces of varying mediums, but all reflected the tension inherent in the presence, or absence, of people in a place, whether in their native land or abroad.

Two MSU Denver professors and the managing director/curator of the CVA organized the exhibition, which runs through April 8. The works explore an aspect of the Middle Eastern experience unknown to most Americans: what it means to leave something, and in some cases, someone, behind, whether by choice or by force, and how cultural heritage and the past are interwoven with the present.

Presence: Reflections on the Middle East was conceptualized at the end of 2015, but has become even more relevant in the current political environment.

“It is extremely timely, and I’m really glad we put this exhibition together. Obviously we did not predict what was going to happen, but it just feels like an important time to show the work,” said Natascha Seideneck, co-curator and a visiting professor of photography at MSU Denver.

While the curators of the exhibition downplayed the presence of politics, some art was inspired by political events and history. The show’s content deals with war and the inequality between the sexes, and features some non-politicized pieces – on generational gaps, for example.

Leila Armstrong, one of the curators, said that many of the artists have lived through major historical events and been impacted by geopolitical decisions. Each piece of art has its roots in the life experiences of each artist and the geopolitical tumult they experienced.

One example is Golnar Adili. “She was born in Iran,” Armstrong said. “Her father fled the Iranian revolution to the United States. Her mother could not come. So, she had to split her childhood between the two.”

These experiences found their way into Adili’s artistic expression.

“As an Iranian growing up in post-1979 Tehran, I have experienced separation and uprooting in its different manifestations. In my art, I decode the ways in which these events have marked me through poetry, craft and the body,” Adili wrote in an artist profile for the exhibition.

Artist Samira Yamin uses war photography and sacred Islamic geometries as a critique of the West’s perspective on the Middle East. She cuts out intricate patterns important in Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures using war photography, Time magazines and negatives that belonged to her grandfather. She dissects and often obliterates and distorts them using her own geometric systems.

“I’ve been having a conversation about war photography and the representation of the Middle East, and how the representation of the Middle East actually leads to war, not the other way around,” said Yamin, who was born in Evanston, Illinois, but now lives in Los Angeles.

Laleh Mehran, who moved to the U.S. from Iran when she was a child in the 1970s, works in electronic, time-based media. She uses a combination of many mediums, including video and motion-censored pieces, to create her desired effect. Mehran, a professor and graduate director in the Emergent Digital Practices program at the University of Denver, has shown her works about dissent, exile, intersectionality of politics, religion, science and art all over the globe.

The Presence exhibition features 12 artists of varying ages and nationalities who were affected by the Middle Eastern diaspora of the past 20 years. Some artists fled the Iranian revolution in the 1970s. Others were born in the United States, but still have family and friends in the Middle East.

Through controlling placement and context of the figure, along with the subtleties of obscurity, the artists preserve identity, relationship and agency.

“What makes Presence really interesting is that it offers a glimpse into the artists’ creative thinking and practice informed by cultural heritage more so than geography or age,” said Cecily Cullen, CVA managing director and curator. “Each artist can share a story about how geopolitical issues have affected their families and customs, and ultimately informed their artistic work.”

The collection also shows the variation of Middle Eastern cultures as well as the stark contrast between modern and traditional cultures in the Middle East.

“An exhibition like this can provide an avenue for empathy,” Cullen said.

Author: Mady Smarr

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