1979 Iranian Upheaval Resonates in “Once at Present”

By Sura Wood

Galleries at Minnesota Street Project showcase artwork inspired by the political and cultural changes in Iran since the 1979 Revolution.

Twenty Bay Area visual artists of Iranian descent mark the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution in a contemporary art exhibition opening in multiple galleries at the Minnesota Street Project. “Once at Present” examines issues of migration, memory, history, the intersection of past and present and the cultural and personal implications of the Iranian diaspora.

“What people will see are similar experiences explored from very different perspectives,” says Taraneh Hemami, a local artist and educator raised in Tehran who co-curated the exhibition with renowned Bay Area curator Kevin B. Chen. “The work holds a lot of power because it comes from such a deeply personal place.”

Several artists recreate a time and place and connect to Iran in a variety of ways. For example, mixed-media artist Shadi Yousefian, who was born in Tehran and came to the U.S. when she was 16, often touches on themes of alienation, dislocation and reinvention. For her series “Memories” (2012-19), she combed through old photo albums she’d made to try to “freeze time,” choosing and cutting out faces and locales that held special meaning for her. She layered the fragmented, faded photos with translucent paper, coating some in resin to convey a sense of distance, and then placed all the images in small fabric envelopes mounted in rows on three wood panel grids. The result is an impressionistic representation of memories grown hazy and dreamlike with the passage of time. “It’s a lifetime of attachments that makes us human and whole,” she notes in her artist’s statement.

In “No, I Never Went Back” (2019), conceptual artist Shirin Towfiq uses 6 of 20 photographs her father brought with him from Iran. “They speak to the loss of identity and place that come with migration,” Towfiq explains. One of the wrinkled images, reproduced in a large format, shows her father peering through a theodolite as he surveys land for a road to
be built in Tafresh, Iran. It’s about looking back, she says, “while also looking at the landscape… and
imagining a future.”

In her work, Pantea Karimi addresses the emotional scars of the Iranian revolution both metaphorically and poetically. To create “Folding Gardens, A Stained Memory” (2017-19), she digitally printed black and white floral patterns, based on a 12th-century medicinal botanical manuscript, on long strips of transparent organza that hang on rods suspended from the ceiling. The installation, a maze of sheer curtains, gestures toward the healing properties of herbal medicine, a tradition reaching back to the Middle Ages that played an important role in her childhood in the southern city of Shiraz. “My idyllic life was interrupted by social upheaval that culminated in a decade of war and instability,” she recalls. Injured during the evacuation of her elementary school, she still remembers the blood stains on the classroom floor. Additional fabric strips depicting red tulips, an Iranian symbol of martyrdom, suggest the lasting effects of violence, and how the revolution left an indelible mark on her early life.

“As a former archaeologist, I am very interested in fragments of the past and how they live in the present,” explains Shirin Khalatbari, who was born and raised in Tehran. For her haunting series “Naught” (nothing), she references ancient Sumerian, Greek and Inca creation myths in which humans were said to have been forged from clay. She took found garments such as a dress and a pullover—each of which, the artist says, carries its own unique story—and painted them with porcelain slip every day for 20 days. The treatment caused the pieces to singe and burn when fired in the kiln, leaving cracks on the high sheen surface of the objects and preserving remnants of detail on the inside. So stiff they stand on their own—they eerily hold their human-shaped forms—the ghostly ceramic sculptures, without hands or heads, convey fragility and impermanence.

“The Sun Will Rise the Next Day,” a video by Shaghayegh Cyrous, who moved from Iran to the Bay Area in 2011 to escape political tensions in her native country, pays tribute to the hundreds of prisoners of conscience in Iran, ranging in age from 19 to 80, who’ve fought for human rights, freedom of expression and equal pay over the last eight years. Women, notes Cyrous, continue to be punished for speaking out against the regime and its policies, whether protesting the mandatory wearing of the hijab or restrictions on public assembly. A list of individuals subjected to repression and hidden from sight in government jails appears on a dimly lit, silent projection; the names only become visible when the viewer stands directly in front of the installation.

The iconic photograph of a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 after the inflatable boat transporting him and his immigrant family capsized in the Mediterranean was the inspiration for “Ascend” (2017), a beautifully rendered, hand-painted animation by Shiva Ahmadi. The story is set in what appears to be an island paradise, where monkey-like creatures are gathered on the shore under a lush canopy of trees. “At first this imagined, heavenly world seems full of beauty and optimism, but the scene soon becomes full of terror,” explains Ahmadi. Fireballs rain down from the sky; rising waters destabilize a boat; bubble-like forms, once objects of play, transform into bombs and grenades; and a young, doll-like boy, initially guarded by a winged figure, floats lifeless on the sea. The narrative’s ominous turn from peace and harmony to deadly destruction intimates that where there are people, war and conflict inevitably follow. “I experienced war and revolution throughout my childhood in Iran,” recalls Ahmadi. “Years later I witnessed 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq…. It’s always the same story: politics, corruption and conflicts destroy lives and create anxiety and instability that linger for generations.”

“Once at Present”

Through April 20
1275 Minnesota St., San Francisco

multiple galleries