Arts and Culture / News

Allahyari builds bridge between U.S. and Iran with art

IRUS art, Co-Prosperity Sphere gallery, Chicago, 2010

Not long after artist Morehshin Allahyari (MA ’09) came to the United States from Iran in 2007 for her master’s degree in digital studies at the University of Denver, she says she became “uncomfortable and shocked” by people’s perception of Iran.

“[It’s] more than donkeys in villages, women in hijab, the poor and the angry Muslims chanting ‘Death to America,’” Allahyari says.

But she also came to realize something else — something more positive: “I’ve learned … American people … are very open-minded and willing to listen and learn … [and] that makes me want to try harder to present a more balanced view of Iran and the daily life in Iran.”

It might be tough to try any harder than she already has. That’s because much of her work since she arrived in the United States has been spent balancing that view — using art as her diplomatic tool. In fact, her DU master’s thesis was based on bridging the two cultures. That effort, “IRUS Art,” (IRUS as in Iran and the United States) was an intercultural collaborative art show between artists in the two countries.

With help from friends in Iran, Allahyari and an art co-op called Kinda Collective recruited a team of artists in Tehran and a team of artists in Denver. They chose “dialogue” as the theme and then mailed incomplete artworks back and forth and eventually created a collection of finished pieces that includes paintings, video art, drawings, photographs, software, street art and design.

Allahyari says the goal was to present the perspectives of each group in a “respectful, trusting and encouraging” way that wasn’t just about developing art, but also sharing in a “functional dialogue with each other as artists and individuals.”

The artists then developed a proposal with Kinda Collective to present the works in Denver, Tehran and Chicago.

“I really think the process went great,” Allahyari says. “It made all of us realize how we could use art as a global language to humanize each other. I remember how excited all of us were when we got the first works from Iran and realized how close our approaches and perspectives were.”

Allahyari says the teams of artists communicated through email and Facebook. “Many of them are still friends and still talk,” she says.

Allahyari says the Denver show brought Iranian and American audiences together. “They actually talked a lot about their memories and perspectives about Iran and U.S.”

Something particularly interesting to Allahyari was older audience members’ memories from before the 1979 revolution in Iran.

“Many of them told me about their friends or even themselves traveling to Iran and how things changed between our countries after the revolution,” she says. “The older audience talked more about the hostage crisis while the younger generation mostly talked about nuclear energy. The Iranian audience was mostly happy and proud of what we did because they could see what we were trying to achieve and say about Iran.”

As well as the IRUS Art project turned out, Allahyari’s alliance building is far from done. She returned to Denver (from the University of North Texas where she’s earning her master’s in fine arts) on May 13 as a guest speaker at the 2011 TEDxDU event to say there’s still plenty of work left.

“I told the audience about the importance of cultural and art projects in connecting the disconnected cultures of conflicted countries,” she says. “My message was not only on Iran and U.S. and their relationship, but any other countries with conflict. I wanted to … invite people to take action and think what else this collaboration could look like and how they could extend it.”

Lynn Schofield-Clark, an associate professor in DU’s Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies, met Allahyari during a visit to Tehran a few years ago and ended up encouraging her to attend DU.

“From the moment I met her, she impressed me as a driven young woman who was deeply committed to enhancing cross-cultural understanding,” Clark says. “During her time at DU, she was a wonderful contributor … and she often took the initiative to introduce students to her home culture. It’s been a pleasure following her career.”

Today, Allahyari is continuing that career by co-curating another collaboration with Eden Unluata between Iranian and American artists called “Your Night/My Day” on the nature of the dysfunctional dialogue between Iranian and American governments. It’s expected to be completed by the end of fall 2011.

Her animation “Over there is over here” recently won the “Best Animated Shorts” at San Francisico Frozen Film Festival and was screened at the Athens International Film and Video Festival, The Seventh Berlin International Directors Lounge and CologneOFF.

“So many of us have left Iran in the last five to six years,” she says. “We’re a self-exiled generation spread out in different parts of the world. We don’t belong anywhere. So I’m spending a lot of time thinking and writing and working on that.”

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *