This city’s arts venues are lousy with shows tied to Denver’s biennial Month of Photography. Although March is the chosen month, some photo exhibits opened in February, and many will still be up in April — so perhaps this noble effort should be re-dubbed Months of Photography?
One of the early standouts is Presence: Reflections on the Middle East, at the Center for Visual Art, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s off-campus exhibition space in the Art District on Santa Fe. The show comprises more than sixty works by a dozen artists, all natives of Muslim-majority countries. Most of these artists no longer live in their homelands, though, and have immigrated to the United States or Canada.
While the Middle East has been a hot topic for over half a century, it’s become even more heated under the Trump administration, and especially since Donald Trump issued his travel-ban executive order at the end of January. The now-on-hold ban was aimed at specific Muslim-majority countries in that war-torn region — the ones that didn’t have a Trump-branded hotel, golf course or resort, that is. That makes Presence even more pointedly topical and politically charged today than it would have seemed two years ago, when the exhibit was first conceived. To pull off this ambitious show, Cecily Cullen, managing director and curator of the CVA, tapped the expertise of a couple of visiting faculty members at Metro: art historian Leila Armstrong and photographer Natascha Seideneck. The trio wove connecting threads through all the pieces they chose: Everything has been done through some photo-based method, and everything refers to the cultural traditions or realities of the Middle East.
Many of the works deconstruct traditional customs, and they are among the strongest pieces — starting with the work of one of the first artists on view, Shadi Ghadirian, an Iranian. Digital photos selected from her “Like Everyday” series all feature the same humorous and insightful idea for a self-portrait: a depiction of the artist wearing a veil, but in place of her face, she’s inserted the image of an ordinary household article such as a teapot, an iron or a colander. The veils are the traditional type that Iranian women wear inside their homes; the domestic objects were Ghadirian’s wedding presents. The crisp depictions of the wedding-gifts-as-faces create a striking contrast to the lyrical patterns of the delicately colored veils. This work is not only conceptually smart, but great-looking, too.
Implicit in Ghadirian’s photos is the fact that she has dispensed with old-fashioned customs, and Arwa Abouon lays out similar sentiments in her digital photos. In one, the artist, who lives in Canada but comes from Libya, depicts herself in Western dress gazing into a mirror in which she’s seen in traditional garb; in the companion photo, the circumstances are reversed. In “I’m Sorry/I Forgive You,” a photo diptych, Abouon captures her parents wearing patterned clothing against similarly patterned backgrounds. In one panel, her father kisses her mother on the head; in the other, she kisses him in the same way. The patterns are contemporary in design, but the clothing is traditional. Most of the patterns are black and white, which makes the photos seem like black-and-white prints — but they’re not, as shown by the tan faces and hands of the artist’s parents.
Patterns have long been associated with Islamic art, and Ghadirian and Abouon aren’t the only artists here who use them as part of their image-making. Iranian-American Samira Yamin has pierced Time magazine pages about terrorism with tiny, tightly organized patterns reminiscent of screens that she cuts by hand.
Also hand-cut are the photo-based collages by Brooklyn-based Iranian artist Golnar Adili, but her chosen patterns are less intricate, nothing more than stripes.
The most elaborate use of patterning is shown by Laleh Mehran, an Iranian who lives in Denver, in her video and separate, multi-part drawing machine. The video, “Dominant Policy,” uses patterns from different currencies from around the world to create a kaleidoscopic image on a continuous loop; as one gives way to the next, the result is mesmerizing. The drawing machine, “Entropic System,” consists of a computer-driven pendulum that inscribes a pattern into a layer of black sand. The movement of the pendulum is altered by the presence of viewers, and the inscribing process is shown on a monitor behind it. This is a tabletop version of a monumental machine that Mehran exhibited some years ago at the Arvada Center; that piece and an earlier pierced cube at the Denver Art Museum indicate that patterning has become a Mehran signature.
Astounding as it is to find a top-tier contemporary Middle Eastern artist like Mehran in the Mile High City, two more Denver artists working at her level are also included in Presence: brothers Sami Al Karim and Halim Al Karim, refugees from Iraq. The brothers do not work collaboratively, but both obliquely refer to their shared cultural background and experiences.
When Sami Al Karim was imprisoned for his political beliefs by Sadam Hussein’s military dictatorship, he was denied art supplies; among the ways he kept his creative life going was by envisioning the appearance of the sky in his mind. He saw endurance in the vastness of the night sky, and considered how that could be a metaphor for his own survival. In Presence, he is represented by large, murky black-and-white photos of the evening skies of Denver from the “Dream” series, meant to suggest those skies he imagined in Iraq.
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Like his brother, Halim Al Karim was a political prisoner. Here he shows some of his well-known portraits, monumental digital prints in color. In these works, the busts and faces of the sitters have been blurred and obscured — except for their eyes, which are done in sharp focus. In Iraq, the artist observed that during the dictatorship, the only way to judge another person’s character was to look into his or her eyes for signs of empathy or decency, since the wrong word spoken to the wrong person could lead to arrest or even death; traditional dress for women also hides all but the eyes. These portraits capture that cautionary narrative, but they also function well on a purely visual level, since they display the photographer’s keen sense for composition and his eye for elegantly combining colors. The juxtaposition of the amorphous surroundings with the hyperrealist details results in a pop-surrealist vibe.
The timing of Presence, part of MoP in the age of Trump, is ideal. But that’s only one of the reasons this show deserves your attention in this photo-heavy month.
Presence: Reflections on the Middle East, through April 8 at MSUD Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, 303-294-5207, msudenver.edu/cva.