Cecily Cullen consistently brings beauty to the walls of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Visual Art, which she directs, and routinely asks the hard questions lurking behind all that gob-smacking gorgeousness. That’s especially true of the CVA’s latest exhibition, Presence: Reflections on the Middle East, a photo-based show that couldn’t be more well-timed in light of current events.
Lavishly curated by Cullen and visiting MSU art-faculty members Leila Armstrong and Natascha Seideneck in conjunction with Month of Photography 2017, Presence falls right in step with a culture caught in the political line of fire. Through work by twelve Middle Eastern artists — some American-born, some expats and others living in their native countries — the show explores the difficulties of merging old traditions and contemporary life within the Islamic diaspora.
“When someone leaves, they must give up belonging,” Cullen says. “There’s a paradox that you don't belong in either place.” Recurring themes haunt the exhibition in the form of patterned motifs, ancient craft, stereotypes ripe for smashing and meditations on finding that sense of belonging in a changing world.
In the work of Shadi Ghadirian, for instance, veiled Muslim women are reduced to their cultural accoutrements, their covered faces further obscured by kitchen utensils. But, notes Cullen, tiny images of Ghadirian in her studio are sometimes reflected in the sides of those teapots and cleavers, exposing a sliver of the modern woman hidden behind the veil — if you look closely. Other works in the show follow suit by obscuring magazine pages under intricately handcut, mosaic-inspired patterns (Samira Yamin) or overshadowing imagery in meticulously cut and interwoven photographs (Golnar Adili).
Patterning also turns up in Denver-based Iranian artist Laleh Mehran’s more compact version of her room-sized installation "Entropic Order” (shown in 2014 at the Arvada Center). The work utilizes a high-tech drawing machine programmed to perpetually re-create an arabesque pattern in a tray of sand. A statement on how history repeats itself? You’ll have to decide.
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And on a more personal level, Iranian Samira Alikhanzadeh revisits culture clash with a series of beautiful mixed-media pieces in which mounted Persian tapestries are overlaid with old pre-revolution family photos of young women in Western dress superimposed directly onto the glass. “The narrative in the tapestries carries the history of the family before it takes in the new stories of the next generation,” says Cullen. Alikhanzadeh’s work dovetails nicely with Libyan artist Arwa Abouon’s trio of diptychs, which first depict herself in traditional and modern dress, and then in tandem with her mother, before moving on to show her parents together in reversed roles, against an overlay of patterning.
There’s much more to explore in Presence: Reflections on the Middle East, which runs through April 8 at the CVA. In addition, Laleh Mehran will give an artist talk tonight, Wednesday, February 8, at 6 p.m.. Another talk, "Remembering Tehran: A Decade’s Review,"with Golnar Adili, takes place at 6 p.m.
Wednesday, March 29. Both talks are free, as is gallery admission. For more information, visit CVA online.