Arts & Theater

Art review: Sacramento exhibit explores repression of women

Morehshin Allahyari stands with her creation titled “Like Pearls.” It refers to an Iranian saying that a woman in a hijab or chador is like a hidden pearl.
Morehshin Allahyari stands with her creation titled “Like Pearls.” It refers to an Iranian saying that a woman in a hijab or chador is like a hidden pearl.

Censorship, religion, politics and objects forbidden in Iran are among the subjects explored by Bay Area-based artist Morehshin Allahyari in her provocative show at Verge Center for the Arts.

Born and raised in Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979, Allahyari moved to the United States in 2007. A new-media artist, activist, educator and occasional curator, she has participated in numerous exhibitions, festivals and workshops around the world, most recently in Canada, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post and Al Jazeera, as well as on National Public Radio.

Titled “Everything in Between,” her show at Verge features work from six projects, including 3-D-printed reconstructions of selected artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015 and videos of Iranian women singing solo, a practice that has been banned since 1979 in Iran, where it is argued that women’s voices have the potential to trigger immoral, sensual and physical arousal.

The repression and censorship of the female body in Iranian society is a major theme of the show. In one corner of the gallery, the walls are covered with tiles bearing repeated images from a kitschy advertisement showing a beautiful woman’s face surrounded by flowers. At its center is a computerized mash-up of images and GIFs collected from Allahyari’s Farsi email spam and online underwear ads.

Its title, “Like Pearls,” is a reference to a saying that a woman in a hijab or an enveloping garment called a chador is like a hidden pearl. Because women are forbidden to expose their flesh, advertisements for lingerie take on a surreal quality as sexy underwear is shown on women whose bodies are whited out or covered with busy patterns. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Images and Web art come together in “Everything in Between,” which includes Iranian television clips of women Olympians with their bare limbs covered with black bars and asterisks and altered children’s cartoons. Another segment of the piece is devoted to haunting videos of women singing in mosques as passers-by give them a wide berth. One of the singers nervously looks over her shoulder to see who might be watching. The women’s voices are expressive and beautiful, their faces wary.

At the center of the show are pedestals bearing 3-D-printed sculptures of destroyed images of ancient Middle Eastern goddesses and objects forbidden in a conservative Islamic society. Among the mash-ups of forbidden objects, titled “Dark Matter: First Series,” are a dog wearing a dildo with a satellite dish attached, a cross between a pig and a tank with guns, and a goofy figurine that conflates Homer Simpson and the Buddha. Covered in black nylon, they are more sinister than comic.

The re-creations of sculptures of ancient Assyrian deities attacked by ISIS range from Ebu, a love goddess associated with Ishtar, to Barmaren, a moon deity. Made of resin, they have a shimmery surface that suggests glass or ice, which adds to their mystery. The series, titled “Material Speculation: ISIS” embodies a metaphoric yet tangible attempt to restore history and memory. Inside each artifact, Allahyari has placed a USB drive and memory card bearing files and images of the extensive research that went into her reconstructions.

The exhibition concludes with an animated film that addresses the accessibility of the Internet in a developing country where it is heavily controlled. Titled “In Mere Spaces All Things Are Side By Side I,” it juxtaposes an imagined space poised between the physical and virtual with segments from a Yahoo chat archive of an online friendship Allahyari had as a teenager. As one watches and listens, the conversation breaks down as the connection fails, poetically connecting the failure of technology with the failure of the relationship.

This is a moving and informative show that uses new technologies to encourage us to think about the censorship of women and free communication in a repressive society. Be sure to see it.

Moreshin Allahyari: Everything in Between

Where: Verge Center for the Arts, 625 S St., Sacramento

When: Through May 22. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 12 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Free

Information: 916-448-2985, vergeart.com

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