23 September 2003

Iranian Art Exhibit Tours 10 U.S. Cities To Wide Acclaim

Meridian International organized "A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia"

By Phyllis Mcintosh
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The first exhibition of Iranian art to visit the United States in decades is concluding a two-and-a-half-year tour of 10 cities, where more than 100,000 people have viewed it. It has proved so popular, in fact, the organizers are hoping to extend the tour to several more venues.

"A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia: New Art from Iran" features 88 works by 54 artists, 18 of them women. The collection includes oils, watercolors, drawings, and calligraphy and represents styles ranging from Persian miniatures to abstracts, from realistic still life to surrealistic fantasies. Although most of the works have been produced in the past 10 years, they clearly draw from thousands of years of Persian culture.

To help put the art in perspective for American audiences, the catalogue for the exhibition includes informative articles by Iranian and American authorities on Iranian contemporary art, Persian poetry, and the history of Iran.

The exhibition was organized by Meridian International Center, a Washington, D.C., institution that promotes international understanding through exchange of people, ideas, and the arts, in collaboration with the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and Search for Common Ground, another Washington-based organization that specializes in international exchanges. Major sponsorship was provided by Exxon Mobil Corporation, with additional support from the Boeing Company, DaimlerChrysler AG, and the Starr Foundation.

"A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia" reflects Meridian International Center's goal of using "fine art as a language to communicate to people who need to understand each other better," says Nancy Matthews, the Center's vice president for arts and cultural affairs. "It is particularly true in this case, because we have no diplomatic relations, no official way to speak to the Iranian people. The exhibition has introduced the beautiful culture of Persia to Americans, and it overcomes the obstacles of politics, economics, and all those things that are dealt with between governments. This is a people-to-people effort."

Matthews made four trips to Iran and traveled throughout the country, working closely with museum curators and artists there to select works for the exhibition. She says she chose the name "A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia" to reflect the importance of gardens in Persian culture but also to describe the exhibition as "a breeze blowing out of Persia toward the outside world to bring a fresh look into a very ancient culture."

The opening of the exhibition at the Meridian Center, in April 2001, was accompanied by a variety of cultural events, including performances of Persian classical and folk music by artists who rarely perform outside of Iran. Programs also featured films, poetry readings, a slide lecture on Persian carpets and textiles, and a gallery talk by visiting Iranian artists.

Dr. Farzaneh Milani, head of Persian studies at the University of Virginia, who spoke at one of the cultural programs, notes, "There is so much unfortunate misunderstanding and misconception about Iran. To have these beautiful paintings shows another face of Iran to Americans."

Since September 2001, the exhibition has traveled to museums and galleries in New York, Illinois, California, Georgia, Texas, Vermont, Florida, and Michigan and has met with an enthusiastic reception at every stop.

"It opened in New York just days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and thousands of people went to see it," says Matthews. "There were three notebooks filled with visitors' comments about how important art was at a time like this."

The organizers have brought about 20 of the artists represented in the exhibition to the United States to attend openings and hold workshops in several cities. "The different communities have been so excited and so welcoming and have planned all sorts of events for these artists," says Matthews. "It's exactly the kind of thing we like to see happening."

She adds that Iranian-Americans have been especially enthusiastic about the exhibition and have been an integral part of the effort to publicize its arrival in each community. "They are very active, very proud of their cultural heritage, and this exhibit spoke to them," Matthews says.

Having already cooperated with the National Geographic Society to send exhibits of photographs to Iran, Matthews believes that "A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia" will pave the way for exhibitions of American art there "when the time is right."

"All who have worked on this groundbreaking project hope that [it] can build a new cultural bridge between peoples who, as individuals, have had long connections," she writes in the catalogue for the exhibition. "This glimpse of the soul of the Iranian people can help to deepen our understanding of each other. In the words of one of the artists, ‘We all live under the same sky.'"

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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