Traces of Being, Iran in the Passage of Memories

Anna Scott
Los Angeles Downtown News
Sep 18, 2009

The Iran You Don’t Know
Exhibit at Historic Core Gallery Taps Artists’ Memories
by Anna Scott
Published: Friday, September 18, 2009 6:09 PM PDT
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – An eye-catching greeting welcomes visitors to the Historic Core’s Morono Kiang Gallery: domes covered in bright, rainbow- colored Afghans, adorned with plastic garbage ties and surrounded by orbits of neon yellow tent poles, laid across the floor.
The strange constellation is “Untitled,” an installation by Iranian-American artist Fereshteh Toosi. It is part of the exhibit Traces of Being, which recently opened in the gallery inside the Bradbury Building. The show, which runs through Nov. 21, features new works by four Iranian-American artists, all based on two questions: What do you remember about Iran?; and what memory of Iran would you like to forget?
By posing those questions, curator Shervin Shahbazi has created an exhibit that takes a personal and often quirky look at a country that many Americans know mainly for its turmoil.
“We didn’t want to have something cliché and straightforwardly political,” said Shahbazi. “If you see the exhibit, you will take away something and learn something new.”
In addition to Toosi’s piece, which recalls a solar eclipse she witnessed in 1999, Traces of Being features prints by Pantea Karimi and installations by artist Amitis Motevalli and L.A.-based fashion designer Hushidar Mortezai. All of the artists are Iranian-born but currently live in the United States.
Mortezai, a designer who has made clothes seen in films like Fight Club and the upcoming Sex and the City sequel, created several pieces for the Morono Kiang show, including two elaborate outfits. One, worn by a mannequin just inside the gallery’s entrance, includes custom-made black and gold high heels, black pants cinched with a belt made of bullets, a fur-lined brown leather jacket, a flowing scarf and turban-esque black hat fashioned from a knock-off Chanel bag.
“It is a militant going shopping,” Shahbazi explained during a recent gallery tour.

A Departure

Husband-and-wife team Eliot Kiang and Karon Morono opened their gallery on the ground floor of the Bradbury Building, at 218 W. Third St., in 2007.
The gallery is dedicated to showcasing contemporary Asian art, Kiang said, and many exhibits have focused on Chinese art from the last decade. While Iran is technically part of Asia, Traces of Being “is the biggest departure from other shows in terms of region,” said Kiang.
Traces of Being came about after a casual lunch meeting in June between Kiang and an art world colleague. At the time, Kiang said, there was a “buzz about Iranian contemporary art” thanks to several highly publicized exhibits around the country, including one at the Chelsea Art Museum in Manhattan.
The protests and violence that followed the Iranian presidential election that month had also begun, putting Iran in the international spotlight once again. Kiang’s friend suggested that it might be a relevant time to highlight Iranian art.
Kiang approached Shahbazi, whom he knew through Shahbazi’s girlfriend, former Morono Kiang Gallery director Sonia Mak, about curating. It was perfect timing for Shahbazi, who had been working for months on putting together a show of Iranian graffiti art for the Downtown gallery Crewest (that show runs through Sept. 26). Shahbazi said he envisioned the two exhibits as complementary takes on Iran.

“The graffiti show was in planning months before, in terms of pre-election Iran,” said Shahbazi. “This one came about because of post-election events, and the urgency of doing something in response to post-election events in Iran was a reason to do it. That way, you are covered, pre-election to post-election.”
He wanted to get the show up quickly, he said, so it would be on display at the same time as the Crewest exhibit.
“The galleries are very close to each other and I could maximize the impact by having two exhibits about Iran at the same time. People can take advantage and see both,” he said
Interactive Timeline
The works on display in Traces of Being were all created exclusively for the exhibit.
Shahbazi and Kiang said they hope the personal, often funny pieces will cast Iran in a new light for viewers who might only know of the country’s political strife. For example, Kiang pointed to an oversized, paper-doll style cut-out created by Mortezai, decked out in a Metallica T-shirt.
“I don’t think Americans would think that Iranians are into Metallica, but it’s one of the number one bands,” said Kiang. “I don’t think Americans think of the influence of American culture in Iran. I think Americans think that Iranians hate America, but that’s not the case. The average person in Iran is in love with America.”
Another slyly humorous piece is Amitis Motevalli’s installation, displayed inside the gallery’s front window, featuring 72 copies of a school picture taken of the artist at 13. With puffy bangs and heavily lined eyes, she looks at the camera seductively.
“She is mocking the idea of the 72 virgins,” said Shahbazi, referring to the idea held by some Islamic extremists that 72 virgins are a heavenly reward to the righteous after death.
One of the most unique elements of Traces of Being is not the work of any artist, but of gallery visitors.
One wall is painted with a timeline, which looks like a pulse reading, tracing Iran’s history over the last 30 years. Pieces of blank paper and tacks sit nearby, and visitors are invited to write down and share their memories of Iran on the wall. By late last week, the wall already had about 80 notes and pictures.
The mementos ranged from a photograph of an apartment building in Tehran to short notes to entire pages of writing. One of the most touching items, said Shahbazi, is a note left during the Downtown Art Walk on Sept. 10. Written in Farsi, the note reads, “I wish instead of sitting in front of a computer screen crying I could be with my friends in the midst of the tear gas.”
Shabazi said, “That one got me.”
Traces of Being is at the Morono Kiang Gallery, 218 W. Third St., through Nov. 21. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. The gallery will host a panel discussion with the artists on Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. and a preview of Robert Adanto’s documentary about contemporary female Iranian artists on Nov. 7. Information at (213) 628-8208 or
Contact Anna Scott at page 32, 09/21/2009