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John Lamb, Published December 05 2010

An artist’s visions in blue

In the Spirit Room group show “I Am Looking for a Human Being,” three visual artists – all women – explore aspects of identity with a domestic twist.

Jess Larson looks at household objects as symbols of sexual boundaries and stigmas.

Sandra Barnhouse shows war and disaster in the world filtered through home magazines.

And Fargo’s Leila Rastegar invites viewers back to her native country where she unveils the two worlds of Iranian women: A private home life where females can literally let their hair down and a public life governed by Islamic dress code that dictates women must cover their heads.

Where Larson uses identifiable images and Barnhouse takes pictures from magazines, Rastegar’s eight portraits offer a fresh glimpse into a culture – simultaneously contemporary and historic – many in Fargo-Moorhead may know little about.

Of the eight pictures, collectively called “Inside/Outside,” all are friends and family. Four are depicted in a cool blue with floral motifs behind them and all wearing headscarves. The other four pieces show the women at home without any head covering in a rich ocher color.

“We are looking for identity,” Rastegar says. “To me they are all wondering, looking.”

Jill Johnson, the show’s curator, says it should not only be the subjects wondering and looking, but also the people viewing the art.

“It’s about seeing the real person behind the dress, behind the culture,” says Johnson.

When she was creating the show, Johnson wanted work that made a clear statement, but did so without the volume turned all the way up.

“There is a lot of screaming in the headlines and this show is the antithesis of that. This is about that really quiet place where we can see each other behind the headlines,” Johnson said. “It’s not a screaming show. It’s a very contemplative show.”

Of the three featured artists, Rastegar is the most soft-spoken, both in her work and in person.

She is neither sticking up for nor speaking out against Islamic culture or Iranian life, rather introducing the viewer to individuals, inviting the viewer into their homes and lives.

“I don’t like politics,” Rastegar says, gesturing to the works. “If I’m saying something in my work, it’s not politics, this is my life. These are my experiences.”

A passion for painting

Rastegar was raised in Shiraz, in southwest Iran. The city of roughly 1.5 million is known as the “Persian Culture Capital” and “City of Roses.”

She studied computer science, engineering and also painting, eventually becoming the first female instructor of painting and drawing in Shiraz.

“I just couldn’t let it go. Painting was my passion,” she says. “That was my dream. Go to school, get educated in art, learn more about painting.”

In August 2001, she left Iran with her husband and two children so he could teach in the U.S. After working in Washington state, then Wyoming, they settled in Fargo two years later.

By 2006, she started her BFA program in art at North Dakota State University. Rastegar graduated in 2008 and is now working on her MFA at the University of North Dakota and is scheduled to graduate this spring.

“She was a hard worker. She was like a sponge. She wanted to know everything,” says her former NDSU instructor Kim Bromley.

He praises Rastegar’s portraits as “more mature, more heartfelt” than her BFA show. That display of Fargo landscapes resulted in a sale to NDSU for the student union (“Train,” a view of the trains and tracks from the 12th Avenue North Bridge) and another for the West Acres food court (“The Fence,” which showed houses in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood.)

Bromley points particularly to the floral designs behind the covered women in the blue pieces.

Rastegar says she appropriated the patterns from master Iranian painters’ works seen on historic buildings, each being older than 200 years.

“In Iran, we have a very rich culture, which is very valuable to me,” she says.

A portrait of her oldest friend, Mandana, features a pattern taken from an Shiraz ceiling painted about 500 years ago by Kamaleddin Behzad, a noted Persian painter.

To capture how the original pattern has deteriorated over the years, Rastegar sanded away parts of her finished painting to mimic the wear of time and “the age of culture.”

For her, the pattern isn’t just decorative, but a cultural reference. She looks at appropriating the designs as ways of reviving, even restoring the original works.

“Bringing these complex ideas to the pieces is a huge development for her as an artist,” Bromley says.

Contributing to the emotional coolness of the “Outside” blue paintings, three of the four feature the covered woman in front of the patterns and not interacting with them in any way. While the designs are done in gold leaf and color, the women are only shaded and their clothing lacks any character other than simple draped lines.

“Her backgrounds are very detailed and floral, but yet the (scarf) is completely blank. It’s like it has lost meaning,” Johnson says.

She calls the portraits “haunting,” adding that the eyes are “sad, wistful.”

By contrast, the “indoor” pieces are emotionally warmer in the ocher tones and more personality comes out without dress restrictions. The models display individual style. Similarly they wear distinctive clothing (a blouse, a dress) and even decorative jewelry.

Yet the background in what is their own home – where they would be free to add personal touches – is empty.

“It doesn’t give you too much information,” Rastegar says. “You don’t need all of that information. It isolates her from everything because she’s home.”

Connecting cultures

Of the eight images, two are of Rastegar’s 17-year-old daughter, Roxana, one in a headscarf on one wall and another with her hair falling over part of her face on the adjoining wall.

The show was intended to hang on opposing walls as if the two groups could engage in a dialogue. But with only a smaller room at The Spirit Room available, the 24-by-24-inch works hang on adjoining walls.

Though Roxana has been in the United States longer than she lived in Iran, the family has returned about every three years and the teen respects both cultures, her mother says.

Asked if seeing a picture of her daughter dressed in Iranian garb or a portrait of her mother at home back in Shiraz make her nostalgic, Rastegar thinks for a moment.

“For sure, you miss family and friends,” she says. “This is the culture I grew up with. So of course I miss it.”

Asked if she considers herself an Iranian or American painter, Rastegar is quicker to answer.

“I’m an American citizen and an Iranian painter,” she says. “I got an opportunity to do something I really love. This is an opportunity I got in the United States. And I’m very appreciative of that. But I’m very proud to be Iranian.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533