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Monday, Dec. 3, 2012

Voices and Veils: Fahimeh Vahdat at RedLine

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Fahimeh Vahdat has described herself as, "as an Iranian-American Baha’i woman and artist living in exile,” adding that her word “addresses the experience of ‘in-betweenness’, as Eastern and Western ways of living merge and separate.” Engagement in cross-cultural and political commentary lies at the heart of her exhibition “Protest: From the Freedom Series” at RedLine Milwaukee.

The struggle for freedom of speech underlies many of her works, which range from large-scale prints and paintings to installations of layered and metaphorical meanings. The plight of women in Iran is emphasized in Women Ward Evin Prison, inspired by the human rights activist Narges Mohammadi. The piece is one of a pair set in an alcove, where long banners stream from the wall onto the floor, covered with somber gray and black marks like cold walls. A tiny rectangle remains as an open space, but the thin vertical lines are like iron bars on a window, distant and impossible to reach. Rubber shoes are placed at the drawing's edge on the floor.

Vahdat skillfully uses this banner-like form in a number of ways, often with gossamer fabrics suspended from the ceiling and pooling in ripples on the floor. These sheer surfaces partially conceal images underneath and become metaphors for the laws governing women's clothing and bodies in Vahdat's native country. A Prison Called Iran is a poignant reference to this. Sheer saffron cloth overlays a drawing of a nude female figure standing upright and enmeshed in linear patterns with hand and eyes raised. There is great dignity in this figure, as Vahdat simultaneously suggests feminine strength while referencing cultural strictures of the veil.

Islamic motifs, such as the lotus flower, are featured in Vadat's art as framing devices while calligraphic script creates background patterns that go beyond language, functioning as design elements. In these areas, however, the viewer may be looking for more interpretation. The wall text in the gallery is unassuming, which is certainly an advantage in the visual sense. Yet, this is an exhibition that has much to say about some crucially important issues of our time. From that perspective, an exhibition catalogue or supplementary material would open deeper exploration of the works’ details. Far more than simply interesting pictures, Vahdat's socially engaged art has many meanings to be deciphered.

Though traditional iconographies and references abound, Vahdat is firmly entrenched in contemporary issues. Among these photos is a blank space on the wall, perhaps purposefully ready for the next event in the global protest movements, which Vahdat is undoubtedly at the ready to capture and amplify through her art. 

“Protest: From the Freedom Series” continues through Dec. 22 at RedLine Milwaukee, 1422 N. 4th St.  For more information, call 414-491-9088. 

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