SHU exhibit lifts cultural veil

Published on September 9, 2011 by

The Gallery of Contemporary Art at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield opens its new 2011-2012 season with a compelling, thoughtful and provocative exhibit, curated by Deborah Frizzell, “Fluidity, Layering, Veiling: Perspectives from South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Artists.” The public is invited to the opening reception, on Sunday, Sept.18, from 1 to 3:30 pm. Jazz will be provided by The Joe Vincent Tranchina Duo.

Following the reception, the five artists, Samira Abbassy, Jaishri Abichandani, Siona Benjamin, Afarin Rahmanifar and Naomi Safran-Hon, will participate in a panel discussion that will be moderated by Dr. Frizzell. This exhibit will be on view through Oct. 27.

From different generations, the artists present a balance between themes such as poetics and politics, intimacy and activism, privacy and publicity. The works of these artists present a continuum of layering, one culture over another, revealing the complexity of their lives, and weaving personal narratives within broader social and cultural issues. 

The artists are from South Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States and they reinvest aesthetic languages with a new purpose, presenting a sense of both narrative and abstraction, of shifting notions of “community” as a subject.

 The intentional shape-shifting present in all elements of veiling allows their images to remain mutable, demonstrating that identity is porous, transnational, and can exist on the surface of things. Each artist manipulates traditions – cultural, geographical, and painterly – leaving “conclusions” indeterminate.

 Though born in Ahwaz, south-western Iran, Samira Abbassy identifies herself as Arabic rather than Persian.  Abbassy’s haunting iconic figures engage on many levels; they veil with their intricately patterned attire, while revealing in X-ray fashion their biological selves. Working in oils on panel, drawings, and collages on paper, her work reveals layers of iconography from Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Islamic, Indian Tantric and Christian mythologies. The ornate, decorative surface areas of her paintings belie socio-political content, gesturing to contemporary struggles and concerns in the lives of women, especially those who have been displaced as refuges or in exile.

 Jaishri Abichandani, a Bombay (Mumbai), India native, works in many mediums with a variety of artistic approaches.  She consistently addresses contemporary political, social, and cultural issues of concern primarily to women and those without power or a voice in mainstream global media. 

She employs vivid color and tactile decorative embellishments to heighten and stylize, sometimes with humor, the “seduction” and sensuality of the ironically “exoticsized” representations. She thus engages a range of viewers from many backgrounds in the puzzles she conjures.

 Born in Bombay, but of Bene Israel Jewish descent, Sinoa Benjamin grew up in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim society and was educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. Her trans-cultural experience while growing up has enabled her to incorporate multiple cultural references in her paintings made from gouache, gold leaf and layers of jewel-like color. Benjamin’s paintings generate a universalized spiritual energy, linking many visual traditions, motifs and techniques.

A sense of the ornate and lyrical, on which she elaborates in her forms and use of line, metaphorically weave together life’s intricacies and create a unique visual language which enchants and revivifies.

 Afarin Rahmanifar came to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution and is now a part-time professor of Visual Arts at Eastern Connecticut State University. She layers collage fragments, wax, oil paint, and varnish to simultaneously fracture, veil, and reveal diverse and often conflicting cultural notions of aesthetic beauty and femininity. 

Aesthetic and formal qualities of the historical Persian miniature are explored with a respect for the tradition as well as its potential for contemporary critique, self-expression and social subversion. Rather than rejecting miniature altogether, Rahmanifar revitalizes it with an awareness of contemporary media filters and approach to subject matter.

 Naomi Safran-Hon is from Haifa, Israel, and is the only artist in this exhibition who does not directly represent the human form; rather, she evokes people’s presences obliquely by implication as she reveals the remnants, fragments, and ruins of domestic objects, homes and neighborhoods in former Palestinian territories which, during the war of 1948, were confiscated by the new state of Israel. 

She deploys the most common building material, cement, on the surface of the picture plane and layers ink jet printing techniques to suggest decaying architectural elements and pressed scrims of lace (patterns of lace curtains associated with Palestinian home decoration) imprinted on the wall of cement. 

The Gallery of Contemporary Art at Sacred Heart University, 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield, opened in 1989 and is dedicated to presenting works by contemporary artists.  It strives to provide to the university community and the general public high-quality and intellectually stimulating encounters with works of contemporary art, in a wide variety of approaches and media reflecting the concerns of our time. Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday, noon to 5 p.m. and Sundays, from noon to 4 p.m.

Harriet Hiller, free lance journalist, author, lecturer, private art dealer and artist, is an adjunct professor of art history at Sacred Heart University and Housatonic Community College.