It is an arresting image. A transparent red veil swirls over a nude woman like a torrent, covering her but revealing the subversive sensuality of her form.
This lush, wall-sized photograph by Shahla Sepehr Bebe--called "Shame"--is among the works of 18 Iranian immigrant artists in a striking Los Angeles exhibition that uses Iran's Islamic dress code for women as a metaphor for their status in society and for universal issues of individual freedoms.
The "Veiling/Unveiling" show at the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center is certain to resonate in Los Angeles' Iranian community, where some Muslim women adopt the veil voluntarily as an affirmation of their culture.
But for many of the artists--some of whom lived in Iran when women were ordered to wear veils by religious leaders two decades ago, and fired from their jobs or beaten for refusing to do so--veiling is an exercise in forced anonymity. Supporters of Iran's dress code, which dictates that women must cover their hair with scarves and wear long, baggy coats or the more conservative chador in public, point to the Koran's dictate that observant women "draw their veils over their bosoms and not . . . display their adornments except to their husbands."
In one lithograph by Nahid Hagigat, an established printmaker whose work has appeared at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, a woman's animated face fades as she dons a veil and her body becomes an amorphous sphere. A blown-up photographic negative by Santa Monica artist Ali Ahmadpour shows a veiled woman looming like a phantom silhouette.
"Women are reduced to abstract objects by the veil," said Ahmadpour, who left Iran in 1985 and now lives in Santa Monica. "To me, veiling is similar to the Berlin Wall. It is a manifestation of the denial of human rights."
Not everyone looks at veiling the same way, of course, said Elahe Amani, whose drawings also appear in the show.
Amani and some other immigrants who were forced to adopt Islamic dress in Iran see the dictates as the most visible manifestation of laws that restricted the rights of women following the 1979 Iranian revolution.
"Veiling should be a personal choice. When it becomes mandatory, you feel imposed upon because regardless of how you feel, you must abide or be subject to arrest and lashing," said Amani, a Muslim-born secular Iranian whose support for the revolution had fizzled by the time she left Iran in 1983.
By contrast, Amani's U.S.-reared daughter, like others of her generation, "sees veiling as a personal preference, as something exotic," said Amani, who is a women's studies professor at Cal State Long Beach and a member of the Society of Iranian Women in Los Angeles, which sponsored the show.
In countries where women are not required to wear a veil, many do so anyway for religious reasons or, in some cases, as a means of projecting a sexless image that allows them to be taken seriously in the workplace, said Cal State Northridge women's studies professor Nayereh Tohidi, who teaches a course on women in Muslim societies.
"The new trend is re-adopting veiling to be more mobile in society," she said. "It is to assure their families, I'm not going to be Westernized or promiscuous. But when it's imposed, it's another matter."
Indeed, when Amani attended the U.N. Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995, Islamic Turkish women complained that secular authorities wouldn't let them veil themselves publicly, she said.
And Amani's grandmother believed so strongly in veiling that she refused to leave the house for six months in 1936 when the country's leader, Reza Shah, briefly ordered women to stop wearing veils because he wanted to project a more modern image--a controversial episode still remembered as "the unveiling."
"Women should make the choice, and that choice may mean wearing or not wearing the veil, or wearing different forms of the veil," Amani said. "I hope this exhibition can stimulate some intellectual exchange."
Curators are counting on it. They are considering hosting debates and forums during the exhibition, which runs through Sept. 30 at the community center, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. There will even be a journal at a reception Saturday night, from 5 to 9 p.m., for viewers to record their impressions.
If this seems like a didactic approach to art, such polemic forays are common in societies where political turbulence is a fact of life. The artists in the show--one of whom will soon go back to live in Iran--reinvent Islamic religious iconography in much the same way that rebellious young Cuban artists appropriated enshrined revolutionary symbols in Havana in the early 1990s.