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Election turmoil complicates L.A. exhibit of Iranian artists' work

The curator of the show has had trouble communicating with the five male artists, securing basic biographical information about them and, in some cases, even obtaining their artwork.

September 10, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

The exhibit of Iranian artists that opens today at Crewest gallery in downtown Los Angeles was in the works long before the disputed June 12 presidential election in Iran.

But Shervin Shahbazi, curator of the show that focuses on street art, is still dealing with the repercussions of the bloody mass demonstrations that followed the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Shahbazi has had trouble communicating with the five male artists, securing basic biographical information about each of them and, in some cases, even obtaining their artwork.

A flier for the exhibit, "From the Streets of Iran," references a stencil painting depicting a group of shadowy men with spray cans for heads. A few of the figures are holding up peace signs against a green background. Green has become symbolic of Ahmadinejad's political opposition.

But the actual painting remains in Iran.

Weeks ago the artist, who goes by the name ICY, tried to send the work to Shahbazi, along with about two dozen other pieces. But a postal employee in Tabriz, Iran, opened the package, inspected the work and deemed it unsuitable for shipping to the U.S.

"He told me we can't send these . . . works because they have green color," ICY wrote in an e-mail.

Since the Iranian presidential election, which was marred by allegations of voter fraud, Shahbazi and the artists have had to navigate a strict and highly charged political environment in which real names aren't used, Internet messaging is spotty and overall communication is sparse.

"We had lots of problems about freedom in Iran before election," ICY wrote, "but after election we felt in an unbelievable condition."

Despite the additional challenges they faced after the election, Shahbazi and the artists never considered canceling the show.

Instead, both sides seemed to feel that it had become more important to showcase the artwork, mostly stencil and spray paint on paper.

"The only worry I had with post-election was with logistics," Shahbazi said. "Because you never know what's going to happen, what's going to shut down, who's going to be on strike."

One of the paintings that made it to the Los Angeles gallery is a work by SOT, ICY's younger brother.

Inspired by the fallout after the presidential election, it shows a man painting red over a stencil of the face of Mousavi.

Shahbazi was surprised that it was allowed through when other works -- including one of a girl holding the word "peace" in Persian -- were not.

"That paint is a symbol of blood of people" who died in the recent demonstrations, SOT wrote in an e-mail. "And Mousavi became symbol of the peace freedom in my country. By this work I want to show they want to clean peace by blood."

Street art in Iran is generally unwelcome and discouraged by the government.

"In Iran, graffiti is considered a political offense," artist CK1 wrote in his one-paragraph biography. "I was once detained for three days by the security forces for painting on the walls. My first serious piece was on the side of a highway. It was like a traffic sign that had the word LAW crossed out in red."

Communication with the artists has been done entirely by e-mail or through Facebook.

Shahbazi said he had to tiptoe around some issues because he didn't know what could get the artists in trouble. When he created a Facebook page for the art exhibit, he hesitated to link it to the artists' personal pages out of concern for their safety.

The irregular communication and restrictions have left Shahbazi with only a vague idea of the artists and their backgrounds. He has little personal information about them. He isn't even sure of their exact ages or whether they are all students.

Over the last few months, he sent several requests for bios -- which went unanswered -- finally resorting to sending each artist a list of questions. The result was mostly a single paragraph for each artist and his vision but little information about themselves.

Alex "Man One" Poli, owner of Crewest gallery, said he believes that the current political climate in Iran adds an extra dimension to the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 26.

"I think it also shows you how alive the art is," he said. "Some people say they don't connect with art in a museum, but when you see work like this and all the stuff associated with it, you say, 'Wow, this is happening now, this is real life.' "

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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