Taravat Rising

Artist exposes Iranian underground in 'Not an Arab Spring.'

The artist in her San Francisco Studio. Photo courtesy of Beta Pictoris.

The artist in her San Francisco Studio. Photo courtesy of Beta Pictoris.

Taravat Talepasand may or may not be banned from Iran for her “subversive” art. Standing before “Blasphemy VII,” the Iranian artist spoke with enthralled rapture.

“This is a very dangerous connection here,” Talepasand said.

“Blasphemy VII,” hanging in Beta Pictoris Gallery on Second Avenue North, is a mixed media piece combining controversial materials. A nude lounges across three rial, Iranian currency with former Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s portrait. The nude is sketched in electric blue.

“It’s 12 hits of LSD,” Talepasand said.

Her collection of artwork featured in Not An Arab Spring, on display through May 23, is an unflinching statement about Iranian women, politics, culture and taboos, and a thoughtful negotiation between Eastern and Western traditions. Her self-portrait, “Andarooni Birooni (Insider Outsider),” translates her experience as a first-generation American.

Talepasand was born in Eugene, Ore., in 1979 after her parents emigrated from Iran during the Iranian Revolution. That year Khomeini overthrew the monarchy’s leader, U.S. supporter Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini christened himself divine leader of The Islamic Republic of Iran and enforced sanctions through sharia, the Islamic code of law, according to The New York Times. Islamic Revolutionary Guards imposed dress code upon men and women. Men were no longer allowed to wear shorts and women were required to cover their hair. Alcohol and non-Islamic broadcast were banned.

“I can’t go back to Iran,” said Talepasand, who was unable to attend her uncle’s funeral there.

The trouble, she explained, resides in making it through customs in Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport. The risk: permanent exile from Iran or even arrest.

“Sometimes they do random checks [at customs], and they Google-search your name,” Talepasand said. “But my mom is always like, ‘Maybe you go and they don’t look up your name, or maybe you’re not in that black book and everything is fine.’”

Determined and optimistic, Talepasand has hatched a plan.

“Actually, this summer I’m going to Turkey so I can to go to the Iranian consulate, and I’m going to ask them about who’s on that book,” she said. “They have a list of names of everyone who is blacklisted, so I’m going to find out if I’m in there.”

Talepasand explained that she loves Iran, despite what critics may assume. Her art employs the traditions of Persian miniature portraits, laborious crosshatching and Talepasand’s own rekindled passion for her heritage, which she embraced while in graduate school at San Francisco Art Institute.

“I’m trying to be a voice that I wasn’t hearing enough of,” Talepasand said. “There was this void of Iranian or Middle Eastern women making this really hefty work about female empowerment and justice and politics.”

Talepasand boldly depicts the sexuality of real Persian women and illuminates Iran’s devastatingly growing drug culture that is being targeted at young females through her sculpture, drawings and paintings.

Talepasand’s choice of media, like the LSD, is pointed and a little cheeky. Along with her own recipe for egg tempera, a Medieval paint made of egg yolk, she implements gold leaf — a symbolic color in Iran representing wealth — and hash oil, a form of cannabis. In “Khomeini or Bust,” a particularly daring porcelain bust, the Ayatollah’s upward-gazing irises are laced with acid. His features are exaggerated and viewers can see the back of Khomeini’s head, something never photographed.

“I wouldn’t say I’m risking my life, but there’s a lot of risk involved that not a lot of people understand,” Talepasand said.

Iran’s drug culture, or industry as Talepasand referred to it, is a strong current throughout the exhibition. According to The Economist, in 2012 a member of Iranian parliament called for action against beauty and hairdressing salons that were selling meth to women as a weight-loss supplement. The women were typically middle-class young adults who were often unaware what they are buying.

“In the last five years, there has been this big epidemic of meth and crack,” Talepasand said.

Talepasand described how many of these women would learn to make the drug and host parties to distribute meth to their friends.

“A report claimed that courses for teaching people to produce crystal meth at home could be bought for as little as 2-3m rials (then $70-100),” The Economist stated.

To Talepasand, Iran’s growth in drug use, especially by females, is an indicator of women’s lack of freedom and a desire to escape the strictures of the theocracy. The Economist said that bans on alcohol are at least partially to blame for the country’s incidence of drug addiction.

Another theme in Not An Arab Spring is currency and crude oil sanctions imposed upon Iran by the U.S.

In a self-portrait sketch, “The Corrupt Minority,” the artist gazes at the viewer through a mask of oozing black oil. A painting, “Welcome Jihad,” depicts oil seeping through a tattoo on the artist’s body.

Michelle Moezam, also a young Iranian artist, attended the gallery opening for Not An Arab Spring on April 19.

“I completely identify with most of her themes,” Moezem said. “I absolutely wouldn’t have brought my father here. I think he would have hated it, but I think it’s just the right punch.”

“I think this is a brave statement, not just creatively with the art, but thematically,” said spoken-word artist and musician Sharrif Simmons during the opening. “Her work is a statement about Western freedom because you’d be dead if you did this in Tehran.”

And if there was any doubt: “I’m not here to just make pretty pictures,” Talepasand said. “I’m here to make history.”

Beta Pictoris Gallery is open Wednesday–Friday 1-4 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit betapictorisgallery.com.