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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

When being you is illegal: Heartland's McCauley Gallery features art by Iranian women

Leili Babashahi's photograph, "Sound of Silence," is one of more than 50 art pieces by Iranian women that are part of "Being a Woman" at Joe McCauley Gallery
Leili Babashahi
Joe McCauley Gallery
Leili Babashahi's photograph, "Sound of Silence," is one of more than 50 art pieces by Iranian women in the "Being a Woman" exhibit at the Joe McCauley Gallery at Heartland Community College.

Through March 4, the Joe McCauley Gallery at Heartland Community College is showing more than 50 works by Iranian artists. Titled “Being A Woman — Iranian Artists’ Reflection,” the exhibit shows a slice of what normal life is like for Iranian women.

Gallery coordinator Shahrbanoo Hamzeh spoke with WGLT about why she chose such a personal topic for her first-ever show as lead curator.

Hamzeh came to the United States from Iran in 2018 to complete her master’s degree in painting at Illinois State University. Furthering her education was a big part of why she left her home country, but it’s not the whole story. Hamzeh had gone through a divorce, a complicated process for Iranian women.

The country’s struggling economy and broad censorship make it difficult to be a working artist, and for female artists, it is even harder. After grad school, Hamzeh was hired at the McCauley Gallery in October and her colleagues approached her about curating a show.

“The very first show I could think about was being a woman in Iran. That was my life,” Hamzeh said. “Living three years outside the situation helped me to understand it even more — the layers of oppression. I knew many things, but many things became a discovery for me when I had the distance to look at it.”

Hamzeh loves her country, and duality is something she often explores in her work. The theme carries over to her exhibit as she solicited photography, digital painting and video works that show everyday life for women in Iran.

“We have a few pictures that show short moments of pleasure, enjoying the sun, enjoying the wind. When I say that, I want to say in parenthesis that enjoying the wind is very important because we have to cover our hair,” said Hamzeh. “The moment you feel the air coming through your hair is very special because you cannot have it whenever you want.”

These seemingly simple pleasures are intertwined with works that more directly speak to topics such as femicide and forced marriage. Prints — produced locally to spare artists the burden and expense of international shipping — are grouped together throughout the gallery and in another installation at the student center, near Heartland’s library.

“Being a woman is so political, in a way — so hard,” Hamzeh said. “As a woman, you are all the time to blame for whatever happens, but ironically enough, you never are adult enough to be in charge of your own life."

The show’s subtitle, “Iranian Artists’ Reflection,” has two meanings: Artists reflect on their lives and experiences, and in several instances, self-portraits and images of women (many of whom obstruct their faces) hold a mirror up to their identities, which, by law, are meant to be kept hidden.

Oftentimes, artists’ messages are shrouded in subtlety and ambiguity. One piece, for example, is a self-portrait of a woman reflected in the window of a butcher shop — a normal moment from everyday life that positions her body among raw meat and broken bones.

“One of the artists took a portrait of a girl from the southeast of the country, where women are not allowed to have a picture of their face,” Hamzeh said. “Think about it: Putting a family picture on the wall, that’s just a really little pleasure. They are not allowed to exist even in a picture. They don’t have the ability to show any kind of identity. That picture is very beautiful, and the lady turned her head because of the law.”

Hamzeh said laws against women are arbitrary and enforced by a social contract that varies from community to community. For the most part, artists were happy to have an opportunity to show their uncensored work, but a couple did fear that doing so could put them in danger.

“This was a situation that they could show, they could talk, but they decided not to. There is a fear planted deep in you that you decide that,” she said.

Hamzeh obstructed one of these works with rice paper that viewers can lift and lower and concealed the artist's identity so they could not be tracked, titling it “Self-Censored.”

In discussions, Hamzeh said American students and patrons find this difficult to understand. “It’s very abstract. It’s not believable,” she said. It is these conversations, however, that she values most about working as an artist in the United States.

“Being a Woman — Iranian Artists’ Reflection” runs now through March 4 in the Joe McCauley Gallery and at the student center near the entrance to the library on Heartland Community College’s campus in Normal. Admission is free and available to the public anytime the college is open. For more information visit the gallery's website.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.