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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.

‘A Garden to Build’ at University Galleries unpacks the political power of man-made nature

A pastel colored drawing of geometric figures and etchings of plants in a thin, tan frame is hung on a stark white wall
Courtesy of the artist and Regards, Chicago.
Nazafarin Lotfi's Counter-Landscape (House/Garden/Nation), 2022, colored pencil on paper and archival pigment print on watercolor paper.

Artist Nazafarin Lotfi grew up in Mashhad, a large city in northeastern Iran. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona and for a decade, lived and worked in Chicago, where she got her master’s degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Though the climates are similarly arid between her original city and her current one, Lotfi said it was adapting to Tucson’s lack of walkability that was one of the more difficult changes.

“Moving here and having to adapt to a car culture — that was challenging,” she said.

Relocating to Arizona in 2017, a few months into the Trump presidency, further complicated the adjustment.

“Moving to the borderland at the same time that the Muslim travel ban went through, that was another layer that overshadowed my experience with southern Arizona,” Lotfi said. “The proximity to the border, the politics of this region and the country — it’s been a lot of layers.”

As Lotfi started integrating with Arizona’s artist community, she noticed a lot of landscape painting and photography. It led her to think about how nations, including the two she’s lived in, define themselves by their landscapes.

This would eventually transpire as “A Garden to Build,” a solo art show on view now at University Galleries in Normal. The exhibition runs through Oct. 16.

Lotfi was trained as a painter, but here she uses drawing, photography and papier mache to illustrate the political power of marked off "natural" spaces.

“Gardens are huge in Iranian cultural imagination,” she said. “That’s where life happens. That’s where political meetings happen. That’s where people socialize. But also, these types of gardens are elitist spaces. They’re not for everyone. They’re not public parks.”

Moreover, the oldest Iranian gardens were made possible through unparalleled innovation. Ancient peoples made inhospitable lands livable by moving water underground, from mountain springs across the desert to various regions of Persia. And in that sense, gardens — a sign of fertile ground — were a symbol of power and control over the land.

Lotfi saw parallels between this and the landscapes she saw of the American West, underscored by Manifest Destiny and notions of land as personal property. Westward expansion necessitated a protection program that would become the national parks — considered by many to be inseparable from the collective American identity.

As Midwesterners, we are not immune to changing landscapes, though we may have better access to water and fertile soil. But Lotfi said a critical lens on the politics of gardens can be applied here, too.

“What we think of as nature or landscape is very much a product of human manipulation,” she said.

Cornfields did not get there by accident, after all.

As Lotfi poured over aerial photographs and Google Earth images, she found the global demarcations of land to be equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking.

“We know about borders,” she said. “We all know there’s an arbitrary line or wall that people are building to divide people, to not share resources,” she said. “We don’t think about our properties. We live in homes that are walled. Farmlands sound like they are natural spaces, but they’re not.”

“A Garden to Build” by Nazafarin Lotfi is on view now through Oct. 16 at University Galleries, 11 Uptown Circle in Normal. Lotfi will give a talk at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 21 in the gallery. Admission is free; for more information visit galleries.illinoisstate.edu.

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