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First Person Artist: Defiant Iranian Painter Abelina Galustian

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First Person Artist is a weekly column by artist Kimberly Brooks in which she provides commentary on art and the creative process and showcases artists' work from around the world. This week's artist is Tehran-born Abelina Galustian.

One step forward. Two steps back.

It has been six years since the U.S. congratulated itself for "liberating the women of the Taliban", and one week since a nineteen-year-old girl and gang-rape victim was ordered the penalty of 200 lashes in Saudi Arabia for the act she allegedly caused because she was caught sitting in a car with a man who was not her relative.

2007-11-30-1.jpg "The Whole Story" Oil on 16 Canvases. Kimberly Brooks.

As an artist and woman growing up in the West, one of the towers that fell on 9-11 was my view of what it meant to view and create art. After the cascade of news stories that brought front and center how my sisters throughout the world live in what I consider to be oppressive misogynistic cultures, I thought deeply about what it must be like where there is no visual representational art, where women are covered from head to toe and not allowed to be seen let alone depicted in any form, where billboards also have the female entirely blackened in silhouette and western art history text books are considered "pornographic". The closest I've come to the Middle East is relatively progressive Dubai--the UAE has just made a deal with the Louvre Museum in Paris to build a branch in the tourist-driven area. And even though you can find a forty foot high image of Paris Hilton in the Guess Jeans store at the United Arab Emirate's Mall (this is progress!), outside the mall there's not a painting or photograph of any woman in sight except for the framed photographs of the men who rule the country and some abstract designs in all the hotel lobbies. It's really really strange.

Suddenly late 20th century notions that say, figurative painting was dead, or that women were finally breaking though the glass canvas of the art world, seemed quaint. So for me as an artist, the act of painting figures, nudes - especially women - takes on another meaning and also an act of defiance.

One step forward. Two steps back.

In 2003, an underground feminist art exhibition entitled "Women Talking Back" featured work for and by women showed in Tehran. One of the artists in that exhibition was Abelina Galustian. In her series of paintings entitled The Veil Series, she depicts women wearing lingerie and high heels along with the burka. The curator of the show was briefly imprisoned and all of the paintings were confiscated permanently. Shown here are photographs of the paintings which are all that remain.

2007-11-30-2.jpg Abelina Galustian, Photographs of confiscated paintings from "The Veil Series," oil and acrylic on canvas, 2003

In her recent series entitled Womansword, Galustian looks to classic 19th Century Orientalist painters. She recreates detailed photorealist paintings reversing the gender. In doing so, she undermines the traditional dynamic of the male gaze and the viewing process while pointing to contemporary issues of representation, and the neo-Orientalism rampant in the cultures the western world seeks to "liberate".

Kimberly Brooks: Where did you come of age, and when did you start to question what women were and were not allowed to do?

Abelina Galustian: I was born in Tehran, Iran. I am of Armenian ethnicity and moved to the U.S. after the Iran/Iraq war. In the beginning of third grade in Tehran, my best friend, Rama, and I would eavesdrop on women's private conversations [about their Hymen]. I was too young to understand why young, single women gave the intactness of their hymen such great importance. They shared naughty stories about their rendezvous and extracurricular activities as if they were talking about a sport - how they finally made the "touch down" without being "touched down." These types of "coffee conversations" continued in almost every circle and age of women I sat with in my cultural context.

I now live in the United States. During my last visit to Iran a few years ago, I was sitting with a group of very wealthy, educated, single women who said the same things I heard during my eavesdropping days. I still couldn't understand why they were all [still focusing on acting like virgins.] My reaction to this hypocrisy was communicated with the Veiled Series. It was a way of telling women to stop interrogating a woman's worth by the intactness of her hymen, as it only leads to daughters performing virginity and sons who only accept virgins (or at least they think they're getting virgins) for wives.

KB: What was the spark that led specifically to the Womansword series?

AG: In February 2000, I was in a New Haven bookstore in Connecticut. I noticed a center display of books about the Middle East. One book in particular caught my eye with its painting by Jean-Leon Gerome entitled "The Slave Market." Although I had seen Gerome's painting on many different occasions since studying art in America, it was at that point when I noticed for the first time, the message Gerome intended in his composition. Gerome who is a hyper-Realist and a stickler for correct proportions, painted the hand of the nobleman who is purchasing the slave girl, about three times bigger proportionally. I was so appalled by Gerome's symbolism that I decided to give a critical response to this painting.

2007-11-30-4.jpg Left: Jean-Leon Gerome, The Slave Market, 1867, oil on canvas. Right: Abelina Galustian, The Slave Market: Womansword 2000, oil and acrylic on canvas.

AG: I purposely chose the Orientalist style and Gerome's painting by reason of its immediate encroachment to the senses. It was necessary for this particular body of work to retain a direction of communication that would be recognizable, distinguishable, and straightforward. The Womansword series of paintings counterclaim some of the socially ascribed roles through the switching of gender roles, a switch that may at first be read as subtle but actually acknowledges a female's ownership of her body and debunks its male control.

2007-11-30-5.jpg Left: Stanislas von Chlebowski. Purchasing a slave, oil on canvas, signed and dated 1879 (36.75 x 28.50 in). Right: Abelina Galustian Purchasing a slave: The Womansword, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2002 (5 x 6 ft).

In nineteenth-century orientalist works, one theme that was given an encore was the captive woman. The harem and slave-market themes were exploited by various artists. The most distinguished and famous of the Orientalist paintings is Jean Leon Gerome's "The Slave Market" which shows how easily Orientalism of the day could be combined with the taste for violated innocence and female subjection. Since these chosen depictions are almost iconic, quoting from them with alterations that are explicitly construed as political, generates a double-take and immediate scrutiny from the viewer.

2007-11-30-6.jpg A close-up detail from Galustian's Purchasing a slave: The Womansword, acrylic and oil on canvas, 2002

KB: What do you seek, ultimately, from your viewers?

AG: As a feminist artist, I seek to expose seemingly archaic beliefs that are only loosely hidden behind the mask of political correctness. Works that are tacitly looked upon as classic works of beauty and truth in the artistic canon, interestingly enough, become works of irreverence and perversity once the genders are switched.

KB: As an artist who also deals with female/male issues, I find myself not wanting to be known solely as a feminist painter, yet you claim it prominently in your description of yourself. Do you ever worry about being ghettoized as such?

AG: No. Being "ghettoized" for being a feminist artist is not an issue for me. Everything that revolves in and around my work stem from women's issues. But Middle-Eastern feminist awareness is not always parallel to the West's understanding of feminism. In my work, female is not just gender but location, therefore, when talking/painting about the female-feminine and male/masculine I'm also talking about the East and West. At the end of the day, it is my work that speaks, not my label.

2007-11-30-7.jpg Artist Abelina Galustian

Born in Tehran with family roots in Tabriz, Abelina Galustian immigrated to the U.S. after the Iran/Iraq War. Here, she earned her MFA in studio arts at Cal State LA, her MA in art history at UCSB, and she is also currently pursuing her PhD in art history at UCSB. Galustian's work has shown in solo and group exhibits internationally and domestically. Likewise, she has been a featured artist and lecturer featuring her own work and topics such as transnational identities, Neo-Orientalism, and performing culture in Toronto, Dubai, and California.

Come back every Saturday for more from Kimberly Brooks.