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Iranian artist's surrealist work explores restrictions on women and immigrants


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

William Brangham: As a young woman in Iran, artist Arghavan Khosravi was subjected to many restrictions. But, on the canvas, she renders it all in fanciful, magical layers.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston met her at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Arghavan Khosravi, Artist: I like this idea of having these like whimsical gardens and then having some other things a little bit disturbing.

Jared Bowen: In her paintings, as in her own life, Iranian artist Arghavan Khosravi sees two Irans.

First, there's the one she found inside her family home.

Arghavan Khosravi: We had a lot of freedom. I was lucky that I was born and raised in a family that were culturally educated and gave me the space to do whatever I want.

Jared Bowen: And then there is the public Iran, where life is heavily restricted, especially for women.

Arghavan Khosravi: When we go to school, we have to wear hijab, and there are things that you must do to comply with those rules.

Jared Bowen: You couldn't be yourself.

Arghavan Khosravi: I think that's too, too extreme to say that you couldn't be yourself. I could, but just the modified version or more contained.

Jared Bowen: So, in this, her first museum exhibition, we find flowering trees, sumptuous textiles, and birds with widespread wings. But we also find women diminished, faces obscured, sometimes forcibly restrained.

The work, Khosravi, says, all comes from memory.

Arghavan Khosravi: They are usually -- they're mostly not very positive. So, for me, reacting to those memories in the paintings is somehow a way also to cope with those traumatic, often traumatic, experiences.

Jared Bowen: And none of these women are ever you?

Arghavan Khosravi: No, I never intend to have these women as self-portraits. But I have some of the characteristics in common with me, like the hair color, eye color, to some extent, the skin tone.

I want to refer to my own race.

Jared Bowen: Khosravi left Iran seven years ago to attend to art school in the United States. And, as an immigrant, she's no longer free to travel home.

But, on the canvas, she dwells in a magical realm, says Samantha Cataldo, the show's curator.

Samantha Cataldo, Assistant Curator, Currier Museum of Art: There's a real element of like a dream space or like a moment frozen in time, but it's rendered in really sharp detail. And so you kind of have that push-pull of reality and surreality in it.

Jared Bowen: In her latest work, Khosravi's paintings enter our space, taking on sculptural qualities as they protrude from the wall, their weight literally suspended before us.

Samantha Cataldo: You're confronted with the work, but not, of course, in a bad way. It's brought to you and it kind of beckons you and invites you to investigate all of its layers.

Jared Bowen: In a visual language Khosravi has steadily cultivated.

Look closely, and you will find her paint often sparkles, a nod to the precious, like Middle Eastern oil, she says, that comes at the expense of democracy. The classical sculpture represented throughout her work speaks to both patriarchy and notions of human perfection given over to decay.

Samantha Cataldo: So, to put that very loaded imagery into a work that also includes things like more Eastern traditions, like contemporary fashion photography, it sets up this interesting contrast of contradiction of ideals.

Jared Bowen: Khosravi also returns time and again to historic Persian miniature painting. They're images she was raised on, but, in her versions, she moves men to the side.

Arghavan Khosravi: I see that women have a secondary role or not very important roles in those scenes.

And, in my own work, I want to subvert that idea and give women more presence than what we have seen throughout art history.

Jared Bowen: History is literally woven into Khosravi's work, as she paints around over and through handmade textiles her father has sent from Iran.

And you come in and you really are having a conversation with the artists who came before.

Arghavan Khosravi: Yes, yes, it's -- because I -- like, I decided this color palette, because of the color palette that the textile had, yes, it's an interesting dialogue.

Jared Bowen: And choice, which Arghavan Khosravi, now a long way from home, will never take for granted.

You have what you talk about in these paintings. You have freedom, full freedom.

Arghavan Khosravi: Yes, yes, yes. And in contrast with what I'm saying in the paintings, I have freedom to say whatever I want to say.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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