Iranian Jews increasingly ‘coming out of the closet’ — as artists

Iranian Jews increasingly ‘coming out of the closet’ — as artists

Once barred from the arts, Iranian Jews in the US are defying tradition, spurning trades and exhibiting on the world stage

Krista Nassi, Yellow Roses, 2012, mixed media (photo credit: courtesy)
Krista Nassi, Yellow Roses, 2012, mixed media (photo credit: courtesy)

LOS ANGELES — Located just 10 yards from the crystal blue Pacific Ocean in the world famous artistic-haven of Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood, the Shulamit Gallery has become the heart of a revival of art from Iranian Jews living in the US, Israel and even Iran.

Once a five-story modern home with a breath-taking 360-degree rooftop view of the beach, the gallery has drawn high praise from art lovers after its recent opening at a permanent location and offers a special voice to a new generation of Iranian Jewish artists and other artists of Middle Eastern origin.

Under the leadership of its Iranian-Jewish founder, Shulamit Nazarian, the gallery is the latest sign of a blossoming new community of Iranian Jewish artists in Southern California and New York who are sharing their personal immigrant experiences, culture and rich history in mixed media.

“I was wonderfully surprised by the vastness of culturally creative Iranian Jews in LA and within the US, and am learning how amazing these contemporary and classic artists were in Iran,” says Nazarian, an architect and curator.

Nazarian, who hails from one of LA’s well known philanthropic Iranian Jewish families, is also a trailblazer in her own rite by becoming the first art curator among Southern California’s 40,000 strong Iranian Jewish community to establish a gallery exhibiting works from emerging and established Iranian Jewish artists.

The gallery’s first two exhibitions “My Heart is in the East and I am at the Ends of the West” and “Leaving the Land of Roses” have featured eight contemporary Iranian artists who explore different genres. Their works include abstract colorful paintings, abstract sculptures, classic Persian hand-crafted bronze pieces and silverware, modern installations using lighting and music, as well as mixed-use paintings incorporating photographs.

The gallery, which was originally located in a variety of temporary venues, was first established in 2006 and has also drawn high praise from the exhibiting artists for Nazarian’s breaking of an unspoken community taboo. Typically, individuals seeking careers in the creative arts or entertainment are looked upon unfavorably.

Krista Nassi, Purple Roses, 2012, mixed media (photo credit: courtesy)
Krista Nassi, Purple Roses, 2012, mixed media (photo credit: courtesy)

“She is very brave to open this gallery because not many people in the Iranian Jewish community are interested in putting their money into a business like art that may or may not have a profit,” says Krista Nassi, an Iranian Jewish artist who has had her art exhibited at the Shulamit Gallery. “No one in our community has valued our art as much as she has to exhibit it for the rest of the world.”

Nassi, who earned a Masters in Art at Teheran University, immigrated to the US from Iran in 2004. Her works hang at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art and she has made an international name for herself during the last 17 years of global exhibitions. She has also won many art awards including a Gold Medal at the prestigious 10th Asian Art Biennial competition in 2002.

Her wide range of work, which primarily includes mixing photography within paintings and calligraphy, often focuses on controversial societal issues in the Iranian community including women’s rights, marriage, the immigrant experience and American assimilation.

“My art work started out and even now has a sense of feminism,” says Nassi, who still exhibits her work at various shows in Iran. “As a young child I was always told to ‘be careful because I was a girl’— and I always ask why? So for me, I wanted my work to reflect the fact that it doesn’t matter what age, race, gender, size, religion or educational background I come from — I’m a human like everyone else and just as capable as a man.”

Other Iranian Jewish artists have also made names for themselves.

One such artist is Los Angeles-based Angela Larian, who left Iran in the late 1970s and focuses on abstract paintings and sculptures that explore the subconscious mind. She has a strong following with a whole host of private collectors and art lovers who commission her art.

“This is my way of bringing out ideas within myself and it’s been a beautiful journey to transcend my own consciousness and the consciousness of our society,” says Larian, whose upscale Los Angeles home is filled with an array of her own unique abstract sculptures. “I don’t think about what I am creating, it just comes out and I don’t know the meanings of my pieces until they are completed.”

In addition to Los Angeles, Iranian Jewish artists living in New York are given wide acclaim for their works. Cindy Shaoul, a 20-something Iranian Jewish artist born and living in New York City, has also received notoriety with her abstract and landscape oil paintings at several city-wide exhibitions.

Cindy Shaoul's painting 'My Grandma' (photo credit: courtesy)
Cindy Shaoul’s painting ‘My Grandma’ (photo credit: courtesy)

“At times I set up my easel in Washington Square Park, Soho, or the West Village here in New York and each time I do, I receive the most positive and motivating energy from the public,” says Shaoul.

It is no surprise that Shaoul has pursued a career in art as she hails from a large family of artists. She says her late grandfather, the famous 20th century Hungarian-American artist, Albert Nemethy has also influenced her own work.

“My Jewish culture has had an influence on my work. My grandfather painted a collection of Ten Commandments paintings, which throughout my youth definitely moved me,” Shaoul says. “I also depict the Ten Commandments in my own work and how they are universal — how we radiate these commandments as a way of human kind to exist in peace and harmony.”

Josephine Mairzadeh is another Iranian Jewish artist born and based in New York who is praised for her art — photographs of paintings situated alongside objects of Iranian and Jewish significance.

‘The “Light and Shadows” exhibition was a “coming out” celebration for a few artists like myself who had already defined their space outside of our insular community’

Mairzadeh says her work, which delves into her cultural background, has been exhibited at various prominent galleries in New York, but she has recently received the most attention for a display at the “Light and Shadows” exhibition featured at UCLA’s Fowler Museum last year.

“The ‘Light and Shadows’ exhibition was a ‘coming out’ celebration for a few artists like myself who had already defined their space outside of our insular community,” says the 20-something Mairzadeh. “In doing so, it provided visitors from the Iranian Jewish community with a window into the tangible possibilities of recreating the notion of success through perusing the arts.”

The five-month stint of the “Light and Shadows” exhibition at UCLA last year was brought to Los Angeles from Israel with the sponsorship from the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, an Iranian Jewish philanthropic organization founded by Shulamit Nazarian’s parents in 2000.

Josephine Marizadeh incorporates her ancestor's photo into a painting. (photo credit: courtesy)
Josephine Marizadeh incorporates her ancestor’s photo into a painting. (photo credit: courtesy)

The exhibition was originally organized by the Beit Hatfutsot: Museum of the Jewish People based in Tel Aviv, and features archaeological artifacts, manuscripts, Judaica objects, photographs, art works and paintings from Iran’s ancient Jewish community which range from the late 19th century to the present time.

“For our family it is a real honor to be able to share the rich 2,500-year history of Iran’s Jews with the larger community here in LA and also to educate our own children and grandchildren of our background from Iran,” said Younes Nazarian, founder of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation at the October opening of the exhibition at UCLA.

According to Habib Levy’s “Comprehensive History of Iran’s Jews,” for centuries Jews in Iran were largely barred from entering into other professions by the Muslim rulers of the country. As a result, many worked as artists and artisans creating hand-formed bronze ware, silverware, jewelry, rugs, tapestries, picture frames and even elaborate tile work used in buildings and mosques.

Soraya Sarah Nazarian, Curved Woman, 1996, alabaster on black marble base (photo credit: courtesy)
Soraya Sarah Nazarian, Curved Woman, 1996, alabaster on black marble base (photo credit: courtesy)

Yet Iran’s Jews gradually left these art-related professions in the early part of the 20th century after they were granted greater freedoms to pursue higher educations and other professions during the Pahlavi dynasty.

The Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation is one of the few Iranian Jewish non-profits that fund a wide range of educational causes through academia, in public policy arenas and through artistic endeavors. Not surprisingly, the organization’s co-founder Soraya Nazarian is an acclaimed sculptor in her own rite. Over the years her different hand-carved stone pieces have been commissioned by various well known educational institutes in the US and Israel.

Soraya Nazarian’s passion for the arts have no doubt had an substantial impact on her daughter Shulamit.

“My mother is one of the few in her generation that stepped forward and really pursued her passion of sculpting and art. Not many women from her background in Iran or here in the US have done so with such love, she’s a true role model for our younger artists,” says Shulamit Nazarian.

David Abir, Intersect, No 2, 2010, MDF, plywood, Self-powered speakers, iPod, 41 minute music composition, custom programmable LED, acrylic paint, dimensions variable (photo credit: courtesy)
David Abir, Intersect, No 2, 2010, MDF, plywood, Self-powered speakers, iPod, 41 minute music composition, custom programmable LED, acrylic paint, dimensions variable (photo credit: courtesy)

While the majority of the few dozen Iranian Jewish artists in the US are women, 43-year-old sculptor, David Abir, is among the few men in this small group. His unique sculptures and installations incorporate lights, sounds and even classic Persian music that are designed to give viewers of his work a feeling of being in a different dimension and to embrace the beauty of his dual backgrounds.

“I’m half-Iranian and half-American and my work reflects both of my cultures and Judaism — so I try to creating something that everyone can enjoy,” says Abir, who was born in Pennsylvania and based in New York is transitioning to Los Angeles. “I’ve got an uncle in Tehran and an uncle in Tel Aviv and I’m trying to show the beauty of both sides.”

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