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Slayton: Persian Visions

03/29/12 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) We often think of Iran as a society of monolithic religious fundamentalism - and as The Enemy.  But according to long-time Vermont journalist and commentator Tom Slayton, an exhibition of Iranian photographs at the Fleming Museum in Burlington through May 20 shows us otherwise.

(Slayton) What we find when we enter another culture is a different way of being human - but one that at a deeper level is somehow familiar and not so different after all.

That complexity is one of the attractions pf "Persian Visions," the exhibit of Iranian photographs now on display at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum in Burlington. These photographs feel mysterious yet at the same time speak to us deeply.

Take the beautiful black-and white photos done by Ebrahim Kadem Bayat, for example: a mysteriously veiled woman, a chair, draped in a transparent veil, and a flowing stream, deliberately photographed at a slow shutter speed, so that the rushing water assumes a diaphanous, veil-like quality.

The veiling of women is one of the characteristics of the Muslim world that we westerners commonly find most troubling. Yet Bayat's images evoke a more complex set of responses. The veiled chair, for example: it is still visible beneath the misty veil that covers it. We can see it's a chair. And yet it has been transformed, made subtler and more mysterious by being veiled - and then photographed.

So there is a subtle dance between mystery and clarity going on in this series. The fact that the silver gel prints are quite beautiful in their own right adds to their shimmering allure.

There are other less favorable references to veiling in this show of Iranian photographs. Yahya Deganpoor's image of a woman's eyes, contained in a boxlike outline, with a barred opening for a mouth is a clear protest against the repression of women represented by the burkha, while Esmail Abbasi's image of a figure wrapped in cloth, chained at the feet while birds whirl freely in the air overhead is an obvious image of the human repression represented by veiling.

Yet overall, the impression of veiling left by the show is ambiguous, charged with mystery and a pleasing complexity. And all this tells us something we might not have understood about that very foreign practice of veiling.

"Persion Visions'" offers the viewer much more - there are photographs that engage us in areas that we can, as fellow human beings, immediately respond to - love of family, questions of identity, aging, maleness and femaleness. And there are also images that tell us something about the complexity of the Iranian world - references to the world of ancient Persia, to the incredible richness of Islamic culture, and to the officially controlled channels of modern communication, especially television.

"Persian Visions" is a powerful antidote to our own official view of Iran as the "other," the enemy. In it we are admitted through the eyes of several brilliant artists to the complexities of Iranian culture - and to the underlying complexities of human beings with hopes and fears much like our own.

It is that tension between a different world, seen through eyes and minds that share a common humanity -- along with its stunning visual beauty - that makes this show of photographs, "Persian Visions," so powerful.
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