Iran has been in the headlines lately for its nuclear program and change in leadership. But one local Iranian-American woman — Homa Taraji — wants to bring a different side of her homeland to light: She's opened a new gallery – Tara Gallery in Santa Monica – devoted to showcasing contemporary art created by artists living and working inside Iran.
The new gallery is timely: Despite the restrictive regime, some experts say that contemporary art has been flourishing in the ancient country.
The world of collectors and investors on the outside started taking note when Christie's opened an auction house in Dubai featuring artwork from Iran, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. An auction in October set record sales, and a major exhibit of contemporary Iranian art recently opened in New York called "Iran Modern."
In Santa Monica, Taraji says the opening of her gallery is the culmination of a lifelong dream, capping her 40-year career as a scientist and engineer with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for whom she plotted the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
Her new mission involves bringing in images from a world away to offer a look behind the veils of politics, headlines and rhetoric. She says she wants to open a window into a world rarely seen in the U.S.
“Art is a means that can show another face of a country, rather than what we hear on the news," Taraji says. "So that’s why I thought [that by] bringing this art here, we can inform people or have them see another face of a country they would otherwise hear bad things about.”
The opening exhibit was called “Trees of My Homeland.” The works – some colorful, some muted, some electric – hung on the walls in the airy, two-room space fronted with broad windows bringing in sunlight.
“It’s a hot commodity, and, like anything else, when a hot commodity starts, everybody starts talking about it, and that brings attention,” says Mahsoud Pourhabib, who runs the Abra Gallery in West Lake Village and occasionally has shown temporary exhibits of contemporary art from Iran.
He says it is significant to have a permanent gallery in Southern California featuring artists living and working in Iran.
“It means that it's here to stay. It's not a quick flash in the pan," Pourhabib says. "And it gives confidence to collectors who want to look at this as a long-term investment that there are people contributing and endorsing Iranian contemporary artists."
Getting artwork past censors and sanctions
Taraji has a small frame, an easy smile and a starry-eyed twinkle that seems to ease the way for her, despite big challenges.
She says that there are hurdles in getting artwork back and forth from Iran: There are censors on that side and sanctions on this side. Shipping the art is tough because U.S. companies fear violating sanctions. “I could not find a single transportation company to do it, " Taraji says. "I couldn’t. I checked 20 of them.”
Finally, she found one company that agreed to look further into the sanctions law; the company learned there is an exception for nonprofits sending materials that promote free expression. That opened the way for the transport of the artwork. (Taraji runs the gallery under a nonprofit organization she founded called the American Foundation for Contemporary Iranian Art.)
Merhnoush Yazdanyar, an attorney who helps Iranian-Americans navigate international sanctions, says the laws have changed several times over the years, tightening in some areas, loosening in others. She says in the last couple of months, some rules have eased, allowing things like "democratizing" efforts, non-government emergency relief and wildlife conservation.
“There is a shift toward permitting activities that would benefit both Iran and the U.S. and also that would promote more exchanges and understanding between the two countries,” Yazdanyar says. But while the changes are in place on paper, she says they are still complicated and confusing to implement. "How practical are they when there's no direct relationship between these two countries," she says. "When there's no banking relationship."
Paying artists when banking with Iran is banned
The sanctions' ban on financial transactions with Iran makes paying the artists in Iran another challenge. Taraji says more than half the paintings in the opening exhibit were sold. Now she is working with attorneys specializing in sanctions law to try and get permission from the U.S. government to send payment to those artists inside Iran.
The Tara Gallery in Santa Monica is now showing its second exhibit, called "Words, Faces and Places," and features paintings that incorporate calligraphy created by artists living and working inside Iran.