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Iranian refugee artists find a new freedom in Las Vegas

<p>Nanda Sharifpour / PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>


<p>Nanda Sharifpour / PHOTO: JEFERSON APPLEGATE</p>


They weren’t “fired,” just told they didn’t have any classes to teach the following semester at the university where they were both tenured art professors. They weren’t “threatened,” just asked to come alone late at night. After that call, Iranian artists and married couple Ali Fathollahi and Nanda Sharifpour had to make the quick and painful decision to flee their homeland, fearing for their lives.

“We got strange phone calls, asking for meeting for questions.” Sharifpour recalls. “Anyone that went never came back.”

They shipped their belongings and art to Turkey, then went there themselves, where they scraped by for three years as refugees, endeavoring to arrange passage to the United States. With little money to buy supplies, they drew on found paper — hotel notepaper, pages from calendars — haunting gaunt figures with wings, bird masks, insect bodies.

Suddenly, their chance came. Given a very short window, they chose to bring almost nothing but what was most important to them: their artwork and some art supplies. Sharifpour ripped her paintings off the stretcher bars and rolled them up for transport.

“I prefer to abandon all furniture and take the paintings,” she says.

How did they end up in Las Vegas? Refugee friends, granted passage a year before them, had chosen Nevada for its cost of living and job opportunities. Discovering the art community here in Las Vegas, they contacted Fathollahi and Sharifpour.

Arriving in Las Vegas six months ago, they found the Arts District welcoming, made friends, and were soon offered a show at Blackbird Studios. The works shown in their exhibit, begun in Turkey and completed in Las Vegas, relay tales of fear, hope and a country in conflict with itself.

Fathollahi’s delicate, surgically precise collages patch together fragments of sewing patterns, diagrams and black-and-white photos from Iran with images of women in exposed, often violent positions. In “Mistresses,” two women clad in lingerie pose with the decapitated head of their husband, butcher knives installed on the wall above. In “Dreams of an early marriage,” a young girl sits next to the illustration of a Middle Eastern castle. Floating above, the hair of a nude women flows into the turban of her would-be husband.

Fathollahi takes a small white and gold pocketknife from a nearby collage of images and small curios loaded into a tray. “In Iran, husbands, brothers, have the right to enforce, punish,” he explains, Sharifpour translating, while he turns the small knife over and over again in his hand. Titled “Autopsy of an odorous corpse,” the tray’s imagery contrasts traditions of Iran with modern Iran: a woman in a burka adjacent to bare female legs, electric lightbulb suspended above a bronze candleholder. A tiny salt shaker used for dispelling black magic sits next to a razor blade.

“Use the razor to cut my wrists,” says Sharifpour, translating for Fathollahi. “Or use it to cut the ropes that ties me to useless traditions.”

A series of painted portraits depict women, contemplative and pensive with streams of goldfish circling and darting about in the background. In Iranian culture, goldfish are heroic protectors sent to guard the tree of life in the Iranian Zarathustra creation myth. The glimmering, fragile guardians swirl in the background, “move freely … colorful and shiny … they remind me of dreams, hopes and wishes that glitter in the darkness that surrounds us,” explains Sharifpour.

The two artists are settling into their new life and have begun looking for work to support their art practices. One of the biggest and most welcome changes was “being uncovered as a woman,” says Sharifpour, “feeling the sunshine and breeze in my hair.”

Following the revolution in 1979, the women of Iran were forced to resume the burka tradition. In an installation at the front of the gallery, traditional undergarments belonging to Sharifpour’s grandparents are suspended using wires amid a series of small snapshots of Sharifpour and family members before and after the revolution. It reads like a reverse timeline, the clothing worn growing increasingly conservative the closer it gets to the present.

But asked what the biggest and most important change is, the two artists emphatically agree: the newfound artistic freedom they have in America; more than they’ve ever had. “In Iran, you cannot exhibit work like this,” explains Sharifpour. “You could make it, but you would have to hide it. This has been our biggest wish in our artistic life, to make work like this.”

Through Feb. 28, Blackbird Studios 1551 S. Commerce St.,