East meets West: Persian’s artwork captures struggle of female identity

Afarin Rahmanifar wasn’t necessarily forced to leave Iran after its revolution in 1979, but, like so many Persians who had grown accustomed to a more Western-leaning culture, she chose to move to the United States to pursue her love of art.

She has no regrets, but traversing the two cultures has been a struggle – particularly for women like her looking for their own identity.

A native of Tehran, Rahmanifar depicts that conflict in her artwork, the latest of which is a vibrant and provocative exhibit, called “Unraveled,” now on display at the Juniata College Museum of Art in Huntingdon.

“I am unraveling the stories of my life, of this wonderful journey,” Rahmanifar said. “It has been quite a journey, and the transition was not quite easy.”

“Unraveled” is on display in the Shoemaker Gallery in Carnegie Hall on the corner of 17th and Moore streets. The exhibition runs through Sept.12, and admission is free.

“I think her works are very powerful,” said Jennifer Streb, museum curator and associate professor and chair of the Department of Art & Art History at Juniata College. “They can be viewed through different lenses and contexts. They’re about female identity, but they also touch on the intersection between Eastern and Western culture, and I think people find that fascinating.”

Streb said a colleague had previously worked with Rahmanifar and proposed the exhibition, and museum officials “fell in love with her work. … We were thrilled when we were finally able to work out the timing to host a show for her,” as her work has been exhibited all over the country,” from New York to Florida to California, she added.

Rahmanifar – her name is pronounced af-a-REEN ra-MAN-a-far – said she was lucky to be able to study art in her homeland after the revolution and started learning various techniques there. But by 1989, she decided to leave.

“I believe that I wasn’t forced to leave. It was a choice,” she said. “Huge numbers of people started migrating after the revolution … This transition, it was hard for everyone. It was kind of a decision you had to make at some point to move.”

Rahmanifar came to the U.S. and enrolled at the University of Connecticut where she began dabbling in a variety of techniques and found herself gravitating toward iconic images of the two different cultures.

“I started to develop and find my own language and kind of intersecting Eastern and Western cultures,” she said.

Rahmanifar earned her master’s degree in fine arts from UC, and today she is an assistant professor of art at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

She uses mixed media to depict well-known images from both cultures and puts “them in the perspective of politics, religion and sexuality,” she said. She creates collages and paintings juxtaposing such images as Mattel’s Barbie doll with Scheherazade, the legendary queen of Persia. But she tries to embrace the similarities, as well as the differences.

“The Iranians always embraced poetic language as a tool to cope with life,” Rahmanifar said. “So I always depended on the language of metaphor and making images in a mystical way” such as through the juxtaposition of iconic images.

She layers collage fragments, wax, oil paint, and varnish to simultaneously fracture, veil and reveal diverse and often conflicting cultural notions of aesthetic beauty and femininity.

“Motivation for creating these hybrid personalities relates to how I see myself in the American society and the ongoing need to reconcile these two cultures that reflect both my past and present,” she said.

As difficult as her transition was, adapting to her new country was made easier by open Americans, she said.

“I try not to get into the politics, but what I like about the U.S. is if you compare it to Europe or other countries, this is the most inviting culture there is,” Rahmanifar said. “That is why a lot of Iranians moved to the U.S. because its acceptance of other cultures is just amazing. This is what I’m talking about in my work, the Western culture of the United States is so beautifully arranged and (Americans) like to accept and make other cultures a part of them.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.