Delbar Shahbaz, an Iranian artist-in-residence at the Wassaic Project, says that her generation of Iranian women are caught in the in-between - “neither here nor there, neither traditional nor modern.”
An installation exhibited at Pasadena’s Art College of Design is called “In Between.” Sculptures of chickens with women’s faces are viewed through a door of the gallery that is semi-blocked by bricks. Her website says, “From the outside looking in, we catch glimpses of communing, of subjects gathering together in attempts to jump free – but they are mere chickens. They are literally and symbolically blocked from learning how to fly, let alone stepping off and flying out of their coop.”
In a 2014 her exhibit, “Terrain of Absence,” she explains that as an Iranian artist she has a heritage to remember and experiences to forget. “Out of nowhere I arrive somewhere else. No one is like me. No shared history. Everything is brought into question. Years of experiences — unpacked. What I formerly concealed, I begin to share, my body, my identity, my experience through these things. I have a form of freedom yet struggle now to access it.”
We came upon Delbar on a ladder covering over the windows of her studio with black cloth. She was working on an installation called “Non-Residential,” where she builds an imaginary land in the middle of her studio that is safe from outside influences and cannot be destroyed. Grafitti-like messages in Farsi are scribbled on the wall.
The studio cannot be entered or seen except through rows of strings that block it from outside viewers. There are niches with strings in front of them with drawings of tiny people hanging behind the strings. She calls them prisoners.
“There are people who want to forget the disasters of their countries but you cannot totally forget, you can only put the memories away in a box.” Delbar remembers some of the atrocities from the war between Iran and Iraq when she was a little girl.
Delbar writes poetry: “The land that offers you death, offers you her wounds….forces you to exit. I do not belong to any Motherland. I have cut my roots and carry my heritage in my guts.” We ask her about what she means by wounds. “It’s all about war. It never gives you any resolution. When I was in the middle of the war between Iran and Iraq for me as a kid there was no happy ending. I just didn’t want to see my mom’s worried face, that was my whole concern.”
Delbar has had eight exhibits in Tehran, two of which were not open to the public and had to be private because the subject matter was controversial. One showed images of a pregnant carpet and explored the expectations that all women in Middle Eastern countries must have children in order to experience heaven. “In Iranian culture, there is an expression that ‘A woman goes to heaven, when she becomes a mother,’ “ explained Ms. Shahbaz, who said the pressure to have babies is part of the culture.
Much of Delbar’s work is sculptural. In one series, called “Descendants of the Angels,” colorful painted clay and mixed media sculptures of women with wings who she says aspire to look upon the world with the wisdom of the angels: “I look at the city from above. Now I can understand how people dream but with open eyes….My angels are born in this way….the world that I like to see is born and the angels look like me on the days that I feel good.”
She describes the condition of women when she was growing up in Tehran in her show called Terrain of Absence.
“Three years old - rules dictated. Seven years old - cover your body.
Nine years old, breasts appear and you begin to slouch. Ten years old, your period arrives. You tell no one…. Seventeen years old - How do I please everyone, my parents, society? I am discovering ways… but in the process I forget myself. Only in secret do I allow thoughts of self, concealing my desires.”
In a poster for “Vanish in a Day,” a female figure is face down with pins, voodoo-like, stuck into her body holding her down. This exhibit depicts women in clear plastic boxes. “In this solo exhibition, I have 17 Plexiglas boxes and inside each of these cubes, there is a woman, trying to live and survive by herself. In the middle of the gallery, there is an interactive installation that includes little aluminum puppets hanging from the ceiling. I ask people about themselves imagining if they were in these boxes and trying to live, and how they could survive there?”
Delbar was discouraged from going to art school. She got a degree in bio-mechanical engineering, was unhappy in that career and went back to school to receive an MFA degree in illustration from Tehran Art University. She came to the U.S. two years ago to get another MFA in fine arts at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
She says she likes to work with actual materials, not just simulations and videos, and shows us a painting she painted from inside one of the charcoal kilns in Wassaic. It shows a woman with extremely long legs dangling from the one window inside the kiln. Phantasms of nature spirits dance on the walls.
“The idea of creating an alternative reality is how I can express most of the issues I want to talk about. People are living in our shared reality but from inside, everyone is carrying around this other version of reality that is distorted, insecure and informed by trauma and other experiences. I like to take this inside, out! I am interested in addressing this through metaphor. I work in a way that points to a certain kinds of psychological conditions.”
“In my work you see a woman who is haggling with herself to make sense of her life and her existence.”
Delbar Shahbaz’s new installation at the Wassaic Project explores the universal theme of finding a secure space in the midst of the shifting sands of life. She has an open studio, along with other Wassaic Project residents, on Saturday May 30. http://delbarshahbaz.com