Iranian immigrants tell story of freedom of expression in Ohio Art League exhibition

Raheleh Bagheri's body is her own, and she intends to show this through her art that is featured in an exhibition that opens Friday, March 10 at Ohio Art League's X Space.

As a woman growing up and living in Iran in a Muslim family and under an Islamic government, Bagheri often found herself pushing, wanting to express herself, to do art, to do theater, to participate in sports. But despite her best efforts — she had paintings and sculptures shown in galleries and earned a national ranking as a squash player — the obstacles to her expressions were always there to challenge her desire to overcome them.

Or, perhaps more accurately, to simply live without them.

So she left what accomplishments she had behind to come to the United States, where, instead of unbridled freedom, she found herself in a (since-ended) controlling relationship in a country with laws controlling her reproductive rights and established cultural norms about women's bodies.

“When I moved here I thought women here have more freedom, comparing yourself to what they have and what you don't have,” Bagheri said in an interview at an Italian Village coffee shop. “I noticed freedom here for women is not as much freedom as men have. It's my body. Why should you have control over me? Now, it's not Islamic things, and I appreciate the freedom that is here. I can show something with my body that displays how women are feeling.”

Working with fellow Columbus artist and Iranian immigrant Arezou Bizhani, Bagheri created “SCARves,” a combination of photography, mixed-media work and installation that uses the hijab as metaphor for a variety of forms of limitations on freedom of expression. Bagheri, naked and wrapped in scarves and toilet paper — “This is how they treated women in my country,” she said — is depicted in Bizhani's photographs. Bagheri then had the images printed on a variety of materials, including glass. The images have been shattered, overlaid with notes made by Dr. Mark Changizi, a cognitive scientist and Bagheri's husband, or installed in a box, representative of restrictions the artists have experienced.

“The art is our art, and the performance is my body,” Bagheri said. “Hopefully it's going to make a struggle in your mind.”