Originally published February 20, 2015
By Lisa Y. Garibay
UTEP News Service
When Roya Mansourkhani took up the mantle of artist-in-residence in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Art, the first thing she wanted to do was have a talk about Muslim women. Given her passion and area of expertise, she did it visually rather than verbally.
In January, Mansourkhani and a group of 11 fellow artists, many of them students, demonstrated this conversation with vibrant, compelling 3-D pieces during an exhibition titled “Ms. Interpretation,” which was held at the Fox Fine Art Center’s Glass Gallery.
“Seeing how she worked with 11 students including myself and still created work for her own solo show was just incredible,” said senior studio art major Jose Morales. “As for myself or anyone wanting to become a professional artist, she is a great person to look up to.”
The exhibition focused on Western perceptions of Iranian women and a visual discussion between the teacher and student where each changes the other’s artwork to come to common ground. For Mansourkhani, it is nowhere near the end of the conversation.
Her appointment during the 2014-15 academic year had her inside the artist-in-residence studio of UTEP’s Fox Fine Arts Center. She offers career advice and artistic critiques while providing the local community with new works.
Through her efforts, Mansourkhani hopes to clear up misconceptions about Islam.
Mansourkhani’s main body of work as a Muslim woman who suffered discrimination –first for her gender back home in Iran, then for her religion and nationality after her move to the U.S. – has focused on the fact that ignorance and stereotype are as dangerous as outright oppression, and that persecution of women hurts all genders. She also strives to make viewers of her work as well as the students she teaches appreciative of the beauty of diversity.
The painter was born in Iran 48 years ago when it was still a secular kingdom. After the Iranian Revolution, women’s rights guaranteed by the constitution were abolished. War with Iraq further diluted internal society and Iranian leaders, aiming to smother oppositional forces often allied with equal rights, doled out even more oppressive laws and penalties they claimed were backed by Islamic doctrine.
Mansourkhani’s parents continued to cultivate an appreciation of humanity and a love of art in their daughter, who was given private classes to learn the fundamentals of painting. She went on to attend the University of Isfahan, majoring in botany, also marrying and having twin daughters along the way.
The family immigrated to the U.S. in 2003, where Mansourkhani was inspired by the freedom of her new country, but it was not easy being Iranian in a country where many held negative perceptions of the Middle East. Mansourkhani faced discrimination – this time for her nationality.
“Once again, I found salvation and comfort under art,” she said, deciding to continue her education with a master’s degree in drawing and painting at UTEP. “Art is an international language that knows no boundaries or prejudice. My goal was to portray Iran’s beauty and the difference between Iranian people and their government in Iran.”
After graduating, she served as a part-time lecturer at UTEP while completing an M.F.A. at New Mexico State University. She works with students on the nuances of using shape, color and stroke to get their message across in their work, and empathizes when it comes to concerns about balancing home, school and employment.
Heather Mawson, a senior majoring in sculpture, treasured Mansourkhani’s honesty.
“She’s not scared to tell you that something is bad or that you need to start all over. Through that, I felt I grew a lot as an artist.”
Mawson took full advantage of Mansourkhani’s increased availability with her residency, coming to the artist’s studio often for advice on living professionally since talent and creativity are only half of what students need to succeed once they’ve finished school.
“She gave me perspective about having to send work out internationally, the pros and cons and how much money goes into that,” Mawson said “I also talked to her a lot about where to get my M.F.A. and her experiences or what she heard from other people. It has all influenced my perspective on where my career is going as an artist.”
Mansourkhani’s work combines traditional calligraphy and Islamic symbols with the female form to convey her message. Her students seek guidance on how their work can do the same out of a desire to address border issues of immigration, femicide or the drug war.
“I tell them that they don’t have to show everything; they just have to point to their message and use another language to talk about it,” Mansourkhani said. “It’s more interesting because the viewer has to look to find something. The students like this part a lot.”
A lot of students ask for critiques, but the artist-in-residence also wants their opinions about what she’s doing.
“They’ll say, ‘Why do you have this line here – I think it’s distracting,’ and I’ll say, ‘You’re right!’ and change it,” she said. “They see that sometimes when I’m looking at a piece for a long time I cannot see it with the fresh eyes they have and how much their critiques help me.”
Mansourkhani’s residency will end with a solo exhibition June 2-11 in the Glass Gallery. In the meantime, she’ll continue providing a very necessary balance of criticism and encouragement to any student who comes her way.
“To be able to step into a professional artist’s studio is a wonderful resource,” Morales said. “It’s not easy to approach one; most are very busy and you have to make appointments, and even then it is not a sure thing you will meet with them. Having an artist-in-residence, it’s much easier to approach them for feedback or as a source for inspiration.”
Mawson hopes that more of her peers take advantage of that and become more empowered as a result.
“I feel like seeing her work and what she’s doing and what she’s come from,” she said. “It’s given me more strength to be able to be open and not scared to voice my own opinion about things I don’t agree with or things I think should change.”
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