Bricks, calligraphy and yellow "Do Not Enter" police tape are three elements not normally brought together under one gallery roof. But at Hopkins Center for the Arts, they're skillfully used to discuss immigration, the refugee struggle and the impact of the media on relations between the Middle East and the West.
Minnesota-based artists Nooshin Hakim Javadi and Pedram Baldari and California-based Arash Shirinbab and Forrest Lesch-Middleton have spent five years collaborating on this show. Three are of Iranian origin, and together they try to unpack so much that at times the show almost goes into information overload.
Three installations occupy the center of the gallery, while the surrounding walls are covered with impeccably crafted stoneware. The first installation, "E Pluribus Unum" — the U.S. motto meaning "one out of many" — includes a shiny silver acrylic mirror of the American flag mosaicked in a traditional Iranian patterning technique. Below it, a pile of bricks look as if they've been salvaged from rubble, not unlike those seen in media images from Syria. They're partitioned off with "Do Not Enter" tape — but a sign says the bricks are available for sale.
The juxtaposition of welcoming viewers while keeping them out is reminiscent of the ongoing struggles over immigration and refugees. The flag offers no answers, only a muddled reflection of the self for anyone who stands in front of it.
Nearby, a wall has been covered in calligraphy by Shirinbab, with patterned tiles making up the floor below it. Next to it hangs a translation of a poem by Sherko Bekas, an Iraqi-Kurdish writer. The poem is told from the perspective of the wall, which is saddened and angry because it had been covered in propaganda. Across from it floats a giant red advertising balloon girdled by a band of "Do Not Enter" yellow tape, and weighed down by a replica of a gold commemorative key to the Statue of Liberty as it ever-so-slowly deflates. Again, a reminder of the complications of immigration, and of access to political power.
Beautiful ceramics form the other element of this exhibition. Some of these collaborations by Shirinbab and Lesch-Middleton are more utilitarian — the gracefully crafted brown-and-beige plates "Tale of Love (Large) Plate I, II, and III," with Arabic-Persian calligraphy, could have come from an ancient era. Shirinbab's intensive study of the elegant Arabic script known as Thuluth and the Persian style Nataliq gives the calligraphy a spiritual quality.
Other stoneware works, such as "Serving Platter IV," include typewriter-style text from tweets about immigration ("Unless you're an indigenous native American, we're all immigrants. ALL OF US ... "). The literalness of these plates feels a little trite but also painfully accurate. A lot of political information is communicated through tweets these days because #thetimes theyareachanging.
There is some dark humor to this heavy show. Near the entrance, a series of bricks depicting U.S. presidents kissing or making love to Iran's post-Revolution leaders — Ronald Reagan and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Donald Trump and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and others — offers a sharp critique of the two nations' fraught relationship, going all the way back to the CIA's help in overthrowing Iran's prime minister in 1953.
The tangled mess of U.S.-Iran relations, current U.S. politics and the often inhumane conditions that immigrants suffer come through loud and clear in this refreshingly bold exhibition.