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Painting as political platform: Peoria painter uses art as a tool for Iranian civil rights advocacy

Lauren Warnecke
Shahrbanoo Hamzeh stands in front of the latest "Delightful Scar" painting, now on display at the Performing Arts Center at Illinois Central College's East Peoria campus.

Works by Peoria-based painter Shahrbanoo Hamzeh are on display now at Illinois Central College in an exhibit titled “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Hamzeh’s art reflects women’s experiences in her home country of Iran, drawn from two ongoing series called “Delightful Scars” and “Welcoming in the Front Door.”

A small crowd gathered in the lobby of Illinois Central’s Performing Arts Center Wednesday for a brief speech. Standing in front of her paintings, Hamzeh talked about things Americans can do to support Iranians amidst civil rights protests that began when a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, died in September under suspicious circumstances shortly after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing a hijab.

In an interview after the speech, Hamzeh said the protests have inspired her to speak out and frame her artwork differently.

“I watched very young girls taking off their scarf, burning it in the street,” she said. “It’s just so brave because their lives are in danger. They can get executed for that.”

Hamzeh views “Women, Life, Freedom” as a platform to do what she can to support Iranians from afar. Since arriving in central Illinois in 2018 to pursue a graduate degree in painting at Illinois State University, Hamzeh’s work has mostly gravitated toward women’s issues and her experience living in Iran. She previously showed work in a solo exhibition at McLean County Arts Center in Bloomington, and curated a group show of female Iranian artists for the Joe McCauley Gallery at Heartland Community College in Normal.

Paintings within the series “Welcoming in the Front Door” depict metal doors with decorative elements characteristic of homes in Iran, while her “Delightful Scars” series is more abstract, with layered female forms and color palettes indicative of flesh. The latest in this series, which is included in the exhibit at ICC, depicts Iran’s borders morphing into a female jaw and body.

Gallery director Christopher Gauthier recently revived Illinois Central’s exhibitions, which laid dormant for several years. Gauthier said painting and sculpture have been commonly represented throughout the gallery’s history, but Hamzeh’s advocacy surrounding the show is something he’s not observed in his six years at the college.

“This is really pertinent and relevant,” Gauthier said. “The problems in Iran are a larger example of what could and possibly might happen to our country if we surrender our freedoms.”

Hamzeh urged attendees to post about the protests on social media, to contact legislators involved in foreign policy initiatives and, of course, to make art.

“I decided to use this exhibition to gather more people and get to talk about it,” she said. “I basically want to help people, mostly women, mostly youth.”

“Woman, Life, Freedom” is on view through Dec. 12 at the Performing Arts Center on Illinois Central College’s East Peoria campus, 1 College Drive.

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