Artist Amitis Motevalli, who grew up in Los Angeles' El Sereno neighborhood after her family immigrated from Tehran in 1977, recalls pronounced racism, particularly in the early 1980s, after the Iran hostage crisis.
"We had privileges my friends back in Iran didn't have, but there was also a lot of prejudice toward people who were Muslim or seen as Muslim," Motevalli says. People would say, "'Your culture is so sexist,'" she remembers, "or people would shout out obscenities in public to my parents because they were from Iran. It felt impossible they'd have an understanding of our culture."
More than 30 years later, Motevalli, project manager at L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, is blending her passion for art and civic engagement to educate people about the nuances of Islamic arts and culture. She's one of the founders of the L.A. Islam Arts Initiative (LA/IAI), a citywide event that ramps up Sunday and brings together about 30 local arts institutions including REDCAT and CalArts to present traditional and contemporary Islamic art in exhibitions, performances, films, lectures and other events for the next 2-1/2 months.
The project -- two years in the making and involving more than 100 Muslim and non-Muslim artists from around the world -- was initiated by former Cultural Affairs Department head Olga Garay-English, who brought on Motevalli.
The goal, beyond educating the public about Islamic arts, is to deflate stereotypes.
"People under the umbrella of Islamic culture may include Sikhs, Armenians, Jewish people living in predominantly Islamic countries. But people mistake the culture as something that's singular -- and sometimes, a culture of violence or victimization," Motevalli says. "So we want to switch it up and show multiplicities. And start a general dialog, also including those who are mistrusting of Islamic culture. I think that's important, especially right now."
The two exhibitions anchoring LA/IAI, "Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art" and "Shangri La: Imagined Cities," are on view at Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood. The Doris Duke exhibition, organized by the New York-based Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, has been traveling since 2012, with stops at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C. It explores philanthropist, horticulturalist and tobacco heiress Duke's vast art collection, which she accumulated throughout her life largely while traveling through South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as her Marion Sims Wyeth-designed home in Honolulu, dubbed Shangri La, which housed her art.
The companion show, "Imagined Cities," was commission by Cultural Affairs and is curated by Iraqi-born Rijin Sahakian. It hasn't been shown elsewhere. It shows the work of eight contemporary artists of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, including African American L.A. artist Charles Gaines and Afghan artist Mariam Ghani. The work, organized around the theme of fabricated identities as well as the body in transit across borders and checkpoints, spans multiple mediums, including drawing, photography and video installations.
Ancillary events include a program of films at REDCAT by Iranian women, "A Woman Is Worth a Thousand Questions," some exploring women's relationship to Islam and Iranian society; a contemporary dance series at downtown's Grand Park featuring the L.A.-based contemporary Indian dance ensemble Blue13; a dialogue about Islamic Chinese culture, hosted by the Chinese American Museum and held over a Chinese-Islamic feast at a Rosemead restaurant; and an exhibit exploring hip-hop culture's relationship to Islam at the William Grant Still Arts Center, a West Adams institution where Motevalli is director.
It was Motevalli's idea to add to the Doris Duke show by including "Imagined Cities."
"Looking at artists under the umbrella of the Islamic world and having a discourse on peoples' culture and lives, it's important to look at what people are doing now," Motevalli says. "It's certainly important to look at the collection of Doris Duke -- she was one of the first Western collectors of Islamic art -- but when it comes to how people are thinking, practicing and expressing themselves through art today, it's different, because of time, politics, the transnationality that people have now. So we wanted to have a contemporary aspect so we were brought up to date."
The opening Sunday, from 1 to 7 p.m., includes mural-making and printmaking led by Self Help Graphics & Art; the DJ collective Discostan, which plays rare music from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa; and an artists talk featuring Ghani and Lebanese artist George Awde, moderated by Mostafa Heddaya, an editor at the arts site Hyperallergic.
"Doris Duke's Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art" and "Shangri La: Imagined Cities" will be on view until Dec. 28. For more on other LA/IAI events: laislamarts.org