Painter Shahrbanoo Hamzeh’s ‘Home’ on view at McLean County Arts Center

An art exhibition by East Peoria painter Shahrbanoo Hamzeh enters its final week at the McLean County Arts Center, a collection of 15 paintings in the Center’s Brandt Gallery. For her first solo show in Bloomington-Normal, Hamzeh draws from multilayered meanings for the word “home.”

Hamzeh defines “home” in three ways: her dwelling, her body and her native country, Iran.

“They were so connected,” she said, “The traumas, the suffering — the things I was going through as a person were happening in my own country.”

Hamzeh selected works from two ongoing series: “Delightful Scars” and “Welcoming in the Front Door.” The oldest and most literal painting in the set, called “Welcoming in the Front Door #4,” was created in 2019 and depicts a metal door like the ones Hamzeh remembers from Iran.

“When I was a child they were very common and they were used as doors for homes,” Hamzeh said. “At the time it was normal for me, but now when I think about it, metal doors look like prisons. The idea is that it’s for protection and for women’s safety, but it’s not. It’s just controlling.”

Others in the collection are more abstract, a blend of metallic and rusty hues that, according to Hamzeh, are meant to parallel the colors of flesh. Look closer and you can see figures of women, or sometimes animals. The doors have flowers etched into them, a soft touch on a cold, hard surface.

“That’s another irony,” Hamzeh said. “I thought, what’s behind those doors? The women are supposed to be safe. Are they safe?”

Hamzeh immigrated from Iran in 2018 to pursue graduate studies in painting at Illinois State University. As gallery coordinator at Heartland Community College’s Joe McCauley Gallery, she recently curated a collection of photography and other digital media created by female Iranian artists. Titled “Being a Woman,” that show provided an intimate glimpse at life for women in Iran. “Home” can perhaps be seen as Hamzeh’s personal contribution to that topic.

“It’s a little bit like me as a woman — how I function in a home setting, which is safe, but I’m taught to be cautious. I’ve been taught to not trust and to be worried all the time,” she said.

Hamzeh said “home” has a close connection to safety, but the only people who are safe in Iran are connected to the government.

“Other people — normal people — are not safe, in a very extreme way,” she said. “They could be dead tomorrow. It’s sad to say, but that’s the life. That’s my home.”

The duality Hamzeh experiences as an Iranian immigrant are front and center in her work, which shroud’s figurative images within abstract layers.

“Even in that situation I explained about my home country, we are living our lives,” said Hamzeh. “People dance, get married and try to live their lives in chaos. At the same time, this concept of duality is about the family too. Everything that is close to you and helpful can be dangerous. That’s my way of thinking, and I think it’s in my body of work, too.”

“Home” continues through Friday, May 27, at the McLean County Arts Center in downtown Bloomington. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

pevita pearce

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