Arts and Culture

‘Female autonomy’ versus ‘betrayal’: Macalester closes, then reopens, art gallery after pushback from Muslim students

A neon sign reading Woman Life Freedo in Farsi and English
A neon sign with the Iranian protest slogan "Woman Life Freedom" in Farsi and English, by Taravat Talepasand.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A Macalester College art exhibit reopened Monday after a brief closure to address concerns from Muslim students.

It’s the second time in recent months that Muslim students at private liberal arts colleges in St. Paul have raised objections to art displayed on their campus. Both artists, born 700 years apart, have roots in Persian culture. At Hamline University, a student objected to a medieval painting of the Prophet Muhammad; at Macalester, students criticized contemporary depictions of Muslim women.

But the dispute at Macalester, an elite college with a focus on internationalism, has so far played out differently than a similar controversy at Hamline, a mile-and-a-half away.

Hamline made national headlines after a Muslim student objected to a 14th-century manuscript depicting the Prophet shown during an art history class. The professor, Erika López Prater, had provided verbal and written content warnings for Muslim students. Hamline chose not to renew her contract, sparking an outcry from academic-freedom advocates at Hamline and around the country. University administrators publicly labeled the professor’s actions Islamophobic. The professor sued the university for defamation and breach of contract. Hamline professors voted overwhelmingly to ask the university president to resign

At Macalester, students objected to images in an art exhibition by Taravat Talepasand, a contemporary, feminist Iranian American artist based in Oregon. Some sculptures and drawings in the exhibit depict exposed bodies of Muslim women wearing hijabs or niqabs. The college responded by closing the exhibit for a weekend; holding a community conversation; temporarily shrouding the gallery in black curtains; and then reopening the exhibit with a content warning and frosted glass on some of the gallery windows.

In its response, Macalester attempted to balance care for students, respect for diverse voices, and artistic expression.

Gallery art on a wall
A drawing of Taravat Talepasand’s mother, pregnant with the artist, standing with the woman who financed her education.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“The Law Warschaw Gallery reopened today after a short pause over the weekend,” said Macalester College in an emailed statement Monday. “During this time, we had several conversations with students, faculty, and staff to consider multiple perspectives from Muslim communities on campus, worked with the artist, and supported gallery staff. We also prepared the gallery to prevent unintentional or non-consensual viewing of certain works and added a content warning.”

Still, Macalester said, the art would stay up.

“We recognize and support the value and importance of artistic expression, including provocative art used in protest and social activism,” Macalester continued. “Therefore, the exhibit will remain open. We also recognize community impact and understand that pieces in the exhibition have caused harm to members of our Muslim community.”

Macalester declined to answer further questions about the complaints students raised, the conversation that took place, or the steps the college took to prevent unintentional viewing of the artwork.

Black curtains on a rod in front of exhibit
Over the weekend, black curtains temporarily covered Taravat Talepasand’s exhibit at Macalester College. The curtains were gone by the time Sahan Journal visited Monday afternoon.
Courtesy Taravat Talepasand

On Monday, when Sahan Journal visited the gallery in Macalester’s fine arts building, the black curtains were gone. Several pieces of purple construction paper lined the double glass doors. Two signs were taped to these doors, too. One provided a content warning; the other, a student-made flier, asked people not to attend the exhibit and provided a QR code with a link to a petition.

Ikran Noor, the junior American studies major who started the petition, said she is one of the few students at Macalester who wears a hijab. She said she supported much of the artwork, but wished the college would take down some of the more explicit pieces.

I think a lot of it is really proactive and really supportive of the Iranian women’s movement that’s happening,” Ikran said. “But the ones that are particularly depicting hijabi women and niqabi women, I think those should be put down.”

In a phone interview, Talepasand, 43, reacted to the weekend closure and the black curtains that temporarily covered the glass walls of the exhibit, calling it “censorship.” She understood the decision to shut down the exhibition for a weekend, she said, and asked for a content warning to be put up. But leaving the petition on the door of the exhibit was a “violation,” she said.

“I think it would be reasonable to demand the frosted decals and the petition be removed,” Talepasand said.

Macalester’s decision to keep the art up with a content warning left both Muslim students and the artist dissatisfied. But the decision has also not erupted in scandal—so far.

Blasphemy X

TARAVAT, an eponymous exhibition of Talepasand’s work, opened at Macalester’s Law Warschaw Gallery on January 27. Talepasand said she began conversations in 2019 with Macalester’s curators about an exhibition; she signed a contract in the summer of 2022. 

“As an Iranian American woman, Talepasand explores the cultural taboos that reflect on gender and political authority,” reads the biographical statement that accompanies the exhibit.

The work shows a mix of paintings, drawings, collage, sculpture, and video. A neon sign in the colors of the Iranian flag reads “Woman, Life, Freedom” in English and Farsi. One drawing shows Talepasand’s mother standing with the woman who funded her education. A phallic arch looms behind the women. The descriptive gallery label that accompanies the drawing explains that this arch represents the shadow of male power. 

Another painting—created directly on a sheet of Iranian rials that have been dosed with LSD—shows a woman slaying a white demon. Medieval Persian manuscripts show a male hero slaying the demon.

Some of the images are yet more provocative. One graphite and watercolor drawing shows a man beheading two women. An egg tempera painting called “Mohammed Meets Jesus” shows a teddy bear with a Ken doll, an allusion to the Sudanese teddy bear blasphemy case

And some graphite drawings show the bodies of Muslim women wearing hijabs or niqabs—clothing that is usually meant to preserve modesty. Two drawings, titled Blasphemy X and Blasphemy IX, show a niqab-clad woman pulling up her robe to reveal lingerie underneath. A series of porcelain sculptures show women who are entirely covered with a niqab, except for exposed, exaggerated breasts.

‘I felt degraded, dehumanized’

Ikran found out about the art exhibition from another student, but withheld judgment until she saw the art for herself. She did not attend the exhibition, but saw the art in an exhibit catalog that accompanies the display.

“I just felt really objectified, to be honest,” Ikran said. “I felt degraded, dehumanized.”

A door with trigger warning signs
The door to the Law Warschaw Gallery at Macalester College. After Muslim students expressed concern about some of the displayed artwork, the college added a content warning and took some steps, like the purple construction paper, so that students would not see the art involuntarily.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

For Ikran, this art exhibit felt very different from the art history lesson at Hamline, which Ikran perceived as contextual and within the bounds of academic freedom. (The adjunct professor, Erika López Prater, is now teaching a course at Macalester.)

The exhibition “just feels a bit targeting because there’s not that many Muslim students here,” Ikran said. “At a predominantly white institution, when I’m looking at who’s attending the school, who’s walking into this exhibit, without understanding and nuance, then it’s quite harmful.”

Ikran stressed that she supports the women protesting in Iran. But she felt that the art depicting hijabi and niqabi women was expressing opposition not to the government of Iran, but to Islam more broadly.

She attended a meeting Friday evening held by faculty, staff, and members of the administration to address community concerns. 

Kalid Ali, a Macalester sophomore who signed Ikran’s petition, recalled that some Iranian students at the meeting spoke in support of the exhibition. “Maybe another student will be okay as long as it has a warning,” he said. “But as someone who grew up respecting women and the hijab I wasn’t okay with it.” 

Ikran described an emotional meeting, in which some students cried. Because there are so few hijabi women students on campus, she said, the artwork made her feel singled out. She worried about how other students would see the art, and in turn see her. Some students at the meeting reported seeing non-Muslim students emerging from the exhibit and laughing.

Ikran thought Friday’s meeting would be a conversation about what to do next. However, she said, the administration had already sent a schoolwide email announcing the gallery would reopen on Monday. This timing made her feel like Macalester was not listening.

The email, from Lisa Anderson-Levy, Macalester’s executive vice president and provost, and Alina Wong, the vice president for institutional equity, acknowledges the “disrespect, disregard, and invisibility” that many Muslim students expressed about the art exhibit. The administrators also recognized that other members of the Muslim community “found powerful protest and support in Taravat Talepasand’s work.”

“As a community we can hold both of these responses and honor the many interpretations of the exhibition,” the email reads. “Unfortunately, as the Taravat exhibition was installed, we did not take the steps needed to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and awareness of the possible impact of the art. For this and for the harm it caused, we apologize.”

The email announced that the exhibition would reopen on February 6 with additional measures so students could see the work with “informed consent.”

“As a Muslim student I think I felt a kind of betrayal,” Kalid said. Still, he said, his view was not the only one worth considering. “I’m thinking they took into account different perspectives, different people’s views, and they decided the best way is to keep the exhibit and the content within the exhibits.” 

He described the college’s actions to help students avoid seeing the material accidentally as a “good step.”

Ikran questioned why the administration did not send an email to announce the exhibit and provide a trigger warning in the first place.

“It is really frustrating and emotionally draining for Muslim students, or BIPOC students, to have to educate everybody else on what’s going on,” she said.

She started a petition so that people could show their support for Muslim students. “It doesn’t look like the school administration is going to do anything anyway, but just to show the students that there’s other people standing with them.”

Woman, life, freedom

Talepasand, an assistant professor of art practice at Portland State University, was born in Oregon to Iranian parents in 1979, the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Her work is displayed in museums in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston; she has held exhibitions in New York, Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Turkey. 

“My artwork is unapologetic,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Oregon. “I’m making work that’s finding the similarities, not just differences, between East and West and how, in a lot of ways, they parallel. Sometimes it can be very political. Sometimes it can be very controversial. But I do firmly believe that art can promote these conversations.”

Talepasand spent a week in Minnesota installing the exhibit, speaking with students and classes who came to see the art. On opening night, she described a large turnout of students, faculty, and artists from the community. Talepasand was able to answer questions about the artwork from community members who attended. She also shared details of the meticulous practice and craft that went into creating her paintings and drawings.

“It was a really great celebratory night,” she said. “I had women from Morocco, Egypt, Iranians, who were really there to support my work.”

Talepasand used the exhibition platform “to be a voice and to share the awareness of what’s happening in Iran, but not only in Iran, but what is happening here in America,” she said. “We’re still fighting for female autonomy, right? And it’s very much a conversation that is happening in many other countries.”

A few days after Talepasand returned to Oregon, she heard about the backlash stirring at Macalester. She and the curators had held many discussions about not censoring the work. Now she heard that student workers were not feeling safe in the art gallery, and that catalogs from the exhibition were being thrown away. (A Macalester spokesman said he did not immediately have more information about allegations of harassment in the gallery.)

“I just wanted safety first of the students and my work,” Talepasand said. “So I really didn’t argue about the closure for the weekend or the pause. But nobody told me about the black curtain veiling all the windows. That’s a whole other level of censorship.”

Talepasand requested that the gallery add a “consent label.” “The door should be closed so that people can always read the consent to enter first,” she said.

She also requested that the gallery add a security guard and remove the black curtains. She  made clear that she did not want the gallery to move any of her artwork or add additional explanatory text. The art already has plenty of accompanying text, including a Talepasand biography, labels for individual pieces, and the exhibit catalog, she said. And still more information is available online through QR codes on the museum labels.

Gallery staff removed the curtains and told Talepasand they could easily call a campus security guard if needed, she said. They also assured her they would not move or add text to any of her work.

But she objected to the wording of the content warning, which cautions about not just sexuality but violence. And it bothered her to see that Ikran’s flier with the petition appeared next to the content warning, which Talepasand said created the impression that both messages were endorsed by the gallery.

“This is a violation,” Talepasand wrote in an email to Sahan Journal.

The artist said that the sculptures showing exaggerated bare breasts of niqabi women invoke the Venus of Willendorf, a Paleolithic statuette from 25,000 to 30,000 years ago, considered one of the oldest surviving works of art. But she said they also serve as a commentary on the culture of body-modification surgery in the Middle East. Some studies show that Iran has one of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery in the world.

She explained that her graphite drawings of a woman pulling up her niqab to expose lingerie  are based on an Iranian writer and rock-and-roll groupie, Roxana Shirazi, who wrote a book entitled The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran, Raised Backstage. Shirazi gave Talepasand permission to create art based on images of Shirazi from her book, Talepasand said.

“What I really wanted to highlight in this work is that there are women that were raised in a Muslim society, in a Muslim household, that have been sexually abused and have had sexual trauma. And that’s in this book,” Talepasand said. “Here’s a woman that is taking power in her body, that autonomy that we are talking about still today.”

‘Really hard conversations’

So far, about 80 people have signed Ikran’s petition. She shared it with Muslim Student Associations at other local colleges to garner support. 

“There’s no art that’s above critique,” Ikran said. “Critiquing the art is not silencing an artist. I should be able to say that, hey, as a Muslim woman on this campus who wears the hijab, this is pretty harmful to me. And this is pretty harmful to other women as well.”

“It’s not like I’m saying, no one should see the art,” she continued. “But take it elsewhere. As an institution, you have the right to say we don’t want to be associated with this sort of thing.”

Talepasand said that in future shows, she would make sure to have a content label and encourage conversations for groups that might have strong reactions to the art.

“I’m learning a lot from that moving forward,” she said.

She is glad that students are expressing themselves, and hopes the controversy leads to more discussion about art and censorship.

“My work is talking about really hard conversations about being a woman,” she said. “That’s just what it is. And I’d rather be making it than some white man.”