Monday, March 12, 2012

IRUS Art - Fostering Cross-Cultural Dialogue

By Heidi Noroozy

Life & Lines
by Negin Ehtesabian and Elizabeth Henrichs
Cross-culturalism is a world I know well. Raised in America by German and Swiss parents, I always felt like I was living in several countries at the same time. I spent my childhood in New England, but the stories my parents and relatives would tell of life in Germany and Switzerland inspired my imagination and made me feel part of a larger, global community. As a translator, I am constantly moving between two languages, and my marriage to an Iranian added another culture, language, and (best of all) cuisine.

Because of this tricultural background of mine, there is nothing quite as exciting as learning about the world in all its great diversity. The more exotic the community, the better. And yet, fascinating as this diversity is, what interests me most is not the ways in which people around the world are different, but the ways in which we are ultimately the same.

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian-born artist living in the United States who expresses a similar transnational interest in her work. In 2007, she became the driving force behind a cross-cultural art project that bridges the geographic and cultural gap between Iran and the United States. Known as IRUS Intercultural Collaborative Art, the project established a community of twenty artists, half of them in Tehran and the rest in Denver, who collaborated on artworks in various media, including painting, video art, drawing, photography, software, street art, and design. The finished pieces were exhibited in a show titled Dialogues, which was held in Denver and Chicago in 2009. Plans for an exhibition in Tehran fell through due to the political protests that followed Iran’s 2009 presidential election.

In an interview with the Denver University student newspaper, The Clarion, Morehshin described the concept behind IRUS (whose name is a blend of Iran and United States). “We are a community interested in breaking down the cultural stereotypes of Muslims and Middle East. We wanted to make art without seeing each other as members of nations but as individuals and human beings.”

Finger Quotes
by Morehshin Allahyari, Bailey Ferguson
and Sahar Bardaei

The collaboration began online with a blog, where the artists worked out the concept for Dialogues and decided on what media each artist would use (with Morehshin translating between Farsi and English). After they finalized the details, the artists in each country began creating their pieces. They then exchanged their work with counterparts in the other country, who either added to the original artwork or created new pieces based on the same concept.

In working this way across a cultural divide, the artists not only learned a great deal about the opposite culture, but they also had to invest a certain amount of trust in each other. The collaboration demanded faith that people with vastly different cultural experiences could understand each other’s views and perspectives. And it turned out that they could.

This intercultural trust was likely the easy part, compared to the logistics of shipping physical pieces of art between Iran and the United States. Since it is not possible to drop a package in the mail and expect it to arrive in the other country without problems, the IRUS artists mailed their work to Istanbul, where someone from Iran would pick them up and carry them across the border into Iran. Shipments in the other direction used the same process.

Dialogues is divided into several sections, or galleries, each centering around a specific theme and featuring collaboration between two or more artists. The one that captivates me as a writer is the Scheherazade and Mark Twain Wall, named after two storytellers who reflect the essence of Persian and American cultures. Scheherazade, you may remember, was the fictional princess from the Arabian Nights, who saved her life by telling 1,001 stories (one each night) to the king, who married a new virgin every day and beheaded the previous day’s bride. Mark Twain needs no explanation, but his tales of life in the American Midwest though novels such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are as American as apple pie. And yet both Scheherazade and Mark Twain are part of world literature, also crossing cultural divides.

Sharzad and Mark Twain
By Negin Ehtesabian, Paris Mahtosh, Saeed Ensafi, Neda Azimi
Bailey Ferguson, and Majid Kashani

The collaboration on the Dialogues exhibition is completed now, but many of the artists in the IRUS community have remained in touch with each other. And so Morehshin’s idea of breaking through the cultural boundaries that divide us and finding the humanity that we all share is apparent on multiple levels – through the art works themselves and in the personal lives of the artists. 

Three of the IRUS artists (two Iranians and one American) are now working on a new collaboration titled Your Night/My Day, a multi-part series that illustrates the dysfunctional dialogue between Iranian and American cultures with the aim of reaching a better understanding through art.

Check out the IRUS Intercultural Collaborative Art website for more photos from the Dialogues exhibition, along with statements by the artists. More information about Morehshin Allahyari and her work can be found here.


  1. Love the idea of the Scheherazade and Mark Twain Wall. And a really nice idea, given the times.

  2. Beautiful concept and much needed. Kudos to Morehshin for making this happen. Look forward to seeing her and her posse succeed.