Communicating “otherness” through art

Selected for her moving work that reflects her personal experience of being a woman and an immigrant, Saeide Mirzaei’s paintings hang in Appleby Hall through December.

Saeide Mirzaei stands beside her oil paintings exploring the experiences of immigrant women in the U.S. on the garden level of Appleby Hall on Sept. 20, 2017.

Easton Green

Saeide Mirzaei stands beside her oil paintings exploring the experiences of immigrant women in the U.S. on the garden level of Appleby Hall on Sept. 20, 2017.

Kate Drakulic

Curated by the University of Minnesota’s Women’s Center, the Appleby Hall Art (AHA!) Gallery recently installed “Other,” by artist and University English Ph.D. candidate, Saeide Mirzaei. 

“Other,” consists of six vibrant oil paintings on stretched canvas. Varying in size, some include nature or local city landscapes, and each includes a female figure, often portrayed in traditional Iranian dress. 

“I’ve been painting mostly about my own experiences as an immigrant woman here,” Mirzaei said, who grew up in Iran. “But I hope that some of these experiences are at least, to some extent, shared with other women who are going through similar things.”

Mirzaei recalls always having an interest in drawing, specifically drawing people. She received constant encouragement from her mother.

“Growing up, my mom was my art critic and writing critic, and she was my biggest fan,” Mirzaei said.

Her father, however, was not as supportive. Mirzaei said it was partially because of his Islamic beliefs and partially because he simply thought art was a waste of time. She remembered hiding in corners to keep drawing, out of sight from the disapproval of her father and family. 

“My aunt, for example, viewed [drawing people] as meddling in God’s work,” Mirzaei said. 

It wasn’t until college that Mirzaei began to experiment and expand her medium from graphite and colored pencil to oil paints. She is entirely self-taught. 

Today, Mirzaei’s works encompass a feeling of otherness. It began when she came to Alabama to receive her MFA in creative writing nearly six years ago. 

Amid a huge culture shock, Mirzaei recorded her feelings in writing. She wrote about her cultural experiences and compared and contrasted the experiences of being a woman in the U.S. and in Iran. 

Some of her written works were published, but even with an extensive background in immigration history and policy, and in legal and political discourse, she found that a few of her feelings and experiences were more difficult than others to accurately communicate. 

“When you keep reading about that and thinking about that and writing about that, sometimes there are things that are hard to express with words,” Mirzaei said. “They come more easily in the form of colors and shapes, and those were the times that I painted about what I found hard to express in writing.”

Mirzaei worked on “Other,” during the three years she’s lived in Minnesota. The first painting she made for the collection is a portrait of a girl in traditional North Iranian clothes, dancing on a floating piece of ice in the middle of a frozen landscape. The girl wears a soft smile, and her long dark hair, which strongly resembles Mirzaei’s own, cascades behind her.

“The majority of people, no matter how nice they are, they unintentionally and unconsciously constantly remind you of your otherness,” Mirzaei said. “I’m not saying that they’re malicious or they have bad intentions, but especially in social contexts, you always realize that you’re the other … which is a little painful.”

The work will be on display through the semester, along with a guest book where visitors can leave comments for Mirzaei. It currently reads, “Beautiful, ethereal, powerful. Thank you for sharing this work!”