“Iranian women are known for using a lot of make-up, they’re the second largest importer in the world just after Saudi,” says Elham Salari. “Heavy usage of makeup is a statement of empowerment when the face is the only feature to show, so no surprise that nose operations are so popular there.”
Life in Iran to life here couldn’t be more of a stark contrast for artist Elham Salari, whose life has been all about contrasts.
Currently the Audience Engagement Officer at Hastings City Art Gallery, Elham loves connecting art with the visiting public.
When I drop by the gallery, Elham is explaining the Asia New Zealand Foundation ‘Visiting Asia’ exhibition to eight-year old Joseph and his ten-year old brother Nickora, as they tour the gallery with their mum.
Then, retired art teacher Roy Dunningham discusses an upcoming visit by senior citizens with Elham.
Roy’s a big fan of Elham’s work as an artist. One of her paintings, for example, is a powerful image of a woman whose mouth is covered by a scarf sewn into her cheeks. It’s a symbol of the subjugation and silence of women during Iran’s history – several hundred years ago one Persian Shah was famous for having 300 women in his harem.
“People usually get surprised with the facts they hear about my home country, Iran,” says Elham. “Iran is a big country in the Middle East, [but] some westerners do not even realize that Iran is not an Arab country. Iranians are Persians and they speak Farsi or Persian (not Arabic). The capital city is Tehran and 98% of people are Muslim, but they are much more secular than other Muslim countries.”
Born and raised in Tehran, Elham grew up amidst the war between Iran and Iraq. One of five siblings, she had an independent and inspirational mother, and a father who was, until the revolution, a photographer.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 that replaced a pro-Western Monarchy with an anti-Western theocracy and the following war between Iran and Iraq, created years of sanctions against Iran driven by the United States.
Growing up in a country under international economic sanctions was really tough. Elam recalls her father campaigning for workers’ rights when factory after factory were closed down and the famous Persian rug trade suffered.
“The U.S. said the sanctions were against the government but the sanction affected us very much, all individual Iranians, we felt it in every cell of our body, there was no access to medicine, to books for education.”
Elham's father joined the war effort to fight against Iraq, leaving Elham’s mother to bring up five children on her own. Elham remembers strict food rations but she also remembers a passionately arts loving, highly educated and close knit family. “My father is so courageous. I hope I can have a little bit of that in my life. My mother is such a role model.”
It was a time of hardship but in spite of this the famous Persian hospitality couldn’t be quelled. Elham remembers the neighbourhood sharing what little they had with each other.
Elham’s name means 'inspiration.' At the age of 26 Elham travelled to Hyderabad, India, to further her education. She met her husband Ben there, a fellow Iranian. After living and working in India, Elham and Ben decided to move to New Zealand. That was five years ago.
"So do Iranian women drive cars?"
It’s this kind of annoying F.A.Q. that Elham laughs at. Elham is globally educated; she has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tehran University of Fine Arts, a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Hyderabad, India and a Masters in Visual Material Culture from Massey University in Wellington. "Iranian women," Elham says, "are anything but how western media has painted them."
Elham is keen to set the record straight. Later at her home in Hastings, Elham serves traditional cinnamon flavoured black tea from tiny silver & glass tea cups. It's an elegant and age old ritual, like many aspects of Persian culture.
“If you talk to any Iranian living outside of Iran - the media paints the wrong image about our country - that frustrates me a lot.”
“One of my sisters is a journalist for Tehran’s, Hamshahri Newspaper (Citizen of the City) and my youngest sister is a talented documentary film-maker, one of the "hundred talents in the world", whose most recent project is about Afghani migrants in Iran.”
“Iranian women are not dull or subjugated as Western media suggests. Iranian women are part of every aspect of Iranian culture, sports and politics. Over 65% of tertiary students are women in Tehran. The ratio of female students in the engineering fields in Iran is more than any other country in the world. Iranian women are full of life.”