Painter Hagit Barkai has lived in Houston only since September. But when ConcealDisclose , her two-person exhibition with photographer Tala Vahabzadeh, opens tonight at Art League Houston, she’ll already have fulfilled a dream that might have been difficult to realize in her native country, Israel.“I’m really happy to be showing work with an Iranian artist,” Barkai said of Vahabzadeh, a master’s-degree candidate at the University of Houston who is from Tehran. “One of the things that I really love about being in America is that I can meet those people who are considered my enemies. It’s a friendly environment, and a conversation is possible.”
For now, an in-person conversation will have to wait, because Vahabzadeh is back in Iran caring for her sick father. But the exhibit, curated by Beth Secor, will set up a dialogue between the works of two artists whose output, at first glance, appears to have little in common. Barkai is mostly showing works from her Every Body Knows series, in which naked figures, sometimes blindfolded, are depicted sitting, kneeling, vomiting or undressing in what appear to be harsh conditions of confinement.
Vahabzadeh’s photographs are self-portraits of the artist, fully veiled, in various scenarios. In one work, she eats an apple in a gardenlike setting while wearing a mask that depicts a face of innocence associated with Persian miniatures on top of her head. In another, she’s perched high in a tree — a reference to an Iranian joke that compares veiled women to black crows.
“(Vahabzadeh) is all covered up in the veil, and she talks about how wearing that veil makes her act differently than she really is, and how she’s trying to reveal what’s underneath it,” Secor said. In Barkai’s work, “everybody is completely uncovered and revealed, and yet there are still hidden aspects to what’s happened to these people. You can read about them and know what it’s about, but they’re also really enigmatic and mysterious, so I like that juxtaposition.”
To American viewers, Barkai’s paintings might seem reminiscent of photos released during the Iraq War documenting abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners. But Barkai said she began work on the series for her thesis project at Penn State University shortly after returning from Israel, where she had been during the 2006 war with Lebanon.
“I had all these opinions about Israel and criticisms about what my government is doing,” she said. “I wanted to create this process where I can feel the violations that are done in the name of my well-being. I wanted to feel what it is to go through this.”
In each painting, Barkai worked from photos she had taken of a variety of models, so that each picture depicts a composite figure rather than a specific person.
“It’s about moving between the feeling of being exposed and hiding,” she said.
Barkai said she has no expectations for how viewers should respond to her paintings.
“I wouldn’t tell them what to see,” she said. “I just hope they come and they say the truth about what they think about it.”