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Women share their history through art

By Ashley Maher
On March 2, 2014

Friday, Feb. 28, the William Benton Museum of Art hosted the latest installment of their popular "The Salon at The Benton: Art and Conversation" exhibition. A substantial group filled the gallery during the evening for hors d'oeuvres and wine, casually chatting before the start of the speaking panel. The topic of this salon was "Herstory and Memory," a talk that would connect women's history with "Persepolis," this year's UConn Reads book, with art created by women or about the lives of women.
The panel featured three speakers: moderator Cathy Schlund-Vials, Director of the Asian American Studies Institute and Associate Professor of English and Asian American studies at UConn, and panelists Kathleen Holgerson, Director of the Women's Center at UConn, and Afarin Rahmanifar, Persian artist and Professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and UConn alumna. Each of the women offered a great deal of perspective on what it means to be a woman and provided their piece of the conversation on women's stories told through art and literature.
Once the cocktail portion came to a close, the audience gathered in the seating area where the three speakers sat in the front. Alongside them three key pieces of artwork, one created by Rahmanifar herself, which were presented during the panel.
"What does 'Herstory and Memory,' the title of this salon," Schund-Vials questioned the panelists, immediately opening the floor to conversation, "mean to you?"
"The term interrupts default thinking," commented Holgerson. "It questions whose story is being told and how memory is shaped. Memory is impacted by our positions of privilege and disadvantage. The idea is about making visible visions of women's memory, making space for voice and validation."
"The concept of memory is quite relative," Rahmanifar responded. "I moved to America at 25 for school and it was a challenging transformation. I have attachments to my past that I cannot let go, but my intellectual character defines me and holds me as an American woman. I exist between two areas- this brought me to a personal duality." This personal duality proved to be a major theme in much of Afarin's artwork. The audience was then presented one of her pieces and began discussing the themes within the art and how their relation to the overall conversation regarding how women's stories are told as well as their validation.
Schund Vials then addressed her next question, "how do you interpret the word 'Feminist'?"
"It is important to understand the fluidity and rigidity of the term. At the women's center we define this as the belief that all women have the right to their own bodies and destinies," said Holgerson, "But the term is evolving so we have adopted an intersectional approach. It is important to look at race, sexuality and religion."
"The middle east has a different kind of interpretation. Iranian women have fought so much for basic human rights and now have many more rights than before. But there is a back and forth concept of feminism," said Rahmanifar.
This led to a group, even audience wide, conversation about the topics at hand. Audience members took turns responding to these questions, posing their own questions and even providing their own interpretation of the art that was presented and how they felt it reflected the previously lost stories of women. Connections were drawn to the graphic novel "Persepolis," and the group discussed the effectiveness of Marjane Satrapi's choice of making her emotional narrative in a graphic, usually comic, form.
The talk proved to be insightful, intellectual and enlightening. The spark of conversation as well as the knowledge and curiosity of both the panelists and the audience as a whole was stimulating and exciting. The next salon is planned for April 11 at The Benton.

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