The world of Iranian art is largely unknown to Westerners — something Iranian native Mamak Nourbakhsh '79 (English) hopes to change. Believing that "art and culture are the window to a country's people," Nourbakhsh opened Gallery Mamak in Tehran in 2001 as a venue to showcase Iranian art and culture to the outside world. In 2008, the gallery went online, becoming the first English website to offer works of contemporary Iranian art and literature.
"Unfortunately, Iranians are depicted as fanatics dead set against the entire world, and that is far from reality. I hope, by presenting Iranian culture on the site, to portray a more realistic picture of Iranian life," says Nourbakhsh, who lived and studied in the United States, Britain and Iran before coming to Bucknell as an English major in 1975.
Her plan to return to Bucknell to pursue a master's degree in 1979 was foiled by the Iranian Revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, which turned a summer at home into a three-decade stay. "I didn't want to leave my family, so I decided to stay here for one year. Then the Iran-Iraq war started, and eventually the borders shut down. One thing led to another, and I remained here for 32 years," she explains.
Working as an English teacher and translator, she endured Iran's political and religious upheavals as well as her own personal challenges as a divorced mother of two children. She credits her education at Bucknell with helping her handle the experience of "returning to a zone of religious fanaticism and patriarchal dominion and being forced to continue living there," she says.
"Without the analytical work, philosophical and psychological reading I explored as an undergrad, I wouldn't have known how to analyze what was going on around me or to deal with it all," she says.
Today, despite the country's strict religious government — which requires her to be partially covered whenever she appears in public — Nourbakhsh's gallery is thriving. The site sells a wide range of contemporary Iranian art and counts customers from across the globe.
Running an arts business in Iran is far from easy, though, Nourbakhsh says. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance exerts full control over the exhibition and sale of art, and sanctions mean Iranians cannot access credit cards or Paypal accounts, making e-commerce challenging. "We have learned to work around that," she says. "It doesn't stop business, it just makes it harder."
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