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NewsNov 9, 2022

Iranian artist turns encounter with U.S. Border Patrol into timely exhibit

Lesley Archivist Azadeh Tajpour calls for solidarity, allyship

B&W photo of Azadeh Tajpour in front of her artwork
Lesley archivist and multidisciplinary artist Azadeh Tajpour. Image: Melissa Blackall Photography

By Georgia Sparling

In 2018, a public library straddling the U.S. and Canada border got a reputation for being a safe meeting place for Iranian families separated by U.S. immigration laws and then-President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

The following year Azadeh Tajpour and her friend Fatemeh Moghaddam, both Iranian, drove to this “geopolitical gray zone” on the Vermont-Quebec line to meet Moghaddam’s family. The encounter did not go as planned.

Art gallery with a line down the center
A line down the center of the gallery indicates the boundary lines drawn at the library. Image: Melissa Blackall Photography

A U.S. Border Patrol officer stopped the reunited family from entering the library, whose door is on the U.S. side of the border. According to Tajpour, the officer then watched the family from his car, interrupting them after 20 minutes and calling them untrustworthy for staying longer than the five minutes he’d allotted them. Meanwhile, others entered and exited the library without a comment or inspection.

“It was clear that it was a racial profiling,” says Tajpour, Lesley’s archivist and a second-year studio resident at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Using video and audio that she and Moghaddam recorded during the encounter, Tajpour has recreated the scene as “Project Room No. 2: Azadeh Tajpour,” her new exhibit at the center’s Mills Gallery.

“It's not a linear narrative about our story, but it kind of tells you about the feeling and the experience,” says Tajpour.

Iranian origins

A native of Tehran, Tajpour grew up amid turmoil. “The first eight years of my life, the country was in war with Iraq,” she says. “There has always been a crisis.”

Moving to the United States in 2008, she earned her master’s degree in art history and her MFA in visual arts on the West Coast. She has exhibited in Boston, Los Angeles, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom and Iran with artist fellowships and residencies, including residencies at the Virginia Center for the Arts and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Fellowship.

Paintings on a wall show a view through windows
Paintings by Azadeh Tajpour show the scene from her viewpoint inside the library. Image: Melissa Blackall Photography

Tajpour, who previously worked as an archivist at Harvard University before coming to Lesley, often employs archival images and found footage “exploring the gray area and the shifting borders between ‘us’ and ‘other,’” she says in her artist statement. 

“Us” and “them” is a border Tajpour feels often. Being physically separated from the daily restrictions of life in Iran continuing to feel the tug of her home country as injustices mount. She has also chafed against American stereotypes, the “ways that you constantly find yourself trying to explain and clarify. There's always a struggle to be understood. And you're fighting multiple fronts,” she says.

Calling all allies

Tajpour’s current exhibit is a prime example. “Project Room No. 2” tells the story of the fraught encounter with the agent. The gallery floor is lined with tape and rocks that mimic the physical boundaries visible at the library. A video of a Canadian woman entering the library is projected on one wall. Headphones play the voice of the officer while a flip book shows images from the encounter.

“I am interested in these moments and the way we experienced it and trying to convey that to other people,” she says.

She and Moghaddam, a gender studies doctoral candidate at Syracuse University, took the exhibit opening as an opportunity to also discuss the ongoing protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the “morality police.”

Image of rocks
Images of rocks that mark the U.S.-Canada border. Image: Melissa Blackall Photography

The two talked about the need for solidarity over the ongoing injustices in Iran.

“The Iranian diaspora have done a good job of uniting, and it's not reflected that much in the media,” Tajpour says. “To know that you are being heard and acknowledged by other people who are fighting similar fights…that was important for us to talk about.”

“Project Room No. 2” will be on display through Nov. 12. Hours and directions are available here.

At Lesley, Tajpour can most often be found at Sherrill Library, where she is organizing the university’s archives. She hopes to open the doors of the archives to visitors in the near future

“I'm hoping that we can have much more accessible atmosphere here, so it's easier for students and scholars,” she says.