Black and white and mostly grey
Giety Epting’s multi media Conversation in Veil explores what life is like under the veil
In October 2001, when Giety Epting returned to Iran after a 25-year absence, the Chico artist saw that much had changed. The elegant city of her birth, Isfahan, had tripled its population, crowding once-familiar neighborhoods with foreign buildings and filling the streets with a sea of traffic.
“The Iran I went back to was a completely different country,” Epting says. “It was impossible to recognize the places that I knew.”
But something else had changed that Epting found difficult to recognize. Everywhere she looked, she saw the women of Isfahan concealed in black head scarves and the rupoosh, a long, black coat. Black pants or dark stockings completed the outfit, so that even their ankles were hidden.
Before she left Iran for Chico in the mid-1970s, Epting says, none of the women in her immediate family wore the veil: “We never concerned ourselves with it unless we were going for a prayer at the mosque.” But the 1979 Iranian Revolution ordered women to cover themselves in public. Those who failed to do so could be arrested.
In Isfahan, Epting learned that she was no exception. While running an errand at a government building, she was searched and eye-balled by a female employee—perhaps best described as the “clothing police"—to make sure she was appropriately dressed.
“You can’t walk in here unless you wear this,” the employee informed Epting and handed her a sweeping black veil that covered her head and flowed down to her feet. In the country’s most conservative spaces, like the building Epting was attempting to enter, the veil—in addition to the head scarf and rupoosh—was mandatory. “I was so bothered by this, I forgot why I was there,” Epting recalls.
The incident was not the only one of its kind she would experience during her six-month visit home and it triggered feelings about veiling that she had carried her entire life. “I associated the veil with oppression of women,” she says, “with not allowing women to be active in public and in society.”
But the longer she was in Iran, the more she pushed herself to open her mind. “This is baggage you’ve brought from the past,” she told herself. “Let it go.”
Once she did, things started happening. “Amazingly, when I wore the veil a few times, I got a different feeling” she says. “I had this other experience.” Epting noticed, for example, that people paid more attention to what she had to say, not how she looked. “It was not about clothes, shoes, or physical appearance any longer,” she says. “Once all of that is out of the way, you are free to ask, ‘What am I about?’ “
In Epting’s current show, Conversation in Veil: Reflections in Black and White, she hopes to give the public a chance to probe that question as well. Hosted by 1078 Gallery, the show is an installation—Epting’s first—and is comprised of different pieces representing women’s experience, not just in Iran but everywhere.
Men and women visiting the show are invited to put on a veil, walk through the space, and see how it makes them feel. Epting asks only that visitors leave behind their preconceptions about the veil, admittedly a highly charged political and religious symbol, and focus on their own emotional response. “I want this to be about self-reflection,” she says. “Do they feel a sense of liberation? Do they feel trapped? Is there a sense of security with this barrier between them and the world?”
Epting acknowledges that she owes her ability to explore the veil and its meanings to the fact that she is not required to wear one. “The liberation I felt—would I have had that same feeling if I had to stay in Iran?” she asks.
She was moved by the women she encountered there who had no choice in the matter. “I was totally in awe of how much women had accomplished regardless of all that was put upon them,” Epting says. “The government makes you do something you don’t want to do. How do you turn that around and make it a positive for yourself? I saw women who were able to rise above it. They could live and breathe beyond the veil.”
When she returned to Chico, Epting began to think of women’s stories as subjects for her art. Amid the orchards and tall pines surrounding the studio she shares with her husband, artist Marion Epting, her work poured forth. She found herself gravitating toward materials derived from the earth, like soil and clay, to convey how women are “the vehicles of creation and the gatekeepers of life.”
Those themes and media appear in Conversation in Veil. Women’s connection to earth is represented in a roughly six-foot soil panel manipulated by hand with blue earth pigment. A mirror set beneath it gives the impression of water cascading beyond the floor line. Epting has strung delicate tree branches around the panel as well as swaying tree trunks—the remains of a dying walnut from her backyard.
Other pieces include images of women that Epting has overlaid with photographed objects that she brought back from Iran. A brass door knocker superimposed on a woman’s visage both obscures and crowns her. In Iran, front doors have separate knockers for men and women. “You can tell by the sound and the weight when it’s a woman knocking,” she explains.
Additionally, Epting has created a black-and-white documentary video comprised of interviews with 35 participants whom she invited to walk through the space wearing the veil then discuss their reactions on camera.
The public is invited to view the documentary at a closing reception at 1078 Gallery on Thursday, Dec. 1, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. And when they do, Epting hopes they’ll make some connections. “I want the show to create a bridge across the ocean to women who are in this position,” she says. “Just share one moment with them. It’s possible. I did it.”