Only a week in office, President Donald Trump scrawled his signature on the order, and thousands of Americans flooded airports nationwide to protest what they said was the new president’s malignant discrimination against Muslims seeking entry to the United States.

Kiana Pirouz went to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. She stayed two weeks, helping however she could, marveling at the turnout of protesters. Did Americans really need a “monster” and his self-described travel ban, she wondered, to drive home misdeeds their nation has dealt to people from the Middle East?

Mahya Soltani, who had moved to New York from Dubai six months earlier, cried on the street, thinking as she looked at the impassive faces of passers-by: “These people don’t want me here.”

The two women, originally from Tehran, Iran, found each other soon after. Pirouz, 35, a marketing professional who came to the U.S. as a toddler, reached out on social media. After the 2016 presidential election, she recalled thinking to herself, “Wow, where is my community?”

Pirouz and Soltani, a graphic designer, have cultivated their own community now. The pair channeled their sadness and anger about Trump’s ban into something joyful: A celebration of artists from the seven nations targeted by the initial travel order, Before We Were Banned, a multimedia exhibition meant to showcase the truth of the people behind the inflammatory White House rhetoric and to initiate a healthier conversation about immigrants and refugees from the Middle East.

“The images you see on the news are war, dusty kids, women in hijabs,” Pirouz said. “It’s very flat. It’s one-dimensional.”

“Our first goal is mainly for those communities, those nations, to feel like they have a platform,” Soltani, 30, said. “But also to invite anyone curious to learn about these nations. How is Iran different from Iraq? How is Iraq different from Libya? These are narratives that haven’t been told.”

Before We Were Banned debuted at ArtHelix, a gallery in Brooklyn, N.Y., in late January — the one-year anniversary of the original travel ban, which stalled in federal courts. The exhibition has now come to Santa Fe and will open on Saturday for its first stop on what co-curators Pirouz and Soltani hope will be a broader tour of works from a dozen artists.

The reaction to the Brooklyn show — the pieces of which were identified through social media outreach, particularly Instagram — was a pleasant surprise for both women. The lines out the door and positive press, they said, reinforced the idea that the travel ban was not a universally shared American conviction but rather, Soltani said, a sort of temporary error, a “stupid, dumb, arbitrary …”

“Xenophobic law,” Pirouz cut in.

The show could have a more salient impact after the U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld the latest iteration of the travel ban, which includes the non-Muslim country of North Korea, on the grounds that president has power to take such action in the name of national security.

“Law of the land now,” Pirouz said, shaking her head.

But the art on display is not explicitly political, nor is the exhibition a bid to change anyone’s politics, Soltani said.

“This is, ‘We need to show the humanity of this story versus the sadness,’ ” Pirouz said.

The nations singled out in the 2017 travel ban were Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, but the home nations of the artists are conspicuously not identified in the installation, housed in a relatively new south-side gallery, East of West.

“It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter which art is from which country,” Pirouz said. “No two Yemenis have the same stories.”

Some of the pieces in the Santa Fe show are the same as they appeared in Brooklyn; others have evolved. There are mixed media, video installations, digital collages, oil paintings, photography and more.

The ultimate goal, Pirouz and Soltani said, is to sustain the Before We Were Banned concept in some form or another — perhaps a film festival. It’s a challenge as the exhibition is self-financed, they said, and they are not professional curators.

“We’re not art world people,” Soltani said. “It was very organic. We talked about it and said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ ”

“There are other ways to cut through the anguish of the day-to-day news cycle,” Pirouz said. “There are other ways to build community and celebrate it.”

Follow Tripp Stelnicki on Twitter @trippstelnicki.


What: Before We Were Banned exhibition

Where: East of West, 2351 Fox Road, No. 600

When: Saturday through Aug. 5



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