When Is a Boob Just a Boob? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

When Is a Boob Just a Boob? 

Harper College booted Amir Normandi's exhibit for lack of "intellectual content." Visitors to a remount in Pilsen can decide if it was a good call.

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Last year photographer Amir Normandi mounted an exhibit in his Pilsen gallery of photos by students depicting the daily life of women in Iran. Normandi had smuggled the images out in early 2001, and the show, "Hejab Exposition," attracted a fair amount of interest and an invitation to bring it to Harper College, where it was up for eight days last February. In the spring Normandi proposed another installation to Harper's international studies coordinator Richard Johnson. He says he told Johnson that the photos would be shot in Chicago and that they would portray "defiance of the hejab," explaining that he sees the garment as a vehicle and symbol of oppression--a "solitary cell for women."

Johnson agreed to pay Normandi $2,500 for the proposed exhibit--$1,250 up front and the rest to come when the show opened. Normandi, who makes a living doing business portraits and passport photos in his studio at Jackson and State, set about taking some of the photos himself, using models in his studio. A Muslim who came to the United States from Iran in 1979, married an American, and says his family is directly descended from Muhammad, Normandi feels an obligation to "correct some things" imposed by his forefathers, including the assumption that a woman is not a "whole person" with equal rights. "My notion is that if my mother and sister and everybody else's mother and sister are oppressed, people have to be informed about it," he says.

Much of the resulting mixed-media show, "No Veil Is Required," with images by several photographers (including some shot by Bruce Powell on assignment for the Reader at Normandi's previous show), is a sort of "nothing comes between me and my burka" exercise. In Normandi's colorful scenes, hejab- and burka-clad women dangle bras and show their legs (the photos are more coy than graphic). Other images include a soft-focus portrait of a woman baring one breast by Rosy Torres, and Normandi's staged glimpse of a black-shrouded woman peering out from behind a rifle-toting man in Arab garb, titled "Secure in Saudi Arabia," which had been part of the previous Harper exhibit. There's also an installation that has Christian, Muslim, and Jewish clerics playing cards with bloodied hands, and a series of photos of one man alternately dressed as a Christian minister, an armed Arab, and what looks like a horned Jew. (Normandi says it's the devil in every man.)

Normandi installed the show in a hallway in Harper's music and art building October 25, working into the evening. When he returned the next morning, he says, Johnson inspected the show and accepted it, saying, "You've delivered and I'm going to release the funds that we owe you." But the next day Johnson called to report that the exhibit was "causing a lot of problems," and on the following day Normandi learned from an Internet news story that it had been taken down because of Muslim student protests. Normandi says Johnson told him things had gotten "out of hand," and he was removing it. A week later the college held a forum at which Johnson said the exhibit was not what he expected when he commissioned it. On November 9, a day after the forum, Harper president Robert L. Breuder told the student newspaper, the Harbinger, "I never saw the exhibit. I heard the reaction was negative. I'm pleased to see the faculty remove it. They should be applauded for it."

Johnson, who describes himself as a card-carrying member of the ACLU, says the issue is contractual, not a First Amendment matter. He says he was expecting something "in a photojournalistic vein of women in Iran defying hejab and possibly suffering consequences--something with a political context." What he got, he says, were "gratuitously offensive" images that "involved a considerable amount of nudity and very little intellectual content. They were taken by non-Muslim photographers, involving non-Muslim models." After objections came in, Johnson says, he first covered the nude images (because children were going through the hall to music lessons) and then, when the Muslim student association complained, covered the whole show. He says he offered Normandi a chance to remount, in a closed gallery, the kind of show Johnson originally thought he was getting. Normandi refused. What's happened since, Johnson says, is "a huge publicity stunt on [Normandi's] part." (After the Daily Herald reported that the show was down, Normandi issued a press release, and several television stations showed up at the forum.)

"We took heat for the show in February," Johnson maintains, "but I stood by it, because it had political, social, and intellectual value. My job is to bring challenging international programming to campus, not images that are shot in Pilsen of Hispanic models revealing their breasts." But there was no written agreement as to what the show would consist of, and Johnson now says that may have been "my greatest error." That, and his reaction when the work was put up: "I indicated to him that this was not what I thought we were getting, that we were going to take some criticism for this, but this is what we had. My responsibility at that moment should have been to say, 'This is not what we wanted; we need to take it down.'"

Speech and theater professor Jeff Przybylo, whose office is nearby, watched the whole thing unfold. "I saw him putting it up," Przybylo says. "I saw the entire exhibit. And then there were pieces of it that were covered. At first I thought, 'What a neat concept. This artist has art about covering and now they're covering part of the art.' The next day there were huge pieces of butcher paper covering it all, and I thought, 'Wow, this is so cool, now they've covered the whole thing.' Then they put a sign on top of it that said something like, 'This has been taken down because of complaints.' And then it clicked and I got furious. I'm a speech teacher. We teach freedom of expression. Our Constitution gives that artist the right to display his art without it being taken down because somebody is upset by it."

The ACLU contacted Normandi and was investigating, but this week he asked them to drop the matter, explaining via e-mail that he wants to "spare the tax-paying public the cost of defending Harper College administration."

No Veil Is Required

WHEN: Sat-Sun 11/26-11/27, noon-6 PM

WHERE: D'Last Studio and Gallery, 1714 S. Ashland

INFO: 312-942-1200

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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