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Back in March, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lifted the import ban on some yummy Iranian foods—caviar and nuts among them—formerly illegal under the U.S. trade embargo. Coincidentally, those goodies make perfect hors d’oeuvres for an art opening.

A trio of American art impresarios must think so, too. They slipped some canvases in with the pistachios and put together a show of some 30 Iranian artists called “The Silent Brush: Selected Works by Contemporary Iranian Artists.” The show marks the first time since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that many of the artists have displayed their work in the States. Maryam Ovissi, whose Emeryville, Calif., gallery deals in Iranian and Iranian-American art, cooked up the idea with Tehran gallerist Aria Eghbal back in 1998. The pair teamed with two other Tehran galleries and D.C.-area arts promoters—Aisha Davis and Sarah Barzmehri—to mount this show, which lifts the cultural dropcloth on Iranian artwork.

Davis says the exhibition title refers to the decades of artistic goings-on to which we Westerners haven’t been privy. “All of this [Iranian work] has been going on really quietly,” she explains, “without the rest of us outside Iran knowing what’s going on. It’s like it’s been going on behind a wall.”

Barzmehri, an Iranian who came to the United States for school in 1991 and stayed, says that many artists emerged in post-revolution Iran, where a clampdown on cutting loose had folks seeking new forms of expression. “People in Iran are very interested in galleries and music,” Barzmehri explains, “because there are no clubs.”

In Iran, cutting loose on canvas isn’t particularly easy, either. Government restrictions on representation make taboo such art-historical staples as drinking, debauchery, or entwined lovers. “You can’t even show intimacy,” Ovissi says.

Women prove especially tricky subject matter. Ovissi assures me that Gizela Varga-Sinai’s canvas Pomegranate Princess, which shows a woman’s face emerging from the storied fruit, is OK—the figure is copied from sculpture. Ovissi considers for a moment and says, “You can depict a woman if it’s poetic.” And if she’s clothed from ankle to neck. When in doubt, abstraction is a safe bet. Much of the work produced in Iran, according to Ovissi, “tends to be color, form, line.”

Sounds like the kind of stringent rules artists ought to rage against. But apparently Iranian artists don’t consider the restrictions censorship. “It’s an absolute,” Ovissi says. “It’s understood.” Most just keep on keeping on. “No matter what,” the gallery owner says, “you’re not going to let the government shut you up.”—Jessica Dawson

“The Silent Brush: Selected Works by Contemporary Iranian Artists” is on view at the Atrium Gallery in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, to May 31.