By Alex V. Cipolle

For The Oregonian

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“Naeemeh Naeemaei: Dreams Before Extinction and Under the Earth, Over the Moon” at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene" class="auto" target="_blank">class="Toolbox_chatter">

In fall 2017, Naeemeh Naeemaei rolled up her massive paintings of Caspian tigers, Imperial eagles and Persian sturgeons, slipped them into tubes, tucked them in a suitcase and left Iran for the United States.

Less than two years later, the artist is making her U.S. debut at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. Running through Dec. 31, “Naeemeh Naeemaei: Dreams Before Extinction and Under the Earth, Over the Moon “ features two series of paintings, one created in Iran from 2009 to 2012 and the other painted at her Eugene home in 2018 and 2019.

This is no small feat, considering that in January 2017 the Trump administration introduced Executive Order 13769, which has delayed or halted U.S. entry visas for citizens of nations linked to terrorism, including Iran. Naeemaei came to the U.S. as a dependent of her husband, also an Iranian citizen, who acquired a student visa after several setbacks.

“It was so difficult,” Naeemaei recalled. “Diplomacies affect cultures deeply, in this case by preventing cultural exchanges.”

Naeemaei operates where art meets environmental activism. From her childhood, her parents, who live in Iran, instilled in her an appreciation for the arts and nature.

Her paintings depict the endangered and vulnerable species that crisscross Iran — the hawksbill turtle, the Persian cheetah, a newt known as Kaiser’s spotted newt or the Luristan newt — and dismantle what she calls the artificial boundaries that set apart human and animal.

On large canvases, Naeemaei’s use of light against dark backdrops, bursting with ruby reds, are reminiscent of the realism of the Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio.

For each animal she paints in oil and acrylic, Naeemaei traveled with her mother to the far corners of Iran to photograph the animal’s habitat and research the culture of the nearby people whose costumes and customs become part of the painting. Naeemaei often appears in her work, as herself or a stand-in for humanity at large.

“The reason that those animals are on the edge of extinction is usually related to humans, local people or communities,” she said.

One work in “Dreams Before Extinction,” the 2011 piece “Siberian Crane,” pays homage to a beloved crane in Iran called Omid (Farsi for “hope”), one of the last of a population that migrates each winter to the rice farms on the Iranian coast of the Caspian Sea. In the painting, Naeemaei dons a white chador in reference to the region’s old way of dress, adding a red scarf to mimic the crane’s blazing beak, while holding a book above Omid’s head.

“There is a very traditional custom in Iran that when someone leaves the family for a long journey, they put the holy book of the Quran above the head of the traveler,” she explained. “It is ensuring that the person comes back safe.”