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Travel ban creates anxiety in Boston arts community

School of the Museum of Fine Arts student Minoo Emami is worried about how the travel ban might affect plans to return to Iran this summer.
School of the Museum of Fine Arts student Minoo Emami is worried about how the travel ban might affect plans to return to Iran this summer. John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Since enrolling in a Boston art school two years ago, Minoo Emami has returned to her native Iran each summer as part of an ongoing project in which she collaborates with local women to explore the effects of war, transforming broken or used artificial limbs into works of art.

“They think that I’m their voice,” said Emami, who exhibited some of the works last spring at University of Massachusetts Boston’s Harbor Gallery. “It gives them confidence. It helps them in their life.”

But Emami, who holds an Iranian passport, says the project is in jeopardy after President Trump signed an executive order in late January to temporarily ban people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. As the battle over the travel ban works its way through court appeals, she finds herself among a cohort of foreign-born artists in Boston who say their work and lives could be significantly disrupted by the travel ban, which — if upheld — could bar them from returning to the United States if they left for work or to visit family. The ban was temporarily suspended after a Friday ruling by US District Judge James Robart.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Emami, a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. “I can’t go back to Iran this summer to continue the project, so all my plans are, I don’t know, they’re nowhere. I don’t have any idea what’s next.”


Uncertainty over the ban, which was designed to include citizens of Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Sudan as well as refugees, has also led a smattering of Boston arts organizations to assess whether they’ll have to scrap upcoming events involving individuals from the affected countries.

The Museum of Fine Arts is wondering whether it will have to cancel a lecture this March that features Iranian architect Farshid Moussavi, who is partly based in London.


“Unless I am absolutely sure that I’m not going to be put in an uncomfortable situation, I will not go,” Moussavi, who is also a professor at Harvard University, said by Skype from London. “I have a daughter here. I have a business to run. I am not prepared to be exposed to bad treatment.”

MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum said that the uncertainty created by the ban raised the “chilling notion” that some arts organizations may alter the sort of programming they’re willing to offer.

“Maybe some institutions will just avoid doing certain kinds of programming, or not engage in certain conversations because the uncertainty is too great from a planning point of view,” said Teitelbaum. “That will be truly disappointing, and in the end it will be a great loss for the cultural diversity we stand for.”

ArtsEmerson, which often presents the work of international theater troupes, including artists from the Middle East, is still studying how the ban could affect the company.

“It’s a very confused moment,” said David Dower, co-artistic director of ArtsEmerson. “When we’re presenting international [acts], we have to go through the immigration system. . . . It’s already been challenging, and now it’s going to be more challenging.”

He added that ArtsEmerson was currently considering two pieces for the 2017-18 season that involve artists from the affected countries.

“Unless [the ban] is rescinded, or expires outright, we cannot do those,” Dower said in a follow-up e-mail. “But just as influentially, not knowing the realities for those artists and shows NOW means we would be having to risk losing the shows down the line.”


Institute of Contemporary Art director Jill Medvedow said that although the travel ban does not affect any public programming scheduled at the ICA over the next few months, she was “concerned that site visits and planning could be impacted.”

“Art and learning have no borders,” Medvedow said in a statement to the Globe. “Our work depends greatly on the exchange of scholarship and ideas from around the world.”

For some foreign-born local artists, the ban could affect not only their chances to work internationally, but also their ability to stay in the United States once their visas expire. Emami, whose visa is set to expire after she graduates this May, said she’s been working on an application for a new visa since September.

“My attorney tells me that everything is on hold and we can’t go forward for three months,” said Emami. “If I can’t get another visa, then I’ll have to leave the country.”

Roya Amigh, a mixed-media artist from Iran, said she has received similar advice from her attorney.

“I don’t really know what my plan is,” said Amigh, who was in the middle of applying for a new visa when Trump signed the order. Amigh, who graduated with an MFA from Boston University in 2012 and has had solo shows in Boston, said the ban has thrown into question whether she’ll be able to travel for an upcoming international show. But that anxiety pales beside her fear at being forced to leave the United States.


“That would be a disaster,” said Amigh, who also teaches at Brookline’s Michael Driscoll School. “If I go back to Iran I don’t know what will happen to me. I don’t know what will happen to my career.”

Amigh’s situation is familiar to Farzaneh and Bahareh Safarani, twin Iranian sisters who received MFAs last year from Northeastern University. The Safaranis, multimedia artists who’ve had solo shows in Boston and Iran, say they are filing paperwork to have their visa applications expedited, but are also exploring other options.

“We are applying to every program in London or Canada for PhD programs,” said Farzaneh, who, along with her sister, has a visa that expires in May. “We’d have to start our lives again.”

Emami, who said she’s been thrilled with the expressive freedom she’s found in the United States, said she now felt trapped.

“I came here and I thought, this is my chance,” said Emami. But “if my family cannot come to visit me. If I cannot go back to continue my project. I feel like I’m in a prison, but I came here for freedom.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay