BY NATALIE POMPILIO
Article Originally Published For NJ Advance Media
They may seem an unlikely pair, the Texas-born septuagenarian and the 37-year-old Iranian-American. But the two artists share a passion for highlighting the humanity in everyone and recognize that telling the stories of "the other" is now more important than ever.
The exhibit "Once We Were Strangers," at Gary Lichtenstein Editions at Mana Contemporary May 20 - June 30, features the collaborative efforts of Ron Tomlinson and Amir Akhavan.
For the past two and a half months, the pair have produced new works, with silk-screen as the primary medium, that show the beauty in different cultures. The exhibit will also include individual paintings by Akhavan and Tomlinson.
"This is the opportunity to link creative efforts in the art world with humanitarian efforts," said Akhavan, who has studios in New York and Tehran.
Gallery owner Gary Lichtenstein said the collaborative works "make me stop and pause at how similar we are." He expects silk screen prices will start at $200, with 30 percent of proceeds going to the PROOF Media for Social Justice, a non-profit organization that uses visual storytelling to inspire attitude and policy changes
The organization has contributed a photo series called "(un)documented" to the exhibit. Meant to be a teaching tool, it features images of undocumented individuals who live in the U.S. The official opening of the exhibit takes place on May 20, at 4 p.m., and will feature a panel discussion with Tomlinson, Akhavan, Kahn and Lichtenstein.
"We want to demystify the other," Executive Director Leora Kahn said. "We want to showcase that people are people, and these people could be your parents, your sister, your brother, your grandparents. They're ordinary people caught in a bad system."
Individually, Akhavan and Tomlinson have tried to make the same point. Some of Akhavan's paintings show Muslims in prayer because "it's important that people see something extremely colorful and beautiful coming from that part of the world, especially at this time," he said.
Tomlinson, who also has a studio in Fort Worth, has taken photos of illegal border crossings and rendered them in oil paints. The resulting works are "equally beautiful and terrifying," Tomlinson said, including one that shows a woman and her children crossing the Rio Grande and being arrested.
"I purposefully don't talk about politics in the show because its a humanitarian thing," Tomlinson. "These are our neighbors, literally, when you live in Texas. It always interests me that people who would rush to their neighbor's house if they found they didn't have food can be so callous from a political viewpoint."
The artists chose the exhibit's title. It comes from a November 2014 pro-immigration speech by President Barack Obama, who said in part, "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."
Tomlinson and Akhavan met by chance in Paris about 20 years ago. In the years that immediately followed, the pair had a mentor/mentee relationship. Today they consider themselves artistic equals.
"There's something wonderfully circular about the show, in a way," Tomlinson said. "When we arrived at the title, Amir and I sort of laughed and said, 'Yeah, once we were strangers.' Our relationship's been a huge part of my life."
Once We Were Strangers
Gary Lichtenstein Editions at Mana Contemporary
888 Newark Ave., 2nd Floor, Jersey City
May 20 - June 30
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter @nataliepompilio. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.