To Iranian-born UCSB graduate student Abelina Galustian, being an artist means more than showcasing her work in big-name galleries – it means finding the courage to freely express under-the-radar subjects at great personal risk to herself.

Galustian’s latest project, “The Veil Series,” uncovers sociopolitical concerns she was previously silenced about – including female sexuality and the reversal of the “male gaze” – while defying stereotypes about Middle Eastern women. The series first opened in late 2003 at an underground exhibit meant for groups of intellectual Iranian women in Tehran, Iran. Once Shiite religious police were notified of the gallery, the works were confiscated and the curator was faced with imprisonment.

Today, however, the Women’s Center unveils Galustian’s art to the public for the first time without censure at its Spring Quarter exhibition, “Freedom of Expression: At What Cost?” The works are prints of her paintings, as the originals were never returned to Galustian.

The exhibit opens today with a reception from 4 to 7 p.m. and will remain on display through June 2. Photographs from students who contributed to Hurricane Katrina relief work will accompany Galustian’s paintings.

Galustian, a UCSB Islamic art and architecture and women’s studies graduate student, said “The Veil Series” contains photorealistic paintings that depict women revealing high-heeled shoes and lingerie underneath their burqas.

“I’m showing that she’s a woman and has desires,” she said. “She’s not the static woman that she’s made out to be.”

Galustian describes her paintings as social commentaries that are based on cultural context and on her past.

“These are social commentaries that have been suppressed and oppressed, and I have not been able to talk about them, nor even paint in reference to them until recently,” Galustian said. “I finally had the guts to pursue and to bring [them] into fruition and completion.”

The paintings in the series reveal the truth behind Middle Eastern women’s lives, Galustian said.

“My message is for Western women to see that beneath the veil is a woman just like any other woman,” she said. “She’s not this magical, mystical entity. You only see those exotic eyes behind the veil, but in reality she’s just a regular woman with regular needs and desires. In reality, Middle Eastern women are just as verbal, just as strong [as American women]. They’re just as much feminist, activist.”

“The Veil Series” is not the first collection with which the artist has encountered some opposition. In 2002, someone broke into Galustian’s Los Angeles garage studio and poured acid on her piece, entitled “The Queen’s Preferred.”

Galustian said she painted “The Queen’s Preferred” in resistance to late 19th century Orientalist works that objectify women as the slave and object of Western sexual desire. In her painting, two women eye a couple of young, nude men.

“I show a different perspective in changing the gender and the gender role [of the subjects],” Galustian said. “‘The Womansword Series’ – part of the vandalized work – became a litmus test for society. It was interesting to see how men and women approach the work when the gender roles are changed, when the woman is looking at the man, when the male is in the nude and put in a submissive position.”

At her last exhibition in 2003 in Boston, Galustian said, attendees verbally attacked and likened her to Lynndie England, the American soldier who photographed her abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners.

“Obviously, they don’t get it, and the connection is completely false,” she said. “It just shows how powerful the media is. They did not understand the point I was trying to make. I was taking images that were presented historically and factually and materialistically and reversing the roles, and it becomes this farcical, lewd [thing].”

The vandalizing of the painting a week before her Museum of Fine Arts exhibition in Boston led her to an important revelation, she said.

“I never knew how dangerous art could be because if it wasn’t, why would someone break into my studio and throw acid on my painting?” Galustian said. “Luckily, I was not in the studio.”

She said exhibiting her work after the vandalizing incident has been an emotional process.

“These are not my works; these are just prints of the originals,” Galustian said. “Really, what we’re showing here is the record of what happened, what I went through physically [and] emotionally in every aspect, what I went through to get these paintings done, and this is what I have left. I just wanted to share my voice. It’s just fascinating how much work someone would go through in order to oppress my voice, my art.”

The artist said that not all her work is as political and controversial as the paintings currently hanging in the Women’s Center gallery. She also does commissions, such as the last one she painted for the University of Southern California Orthopedic Center.

At the moment, she said, she is not painting, but still records concepts in her sketchbook.

“One day I’ll get back to those concepts and materialize them on canvas,” Galustian said.

The Women’s Center student curators played a crucial role in giving her the courage to show her work again, Galustian said.

Assistant Art Gallery Curator Marisa Gedney, a fourth-year College of Creative Studies literature major and woman studies minor, said she has learned a lot from the artist.

“Working with Abelina has let me see what a woman can achieve by using media and art to creatively challenge people’s assumptions of gender and sexuality roles, all in the name of feminism,” Gedney said. “She knows she is taking risks in her own Armenian Persian community to be looked down on as a shameful woman. I am inspired to dedicate my art more to identity or sexuality issues [after having] worked with Abelina.”

Art Gallery Co-Curator Nicole Goble, a fourth-year business economics major, said she too has benefited from working with Galustian.

“I first saw Abelina’s work in a graduate seminar I took last Spring Quarter,” Goble said. “I was moved by the appearance of her work and her passion for her cause. Not only was I mesmerized by her work, I was touched by her kindness, organization and diligent work ethic.”

Goble said she is pleased to supplement Galustian’s series by having a portion of the gallery dedicated to hurricane relief work.

“Having the honor of taking part in [a] UCSB hurricane relief group, and after a moving Spring Break of work in New Orleans, I thought it would be best to give those who went on the trip an opportunity to voice their opinion on the situation in the South caused by Hurricane Katrina,” Goble said.