This is the second conversation of a series conceived by artist, curator and writer Elham Puriyamehr as part of her internet-based curatorial project called “Recounting Experiences”, which is specifically realized for the online platform Radicate.eu. The purpose of this series is to present the developments of artistic research in West Asia. This video conversation specifically presents the work of the curator and multidisciplinary artist Taraneh Hemami. Born and raised in Teheran, Iran, she lives and works in San Francisco. Through the use of various media, Hemami addresses issues concerning history, displacement and memory, involving her own community in various projects. Her artistic practice comprises installations, objects, sculpture, image archives and data and included among her works are: People Power, Museum of Capitalism (Oakland, California, 2017); One Voice (Yekseda), Montalvo Arts Center (Saratoga, California, 2017); Blood Curtain, progetto Theory of Survival, San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery (San Francisco, 2016); Hall of Reflections, San Francisco Arts Commission (San Francisco, 2002).
This video conversation is done in cooperation with Ag Galerie, Tehran.
A conversation with Taraneh Hemami A 2 minutes excerpt from our conversation
Elham Puriyamehr: Thanks for accepting this interview.
Taraneh Hemami: Thank you for the invitation.
EP: For the first question, I would like to ask you about your background as an artist. I mean, how did you find that you wanted to be an artist? How did this artistic life start in your career?
TH: Well, it’s something that I’ve done all my life. I have basically been drawing ever since I can remember, but mostly during my formative years, I was studying music actually in Kargah-e Moosighi in Iran for, like, seven, eight years. Then during my teen years I kind of switched from music to taking art more seriously. I took some classes in Iran with Nima Petgar for many years and I went to a design atelier for a few years. Basically I tried my hand at drawing and painting but I ended up being an artist, even though I didn’t really know any other artists around me; except in school settings and classes, I didn’t really know anybody who was doing it professionally, but it was sort of a dream.
EP: Yeah, sure. You came to the United States to study fine arts in 1978, if I’m right. How did your experience during this challenging time shape your career as an artist?
TH: It’s an interesting question. When I came here to study in 1978, it was basically for getting the opportunity to study abroad and gaining that experience. The whole plan was that I would study in New York and I would go back to Iran after a few years. Little did we know that life had a different plan. Six months after I came, the Iranian politics started shifting and changing.
It became obvious that a big change was about to happen, and of course that was something that, growing up in Iran, we had all anticipated. Yet I was far away and the advice was not to return to Iran, because the universities were closed, and we kept waiting for the political situation to change. After a few years had passed, first the hostage crisis and then the war started, there was basically an aching distance between me and my siblings here, and my parents who were back in Iran. I was not really able to visit them, so there was a lot of longing and waiting, as I mentioned, throughout those years while experiencing all of the changes in the country from a distance. In one way my life was changing, but on the other hand I didn’t really have any control over it. I really didn’t understand what was actually happening. Good news was rare and for many years, especially during the war, we would hardly get any news from Iran, so there was a lot of worry and anticipating the worst, because my family was in Iran. So definitely those years definitely had a great impact on me as a person, as well as on my work eventually.
EP: Thank you. To go back to your artworks, what are the most important issues in your work? How would you describe your work and the important factors in your artworks?
TH: Well I can talk about my work from many different viewpoints. I am most excited when I have the opportunity to have a direct dialogue with the audience. By direct I mean sometimes with participation in my projects, at times creating projects that only become complete through audience participation. Another aspect that sort of comes into it is also that I bring communities together. So my work has to do with that: gathering people in one place for conversation and dialogue. The more volatile politics have became, especially with the relationship between Iran and US, the more this has became important, and it has kind of taken the center in my work. There is a lot of going backwards and forwards with my studio works and this type of collective works, where I invite a number of artists to enter into a creative exchange with projects that frequently have at their center Iran and its history. So Iran and history have became the main subject matter that I have been working on for the past few years. I have done research and installations, publications and making objects and so on, that has drawn from that history and maybe even more specifically, from the history of dissent in the past century.
EP: You work with a variety of media, right? Because I see that you work with video art, public art, installations. So how do you choose your media and surfaces? Is there a particular aesthetic involved in deciding the way a venue looks for your work?
ET: The material is always the central challenge for me. Coming from a painting background and moving into sculpture, I have always considered myself an object maker on some level as well so that aspect of sort of working and making things with my hands in my studio is very important to me. I like the material to kind of evoke the concepts or have them embedded as part of the materiality of the work itself.
The experience that the audience has with the work is very important to me. A lot of times it is an issue. I want to give you an example if there is an issue that I feel it’s difficult for my audiences to relate to, I find myself using extremely seductive material to draw them closer. All of that feeds into the work. I, for instance, use things like hand collage and alphabets in my works, but it was with the conscious decision that reflected on the fact that the audience cannot read, nor does it speak, the same language and we have that barrier. So the perception of a word would appear to my non-Iranian audience and that miscommunication is exactly what was at the core of my piece.
EP: I want to ask you about your collage and the way you use the archival photographs as a storytelling technique. I see this kind of archival form in most of your artworks as well being a way of revisiting the recent past. How did you come to use the archive in this way?
TH: I began using photographs immediately following my father’s passing when I took a trip back to Iran and brought back with me a few photographs. For a few years that followed my father’s passing, I was working with painting and creating a whole body of work around family photographs basically. Immediately after that I became very interested in the kind of stories that photographs have embedded inside of them, beyond the family and the relations. I invited the community of Iranians in the San Francisco Bay Area and became very interested in finding and gathering more stories about the community, that was immediately around me, now my community.
In 2000 I made a decision to become an American citizen. My family was here already and so I made a more permanent decision that I was staying and not going back to Iran. So that became really important: to find out what stories people have to share with each other, but also to share with the community. The collaging started with those photographs specifically, but then the project expanded and became a place where members of the community could actually bring materials to me to be scanned. Really their need for an archive is great, outside of the country, and so for a while it seemed to be my task to gather material. Then it went beyond that: it extended to books, publications and community archives of the past thirty, fourty years of San Francisco Bay area, Berkeley in Northern California. Most of the material I gathered I have scanned most of it, so I have the digital form, but the archiving projects continued; I continued to organize the material that was passed through my hands and it ended up at the Library of Congress.
EP: Is there anything you could say about the way you format content, in terms of the narratives of the history and memory in your projects.
TH: Sure. In different projects, because I do use materials and medium differently, form meets content in various ways. In “Hall of Reflections”, the project with the photographs for instance, the idea of reflection became the center of the piece. So it was about the reflections of the past, gathered stories and memories of the Iranian immigrants here. So that reflection lent itself to using mirrors for, not only reflecting on the past, but also reflecting the current environments which surrounded the objects themselves. It was just the juxtaposition of here and there, past and present, that the work itself was evoking and communicating even if it you didn’t relate to the photographs. They seemed foreign to you again, again, with the idea of the audience being other than Iranians. You would see yourself inside the mirror, in effect you would create a relationship between this and that, and the audience and the photographs and the community.
EP: Could you tell us more about your experience in collective projects? Because I see on your website that you have done a lot of collective projects with different people.
TH: That has become really central in my work: to create a space for dialogue and conversation. A lot of time that invites a larger group, whether it’s a participation by audiences to bring materials, stories, wishes.
I mean I have done a lot of projects where people are invited to lend their memories, ideas and concepts, but also, most dear to my heart, have been the projects where I invited other creative thinkers, artists, performers, writers and scholars to come together for conversations around particular subjects. History is at the center of my thought and is the core of my passion these days, not just to visit the past but also to learn from it to take the next steps with a better understanding.
EP: That shifts our questions to your different activities, like curating. I see that you have done a lot of curatorial projects. How do you see curating? And do you have a kind of methodology in organizing and curating exhibitions? What is your experience in curating and in curatorial practice?
TH: For me curatorial practice has always been part of my artistic practice. It’s one and the same. I have been very fortunate to be able to work collaboratively with a number of curators to bring different voices, and specifically voices from the Middle East as well as other Iranian artists, to the San Francisco Bay Area where the absence of it was greatly felt. I have worked with various organizations, always collaboratively. Southern Exposure, a local non-profit organization, was really instrumental in bringing a number of curatorial projects together. I was part of a collaborative curatorial committee, and so we had the opportunity to create a number of exhibitions during the three years that I was involved with them.
EP: How do you see the effect of artistic space on your projects, as a curator or as a artist? For example when you had an exhibition in Tehran in Ag Galerie, how did this different context affect your project? How do you see the context as affecting in your project?
TH: I respond to the site with my installations and so the setting becomes really important. I often create work based on who the audience is, as well as the history of the site. The process became really amazing. The object making aspect of it was fascinating because it was about revisiting a project that had kind of captured time as a capsule, the time immediately after 9/11 in 2001 when I gathered the photographs and stories of the Iranian community in “Hall of Reflections”. But also I revisited it by rephotographing some of those objects that were created for that project and reproduced that in Iran. So these are the memories of Iranians who no longer find themselves in Iran, back in the place where they grew up. Most of their memories were captured in these objects that were now produced in Iran and shared with audiences in Iran. So that became really meaningful for most of the people that were involved and can’t go back or haven’t gone back, those photographs and memories for remaking the connections with audiences. But the gallery where it was installed itself is blocks away from where I grew up and doesn’t exist anymore. It was in the yard of the gallery actually, and you had to enter walking through the yard and into this darkened space. In a way, by the time you would lift the velvet curtain, you were transported into a different space. The light was dimmed and the photographs that we had recaptured now were embedded in a pile of bricks that was gathered from the neighborhood sites, which are continuously going through transformation. Every ten years it seems like the city of Tehran changes completely. So it was really a reflection on my personal migration experience but also it was the experience of the people who participated in this project that was really amazing for me. Because I was talking about this project in Farsi I became really aware of how language had affected all of the perceptions and the kind of idea of the project. So “khaneh kharab” in Persian just sort of describes my project directly, it wasn’t really something deliberate, I don’t even think it was conscious in my mind till I started talking about it in Persian. So those kind of experiences just added layers of meaning to the work for me personally that I wasn’t even aware of.
EP: Nice, thank you so much for this interview.