Taraneh Hemami

Artist, San Francisco // December 2013
Being Iranian has meant that my life has been directly affected by the politics of the region and the complicated relationships between the country that I come from and where I now call home...My personal history is interlinked with the history I am exploring in my work.

“As a writer, …you always come to the world as a stranger.” This quote is from an interview I recently listened to on NPR’s Talk of the Nation with Iranian writer Azar Nafisi and it sort of hit me like a thunderclap. It’s so right on, and I believe not just true for writers but for all artists. The sentiment of “coming to the world as a stranger” is often innate for artists, no matter their medium, and is reflected in how they approach their work, even when it contends with content or material that they are familiar with.

Taraneh is a multidisciplinary artist with a diverse practice that includes site-specific installations, glass work, sculpture, textile production, and community-driven projects that primarily address themes of displacement, memory, and representation within the Iranian American experience. Much of her work revolves around the political and personal histories of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, and the enduring after-effects for Iranians both in and outside of their native country. While visiting Taraneh in her Bayview studio she told us that she moved from to the United States in 1978 to attend University of Oregon, right before the Iranian Revolution, and that she came a bit too late to be engaged in the political activities of immigrant Iranian groups. She said, “And so in many ways this is an unknown history for me— there were so many groups, splintered politics and beliefs, and at the center of my work is my curiosity, my desire to know more about the multiple stories within this history.” As was the case for many Iranian students abroad prior to the revolution, Taraneh did not return to her homeland upon graduating, instead she settled in San Francisco. Despite Taraneh’s own background and experience regarding the revolution and diaspora, I think she comes to her subject matter much the way a stranger would— full of questions and uncertain interest, in an attempt to understand not only the complexity of this era in history and its implications, but also to find her own role in it. Perhaps because Taraneh’s engagement with the Iranian Revolution was from a distance, over the years her work has continued to mine from moments that she has missed. This persistent impulse to examine and reexamine a time in history that is simultaneously personal and yet still remains unfamiliar so perfectly reveals the paradoxes of cultural identity.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I have been working with materials of history for quite some time. It has become a way of making sense of the world around me. In recent projects, I have delved into an archive of publications belonging to Bay Area Iranian student activists of the 60s-80s. I am learning more about the complicated and layered history of the Iranian Left through the work. The historical circumstances leading to the revolution as well as the aftermath are forever fascinating to me. I am curious about the motivations and drive, the self-sacrifice, the devotion of an entire generation towards ideas of freedom and equality. In recent projects, I have focused on the graphic imagery from the many zines published both inside and outside the country- hand drawn images of resistance that were done mostly anonymously, creating the iconography and visual language of a political movement.

What mediums do you work with?
I have continued to experiment with different materials, changing mediums in response to the concept I am working with. A few years ago, I used shattered glass to make a number of ephemeral prayer rugs as a response to the on-going wars. The process of making and remaking the crafted rugs became an important aspect of the project- a ritual of breaking, sorting, and meticulously sculpting the design each time. My most recent paintings, a series of replications of book covers and slogans from the revolutionary archives use the same process in a smaller scale, using colorful frits, crushed glass and mirrors.

In preparation for my project Fabrications next fall, I am researching objects sold in a traditional middle eastern bazaar, from precious carpets and jewelry, to brass, silver, ceramic and glass wares, fabrics to fashion. I have begun experimenting with some of these materials to craft and manufacture wares with fabric, aluminum, and beads amongst other mediums to create objects for the installation of the “market place of ideas and ideologies” at Southern Exposure.

Much of your work explores themes of resistance, activism, and revolution; do you want to challenge your viewer?
Being Iranian has meant that my life has been directly affected by the politics of the region and the complicated relationships between the country that I come from and where I now call home. These conflicts are at times at the center of the work and where I like to engage with my audience.

The dialog that the work creates with the viewer is essential to me. I depend on the physical material of the work to appeal to the senses to make a more intimate connection with my audience. The blood series for instance are colorful shimmering objects that call you near for more interaction and play. There is a real discomfort and tension of pulling away and the desire of getting more physically engaged with the piece.

Your art seems, in part, to be a way for you to understand your own history— would you say your work reveals your personal story?
My personal history is interlinked with the history I am exploring in my work. Looking at my work of the past twenty years, I see a shift of focus from a deeply personal, to familial, to community and in my current project a generational exploration, all of which have been informing and completing the story, creating a context for the personal and the specificity of my story. In many ways I just want to know more about a history and an era that has had such a profound effect on generations of people and continues to be contested to this day.

Besides your art practice, are you involved in any other kind of work?
My art practice includes teaching as well as organizing collective projects that involve artists, scholars, and research institutions, in addition to the making that I do in my studio. It is challenging to keep a balance, but exciting to work creatively and collectively with communities and organizations. A large portion of my practice has involved researching histories, and collecting archives and personal stories to create opportunities for a creative exchange.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
As I continue to research for my project at Southern Exposure I have become more fascinated with Islamic architecture and specially that of the bazaar. I am looking at various elements of the bazaars including its meandering pathways and labyrinth of shops and gathering spaces. One of the most inspirational qualities of the space for me has always been its use of natural light. I have been experimenting with various materials to create patterns of light ad reflections.

Most of what I am reading recently is in relationship to creating a historical timeline and series of infographics I am making as part of my residency with CIIS, visualizing the webs of connections between Iran history and various political systems that dominated much of the history of twentieth century.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I am dependent on my studio to keep me sane ☺– I am an object maker at heart and need to make things with my hands. Having said that I spend a lot of time behind the computer for creative work as well as research– none of which is done at the studio. It takes a lot of work for me to bring the means to allow for being at the studio. I do love having a studio where I can experiment with material, which is so crucial to my practice.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am working on creating a most basic mihrab, a personal space of meditation, drawing on Islamic prayer rituals and architecture, at St. Ignatius Church for an exhibition that opens on December 15th. The transplanted mihrab, marking the direction of prayer (Qibleh), is meant as an experiment with collapsing spaces and overlapping systems of belief, creating reorientation and a temporary shift in focus.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I feel very connected to the collecting and collective practices in recent years including the Arab Image Foundation, with Walid Raad and Akram Zataari, as well as research driven and collective practices including Emily Jacir and Natascha Sadr-Haghighian. I love the sense of humor and sensibility of Slavs and Tatars and feel an affinity with works that challenge established art market presentation models- always inspired by works of local artists Stephanie Syjuco, Allison Smith and Ana Teresa Fernandez – as well as Monir Farmanfarmayan, Mona Hatoum and Doris Salcedo to name just a few…

How do you navigate the art world?
Mostly with curiosity. I am most interested in experiencing inspiring work and do my best to see personally it locally, nationally and internationally, in anyway possible. I have tried to stay connected with the emerging and evolving art centers in the Middle East and especially Iranian emerging art world. In some ways I have had the privilege of working under the radar for many years ☺, which has allowed me a certain freedom in my work. Recently I have also become very interested in the systems of exchange between artist/gallerist/institution/collector and audience, which have also influenced some of ways I have been thinking about bazaars and markets in my recent and upcoming installations.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
My most recent project is an installation entitled Bullet Points in collaboration with Invisible Venue as part of an exhibition entitled The Open Moment at the Thoreau Center. A series of transparencies in various shades of red mark civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as military and gun violence in the US. The show will run through mid January. My site-specific installation at Manersa gallery at St. Ignatius Church at USF will open in mid December. I have been working with the Arts and Anthropology and Social Change departments at CIIS collecting stories and histories of dissent in the Bay Area towards a series of public programming Jan-April in 2014.

To see more of Taraneh’s work work: