Mea Culpa: Ghazel | Solo Exhibition

14 March - 9 May 2016

Ghazel is back at Dubai’s Carbon 12 from March 14th to May 1st, 2016, and so is her tongue-in-cheek, vehemently insightful work commenting on the state of the world and pushing the boundaries of art. The solo exhibition, Mea Culpa, revolves around the map motif used in diverse, sometimes derisive, ways. In addition to the works on paper and video, the Iranian artist is—for the first time in almost twenty years—showing sculptures. Made of paper, aluminium and copper, they relate thematically to the map-based work begun in 2010. Ghazel purposefully crafts seemingly spontaneous and lighthearted works whose humor, simple iconography and sometimes material fragility only partially obfuscate their timely, trenchant vision and the urgency of their political message.


Maps are inherently political documents. Contemporary artists like Ghazel appropriate and transform them not only to defy the formalism of modernist art and its often apolitical conception of subjectivity, but also to reveal the social inequalities and erasures their generic aesthetic masks. This practice of subverting maps, known as radical cartography, best describes Ghazel’s body of work in which she literally draws upon Iranian-produced maps. Using pens and acrylic paint, the artist covers the maps with monochromatic expanses of color and a personal limited vocabulary of signs connected with her video and performance work, probing the issues of displacement and plural identity. If the ballpoint pen medium and map motif evoke Alighiero e Boetti, the 20th century Italian artist’s embroidered world maps serve as metaphors for an idealized unified global world rather than questioning the power and politics of cartography. For Ghazel, who left Iran in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war, aware of Western involvement in the violence that took over a million lives, this framing is impossible. Instead, Ghazel’s maps seek to make visible the conflicts hidden by a map’s apparent neutrality and those who, like herself, have been displaced by them. The two sole colors she uses in the various world map series signify the main causes and effects of such conflicts. Black is the color of oil. The world’s dependency upon the black gold lies increasingly at the heart of present-day wars. Red is the color of blood; evoking both human life and death, it makes manifest the glossed over disappearance and survival of those inhumanely unhomed by geopolitical strife, often engineered by Western “democracies.” The neat, fictitious order of the world map is unmapped, punctured by the flow of oil, faceless capital, human lives and human deaths. The Phoenix series, on view, features maps of Iran painted in blue, a color intimately associated with the country’s landscape and art, bringing us full circle to the theme of roots and nomadism permeating the artist’s work, regardless of medium or period.


Like Ghazel’s performance and video work, the various map series are made operational through the repetition of signs and performativity. Here, the artist multiplies meanings by combining and recontextualising not images of herself donning a chador, but the recurring tree, root, suitcase, house and heart motifs, all shorthands for home and belonging. Rendered in a simplified, doodled style and set against the implacability of a map, these images should exhibit powerlessness and placelessness. But they don’t. Rather, the process of their production and their poetic aesthetic convey human agency and locatedness even when the objects are planted in the margins, outside the boundaries of maps now transformed into dystopian landscapes. Drawn with palpable physicality, the trees, roots, suitcases, houses and hearts communicate the possibility of individual resistance in such a world, intimating that embodied action may in fact be more vital to self identity than a static, single place or world order ever could be. Roots can be borders too, after all. The unpretentious icons stand up to and take their place in the, or perhaps “a,” world, their everydayness suturing art and life and the self and body politic. The simple graphic style and critical political content of Ghazel’s map-based work are only made more eloquent by the semi-covert artistic prowess underwriting its sui generis beauty.


— Valerie Behiery, December 2015





Valerie Behiery: Mea Culpa is the title of your new show. It is unlike you to apologize. What are you sorry for, or is the title ironic?


Ghazel: My work is not really politically correct and I am quite proud of that. The only reason for my mea culpa is for leaving Iran, for leaving my parents during hard times during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Yes, for running away from tragic and tough situations in Iran of the mid 80s and 90s. 


But there is absolutely no mea culpa, no sorry for being politically incorrect in my art everywhere, whether in Iran or in the West, the so-called “free” world which is not so free after all. I am so lucky to be hybrid because I can watch both worlds from the inside and the outside. Even in France where people are more critically minded than elsewhere, people are still soaked in mass media and disinformation. I just made a new political work in France regarding the current debate around déchéance de nationalité—that is the “stripping of citizenship”— and was shocked that I was told to be careful. Isn’t France a democracy?


VB: World maps appear in your video work as early as 2004, but they became the actual surface of several series of drawings from 2010 onwards. What is it about the trope of the map that appeals to you?


G: It’s a political and universal symbol, but it’s also directly linked to my personal story. I first used maps of Iran in my work in 1990. World maps appeared in my videos in 2004. For example, in one scene I’m using a map as a matador would his muleta. I’m bullfighting with the world. Or, from another point of view, I’m bullfighting with the world in my hands. When I was asked about the map drawings when they were first shown in 2011 at Carbon 12 (Geopolitics of Roots/No Man’s Land), I answered that it was related to my getting French citizenship after twenty-three years of living in France. Feeling that by doing this I was betraying my father and my roots, I began drawing roots and trees again and spontaneously worked on maps.


My mother was still alive and I didn’t really want to ask for French citizenship. But when Sarkozy became president, I was very upset and felt I needed to be able to vote and not just passively watch France change for the worst. I applied for French citizenship during that year and received it only three years later. Why don’t I believe in it? Because, as I insist, I’m a nomad or, as I prefer to now say, I’m in transit. I had a need to vote so therefore I was obliged to obtain citizenship.


Maps also symbolize being a world citizen, not being linked to just one place. I could even say it is a symbol of Home for me. I always cross out or paint over the flags on my maps. Flags are political symbols of boundaries. I hate flags. A flag can’t summarize someone’s belonging to a culture—neither can a passport.


VB: The map drawings are very personal works. It was only with a friend’s prompting that you began to exhibit them. Is this because these images are somehow more revealing, showing, in other words, your vulnerability more than your screen-based work?


G: In 2008, an artist friend came to my studio and saw my old drawings and drawing-based works. He said to me, “The drawings are so strong, why don’t you show them?” I made my first performance-drawing video piece Untitled 1 shortly afterwards in 2009. I realized I had not done any drawing for nine years. The following year when I returned to the Caspian Sea—home with a capital “H”—I took maps with me. I started drawing on them. The drawings were more complicated than where I had left them back in 2000.


I don’t make only films as some people think. I also write, draw, do performances and make sculptures. Until 2000, I was drawing on canvas with a ballpoint pen, and the drawings were a balance to doing my Me series film work. But the map works are also related to events of my own life. I had been showing the Me series around the world, saying to myself, “I can’t do this forever.” I had so many shows and was tired of being like a businesswoman flying around the world. Then, in 2005, I lost my brother and, although I was still filming, I was unable to edit and show anything new. But the machine wants you to keep producing. And so I fell out of the “snowball”... I lost lots of relationships with curators because I wasn’t producing new work. I did do a lot of work about the loss of my father and brother, but I wasn’t ready to show it until much later in 2009.


VB: What you’re saying is that you use a lot of different media and drawing has been one of them from the beginning and that the different media cannot easily be disentangled.


G: Yes, the drawings are also performances. Drawing is a very physical act in my work. It’s not separate, as drawing is integrated into my performances. For example, in Untitled 1 (2009), a drawing of a house turns into a crazy city with war, but I think I threw out that drawing. The artwork is the video. I’ve done many other performance videos with drawing and writing on blackboards 

and whiteboards.


Generally speaking, drawing for me is a more meditative and slower process. It’s not just a drawing; it’s always a performance and a kind of meditation. In the first work of the first map series (2010/2011) called The Life Span of a Ballpoint Pen, the drawing remained unfinished. The pen ran out of ink and I liked the effect and left it as such; that’s how the series got its name. In the beginning, the pen was controlling me but then I started to control the pen.


VB: You are best known for the ongoing Me series that brought you international recognition. However, when I encountered your map drawings, I was interested to discover that the signs you use—suitcases, trees and houses—have quite a history in your work.


G: It’s a long story that dates back to art school in Nîmes, France. In the last semester of my second year, I did work in the media studio with newspaper articles relating to my friend who had been killed in the Iran-Iraq war. I used the original poster announcing his martyrdom, news clippings and pictures of us skiing together. His death was a huge shock to me and explains the use of black tulips in the work of this period too. Red represents the blood of the martyrs, whereas I used black to indicate that he was a victim.


After receiving my BFA the following year, I faced a lot of difficulty at the school. They wanted to kick me out. I guess my Make War Not Love posters disturbed the calm of an art school in a sunny Mediterranean town. I managed to stay, but I had to fight all the way through. It paid off, as I’m the only one from my class and one of the only few in the whole school’s history showing internationally. To make a long story short, there was an Argentinian professor who told me that the symbols I was using in my art were too complicated, that I had to simplify them, make them universal so that I wouldn’t need to explain what they meant. And so I started using childlike iconography: house, sun, tree and so on. It’s universal. All children draw houses and the sun alike. Gradually, the signs became more complicated; houses became suitcases, houses and suitcases grew roots, or, as in one sculpture, suitcases are directly nailed down to the floor. So the signs are repeated but they change. If you compare the drawings that I made at the age of 26 to those I made at 48, they are really different.


VB: This brings me to the conceptual use of repetition in your work. You rework themes as if you are trying to exhaust all of their expressive potential by placing them in new settings or recombining them.


G: All of my work is obsessive. Obsession is the best way to explain this repetition. I feel I have so much to say and have to repeat it over and over, until  there’s an overdose. Recurrent themes. Repeating, insisting in different means of expression. Repeating over and over again. I just made the first new poster in nine years from the Urgent/Wanted series offering to surrender or sell my French passport. Once again life caught up with my art and I had to react to this ridiculous and horrible debate about stripping citizens of their citizenship in French politics now. At age thirty, I got an expulsion letter from the French government, at age forty-nine, I wanted to surrender my French passport. As for the Me series, an ongoing work since 1997, there are already over 750 scenes and I’ve decided to continue forever. I always make series. I keep drawing, filming and exploring the same or similar scenes and subjects.


I’m making and showing sculpture for the first time in almost twenty years. These refer back to the sculptures I was making in the 1990s. I like the idea of copying the ‘me’ from before the Me series. Because of my being on the move and living in two or three homes—countries—at the same time, lots of my earlier sculptures have been lost or left behind somewhere, like the bird sculptures I made in 1996 during a residency in Germany but had to leave with a friend in Berlin who later lost them.


In the new sculptures, I thought it would be interesting to work the iconography of the map drawings in different materials. The planes are in paper; the houses are in copper, wood and aluminium. I felt it was necessary to return to sculpture and show the link between my maps, film and sculpture/installation in this show. I sort of made a loop, a full circle. This show links together all my work since I entered art school in 1988.


The bird sculptures, referring to earlier 1996 ones, are made in aluminium. They’re called Traveling sur oiseaux (Tracking Shot on Birds). Tracking shot is a camera movement and my sculptures are the visual, sculptural or solid result of a tracking shot on flying birds. The house sculptures are called Traveling sur maisons (Tracking Shot on Houses). It’s a similar process: the sculpture is the visual result of a camera movement.


VB: In the 2004 scene of the Me series Global Warming, you enter a courtyard, sit down and pick up a world map only to turn it into a fan to alleviate the heat. Using humor to address the effects—recognized or not—of global politics on people everywhere characterizes your film work. How and when did humor emerge?


G: Humor appeared in my work in 1997, right after working with delinquent kids in Tehran. I realized that the common point between them and me was our humor, which was then absent in my work. I started writing after that. Humor appeared in the writing and I thought that the best way that I could transform my writing into visual art was to use video with myself in it. And so the first scene of the Me series was born in 1997: the one about Botticelli’s Venus. You have to realize that this was a process over time. I did not study performance; my references were cinema, silent movies, documentaries and TV.


Humor is powerful. When my non-artist friends would come to my very early solo shows, they didn’t get my installation art. I remember one of them telling me that she didn’t know I was suffering so much and another said that it was such a shame that he couldn’t see my humor in my work. With the birth of the Me series and its humor, I didn’t have to explain my art any longer or even discuss if it was art or not. Even my Urgent/Wanted posters didn’t need any explaining because of their humor. The funny thing is that when I first showed my work at the Barbican in London in 2001, a BBC journalist asked me where I had got my French humor from, to which I replied, “It’s Iranian humor!” It was a group show of contemporary Iranian artists and the public, full of Iranians, was hugging and kissing me because I was showing the world that Iranians had black humor.


VB: In your drawings you also treat war, migration and one’s place in the world, but without the in-your-face humor. The drawings by their materials and iconography do have a playfulness, though, that counterbalances the weightiness of their subject matter.


G: From the beginning for me, art had to have a political and social meaning or message and in this sense, the drawings and video work are not so different, but my videos obviously have more humor. There’s also the question of figuration. I think that the drawings should be more communicative and universal, but when I compare my two shows at Carbon 12—the first showing maps and the second showing the Family Tree video and photography series—people seemed to immediately communicate more easily with Family Tree. For example, after viewing the scene where I’m talking about the frontier or border of my childhood bedroom, a woman came to me in tears telling me this awakened the Israel-Palestine problem for her. So it’s not just the humor but also the presence of humans and, of course, still and moving images that communicate more immediately with the viewers.


Both the videos and the maps are political and social in the large sense of the word. I don’t just add works for no reason: for example, let me try some green maps… The colors have important meanings for me: the red color in the maps symbolizes blood, which is both life and death. The black has many interpretations but my titles Marée Noire and Dyslexia sort of give these maps a direction. The Phoenix series are painted in different, varied shades of turquoise you see in Iranian landscape, art and architecture. So all my work shares this social and political dimension. I’m against art for art’s sake. At the 2005 Sharjah Biennial, a lot of work addressed the Israeli separation wall, some of it done by non-Palestinians who had just spent a very short time in Israel-Palestine. I’m against this kind of tourist art or factory art. Art isn’t a profession for me. It’s conceptual; it’s my life.


The link between all my work is the vécu or my lived experience from which the work emerges—this gives it a lot of emotion. The maps are inspired from my life, my observations of the world, my crossing of many languages, cultures and references as well as my political opinions. Using drawings inspired from a child’s iconography gives a certain lightness to the heavy subject of the maps, especially when there is a lot of black or red highlighting global and world issues, such as pollution, wars, migration, exodus…


VB: Your work is textured by its many visual and discursive layers and its everyday aesthetic, or low-tech approach, obfuscates the sophisticated sense of aesthetics involved. This is especially true of the map series. They appear spontaneous and haphazard, but, if this is the case, then the covert aesthetic is instinctive.


G: There are many different layers in my work but the form always comes last. First comes the concept and then the form it takes. The process is the same in all my work: you see it in my films, drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations. What you call the “low-tech” approach or what I would call the mal fait—literally the “poorly made”—has something human about it. There is always my touch, not a great technician’s touch­—a touch erased by technical mastery. When you give too much importance to the form, you end up employing and using technicians who are used to producing perfect industrial-quality work. You lose your touch; you lose the essence… Many contemporary artists are like artistic directors. In these past twenty years, I have seen artists, including friends, transform into art directors. The art milieu wants this, the art fairs want this: nice, clean, harmless, formalist art to fit into contexts that are definitely politically correct and globally sweet.


I use real maps—contemporary maps in Persian that you can buy in any stationary store in Iran. I guess I use these maps specifically because of my need to use the Persian language. It’s essential for me to use real maps and not an image of a map. Persian first appeared in my work in 2010, twenty-four years after leaving Iran. Sometimes I put so many layers of paint on the paper map that it tears. But I keep it that way. I like imperfection. They’re mal fait.


VB: What I’m trying to get at is whether or not you consciously avoid any concern for form or beauty, as it seems to hide under humor in the video work, childlike drawing in the map series and everyday or industrial materials in your sculpture. Is the “poorly made” a material and conceptual concern that rules out the importance of form?


G: The mal fait is for me more interesting than the bien fait (well-made) because it offers more possibilities. It involves not just the technical side of putting things together but also a human scale and approach. I do everything myself. Always. Just like in the Me series. I see too many factory artists who have and need dozens, if not hundreds, of people to make their art. I call that “creative design“ rather than “art.” You don’t feel their touch... I recently found out that a Chinese artist I like very much, Zhang Huan, has around 300 assistants working for him.


The poorly made is more creative. Chance is interesting and if you don’t make your own work, chance can’t intervene. You can’t see it and let it develop. For me, for example, the Me videos would lose their meaning or essence if the lighting and image quality were high quality and “clean.” The maps would lose their symbolic and political power if they were painted on a canvas or if they were reproductions of maps. What I’m trying to say again is that art has to be social and political. I hate formalist work. Why add objects to a world full of objects? Or, why add images to a world overdosing on and being bombarded with images? If art doesn’t trigger or move something deep inside the viewer, then it is design and decoration and I am not interested in that. I have much respect for designers and decorators, but I’m sick of seeing artists just adding stuff to what we already have.


I read somewhere at the age of twenty-four Marcel Duchamp saying something about not adding objects to the world and I have kept this sentence in my mind ever since. French artist Robert Filliou from Fluxus also had a great impact on me. I discovered him when I was a student. Bien Fait, Mal Fait, Pas Fait – or “Well Made, Poorly Made, Not Made” – is one of his works that has influenced me a lot. When I teach nowadays and sit on student juries at art schools in France, I always bring up the question of whether the world needs this work, object or image or not, causing everyone to think a lot. Is this adding something to the world? And also, does it need to be too bien fait? Or better off pas fait at all?


VB: You are sidestepping the question, I think. The mal fait or “poorly made” is not necessarily unaesthetic, as many artists from Arte Povera on have shown.


G: It’s because it depends on one’s conception of beauty. For me, the aesthetics of the mal fait are more powerful than that of the well-made and is also more real. For the Me series, I wanted a home movie aesthetic, not something slick and “movie-like.” When I film, I don’t ever check the image beforehand; for example, in I Wanna Go Around The World With A Globe, I accidentally cut off the top of my head. When I saw it, I was surprised but found that it worked, that it was interesting because I had censored a part of my face. I like the aesthetics of imperfection.


VB: Flying is a motif running through your new show from the aluminium birds to the paper planes made from world maps. What is the flying theme all about?


G: Flying is a metaphor for modernity, globalization, mobilization and migration. It is a metaphor for my life, for my sorrow or guilt over leaving my parents and brother during the war and for losing my friend to the war. His death slapped me into reality; only then did I realize and wake up to the “real” reality of war. I recognized a face on a poster announcing someone’s martyrdom. I had seen hundreds and hundreds of these posters around Tehran at school, on TV, everywhere. But for once, I recognized the face and woke up. I was suddenly forced out of my bubble.


Flying is a metaphor for my life where I have been constantly on the move since 1986. The maximum time spent without displacing myself from one home to another in the past twenty-four years is only seven months! I’ve been away or, more precisely, in transit for twenty-nine and a half years. The notion of time changes: you return to the other home and find your life and home exactly where you left it. It’s not tourism. It’s not like the fake nomad artists who live and work in five countries just because they travel a lot. Belonging to several geographical, cultural and linguistic homes is not the same as tourism.


In 2014, upon returning and staying for long in Iran, I wrote:

Give your Roots

Take my Wings

It’s only a few words but I think it explains a lot.


VB: In the video where you are folding and launching map-planes, how do you consider the woman’s action? Does she have agency? Does she not care? Does she feel impotent?


G: Although not in this video, but in the Me series videos, I wear a black chador. This contradicts the image most Westerners have and want to give of Iranian women especially in North America and the UK with all the world politics and things going on now: wars in the Middle East, terrorism around the world, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. My work breaks the clichés Westerners have of Iran and the chadori women (veiled women). That’s why in the USA, where the propaganda is very strong, they don’t like this counter-image I have in my work. They like the images that affirm their beliefs, what the media and news gives them or the image of the artists from the region they approve of because they say what the Americans and their media wants to hear. There are lots of examples. My woman in the Me series is an active woman, not a passive one. The Western mainstream media loves passive women who are veiled. Hamid Naficy wrote a lot about this aspect of my work.


As for the woman throwing planes, it’s for the spectators to interpret the scene. What I can say is that in the piece called Untitled 4, I make and throw a lot of planes and therefore time and repetition are important as the sequence will last about forty minutes. It is in real time. In the beginning, the action of folding and throwing the planes is done carefully, then gradually becomes faster and faster until the pile of maps finishes and on the right side of the screen you have a pile of planes. A one-shot performance video. There are different layers to this scene. There are different, personal reasons for me to do such a scene, but I don’t need to explain them. The duration is important, so is the action of taking a map, folding it into a paper plane and throwing it. Another thing I can add is that, like in all of my performance videos, the woman is an active woman. And regarding this scene, her action of making and throwing planes is open to many interpretations…


One of the references here is to a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times in which a factory worker is screwing nuts and bolts everywhere automatically like a machine. In this plane video, after a while the folding and throwing becomes mechanical and automatic. The last image of the video is a pile of crashed or landed or immobile or peaceful planes, depending on the viewer’s vision. Needless to say that origami paper planes are always jets and fighter planes…


VB: You said earlier that there are now over 750 scenes in the Me series. How has it changed over time?


G: The Me series has changed over the years. It was more autobiographical in the beginning. Then after my six-month stay in New York in 2001 where I continued making the Me series, it changed. I wasn’t in Iran, I didn’t have to wear a scarf. The American culture and language were very familiar to me. I felt that I knew the geography of New York City well because of all the films I had seen, so what attracted my attention immediately was the homeless, the garbage and the excessive consumption. These themes entered my work, as did the propaganda in the USA that really shocked me.


When I moved to Paris from Montpellier in the first days of 2002, the work kept this wider dimension. I realized the fact that the series was a personal narrative which gave me the freedom to say whatever I want: fact or fiction, I could pass it off as autobiographical, like the electric chair or the Abu Ghraib piece. World politics inspired me and Bush’s “Axis of Evil” really shook me. I had to react to it in my work. So my work evolved into recording my observations and vision. I started commenting on global politics and issues like in the Global Warming or the Keep the Balance scenes. The work became more universal. I think a work has to be universal, but also needs a local touch. The black chador is a local touch and the maps in Persian are also a local touch.


VB: Plural identity and the relationship among identity and place, language and culture have formed the core of much of your work. You describe yourself as a person in perpetual transit and yet you keep addressing home and belonging. Is being in transit not a kind of home?


G: Identity. The whole idea of changing nationality is politically correct bullshit. You are born Iranian, you die Iranian even if you live outside your country most of your life. You can add other cultures and languages to your identity, but you don’t replace it. You can’t replace your roots; you can uproot them, but you can’t replace them. I prefer the old continent­—Europe that is—because here it is clear: I am an Iranian, a NEW French. In fact, I made a work called Français Nouveau referring to the French yearly tradition of Beaujolais Nouveau wine.


Being in transit or belonging to a few geographical places and a few cultures is very interesting. Moving back and forth is interesting. It’s like having a double or triple life. I always said that my work talks about my multiple, schizophrenic and imperfect identities. I can replace the word identities with lives. It’s like living a few lives at the same time. Gives loads of subjects to work on. Kiarostami told me once when I was in my thirties that I lived”width-wise” and not “length-wise.” I always feel like I live in a stretched out time zone. Like parallel lives.


VB: This brings me to the whole question of hyphenated identities, terms like Arab-Canadian, African-American or Franco-Iranian that you don’t accept. Is it because they are underwritten by the Western sense of superiority?


G: I can’t call myself a Franco-Iranian. Why is the Franco in front of the Iranian? If Westerners need a precise word, then the right term would be: Irano-French! The Irano must be much more stretched out than the French. It’s the stronger and much more rooted identity, no matter what. Even after almost thirty years in France, the Iranian identity is much stronger in me. It is “spiced up” and “accented” by French culture. The French side is very important for me too, but you can’t say I am Franco-Iranian. I’m a hybrid Iranian, Frenchized or “françisé.” Even before France, I was hybrid because I attended an International English-language school in Iran from preschool until the end of eighth grade when the school was dissolved one year after the Revolution. This explains my constant navigation in three languages, which are a part of my identity.


I’m tired of globalized tourist artists who talk about nomadism while they need translators even in their native countries. They have the native name but can’t even read the newspaper in their native language and have never experienced being an insider there. Westerners love that: a native name that says what they want to hear and makes nice, globalized, politically correct art that “fits in.” In North America, everyone is an immigrant, so you want to erase the history of the slaughter of the Native Americans and the history of why or where you left and your personal history. You can erase your past, but you can’t erase your history. Identity comes from your personal history or story and history with a capital ”H.” I guess the correct way to call me is a hybrid Iranian, navigating constantly in a few cultures and languages, being an outsider and insider both in Iran and France. I wish I could add a South American passport to my collection. I would love to officially “belong” there. During the past twenty-nine years, I have also grown roots in Hispanic and South American culture.


VB: There are many references to Iranian culture in Mea Culpa. You have the map, the turquoise color associated with historical Iranian architectural ceramics and the tin roofs of your house sculptures evocative of the roofs of Tehran. These are much different references than the chador, long used as a sign to prove the incompatibility between East and West and so on. Have your references to your home country changed over time?


G: My relationship to Iran has not changed. I just need more time at home now and after losing my parents and brother, I am growing new roots in my home country. I also need the language now. Roots and displacement are linked to the languages I practice, too. I was too displaced from my mother tongue, living in Europe for so long. So now I’m growing new roots in Persian and studying Rumi in Tehran. By the way, Rumi refers to the visible and the invisible worlds, something you can see in my drawings of trees here, where the branches and the roots are both seen, so there’s another Iranian connection. I need to spend more time in Iran now, but am still quite often working in France. One foot here and one foot there, as they say.


VB: Does the fact that you like to use recycled material, like discarded aluminium printing plates, have more to do with your desire to counter a beaux-arts aesthetic than with ecological concern? In other words, is it more about challenging the boundaries of art and art making?


G: Recycling is a message, of course. The modern world is full of garbage, even the oceans as I highlight in the Marée Noire (Oil Slick) map drawings. I first started using recycled aluminium and zinc in my first year of art school. The wood here is not recycled. It’s just normal wood you can buy, nothing expensive or special, but it can be recycled too. I was attracted to the mal fait right from the beginning, making art whose form was less important than its concept; I started using recycled material and banal technology such as photocopying.


VB: My appreciation of your work stems from the fact that I feel a real and sincere concern for the world and its growing madness. In this sense, your art is profoundly political­—it addresses issues such as war, oil, injustice and/or refugees. How do you understand the relationship between art and global politics? Can art have a real impact on the world?


G: Art can and does influence people. Kiarostami’s films when shown on French national TV in the early nins and especially his film Close Up changed a whole nation’s gaze on Iran and Iranians. Suddenly, we weren’t terrorists anymore! Even a garbage man spoke to me about Iranian cinema after that. The moving image is, of course, more popular and better diffused and so it touches more people than other art forms. But the effect of Kiarostami is critical. Imagine that shortly after I arrived in France in 1986, there was a bombing in Paris done by pro-Iranian Lebanese. Back then, each time I wanted to leave France, even for a few days, I had to be interviewed by the anti-terrorist police. Once I saw the same man twice in a row who asked me the same questions.


When I entered the Beaux Arts in Nîmes (1988), I was often asked if I had a bomb with me. People joked obviously. Even an important French artist who was my professor asked me if I had any bombs on me. But as an Iranian with a lot of humor—humor is our strongest identity—I handled it well and always had sharp replies for them. I even did one of my first conceptual pieces by publishing the comments I had collected regarding pasting photocopies of my friend’s martyrdom poster on the school walls. So, to experience a change in the attitude of the French towards my country and me because of some films was impressive.


I should also mention that, in 1995, I started doing social work as an artist, a sort of art therapy but with no training as an art therapist. I needed to do something useful with my art, so I thought as an artist who can express herself, I could pass on this ability to people who needed it. I’ve seen and experienced the positive effect of making art on people in difficulty. I’ve worked in prisons and detention centers, with street children in Iran (1997-2000), with low-income groups of youth and immigrants (1995-1997) in France and with delinquent teenagers in New York City (2001). I have also worked with asylum seekers (Glasgow 2004 & Venice 2005 and 2008) and with asylum seekers and migrants in transit in Paris on their way to the North of Europe (2011-2013). I’ve been doing social work for over twenty years. In 2005, I did Home, a performance made after a workshop of three weeks with a group of adult and teenage asylum seekers at the Venice Theater Festival. That was the first time I merged my two activities and made art with my social work.


Valerie Behiery

An art historian and arts writer specializing in historical and contemporary art from or relating to the Muslim world. Before her current position as Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History at Necmettin Erbakan University in Turkey, she worked as the Islamic art consultant at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts researching the collection and overseeing the installation of the new permanent Islamic art gallery. Her writing has been published in numerous academic journals, art magazines, as well as exhibition catalogues.