Shahrzad Changalvaee‘s practice responds to sculpture in a vast field of media, including
installation, video, photography, text, performance as well as activism.
Through summoning, truncating, recalling and tokening, She makes works in a variety of
time-based mediums in search of doubtful appearances of liberty, control and evil.
Her works are context-questioning to subjects of many immigrant artists or fluid
individuals, subjects such as local and global, information and anecdotes, displacement
and adjustment, Interest and urge, privilege and progress.
Shahrzad teaches at The Cooper Union and RISD as adjunct professor and is co-founder
and co-director of From: Iran platform.
Shahrzad received a B.A. in Graphic Design from Faculty of Fine Arts, Tehran University
(2006) and her M.F.A. in Sculpture from Yale University (2015) and is currently based in
Brooklyn, New York.
New Orleans Review
What was the first medium or act of creating art that drew you into a lifetime of art making?
In a way I’ve always been making sculpture, even when I was doing graphic design. There have always been spontaneous approaches and sculptural elements that I used in my works. Even when I was making posters, I was usually creating a situation that was partially controlled and partially unpredicted, so that when I was shooting the scene with a camera, a lot of the elements were predicted and some were not. So this power dynamic—the question of control and also the spatial elements—has always been part of my practice. This is what I’ve always been interested in. When I moved more towards fine arts and sculpture, the same approach continued in the future works as well, prediction, improvisation, limitation and control.
How do you use your art to instigate political action?
That’s a complicated question. I don’t have a straightforward answer. To be honest, one of the challenges is that in the activism scene, you experience a different time and pacing. Things are very straightforward. Things need to come to a clear understanding. They need fast reactions. A lot of times you need to identify the problem, be able to declare it, be able to shout it out, be able to point to it, be able to shame it in a lot of ways and be able to bring it to the attention of the people. However, in the art scene, you need to digest the surroundings. You need to take it into your studio. You need to transcend it. You need to spend time with it, then come back with a visual or artistic transcendence of the situation that is not necessarily straightforward, clear, or communicative through words. Making those two realms get close to each other is actually a big challenge to me, at least.
You can make works “about” political problems or issues, but this is not how I approach things. I cannot choose a topic and make work about it. Usually, I learn from the political situation—when it is about subversion, or taking control, when it is about questioning power, authority, hierarchy, or how the system works. This is how I learn from the political scene and take this to my practice and studio. But sometimes I use straightforward political elements such as pictures of the political figures, dictators, or the armies of dictators, hands of the people fighting back. In the case of Iran for example, I use their pictures more as effigies. Sometimes, I see art making as a form of talisman making. I use these bits and pieces as tokens to have them cast a piece, a spell. I use these elements to subvert what I don’t like in the real world.
What are the common misconceptions about being a young female artist in Iran?
I can talk about my experience. I entered undergrad in 2001, 20 years ago. When I look back to it, I think it was really challenging. There was oppression on many levels: there is a theocratic military regime in power, and the artistic intellectual scene is also mostly male dominant to this day. Misogynistic. A lot of times as a young woman your thoughts, ideas and works are not taken seriously, Your body language and your voice are often labeled -classically- as loud, extra, irrational, too sensitive, all the labels through history that have been applied to women basically tell them that they are not as serious as men.
On top of that, being a young art student under a highly religiously theocratic regime that doesn’t welcome women in public spaces and also considers art to be a space that needs to be controlled severely, we definitely faced a lot of limitations. We women have to cover ourselves based on the regime’s forced-hijab guidelines to have access to education, from the age of 6, and are also competing with men. In an art university, where you work with your body, expressions and thoughts, we women were constantly under the surveillance of the university morality and security guards for our appearance and our behavior and we were also expected to prove ourselves to be equally good artists to men, by the discouraging observation of the male-dominated faculty and the academic scene.
These two layers of control just claustrophobically limits how you express yourself, your body, your thoughts, your being.
I teach at RISD now. Yesterday, as I was talking to my students, suddenly I realized that at the University of Tehran Art School—the number one art university in Iran—we needed to leave by 6:00 PM. We didn’t have access to the university facilities to work on our projects, because when it gets dark, it is bad for men and women to be in the same place. So the morality police would kick us out by 6:00 PM and now that I think about it, it’s so absurd.
What makes me happy and also breaks my heart is that through the lives that are taken, we see a new face of the new generation. The young females who are fighting right now on the streets of Iran, a lot of them share art, creation, a lot of drawings, paintings, singing. The younger generation are way more free-spirited. They are not crushed by the burden of misogyny and limitations that was on us through the very first generations after the 1979 revolution in Iran. They are more fearless, they are way more expressive, and they are the ones in the front line of this revolution right now.
How are these current protests different from previous protests?
I call it a revolution this time. Rounds of protests have been happening in the past recent years—there was a major wave in 2009, but then in 2017 and 2019—now it continues. But this time we call it a revolution because it has all the elements. It is all across the country, People from various cities, generations, backgrounds and classes inside and out of Iran are participating. The protests have been continuous now for almost two months demanding a downfall for this regime entirely. This time I think it is different because it all started with the tragic killing of Mahsa Zhina Amini for her basic human rights—it is human dignity that is completely crushed, but it does carry the weight and legacy of the older political and civil movements as well. Jina’s death was a moment of rapture that brought everything together. All this oppression and rage and sorrow and daily disrespect and crushing of the dignity, and the public resources being looted, the financial and regional systematic oppressions and discriminations that people experienced through their rights and belongings being taken from them by this regime, erupted again. And I’m very positive about the revolution. I feel the revolution’s core is women, life, freedom and looking forward to celebrating these three elements that have been the targets of this regime for all these years.
What’s your advice for young artists who want to integrate political activism into their practice?
We live at a time where the boundaries of art and the boundaries of activism and social presence are expanding every day. Artists are using the new mediums of social media, the internet, the digital world, all these different mediums as a way to express themselves. Art boundaries are fortunately very fluid these days, as well as the boundaries of activism. A lot of people use the same medium of the digital world for activism as artists on social media use it to promote or even make work. So that hopefully brings these two different fields closer together. I think my advice is to focus and make more. Just make more. A lot of times you need to go between the fast rhythm of activism for your art, or at the same time you learn from the art field and to bring it into activism and basically have a cross between these two different realms. Constantly be back and forth. What do you learn in art and the art field? And how does the history of art and the people who have worked in that field, how did it help them? Just bring it into activism. Also read and expose yourself to whatever you are told that is an alien, or the other. Be open in observation, and be focused in your conclusions and decisions.
Sometimes when tragic things happen, we don’t get to be patient enough for art. But what is important is that we still remember that through art we can evoke empathy and we can make other people listen, have mutual feelings, and care. If the whole point of activism is to stop something or change something that we think is unfair and shouldn’t be happening through the language of art, we can evoke this empathy for others who have not necessarily experienced the same thing. But they want to care about it. So using art to evoke empathy is definitely something we need more and more.
How has your personal history, being part of a diaspora and being so far from where you grew up, informed your perspective of the art world in America?
I guess all immigrants find themselves to be a little bit in between places. And for me, who moved to the U.S. when I was around 30 years old, that [experience] is different from someone who’s second generation Iranian or people who moved when they were kids. I started thinking that I need to make these two different places come to a mutual ground or have a conversation, or also between Iran and abroad. Iran has been isolated for 44 years now because of the aggressive violent actions by the men of this regime. The country has been isolated not just physically, but also in the digital and internet world. I felt the need to bring a conversation between people who are inside the country and on the streets fighting, and the Iranians in diaspora, but also the non-Iranians, to show what is going on, what is happening and why, to give some context about contemporary Iran, and so we created this platform, From: Iran.
To have a better understanding of the ongoings in Iran from afar, I force myself to spend some time every day going through social media and reading the news to keep my mind closer to where I’m physically far away from, but also at the same time trying to understand how I need to articulate this material to be accessible for a broader and international community. There is a lot of thinking about articulation, creative strategies and visual storytelling and I guess that’s why I see that as a part of my practice as well.
As for the direction of From: Iran, I think I need to go back to the role of 2D and printed material and design in my art study. Growing up in isolated Iran, where we did not have access to museums in person, and couldn’t travel easily or have visitors in the country easily, our major experience and study of art (specifically western art history) and most of our visual study was true books and prints, trying to image and understand the depth and the context on our own. Also being 80s kids in Iran, we have a visual memory of political art and design, pamphlets, posters.
Now being in the diaspora and not having physical access to Iran, the limitations we experienced make us think about going the other way around when it comes to bringing awareness and giving some context about Iran, where the international community does not have much access to. We think a lot about how to strategize visual imagery and how to spread this whole information and material in a 2D/screen situation, but then try to encourage a deeper dive into it, and create some context and intellectual dimension.
Diana Valenzuela is a media and fiction writer from Oakland, California who cares about acrylic nails and My Chemical Romance. Her work has appeared in the New Orleans Review, the Millions, and the End of the World. She lives in San Francisco.