Sunday, April 9, 2017

Interview: Soheila Azadi

Muted Uprising, installation detail

In the midst of social, environmental, and political unrest, two of our most important resources are care and creative thinking. Artist-parents play a critical role in both, mindfully raising the next generation while also activating public imagination. Cultural ReProducers explore this intersection through a series of conversations with artists about the future our children will inherit, and the work we’re making in response. 

Soheila Azadi is an interdisciplinary visual artist and lecturer based in Chicago and Iran. Azadi uses performance and participatory installation to explore intersections of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity within womens’ everyday lives. Born in the capital of Islamic cities, Esfahan, Azadi absorbed storytelling skills through Persian miniature drawings as a child, and her inspirations come from her experiences as a woman living under Theocracy. As a new mother her recent work creates spaces for cultural dialogue and addresses the barriers she has found as a mother-artist.

Cultural ReProducers: First, briefly tell us a little bit about your child: age, name, general temperament…

 Soheila Azadi: My baby’s name is Ario, and he’s 6 months old. He’s a very happy and curious baby.

CR: Before you had a child, what kinds of expectations did you have about how parenthood might impact your life as an artist? And how do those expectations square with your experience so far?

Soheila: I remember I had an interview when I was pregnant and I was like, “yeah, once I have the baby it’s not going to impact my work, my life that much.” (laughter) But once I had the baby everything was like, for three months, on pause. After he was four months old I started coming out of my cave. I think my expectations were that it would be easy, it would be like anything else. I consider myself a strong person, and I can do whatever I want to do, and although I had the same ideas once I had him, you are dealing with this fragile human being. He became my first priority, basically. There were times when people contacted me and asked me to collaborate with them and I had to say no. I was in shows while I had him, but I had to pause everything else.

CR: Do you feel like motherhood has affected your relationship with the art world?

Soheila: It has affected it, big time. I used to go to lectures every Friday night, I would go to openings, I was really active. Once I had Ario it was a matter of now my partner being able to accompany us. We are going to openings as much as we can, the three of us, but lectures, it’s just so – that really doesn’t happen unless I’m teaching and I take my class with me. I remember the first time I encountered the idea of motherhood within the art world was this panel discussion on motherhood, and I remember even then, there were people who came with babies, and they were talking about motherhood and one baby  started crying… and everybody looked back like (makes a surprised face) “Whoah, what?… there’s a baby here! Why are you crying?” So I think that was my first introduction to this whole idea. Once I became a mom, this became reality for me: I’m not going to be able to do some of the things that I was planning to do. In Europe you see babies walking and playing in galleries, and in the US … you barely, barely see that in the US. So that made me feel upset, thinking, “My child doesn’t really have a place here, you know?” But one thing to note is that even before I became a mother I always assigned my students a reading about motherhood in the arts. I always assign my students part of “Feminist Art and the Maternal” book by Andrea Liss. Although I was not a mother, I always felt it is my duty to contribute to raising awareness about mother’s challenges who are artists.  

Ario plays on the gallery floor during installation
CR: You bring up a good point here, which is that the conversation is very different in places where there is more support for mothers, where kids are more naturally welcome in the gallery scene. I say “the Art World” but really we’re talking about “this art world over here in the US,” where it’s part of a larger culture that tends to prioritize the needs of the individual over the community.

Soheila: Exactly – that’s another thing that I’ve been finding, especially in Chicago. In the US we hide babies. They are not visible. We hide older people. And I think that’s really problematic.

CR: What kinds of changes would you like to see that might better support artists raising children in the United States?

Soheila: As you mention, it’s the system of support. Maybe if the system was similar to Europe, for instance. If there was some support from the government… I mean, financial support, oh my God! It’s a real thing. It’s about survival. So that’s a systematic thing. But also I would say as educators we have a huge role in this. As mothers, as fathers, as human beings – I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to help each other, to come together to shape this.

I don’t know so much about the art world in Iran, because I never go there as an artist. But I know as a mother you have so much support. I went to a baby shower of a friend who is Iranian. I wanted to get food, and this lady came up to me and offered to hold my baby so I could get something to eat. I didn’t want to trouble her, and she was like “No, just relax.” It was something I had never experienced here. Nobody ever in this last six months… I mean, several times in the past I was struggling with the stroller, too many things on hand, my baby having explosions (laughter), and nobody even offered to hold the door! And now I am finally able to hold my baby and my food at the same time and you are offering to hold my baby so I can eat?  That’s the difference. It’s much easier because of the support you get from family, and people have a certain understanding of how family works, the support that you have to give. I have a friend now in Iran, she is pregnant, and I asked if she will be quitting her work or continuing, and she said -- and this is a saying there -- “With the help of everybody, I will make it happen.”

Soheila Azadi and Liz Cambron, Witch Hunt (video still)

CR: Your work explores issues of identity and division through your experience as a Muslim-born Iranian American. For any parent, there’s always the question of what kind of world our children are growing up in, what challenges they might face, and what we hope for the future.  How does the current political climate impact your approach to raising a child in the US?

Soheila: The more tangible it becomes, the more it affects my life. I think about… how will I tell my son that Grandma won’t be able to come, because of this government? Or we will travel there, but with the fear of losing what we call home. I cannot imagine how even a 4-year old kid would understand these things, but they sense your fear, from young age. Now more than ever, it is my duty to raise a feminist, for sure… but also to raise him an Iranian. Now it’s about pushing back. How does this impact his life down the road, but also how does this impact… millions? It’s about also my friend who has a 9-month-old child who doesn’t have any support here, and she won’t be able to exit the country to see her family. It’s about being landless. In summer I’m planning to go home. If something happens, I told my husband, I won’t be coming back here. I would rather deal with – it’s basically the same politics, as of now – and be with my family.  Being here, what am I gaining really, at this point? I’m still struggling with all these questions and ideas now. It’s still shocking.

Knife, installation view
CR: How will this shape the kind of work you put out into the world?

Soheila: I was interviewed for a year-long residency, and they wanted me to propose a project. I could not not think about what is happening now, and the place of Muslims in this country. I’m thinking of using fabric and glass, different densities of mirror – so in some places there will be crisp mirror where you see yourself, and others will be mirror where you can see through it, and drawing inspiration from Islamic patterns –- turning them into a quilt that is made from glass. People will be seeing themselves and seeing the other simultaneously.

I haven’t exhibited my work in Iran because of restrictions there, and because I talk about religion in
my work. My work situates itself on this edge that could fall on either side, and that could become really dangerous for me. When I go to Iran, I take down my website. I take any documentation of my work off my laptop, I just empty it out. I don’t want to risk anything. All my family lives there and I have to be able to go back. I’ve been away for fourteen years now, and at that point I was not making socially engaged art. I’m really hesitant to do that in Iran. On the first page of my website,  the image is sort of separating me from the viewer but also it says “this website is highly censored.” Highly public, highly private. 

I had never thought about reaching out to Muslim communities, which I was told I should – but for the first time I told my husband “I think I should do this.” So for the first time I am. I am working on a music video with my collaborator Liz Cambron, called Hijabi Mermaids, going back to this situation in France, where the government said you may not go to the beach and wear this thing [Hijab]. I started writing the lyrics and we are working with a musician in Ohio. The other thing was another music video called Witch Hunt which we made in 2015. When the Muslim ban happened we decided to upload it to Youtube and make it public as a way to protest the current loss.

CR: Has the current situation changed your relationship with the religion?

Soheila: It hasn’t changed anything. My practice is about raising the question of what happens when we separate people based on their sex and their race, which is the result of religion. In grad school what became very frustrating for many people is that I keep them in this space where I don’t say it’s a bad thing or a good thing – and for many people who were anti-religion, they were really frustrated by it. I was saying “I actually identify as a Muslim and hey, this is what it was like for me growing up, and it wasn’t too bad for me. It was bad for certain things you see on TV, but there are things that you don’t know about. Let me introduce you to those realities”. I think my work was actually more for religion than against it. It still has backlash, especially from Muslim-born people who do not identify as Muslim anymore. They absolutely hate the work -- they think that I beautify being Muslim. My work is more about creating spaces where dialogue happens – about sex, race… religion has always been a part of it. And the new work is creating a space where we can talk about motherhood.

Artist is on Maternity Leave, installation view
CR: Your recent piece, Artist is on Maternity Leave, was a manifesto installed on the floor of a group exhibition, with a spotlight to hold the space. Could you talk about how that expands on these ideas?

Soheila: This time I’ve placed myself within the work. Oftentimes before I would create spaces and then exit from them, which allowed for conversations for and against the whole idea. But for the first time I realized that this work was really personal. So yes, there was this space I was holding within the gallery – because I had to do that to survive as an artist and a mother…and for my child. The way I held the space was through my manifesto. It talks about how my identity now is torn between being an artist and a mother, and now my first priority is my child, Before it was my work, and where does that place me now? I was forced… to push people away to keep my space within the art world. Recently I was offered the chance to teach two classes at the School of the Art Institute. I had waited for one year for that offer.  I worked hard for it, but I had to turn it down because I was pregnant. I went to a few meetings without having any contract, so that they don’t forget me. I felt like I’m battling with the world, with all the people in front of me. So in Artist is on Maternity Leave, I was holding my “space”.

CR: You wrote about the experience of watching visitors pass over the piece without seeing it. You didn’t put the manifesto on a pedestal, or on a wall: you put it on the floor. It seems an apt metaphor for the lack of visibility many women artists find on having a child.

Mother is Present, detail from Skype performance
Soheila: Yes, I was talking about being a mother and an artist and finding your space within the artwork literally and metaphorically. At the opening, people came up to me and they’d say “I see your name here, but I didn’t see your work.” So they had to go back again to that part of the gallery to see it. This happened to almost all of my friends who came to see the work. A week ago, I went to the gallery and I realized that most of the text was ripped off, which showed that people literally walked over my work. It was black vinyl on gray floor, and there’s the light that hits that spot. So it’s hard to miss it. But they missed it. I know that happens within galleries. I thought, okay, this goes parallel to my idea of being unnoticed as a mother artist.

One week afterwards I was scheduled to do a Skype performance. Skype is very much a part of my practice, and now, being a Mom – I mean, we are Skyping now, and it’s great. So I wanted to do the Skype performance, and the day of they said, “We need to cancel. We have things happening here.“ I knew that they hadn’t even advertised for my performance ahead of time, where they usually do when a performance happens in that space. The work was called Mother is Present, drawing inspiration from Marina Abramovic’s work, The Artist is present. Basically they would be able to see me interacting with my child the whole time, without me being able to interact with the audience. I had to push for it, and one week later they said they had to reschedule. So we rescheduled. And again, it was supposed to happen on Saturday, and on Friday at 3pm I said, “are you not going to advertise this at all?” And they said “Yes, we will do it,” and finally Friday night it seems they did advertise it. I see that I have to push for this. I have to say “You must realize that this is an artwork, even if you don’t see it as art.” Later on, the person who runs the space said “why didn’t you come here with your child and do the piece here?” Which would have been a completely different piece. I was thinking about the space of home and the space of the gallery, and the space of being a mother and the space of being an artist, bringing those two spaces together. So I thought, “Maybe you guys fell short and now you’re thinking about changing my piece.” I was not expecting that from them. With performance art, whatever happens becomes part of the work. So they could have added to the piece by responding like that.

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