Photography by Sueraya Shaheen


Photography by Sueraya Shaheen

An Interview with Afruz Amighi

by Alexander Barakat

October 2009

Iranian born and New York based artist Afruz Amighi was awarded the Jameel Prize this year for her installation 1001 Pages. Amighi constructed 1001 Pages from a porous plastic sheet of the same type deployed in assembling refugee tented dwelling spaces. She delicately applied the decoration derived from Islamic motifs through hand-cutting the material itself with a stencil burner, producing a diaphanous effect permitting light from an overhead projector to cast shadows of the piece’s intricate designs against the wall behind it. When examining the work, one is immediately enamoured by its exquisite decorative value to the extent that its conceptual subtext is easily overlooked, in part due to its discreet communication conveyed by the artist through subtle motifs contained within the work, as well as its personalized hidden messages that can only be articulated by Amighi.

Nevertheless, once the viewer delves beyond the work’s empyreal façade, they peer into the space between the piece itself and the shadows projected upon the wall, and become trapped within a coalescence of light and darkness. At this point, recounting my personal experience previewing the work, the viewer can potentially meditate upon the piece, manifesting a spiritualized sense of solitude derived from the chimera composed of the inability to distinguish between the physical dimensionality of the piece itself and its shadows. As an art critic, the immense compass of such a reaction resulting from the impact impressed upon the viewer by a work of art yields an irreplaceably singular experience, deeming the work as both memorable and original.

After we were both interviewed for Al Jazeera’s coverage of the prize, I had the privilege to walk around London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with Amighi prior to our interview. We shared an interesting and engaging conversation discussing a range of topics from art to politics and culture. Finally, after situating ourselves on the delightfully garish Louis Vuitton printed seats of Hassan Hajjaj’s installation in the Jameel Prize exhibition room, we conversed about her work, the winning of the Jameel Prize, and her future projects, which will now be awaited in great anticipation.

ALEXANDER BARAKAT: Can you give me a general overview describing your body of work?

AFRUZ AMIGHI: Generally, I work in a wide range of materials and media. Not so long ago, I was working in glass and mosaic tile, which was consciously chosen because I had visited Tehran for the first time as an adult and was amazed with the tile work. I was captivated by its resilience, and its public use and application on various exteriors. I was interested in using tile, but not in a typical decorative fashion. I wanted to construct pieces that were perceived as “anti-public work” and portraits out of the tiles; during that time, I produced portraits of my father. Regardless of the materials I use or the themes that run throughout my work, I try to make something intimate happen with it. So the ‘shadow pieces’, of which 1001 Pages is one in a series of three, is something I’ve worked on during the past few years and plan on continuing. I tend to experiment with other mediums while working in one, so the style of the ‘shadow pieces’ is not necessarily representative of my work as a whole.

BARAKAT: How would you describe the portraits you constructed out of the tiles?

AMIGHI: The portraits were based on photographs I took of my father, which I asked him to reenact by getting into certain positions ranging from him sitting prone on the ground to getting into a slump. I wanted him to portray the long period in which he was extremely ill while I was growing up. When he reenacted a position in which he was unable to move freely, it reminded me of how he became sick fairly soon after we got here [to America] and realized we weren’t going to return [to Iran]. Many of the photographs are interplay between his illness and him being unable to return home; yet there is nothing explicit about that in the work, as this aspect is just the motion that lies behind it. There was also a desire to introduce figurative work into the tile. Even though I incorporated patterns in the backdrop, I attempted to convey that figurative representation was absolutely part of the tradition of artwork in Iran. It was an attempt to eliminate that entire misconceived reality of this uninformed mystification or myth that figural representation is banned or is non-existent in Islamic culture, which is obviously untrue.

BARAKAT: Also, after examining the other ‘shadow pieces’, was there a specific reason why you ceased to use figural representation?

AMIGHI: I moved to a phase where the figure disappeared and became replaced purely by architectural and vegetal forms. I’m unsure of why that occurred, but the work became more personal; I found it easy to express myself and tell personal stories within a framework or an obvious narrative that is about something else. I began to play and manipulate these formal elements.

BARAKAT: What marks the transition between the style you described and the style of the 1001 Pages light installation, which appears to retain a rather traditional aesthetic; you mentioned to me that there is this hidden conceptual value that’s not obvious at all.

AMIGHI: There’s this private story that I’m unable to articulate, which I placed into the shadow works. It’s my gesture of hiding my kernel of the story inside a narrative that doesn’t necessarily include me. This piece is supposed to be an architectural embodiment of one century of Iranian political history that I was absent from. I registered its existence through reading books, and 1001 Pages is this compilation of all the historical books about Iran that I read and then visualized. It gave me this broad narrative in which I can hide certain symbols that refer to my story, outside of that context.

BARAKAT: I noticed that you included illustrations of several birds in the piece taking on various unconventional forms. What does their depiction represent? Were they used as human figural substitutes?

AMIGHI: I used 30 birds in total flying around the structure, with some ascending up to the sky, flying towards the side, or plummeting down to the earth. I wanted to depict these birds, for I thought they best represented any kind of civil society in the sense that people are never following one direction and never sharing the same opinion. However, that does not mean that they’re static or passive, which is often the manner in which many populations in the Middle East are represented in the media. This misrepresentation usually consists of a total dictator and a population who is too afraid to respond. There is also this peculiar situation where the Middle Eastern man is typically ‘super human’ and has extra power, therefore becoming a terrorist in the media. He is somebody who is not human because he can strike anywhere, possessing so much power at his disposal, which in turn dehumanizes him by being granted extra agency. On the other hand, you have representations of women and children who are denied any agency whatsoever, falling below the normal or acceptable level of prescribed ‘agency’, represented as either starving or oppressed. This dehumanization is the flipside of the same coin.

BARAKAT: Did the complexity of the characters you attempted to represent affect your feelings towards your choice of whether or not to use figural representation?

AMIGHI: That aspect did incite reservations about using the human figure in this piece. I didn’t know if it was in myself to convey a person that didn’t fall into those two traps. I was unsure if I was competent to produce a dynamic image in that manner, so I retreated into using geometric and abstract forms. For any artist, figural representation of this kind is difficult to express successfully. It’s rare to see a figure represented in a Middle Eastern context that doesn’t provoke the image of a stereotypical reflection resembling a media archetype or essentially a representation of either a victim or perpetrator. The birds allowed me to avoid this trap of misrepresenting the depicted figure.

BARAKAT: If I, as a viewer, am uninformed about the finer detail in the work, how am I meant to analyze and interpret it?

AMIGHI: The piece contains a great deal of symbolism. I realized when I was making it, or when I make anything for that matter, my intentions are zero. Does it matter what I intend to convey. I think there are enough details presented in the work. Some people noticed that there are cranes that shoot up at the top of the piece with meat hooks coming down from them. They didn’t notice that there is a peacock that frames the top with its feathers spearing its eyes; the feathers that exist in the peacock’s eyes have been removed, and so the peacock’s feathers are piercing through those eyes. It is a symbol that I incorporated to show how a country can blind itself, also touching upon related elements of self-destruction. To a certain degree, I wanted the viewer to feel a sensation of uncertainty regarding where the piece commenced and terminated. I intended for the viewer to lose their self in such a sensation without deriving any particular or specified meaning from the piece. Ultimately, it would contrive a total environment. I felt if I was able to accomplish that, the piece would succeed.

BARAKAT: How did you feel during the process of constructing 1001 Pages? Did certain aspects of putting it together invoke particular thoughts, feelings or emotions?

AMIGHI: The act of cutting out the designs became this ritual where I went to my studio, standing in front of a huge piece of fabric, prepared with all sorts of ideas, motifs and patterns to cut into the piece. I spend a few hours unaware of my physical wellbeing, as I am engulfed in these gestures of cutting and producing the designs. After one month and a half, I’m finished working and can’t continue for a short period of time. It fulfills this sense of escaping my mind and ceasing the flow of thoughts, as if I’m feeling a kind of hypnosis happening, for the process is almost mindless in that respect. It is a part of all my work, this tedious hypnotic element. Conceptually, I think this piece is also about the act of removing the material, which in turn does reflect my absence, for I am taking away material to create these images. These are the images that form a landscape in which I haven’t necessarily lived in. I’ve read about the landscape and maybe felt its outer edges. It is a conceived memory that I’m outside of, and that’s why I’m fond of the shadows. These experiences are something I haven’t endured in the flesh, and the shadows give me a way of expressing this knowledge and range of emotions in a way that does not feel absolutely definitive, for the shadows themselves are intangible. It can’t be pinned down, as you can see, they do move somewhat slightly along the wall. The shadows provide an outlet of where I feel safer to express ideas that aren’t certain or definite.

BARAKAT: Have you taken yourself out of a void of displacement and been able to experience what you’ve been detached from?

AMIGHI: I don’t necessarily feel displaced. I feel like no matter what society I’m presently in, I almost always feel alienated. I’m not necessarily coming at it from a position of displacement in those terms, but from a position of detachment. That’s the idea I’ve been particularly interested in, especially if one examines the work focused on identity politics produced in the 90s. I had various reactions to it, and on the one hand, I felt like it was an important movement where many things were accomplished. There was a real power in the affirmation of stating, “this is my identity”, which is not recognized by the mainstream. It was a response to a power imbalance in relation to race, culture, gender etc. in the United States and the world at large. There was something about that period for me that did not necessarily feel just to express myself within the category as “I am an Iranian-American and this is work about my roots”. I felt a certain sense of insincerity expressing myself within that category. When people approach me and question, “What does this pattern signify. You are Iranian, what is the history behind it?” I felt this obligation to somehow be an expert. Would they accept the fact that, at some point, it happened to form my immediate visual landscape, therefore it was something quite intimate to me, and that would suffice. When using Islamic geometric patterns and arabesques, there is an intuitive feel around it, for when I sketch, that is what I happen to draw. Do I necessarily know the history around it? No, it’s something I have to learn – and it’s something I have learned and have read about, but that is not integral to the work. The work itself is a reflection of my experience and environment.

BARAKAT: How does identity politics from your perspective play a role in your work in relationship to your detachment from Iran?

AMIGHI: The point I was making with this work is that the fascination with identity and origin, in my case, stems not simply from a familiarity or being in touch with that identity, but comes from being detached from that identity. It was examining it from the outside, and being fascinated as a result of being on the exterior. Perhaps as a result, if I were on the inside, it wouldn’t be such a spectacle. Things that are within your norm of familiarity aren’t quite elevated to that position of being a spectacle. I wanted to highlight the fact that fascination is often born of detachment, and how do I reflect my detachment in this work and how do I reflect my absence. It is also about how I can compose an intimate environment, for that is certainly omnipresent, as I am not completely divorced from that reality.

BARAKAT: Would you consider yourself part of a ‘Persian’ diaspora? If so, how has it affected your general outlook?

AMIGHI: I may not feel much in common with the Iranian community in Los Angeles or New York for example, but I absolutely do feel like I am part of a diaspora. I feel that as time goes by, there are few people I meet that aren’t part of a hybridized culture or aren’t straddling two or three different cultures while living outside of where they were born. I think the experience of a work that is being made like this therefore speaks to a larger audience than has existed in the past. I think there’s something that does separate me from the sentiment of expressing my angst of being displaced from Iran, for it is not nearly that simple or that dramatic. It’s as if I contemplate this ‘almost’ life, questioning what would my life and the person I am now have been like if I stayed.

BARAKAT: Are you attempting to recreate your perception of an ‘Iran remembered’ or an ‘Iran that could have been’, as your personal idealization of an utopian Iran in a sense?

AMIGHI: My work achieves that in a certain respect, but in a more particular sense. Regardless of the imagery, as there is some heinous imagery in the work such as the hooks and the chains, there isn’t a consciously idealized utopia. Yet the placid sensation of the piece and the sense of solace derived from the atmosphere it creates does reflect a certain idealization of the mosque. When I went back to Iran, I found an extraordinary amount of solace being inside different mosques. Being without shoes and seeing that I could explore the range of human emotions in the most public space possible, registered as the intersection of public space and detachment, coupled with the intimacy of being able to completely express your emotions and personal sentiments. This intersection in the realm of that respective sacred space was something I wanted to recreate for people in the United States to experience around the piece. However, I’m not censoring negative aspects present in the work. These negative aspects are most often missed due to the association of the piece being ‘beautiful’. As a result, one can skim over the barbaric aspects of the imagery because of the piece’s ethereal qualities.

BARAKAT: How did you feel about winning the Jameel Prize and having your work displayed amongst the selection of the other short listed works?

AMIGHI: I was thrilled to be part of the exhibition. It was curated in good taste, and the overall selection is encompassing and cohesive. The work is sincere, and I was pleased to be in a show in which the calibre of the artwork is at such a high level. After viewing the exhibit, I was satisfied and relieved because there was so much work that went into this project from every end. Winning the prize was astounding, but the most amazing thing for me was meeting a few people who I felt that I could relate to quite quickly, which can make for a unique and invaluable experience.

BARAKAT: Can you give some insight into your future projects?

AMIGHI: I want to take the shadow work to a more sculptural level. There is also a project that’s been in my mind since I read Rumi’s parable entitled “Chinese Art and Greek Art”. When I read that parable, I thought to myself that it would be wonderful to reinterpret and reenact it as a struggle within an artist. The project is about wanting to recreate these two opposing walls, but challenging myself to create a work that is not surpassed by its reflection. The project is something that held my fascination for a few years, and I hope to complete it within the space of a year.