In its second edition, The Immigrant Artist Biennial was founded by Katya Grokhovsky, an immigrant artist, to advocate for other immigrant artists. By platforming these artists’ experiences, audiences can take part in longing, expectations, successes, frustration, and long-term emotional effects of geopolitics, all spurred by migration, through the lens of artistic expression.
Leila Seyedzadeh came to the United States from Iran to study at one of the country’s most prestigious MFA programs, Yale in Painting & Printmaking. “Over this 50-year period, Yale’s Graduate School of Art has pumped out nearly 10 percent of all our successful artists,” the popular art newspaper Artnet states.
However, before she arrived, she was an artist on the rise in Iran. Currently, she teaches at Pratt and is widely exhibited across New York, having one work on view at NARS Foundation as part of Contact Zone, The Immigrant Artist Biennial’s 2023 edition. The piece is comprised of a hanging sculpture and a poem.
As co-curator of this year’s biennial, I interviewed Seyedzadeh about her work and immigrant experience.
What is your first memory of the United States? Is it the concept of the country?
LS: One of the first things that got my attention from day one of my immigration experience to the US was that the sky is higher here than what I felt back in Tehran. It was the sky that etched itself into my mind. Upon beginning my life here, the expanse of the sky seemed grander, vaster, and somehow different from what I had experienced before.
Later, I visited Mexico City and Toronto, and I noticed the sky was high and vast there too. When I traveled back to Tehran, I looked carefully and saw the sky was not the same, and I tried to understand why it was lower there.
The change in the blue color, the angle of the sunlight, and the shape of the clouds beautifully underscores the nuances of perception that can be so poignant when experiencing a new place. That initial impression of the sky being higher here was so compelling that it swiftly transformed into my first poem. The poem, born from the longing for Tehran and the emotional depth of my immigration, serves as a poignant testament to the power of immediate experiences in shaping art and memory.
You are participating in The Immigrant Artist Biennial. What does it mean to be an immigrant and immigrant artist in the United States today? What is your relationship with your homeland?
LS: Participating in this biennial signifies the intersection of two distinct worlds, both culturally and artistically. Being an immigrant in the U.S. entails embracing the challenges, ups and downs, and opportunities presented while holding onto the rich culture of Iran. It’s a unique experience that involves navigating a complex move between the two, often resulting in a beautifully harmonious fusion in my artwork.
This dual identity as an Iranian immigrant artist exemplifies a unique perspective that enriches my artistic practice, blending the brilliant artistic traditions of Iran with the contemporary and diverse artistic tapestry of this country. It represents an opportunity to celebrate the beauty of cultural diversity and the contribution of immigrants to the artistic heritage of the United States.
My relationship with my homeland deeply connects to my artistic practice. Despite residing in New York, Tehran remains the place where my creative journey began. The stunning Alborz mountain ranges, the bustling bazaars, and the architectural context of the city are not just memories but sources of endless inspiration. My connection to Tehran is a thread that weaves through the fabric of my identity as an immigrant artist, adding depth and richness to my creations.
The Immigrant Artist Biennial offers a platform to explore and share these intricate themes, bridging the gap between my past and present, my Iranian heritage, and my experience on the East Coast, all while fostering a deeper understanding.
In your piece on view, “Enmeshed, Dreams of Water,” you imagine the journey of water traveling from New York to Tehran, the water in the East River that pours into the North Atlantic Ocean to make its way to the other side of the earth. Evaporate traveling across the land in the air and, through condensation, becomes a cloud that reaches the Albourz mountain ranges in Tehran in the form of rain. The work is very expressive, even incorporating a poem. What does this work mean to you, and how did you ideate it?
LS: “The Landscape of My Voice – East River” carries profound personal and artistic meaning. It represents a journey that transcends physical boundaries, tracing the path of water from the bustling East River in New York to the stunning Alborz mountain ranges in Tehran.
This concept was born from a deeply emotional experience I had last year when I watched a theater called “I Wish You Were Here” by Sanaz Toossi in New York. The play stirred a powerful sense of longing for my mom and my best friend in Tehran, evoking profound homesickness. It made me realize that there was a part of my heart that I had been neglecting.
One summer day, I found solace in the tranquil presence of the East River, contemplating the sun’s journey across the sky. The realization that the East River’s waters eventually poured into the vast North Atlantic Ocean struck me, highlighting the interconnectedness of our world. It was a moment of longing for home and pondering the vastness of the world’s waters and boundaries. I yearned for a way to momentarily escape the weight of the world’s complexities and find relief.
Soon after, I wrote a poem about the East River in Persian, which I later translated into English. This poem became the core of this artwork, reflecting the deep connection I felt to the river and its journey:
The sun rises where you emerge
Flowing down, you divide both sides
Bridges connecting your banks
Ships overturn your waves,
You pour into the North Atlantic Ocean
Several days later,
In the far away land
You arrive home
Where the rivers weep on their bed of loneliness
You flow through the Alborz mountains
When you reach Tehran, you rain
My mother is sitting by the window, gazing out at the rain
I wish I were flowing in you, oh the eastern river.
Then, as I delved into the traditions of dye in Iran, I discovered the historical use of natural pigments like indigo and saffron. This revelation inspired me to dye a sheer, long piece of fabric using a shibori technique, aiming to capture the essence of the river and the play of sunlight on its surface. The idea evolved further when I decided to sew the form of the frequency of my voice, represented by a wide sound drawing inspired by the analysis of my recorded voice reading the poem in both Persian and English.
The addition of various pieces of chains on the fabric allowed me to create a visual landscape of sound, with peaks and valleys reminiscent of a minimal mountainous drawing. This artwork encapsulates my emotional journey, from the natural beauty of the East River to my memories of the Albourz mountains in Tehran. It represents a bridge between two worlds and the boundless power of art to connect and heal.
What historical Iranian art movements have influenced your work? How and when did you start using fabric as a material?
LS: My works contain various influences from Persian miniature traditions. I first create compositions on paper that I use as the basis for my textile paintings and installations. I gradually create the shapes, followed by layers of colors and patterns. In particular, I use the flattened perspective and bird’s eye view as iconic miniature paintings.
I also am influenced by the color palette and textures of this tradition that I render into 2D and 3D works of art. For example, in my textile paintings, the mountains are vertical, but the rivers and valleys are seen from the perspective of a bird’s-eye view. In my installations, the mountains remain vertical while I incorporate objects, such as Persian carpets and Jajims (lightweight nomadic rugs), to maintain the bird’s-eye view in the 3D installations. It is only by entering and walking through the installation that viewers break the initial flattened perspective.
I began using fabric within my fine art practice in 2015. However, in actuality, I have been immersed in textiles my whole life, and my mother is undoubtedly the main inspirational force behind this incredible experience. Our house was always full of fabrics, curtains, mattresses, sheets, and many of my mother’s Chador Namazes (prayer veils). As children, my brother and I often made a big tent in our bedroom out of my mother’s chador that almost occupied the entire room. I was excited to experience a different space between the wrinkles of the fabric as if entering another world. What surreal joy to lie down on the carpets and stare at the floral chador ceiling.
Another memory that has impacted my relationship with fabric was my mother soaking white curtains in indigo dye, a practice traditionally passed down from mothers to daughters, which transforms the white fabric into clear blue hues. Afterward, she would hang them to dry in the wind. It’s not surprising then, that I made my first installation by upcycling old sheets and curtains with the help of my mother, who taught me how to dye, sew, and mend textiles. I want to credit my mother, a traditional housewife who mastered countless skills (part of which were passed on to me). Yet like many women, she was never formally paid for her work.
The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone takes place across nine venues in New York and New Jersey and is open through January 15, 2023. See the program here.
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