Women Who Create

I’m currently working on my second feature documentary, Living Tribal in a Democracy, which features three generations of women in my family and sheds light on our Chaldean lineage which dates back thousands of years to ancient Mesopotamia. In May, I gave a talk and screened part of this documentary at a film workshop presented by Creative Many at Wayne State University.

After the talk, a woman approached me to tell me that she enjoyed watching the footage and appreciated that I was portraying real-life stories of Middle Easterners, particularly women, since they are often pigeonholed in books, media, and films. The woman’s name was Parisa Ghaderi, and Parisa, it turns out, was doing similar work. Like me, Parisa is an award-winning filmmaker who has dedicated herself to her talents while, along the way, using her influence to help other artists as well.

Parisa was born in 1983 in Tehran, Iran and moved to the United States in 2009. A visual artist, curator, and filmmaker, she earned her BA in Visual Communications from Art & Architecture University in Tehran, Iran, and her MFA in Art and Design from the University of Michigan. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and she is featured in The Huffington Post, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other prestigious magazines. She has made four short films which won awards and were screened in international film festivals in Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Ireland, and California.

Impressed by her work, I invited her on my show. In this half-hour interview, Parisa shares how she’s dispelling misconceptions about her Iranian heritage, what it’s like to be a minority working in her field, her work habits that made her such a success at a young age, and her business tactics which are essential to sustain ourselves in the creative field.

How has your heritage influenced and affected your art and storytelling as a filmmaker? What have been some of the setbacks? Some of the advantages?

I am an Iranian artist who was born and raised after the 1979 Revolution. Being Iranian has certainly influenced my work as an artist. I come from a country with a rich culture and history. I immigrated to the US in 2009 which changed my creative practice as I was introduced to new concepts such as visa regulations, distance, language barrier, and loss. As a result, I started to focus more on personal stories, childhood memories, language complexities, and the emotional distance I experienced as an immigrant. The advantage of being from Iran is that I have access to my Iranian community here so I can hear their stories and relate to their experience, and get inspiration for my work. I made a short documentary about an Iranian couple who were separated because of visa restrictions which was screened at many festivals and won awards. The setback is specifically, for this exhibition, we faced various problems in terms of selling the artworks due to lack of financial transactions and inviting the artists to attend their show because of the hostile political climate between the two countries which resulted in the travel ban and more visa restrictions.

What projects are you currently working on?

Right now I’m working on a series of short films with my other Iranian friends, gathering their stories of immigration. I’m also working on a performance about borders which I have started a few months ago and was able to workshop it with acting students at UofM. I plan to finish these two projects by the end of next year.

What’s your schedule like?

I constantly research and look for grants and funds to support my projects. I read and research about my new projects, reach out to people and ask for feedback. I also teach drawing and photography every week from 2014 to my fellow Iranian friends. This fall, I will be a graphic design assistant professor at MSU which I’m very excited about.

How do you balance your creative and business side?

As an artist, it’s been always a challenge to balance these two, since the financial aspect sometimes restricts your creative plans. I’m aware that having a steady income, especially at the start of your art career will actually help keep you creative and prevent burnout when you don’t have to worry about supporting yourself through your art, and It’s great if you can do both, but usually, I need to prioritize and structure it. For me, the creative side has always been a priority and I keep generating ideas and look for funding to realize them as I also work as a freelance artist to support my practice.

What is “7500 Miles”? How and why was it started? Tell us a little about Mahsa Soroudi, the founder of 7500 Miles.

7500 is a collective which curates and promotes exhibitions to focus on contemporary Iranian artists who are disregarded or unseen due to the absence of fair exposure.

‘7500 Miles’ refers to the distance between California, where Mahsa currently lives, and her hometown Tehran. Mahsa and I graduated from the same college, so our friendship dates back to 2006. Mahsa was working as a docent at Orange County Museum of Art, OCMA, since 2013 and she was frustrated by the image of Middle-eastern women represented in the media as oppressed and weak, overshadowing their potentials and talents. This project was initially started by Mahsa in 2015, and I joined her later when we realized how much we were interested in this idea and shared the same concerns.

The majority of Iranian artists in the diaspora have represented a different image of Iran due to the time they had left the country, 1979-1986. Their imagery is directly influenced by tragic events of revolution and war. But the new generation of artists have found their unique creative way of reflecting on current socio-political tensions. Our goal in 7500 miles is to focus on this younger generation to portray modern Iran in a different way. As artists and curators, we feel highly responsible for creating a more nuanced depiction of a group of Iranian female artists and their distinctive art practice which has developed through their tireless effort, regardless of all the challenges and complications.

“7500 miles” creates a platform to showcase and promote the work by the new generation of women artists in Iran, with the hope to go beyond clichés and what has been shown in media and the art world so far.

Parisa3.jpg

As a curator, how do you specifically choose the artwork that’s submitted?

As curators, we are constantly looking for new artists with a fresh perspective and creative ideas. Since we are both artists ourselves and belong to the same generation of artists we represent, we have access to a wide network of artists inside Iran, who are active and prominent in the art scene. We interview them or have studio visits, and then choose their work based on the theme of the exhibition and how their work speak to each other as a group.

What advice would you give minority women artists who feel they don’t have the support or mentorship to pursue their passion?

If they don’t find the support they need, they should create it, and be the resource for others who seek their help. Forming collective and collaboration with like-minded people and those who share the same concerns, struggles, and passions. They need to reach out to other creatives, never give up and stay positive, because sooner or later it will happen.

If they see the misrepresented and distorted image of their country, they need to stand up and make the change, and not reproduce the misinformation the media projects. They need to keep that passion alive and burning, as a fuel for moving forward and overcoming all the obstacles ahead regardless of their nationality.

To learn more about Parisa Ghaderi, visit http://www.pghaderi.com/

Visions of Peace Through Art

The eldest of six children and the peacemaker in the family, Ilham Badreddine Mahfouz is the daughter of the East, that faraway land in Damascus, Syria. Her father was a teacher of history and her mother was a homemaker and educator by example. Her loving and kind parents raised their children to be the best of their knowledge and ability and good citizens of the world. But, as tradition had it, they prepared Ilham mentally to get married at a young age.

At age 16, Ilham found herself the wife of a physician who was going to America to pursue his medical specialty. Not only did she have to adjust to being a wife, but to a new culture in the United States. She had to learn a new language and become acquainted with different traditions and ways of life. Her husband encouraged her to learn English by taking adult education classes at night school and by attending Berkley High School, where she eventually graduated.

“I always knew that art and music were my patrons,” she says. “At Eastern Michigan University, I studied ceramics and paintings. I received a lot of encouragement from professors like Robert Piepenburg (ceramics and the art of RaKu) and Barry Avedan (painting).”

Ilham2

Ilham received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts with a double concentration in ceramics and painting and a minor in art history.

“My dream came true,” she says. “I wanted to set a good example to my children, for them to pursue a higher education than I achieved.”

Ilham’s artwork has won awards and been displayed at numerous exhibitions including Amnesty International Cell Museum in Vestervig, Denmark. She considers herself very fortunate to have come from the Old World, so rich in heritage, culture, and history, and to have the blessing of living in this young country with new ideas, culture, and traditions. She has taken the better part of both worlds and worked hard.

Her artwork is abstract style painting, ceramic, and mixed media.

“In my paintings, I try to capture my life experience as well as my outlook on life,” says Ilham. “I try to display emotions and reactions in my work through several layers of paint. Beneath the many layers may lay the subconscious.”

In her book, Whispers From the East, she writes, “Through art, I express life’s events that reflect pain and the feeling of helplessness… Through art, the truth is delivered for the viewer to experience.”

Ilham3

Her book includes her artwork, heartfelt poetry, and reflections about her birthplace Damascus, where she recounts the memory of jasmine bushes along the streets, the scent of jasmine in bloom spreading throughout the city and bringing joy and contentment to everyone passing by. Most of all, she remembers the kind, hospitable, and generous people who were always ready to help others in need.

“Life is give and take,” she says, repeating lessons her mother gave her. “With giving, we derive great happiness and joy; and with sharing and helping others, we also help ourselves. We must also know when to be a good receiver. Being a good receiver makes someone else a good giver.”

Ilham points out that “The world is so vast and yet so small with our reach through the net. We are able to reach people all over the world through art and exchange ideas and learn from one another. A beautiful concept of learning and living in harmony and peace.”

Personally, I believe that through art, we can find harmony and inner peace. We’re then able to mirror that into the world. We can use writing, art, and other creative ways to spread beauty into the world, raise awareness, and end destructive forces.

To learn more about Ilham and her work, visit www.artistilhambadreddinemahfouz.com

Devoted to Art

I learned about Qais Al Sindy, a renowned artist, some four years ago when I was working on a book called Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists. He lived in California so I was only able to interview him over the phone. This year he made his first visit to Michigan and we had the chance to meet in person.   

What I admired about Qais was not only his artwork but also his work ethics. He’s very disciplined, with a confidence that nourishes his talents and enables him to succeed and therefore sustain himself by being a full time artist. This is despite having come to the United States a little over a decade ago.  

The following is an excerpt from Iraqi Americans: The Lives of the Artists which highlights Qais Al Sindy and 15 other Iraqi American artists. 

Qais was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1967 and started painting when he was about fourteen years old. At his teacher’s suggestion, he made reproductions of master painters such as seventeenth century Diego Velasquez, Vermeer and Raphael. In college, he studied engineering at the University of Baghdad. He excelled in his studies, but he soon discovered that this field was not for him.

After graduation in 1989, he applied to the Academy of Fine Arts. He told the administration, “If you force me to be a Baathist, I will study outside this country and you will lose me.” 

They made an exception to his non-Baathist affiliation and enrolled him. In 2002, he attained a diploma in French language from the Cultural French Center in Baghdad and in 2004, he graduated with an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts. His thesis was about Christian paintings from all over Iraq. This led him to take a big tour of Iraq, to visit all the monasteries and different cities from Zakho (in the Kurdisan region) to al-Faw (marshy region in the extreme southeast of Iraq).

“It was dangerous to travel, especially since I did not have a sponsor,” he said. “I paid from my own pockets and drove my own car. Because I speak English very well, I managed well at American checkpoints. I received harassment from the insurgents and extremists, but at that time, it wasn’t very severe. I managed, but I did leave the country shortly after graduating.”

Qais image 1

Qais has held art exhibits all over the world, his artwork drawing so much attention that nearly a dozen books have been published about it by various venues, including Kuwait Cultural Center and Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington, DC.  As I mentioned earlier, he lives in California where he has no other profession than that of an artist.

“I don’t do anything else in this world except for art,” he said. “If you are able to do the art that you like and find a way to sell it, this means that you believe in yourself.”

Qais says that when he paints, he tries to get his resources from overseas, his homeland. He is also known to engage audiences in his artwork. An example of this is in his Mamdooh series.

“After I left Iraq, I lived in Jordan, where I taught art for the students in the architectural department,” he said. “One day I heard that one of my dearest friends in Iraq, a talented portrait artist named Mamdooh suffered injuries as a result of a car explosion that injured and killed many people. He was transferred to the hospital where he struggled against death for one week, then died.”  

This led Qais to do a series of four paintings. The first one, he did a portrait of Mamdooh, using an expressionist style that focuses on his appearance. The second painting is a ghostly figure with transparency like his character, full of hue colors. It is the moment which Mamdooh suffers and dies. In the third painting, he brought some ashes and charcoal from the ruins of the car that exploded and drew Mamdooh using those ashes. That means Mamdooh is gone. The fourth painting is a pure blank canvas.

Al Sindy 1 - Mamdooh

“Everyone is well aware that it’s prohibited to touch the art works in galleries and in museums,” he said. “But in this artwork, I came up with something new to complete the fourth painting.  I asked the viewers to wipe their hands on painting number three. Of course, now their hands are stained with charcoal and ashes. They want to clean their hands, but I ask the crowd to wipe their hands on the blank canvas, on painting number four. The fingerprints on the canvas mean that you’re a participant of this crime in Iraq.”

Qais says that this was his way of asking his audience to live this moment as a kind of sharing and participating to the message that he wanted to deliver.  He wants to tell people that it is up to us to make this world the best place to live in.

He showed this series in more than ten countries, and people insisted on participating in the artwork. So when you see the fourth one, you see more than a thousand people’s fingerprints.

“Everyone wants to show that they are responsible for us not having peace in this world,” he said. “The frames are cracked and damaged because they toured many many countries. I kept it as it is.”

Qais’ biggest challenge is having to do everything himself. He even made an eleven minute documentary about the burning of the Iraqi library, called Letters Don’t Burn. Projects that he works on today have more of a humanitarian theme. They don’t only encompass the Iraqi subject, because he wants to do something for our globe, not just for Iraq. One of the projects he did was called the Bridge. It showcased the work of forty seven premier and emerging Arab, Persian and Jewish visual artists around the theme of what “bridges” us to each other.

Qais’ synopsis was to collect stones and bricks and, instead of hitting each other with stones and bricks, to build a bridge out of them that would start a cultural dialogue between different countries.

“This would help create love,” he said, “because if I love you I will not fight you. If I love you, then I will put my hands with your hands and we will build something together. All the problems in this universe are the result of us not loving each other. People’s desires for opportunism, greed, for looking out for themselves and not each other, are the reasons we don’t have universal peace.”  

Al Sindy 2 - The Revivification of Music

To learn more about Qais Al Sindy and his exhibits, visit his website: http://www.qaissindy.com/