Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Blasphemous. Corrupt. Taboo. All of these are labels Taravat Talepasand toys with in her unapologetic artwork, which blends iconography from both Iranian and American cultures to create something entirely new and provocative, from a bust of Khomeini with hits of LSD as his eyes to an authentic Persian rug covered in Kim Kardashian emojis.
We caught up with Taravat to talk about growing up in America as an Iranian, how drugs inform some of her art, and why Kim Kardashian is such a powerful symbol for both the U.S. and Iran.
You’ve described the experience of growing up Iranian in America as “arduous and awkward.” How so?
Being born into this world, in America, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to émigré Iranians should answer your question. And let’s not forget the exacerbating '80s during the Iraq/Iran War, followed by Desert Storm in the early 1990s. I've been living a life of constant questioning, with discrimination and outright hatred towards anyone that remotely looked Middle Eastern. To describe my life growing up as an Iranian in America as "arduous and awkward" is me just being nice. Trust me; it was much worse than you could ever imagine.
You’ve also talked about the struggle that a lot of first-generation Americans face -- embracing one culture is seen as the dismissal of the other; being too Iranian for the Americans, too American for the Iranians. When and how did you learn how to reconcile both aspects of your identity?
It's incredibly frustrating to be called American-Iranian or Iranian-America, being told that you are more American than Iranian, or that, since you weren’t born in Iran, you are less Iranian. Who has the right to tell a person who they are or how they should define their nationality? I decide who I am and who I want to be.
I learned to reconcile with this by age 4, during my first visit to Iran, and every summer after that, up until my last visit during the Arab Spring. I am first and foremost Iranian, by blood and by traditional, cultural, and moral upbringing. Being American for me used to be for its freedom, but that crumbled when Trump was elected.
Much of your work deals with taboos in both Iranian and American culture. You’ve said that the two cultures are actually more similar than one might expect. Can you talk a bit about that?
It is so easy to discuss the vast differences between the two countries and its cultures. So why not inspect a little deeper? Are there any glitches and similarities?
I found an interesting article in The Economist about the meth epidemic, which describes that dealers had been targeting women in Iran, specifically in hair salons. What is fascinating -- but also outright terrifying -- is the hook that was used to entice these women to smoke meth: a means to lose weight. It reminds me of the 1950s and '60s, when pill popping was considered feminine.
Why is Iran in the top four countries in the world for plastic surgery? Why am I constantly seeing exposed women on billboards and other public advertisements? Consumerism, illegal substances, and beauty ideals are all commonalities between Iranian and American culture. There was a time when I felt it was important to focus my work in locating and describing these similarities once and for all.
Your work, which sometimes involves hits of acid, hash oil, and meth pipes, has been called “blasphemous drug art.” What do you want people to take away from your use of illegal substances as material?
Provocation has always been a form of allegory in my work. My portrayal of Muslim leaders is knowingly flippant — a gesture that would surely be censored in Iran, though in America the risks are fewer. The inclusion of illicit materials takes the provocation further by both parodying the image of Khomeini and making his image complicit in contraband activities, all at the hand of a woman no less.
The choice of medium becomes crucial. It confidently declares “not only do I have the power to recreate your image” — to own it, in some way — “I will also consume it” — adding insult to insult — “and get high off it.”
You’ve had art shows all around the world -- you’ve even had an exhibition in Alabama, of all places. How did people from that community react to your work?
I honestly was grateful for the community's curiosities and had endless conversations with all types of people, particularly Jordan Amirkhani, who had traveled by train from Tennessee to meet me and pick my brain. That exhibition brought us -- two Iranian feminists -- together. An artist should be available and open in exhibiting their work anywhere and everywhere in the world.
Two of my favorite pieces of yours are an authentic Persian rug featuring overlapping Crying Kim Kardashian emojis and a denim jacket that juxtaposes the word "Iran" with Kim Kardashian emojis and candy hearts that say things like "Send Nudes." Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to use Kim as a symbol?
In 2016, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which is an agency tasked with policing domestic culture and heading off the influence of other nations, accused Kim Kardashian of being a secret agent. Kim, an American Spy, ha! All of a sudden, Iranian officials came out describing their distaste for Kim, accusing her of working for Instagram as part of a complicated ploy to target young women and corrupt them with aspirational photos depicting a lifestyle that’s at odds with Islam.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard instituted an online surveillance program called "Project Spider" and started arresting hundreds of women living in Iran for indecent Instagram posts, mostly based on images of them without a headscarf. While the idea of Kim Kardashian as a secret agent might be absurd, the whole ordeal is no laughing matter; women are being targeted for prosecution. To me, the comical illustration of Kim crying described a woman’s response to the rules created for them by men.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
A Women’s Art Museum. Why not? The Fisher Collection at SFMOMA has limited works by female artists (except for Agnes Martin, whose work you shouldn't miss). I hope that our sanctuary city continues to be diverse and that everyone, not only women artists, are able to stay and live in this beautiful city to create and collaborate together.