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Wednesday
Jun292011

A Little Bit Everywhere: A conversation with an Iranian/Kurdish artist



This article was also posted without the accompanying picture on Iranian.com.


Ghazal Sotoudeh's art is currently on exhibit at Gallerie Mourlot in New York until 14 January.  She has plans to bring it to London and Paris as well.  I got to know Ghazal when we were both working in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan.  I was happy to hear that she was forsaking the world of aid workers in order to become and artist.  We conducted this interview over email.

Who are you?

Ghazal. 30 years old. Born in Tehran. Fled my country in my mother's arms and on a horse in ‘83.  Grew up in Paris and now am a bit everywhere...

What are your main inspirations?

I like very much stories that underline the ability or inability of our human nature to compose with the unexpected; revolutions, any form of violence, a break up, a beautiful encounter, torture sessions, death of a loved one, an illness diagnostic, etc.  Any events that lead us to walk aside from the trails that we were planning to take because usually “we just go with the flow”.  What I find fascinating is the way we manage to be and remain in harmony with our moral values—or not.  And also how do we manage to identify and deal with our weakness, what's the process of being an opportunist person and actually being fine with it?  All this contradictions have an aesthetic form.

You’ve had a diverse education, including a law degree.  Has that had any effect on your work, and if so what?

My main education is actually music (piano). My academic background goes from literature to philosophy and indeed, I went to Law School for 6 years. The more various is your experience, the more inspirational you get… and you have just better means to express yourself in your art or in your life choices.

For example, piano influences my writings and the way I feel things, so it has definitely an impact on the way I see and shoot. It also gives me a room to absorb silences in another way. Silence in music tells a lot… And this is exactly what I like about photography. It says a lot, without “noise”.

How did you come upon the photographic material underlying your compositions?

I was working in a law firm as an intern 8 years ago. One day, I saw a file with the name of my father on it.  I was shocked because my father was executed while my mother and I were fleeing the country a couple of years after the revolution.  I was 3 and I never got to know him.  It was just very strange.

So here I am, 20 years later, in this French Law Firm, with the surname of my daddy floating around on a yellow file.  So I ask the secretary what is this file about and she replies: "Oh it's just an Iranian photographer." And that was it!

I go home and tell my mum about what I thought was an incredible story: "Oh you know, there is a photographer with the name of my dad and he lives in Paris!!".  And then she goes: "I think he was also in jail with us!" (My mother was a political prisoner during the Shah's regime from 1977 to 1979, like my father who was detained from ‘73 to ‘79.  She was 17 years old when she got arrested)

I thought, life is weird as usual, but again, that was it.

A couple of months later, I was with my little cousin on a random sunny day at the Parc du Luxembourg and I did not know that this photographer was actually closing his “itinerant exhibit ".  I was very intimidated and shy but I couldn’tt really fake not knowing him.  So he was there, signing some autographs and I approached him to introduce myself.  I ended up asking him if he knew my dad.  His eyes sparkled.  That's how we met and how I started to work with him. 

Of course, I got totally inspired by his work in Afghanistan, by his world, his photos, his way of thinking, his artistic approach.  And that's how photography came to me as the best way to illustrate stories that I wanted to share.

Please explain the form and media of your work in your own words. 

It's portraits that I shot in Afghanistan where I lived and worked for two years.

I wanted to focus on the faces of people who are referred to as being plain and simple numbers in our western media.  I wanted to tell stories from war through the faces of the people who are suffering the most from it: civilians.  I think that we have to open our eyes and realise what's the real meaning of these political choices that we justify so easily.  It applies also to the recent choice of bombing in Libya for example. 

[Famous Iranian poet Sohrab] Sepehri's poems describe this reality with so much accuracy and eloquence that it was just obvious that both media should be combined together.  And the best way to keep Sepehri's poetry was to add an aesthetic touch on the photographs that were maybe in a way, too “journalistic”.  That's how I got the idea to use calligraphy.

I collaborated with an amazing calligrapher who is my aunt, and who's presence in my life really made me who I am.  She gave me her own Sepehri book when I was a teenager and it's the only book I kept preciously with me during those two years in Afghanistan.  It was through the reading of this book that I managed to find peace and relief from what was surrounding me.  It's as if Sepehri was also witnessing what was going on and describing it with so much beauty.

Also, my aunt was arrested when she was 13 years old for allegedly being politically involved, which was, of course, totally untrue.  From the ages of 13 to 19 she lived in Evin prison.  So her insights about life in general as well as her artistic approach inspire me a lot.  We chose the poems together following several months of conversation about what was going on over there [in Afghanistan].  The match of these poems with the photographs is just magic to me.

A central part of your work has to do with your mixed Iranian/Kurdish/French identity.  How do you feel towards those different strands of identity? (Or if they’re not relevant or primary, why?)

I would like to think that the central part of my work has to do with rhythm and melody...

So usually, I would say that they are not really relevant in my artistic work. But indeed, the stories that I think are worth being known and that I share are linked to this cultural background… I just feel lucky despite the many difficulties encountered to find a right balance between all these “strands of identity”. Very difficult to grow as an Iranian in Paris, very difficult to be considered as an Iranian in Iran... On top of that, my step father is Kurdish, so he added beautiful stories from his own cultural background on my original mix identity. It took a bit of efforts to be fine with all this but in the end, I see how lucky I am to see what’s good and wrong in the western culture and what’s good and wrong in the non western one... 

Can you please explain how your thinking with regards to Iranian and Kurdish issues has evolved?

Kurds in Iran were in the past an amazing force against dictatorships (from the Shah's regime to the present) and they will remain so.  Interestingly, they’re the only “ethnic” minority in Iran to have this position.  Of course, it is linked with its geographical situation, totally split-up between five countries and able to create alliances with Kurds from other sides of the borders, they have found a potential to destabilise the central government in Tehran.  Even though sometimes, it’s been the fight against the regime that led some political Kurdish leaders to find friends in the wrong side, Kurds in Iran fought the regime with incredible devotion and a lot of dignity.  I’m very proud of my family’s background but I also feel very sad with the way politics destroyed each family member’s life forever, and I’m not talking only about the dead ones.

My aunts were the first women in Iran to be executed on the orders of Khalkhali.  They were nurses, not politically involved at all, just pure and simple nurses.  I know that a lot of Kurds in Iran have, in one way or another, these kinds of stories in their closets.  That’s why they’ll remain an important opposition force; because they have lost a lot in the battle and they did not and cannot forget. Another interesting point is that any Kurd in Iran feels above all Iranian first.  But this is not preventing them from rightly fighting for the preservation of their cultural heritage, especially teaching Kurdish at school.

What for you is the relationship between art and politics?  Do they hold any relation for you?

They do.  Especially if you’re an Iranian, politics inevitably crosses your path and especially if you’re an artist, censorship will make you feel this violence that makes anyone in the society struggle for the respect of their basic rights.  You can live happily anywhere in the world if you choose to close your eyes to what’s going wrong; repression, illegitimate use of force, censorship etc.  You can be happy by simply staying at home and being neutral; just eat and sleep.  Artists are observers; they can’t close their eyes.  Otherwise, what they express is purely boring to me.

How do you see your art evolving in the future?  Are there any future project you would like to mention?

More and more photos and more and more stories...will keep u posted of course.