Powerful, humane archive of Iranian immigration
to the US
By Persis M. Karim
December 9, 2003
"Echoes of the Iranian Diaspora": Readings
from Hall of Reflections
and a Community Dialogue.
Hosted by Persis M. Karim.
Sunday: December 14, 2003 : 4 – 7 pm,
Persian Center, 2029 Durant at Shattuck, Berkeley. Reception Saturday September
It is difficult to describe Taraneh Hemami's Hall of Reflections -- not
because it is abstract -- but because it works on so many different
levels. It is at once art, history, archive, and, as the name suggests,
The visual archive and installation invites you in
and assaults you with the images and photographs of a simultaneously
private and public world; it is a world that traces the scattered
memories and migrations of Iranians in the later half of this century
to the place where they live now, the San Francisco Bay Area. Hall
of Reflections awakens and presents the stories, "remembrances"
and traces of the multi-generational and multi-faceted history
in this area >>> See samples
Hall of Reflections draws on an important cultural
space in Iran -- the talar-e ayineh, the traditional gathering
halls of historical
in Iran. But rather than recreating a spatial motif with mirrors
only, the installation re-appropriates traditional patterns and
designs to display on mirrors and glass, images and text that present
a kind of broken map of Iranian migration, displacement, and assimilation
on this continent.
The installation of the many mirrors is physically
and conceptually designed to piece together the fragmented stories
of Iranian immigrants, exiles, and second-generation Iranian-Americans
whose voices and lives have been "veiled" by the media
images that have dominated since 1979. Hemami has relied on the
inherent reflective quality of her material, glass and mirrors,
layered to create an almost double-image effect.
The pieces are
continuously changing with the reflections of the viewer, different
lights and colors illuminating the pieces. On some of the mirrored
pieces, silk-screened traditional Iranian patterns and motifs set
off the photographs and shift your focus back and forth between
different layers of pattern, image, mirror and reflection.
There are some general themes at work in the different
shapes that they create; Hemami has grouped some of the photographs
the concepts of time, place, memory, the spatial configuration
of "home", a family portrait of generations of Iranian-Americans.
One piece, for example, uses the pages of an American
high school yearbook, showing the senior portraits of several Iranian
and the athletic pages that highlight the dominant number of Iranians
on the high school soccer team in the 1980s while a post card a
man has written to his wife as a political prisoner in Iran at
around the same time is placed in another tile.
A series of paintings
documents the process; layered and organized collected materials,
scanned, printed and copied are collaged and mounted as contact
sheets or rows of negatives on wood that, from a distance, read
as a mosaic or a series of tiles.
Hemami's paintings and sculptural wall installations
evoke the complexity of the immigrant experience and convey loss,
as well as a strange sense of dislocation, while offering for the
first time, an avenue for the expression of the voices and images
that have been so often silenced by the prevailing media images
associated with the history of the hostage crisis and the Iranian
These images and texts convey a humanity and dignity
so often occulted by the stereotypes of Middle Eastern people --
made only more potent after the events of September 11th. "For
the past 24 years, I have lived with the images and representations
of Iranians in the media here in the US; potent images painting
a false and altered reality of my people for the American audience,
yet so strong that they have at times influenced my perception
of who we are.
Part of what I had in mind in doing this project
was to create some kind of documented history of our community
and to preserve it for the future generations; while creating an
outlet for us to come together as a community and be a part of
creating a portray of who we are."
Another goal of Hemami's
was to create a common ground, a connection between the two communities,
"to build a bridge between our worlds, to share our true stories
taking control of our own image, something that other immigrant
communities have done successfully in this country."
Hemami is also
making this archive accessible to Iranians all over the world.
By creating a website that will give the stories a permanent
home, she is creating the opportunity for Iranians outside the
Bay Area to view the installation as well as the raw materials
she has collected for the project (hallofreflections.com).
"I would like for Iranians around the world to add their voices,
memories to this archive. Furthermore, Hemami hopes that the website
will become a communication tool between Iranians living back in
Iran and those living in the U.S. and elsewhere. "It is a
vehicle for us to be able to share our stories with each other.
We have been separated for so many years and we have
both suffered from the same simplistic images portrayed of us ," says
Hemami. While Hemami hopes that the stories will grow with time
website she also hopes to be able to add to the pieces that have
been made physically, "I want the glass and mirror bricks
containing our stories to be part of a growing Wall of Stories
that convey the patterns, and the private and public spaces that
belong to all of us."
Hall of Reflections builds on some of
Hemami's earlier installations of working collectively with the
community to tell a shared story.
For the installation "Sacred Space" at The Lab in 1995,
she collected wishes, secrets, memories , and voices of women to
construct three structures of a mosque, a zarih, a mehrab, and
The archiving aspects of the Hall of Reflections
project connects to works such as the "Wall of Tears", 1998-
a thin translucent passageway made from pages of her journals as
well as paintings of twenty years, dipped in wax and sewn together-
a reflection on her two decades of living in the United States.
Whereas "Wall of Tears" draws on her own
story as an individual, the Hall of Reflections project uses the
many people to tell the collective story of a community. "Our
memories fade with time but this archive of photos, text, and memoirs
is a way for us to gather ourselves together and remember some
part of who were and to weave it into our present, offers Hemami."
The artist is less interested in a traditional notion
of the "archive"
place where public documents are kept), but rather to expand it
to include the very private events, activities, and memories that
constitute personal and family history.
"Part of my motivation to create," says Hemami "is to build
connections to my rich cultural heritage. My art has gradually become my only
means to hang on to what I know of my country and its people," says Hemami.
project has allowed me to create a piece that weaves together the stories of
grandparents, parents, and the new generation of Iranian-Americans born in this
country, all of whom are looking to hold on to and to capture their connections
to this complex history of immigration and exile."
that without the generosity and the spirit of collaboration this exhibit
would be far less rich." The project has allowed us to come together to share
and connect with each other although, as you know, revealing private stories
in public is not looked upon favorably in Iranian culture," Hemami added.
The response to Hemami's call for photos, and for
participation in series of writing workshops (led by Persis Karim,
Shahrnush Parsipour, and Zara Taheri)
has been dominated by women. "Women have always been the storytellers in
our culture," says Hemami, "and I think they are the ones acutely
aware of what will be lost if we don't find a way to tell and keep these
She has exhibited portions of the project at the
San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, the Sharjah Sixth International
Bienniel in the United Arab
Emirates, the Articultural Gallery in Los Angeles and the Richmond
all within the last year and a half, and she hopes that the installations
in future exhibitions around the world.
Actively seeking ways to get
this collection to a wider audience, she is working on a book project
the many stories, photos, and writings. "While I am pleased at the response
from the Iranian community, and wanted this to be something by and for Iranians,
I would like the project to be about something what we all share on the most
human level," Hemami states, "it is at once art but also about building
community, trust and making sense of our times and history." >>> See samples
Hall of Reflections
is funded in part by a grant from the Creative Work
Fund and the Cultural Equity Program of the San Francisco Arts
and by a Grant from the California Council for the Humanities,
the help and support of many individuals in the Iranian community
in the Bay area.
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