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American portrait
Interview with Iranian-American artist Sara Rahbar
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Neda Sarmast
October 25, 2006

What does your art represent?

My art is about layers of life, each layer; a moment, a memory, an identity, time. We never leave these layers behind, we just keep accumulating them. And with each new layer comes a new memory -- perhaps a new identity. They are never left behind, they become our filters. They are always there, and they make up who we become, how we see our selves, and how we see each other.

Does your art show your patriotism towards your birth country Iran or your home now in the US?

What is Patriotism? What really is the difference between us? A flag means so much to someone and absolutely nothing to the next. It's a piece of meaningless fabric and yet it carries such a strong message. So many of us associate ourselves with; banners, flags and symbols, it's a role we play, a mask we wear. Yet when people don't know that they are being watched, when their guard is down, and they aren't hiding behind a filter, or being tangled up and limited by borders, they show their true self, and they put down the mask. I want to know what is behind that mask, and that's what I want to show. I want to capture that rawness, that vulnerability. We are so desperately attempting to hide and kill off our natural way of being, and in this process forgetting that it's our life line, it's the light in us, with out that, we simply become mechanical.

Are you making a comparison between US and Iran?

You can't compare America with Africa or with Iran or any other culture. Yes there are differences but, our differences are only based on where we live, how we were raised, our immediate surroundings, what we were exposed to in life and so on. But in the end we are all made up of the same fiber, in the end we are all human; we loose sight of that so easily. I want to remind people of that, through my work.

Tell me about that (Iran)?

I feel this connection, this love, when I'm in Iran, it's unexplainable to me. It's relatedness to my birth culture. When I see a flag (in my case of Iran or the US), in the end, it's just a piece of fabric, but when I look deeper, I see that it represents a sense of self in a world lost in hardship and suffering. To me, I see beauty when I mix these fabrics together and I merge these identities together to make a stronger one. It's my personal solution to an ailing and bruised world.

What do you want people to know about you?

That this is my way of connecting and communicating with people, It's my way of saying ... I see you. It's my way of reminding you of what you are made up of, and where you are from, the same place that I am. I feel the "oneness" is being lost in out society today. Yes, we may all carry a different flag or a different banner, but what does that really mean, what does that really do for us, but separate us.

Your final message is ... ?

That we are all the same in the end, and yes, this may sound simple and we may all know this ... but if this is so ... then why hasn't anything changed, why is the world in that state that it is in? At least with my art, I'm saying that I'm standing up and I'm reaching out to you. I may not be able to change the world, or change any views, but with my art I am taking a step towards a better one, one layer at a time, attempting to create a conversation, a thought process and possibly a connection >>> Images


Born 1976, Tehran Iran
Lives and works in New York

I was born in Tehran, Iran but escaped during the revolution in the beginning of the Iran Iraq war with my family. America became my new home and I spent most of my life living and working in New York. My entire perception of what art is, and what it can be shifted as a result of my attending Central Saint Martins college of art and design in London. After completing university I returned to Iran to work on a documentary called "No body's Enemy" on the youth culture of Iran, as well as to document the 2005 presidential elections. I stayed in Iran for 6 months, and developed a body of work. It was during this period that I began to claim who I am, and what my work is about. Directly after returning to New York I became an art director, as well as a featured artist for "The Persian Arts Festival". Along with my art work, I presented the two films I had be working on; No Body's Enemy and Nobody has a name Nobody. Through this process I realized how important it is to me to educate through my work. To produce work that touches, moves and inspires others. Raising our voices, speaking up , and standing up for others that cannot do so for them selves, in an attempt to contribute something positive to our fellow human beings. By taking steps forward, towards growth , and not becoming paralyzed, and stopped by the turbulent, and troubled world we see today.

Artist Statement
My work is about capturing contradicting realities that confront us in life. It's about roles we play, and masks we sometimes wear. My work has many layers, nothing is one sided, thin or flat. We often go through so many layers just to get to one another. My work is my personal interpretation of what I see. It's the out come of those moments when my perception has shifted and I get to see so much more. I move the focus away from, gender, race and religion, and I to look at a bigger picture. Their was a time when I was constantly questioning my culture, and my identity. I have finally come to the conclusion, that the only thing I want to do with these titles that have created so much separation between us, is shed them. We are all human beings attempting to survive our selves, our lives, and each other. I don't believe in boarders created by the devotion towards a flag, a country, or a religion. My intention and my driving force is to focus on our similarities rather than our differences.

"Sara Rahbar's ambitions for her work are simularly to break down the delineations that divide communities. Rahbar was born in Tehran, Iran and escaped with her family to New York when the revolution began in 1979. After completing studies in art in London she returned to Iran to work on a documentary film on the youth culture of Iran, as well as to document the 2005 presidential elections. For Queens international, she has created a hyper-active specific installation consisting of collaged, culturally charged textiles, emotionally aggressive paintings and reveling photographs of Iranian youth, the presidential elections and other scenes from life in Tehran. The piece evokes the complex and tumultuous life in present-day Iran, countering the western media's one-dimensional portrayal of the country as filled with war-inciting Muslim extremists.


In many ways, Rahbar's work perfectly embodies the subtitle of this year's Queens International-Everything All at Once. Her work has no time for irony and seeks a larger purpose for art, one that isn't obsessed with failure and narcissistic death wishes that have become mannered in too much contemporary art. Instead, like many other artists in the exhibition, she uses her art to engage the audience in a dialog about our status as citizens in a very fragile world. It seems appropriate to end this essay in her words": " I move the focus away from male and female, Muslim and Jewish, American and Iranian, and I look at a bigger picture. There was a time when I was constantly questioning me culture, religion, and my identity. I have finally come to the conclusion that the only thing I want to do is shed these titles that have created so much separation between us. We are all human beings attempting to survive ourselves, our lives, and each other. I don't believe in the boarders and separation created by the devotion toward a flag, a county, or a religion. My intention and my driving force is to focus on our similarities rather our differences."
-- Herb Tam, Queens State of Mind, The co-curator of Queens International 2006

Sara Rahbar, an artist of roughly the same age says, "I never considered myself an immigrant or a woman, only a human being...the only time I feel like a feminist, and remember that I am a woman is when I am in Iran. From the moment I wake up till the end of everyday...I am attempting to prove that I am strong...attempting to claim basic human rights, attempting to get the job done and moving mountains to do so. In America it does not even occur to me that I am a woman, I am independent, and feel that I can do anything a man can do."
-- Jaishri Abichandani, Reterritorializing Queens, The co-curator of Queens International 2006, Director of public projects, founder of SWCC, the south Asian Woman's creative Collective, and a practicing artist.

For letters section
Sara Rahbar

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