From the Mouth of the Lion promotes the artwork of artists of Iranian descent born on or near the cusp of the Islamic Revolution and living outside of Iran. I'll be sharing more interviews with young artists from the diaspora here and on our website at www.mouthofthelion.com. Today's post is an interview with Fereshteh Toosi, a Chicago-based multi-discplinary
artist who explores issues of community and social justice through her
Tell me about your artwork. What medium(s) do you work with primarily?
My motto is “by any media necessary”. The forms I’ve used include live
art, printmaking, sound, public interventions, moving image, websites,
food. Working as an artist gives you permission to be so many things,
and to learn in public. My friend Claire Pentecost calls this the Public
Amateur, it’s a good way of describing the kind of activities I want to
do in the name of art. Most recently I’ve been learning about botany,
horticulture, and waterways. Probably the subject matter of my work
defines it better than the media I use.
What are some people, events or things that have inspired you as an artist?
This question makes me uncomfortable because the answer is boundless.
The archive of inspiration expands daily. My friends who are also
artists have inspired me the most. If I start listing them I will
certainly leave someone out. I’m also inspired by things that might be
categorized as “vernacular” culture. By this I mean quotidian acts of
defiance, design, and ingenuity made by people who may not define
themselves as artists at all. The things that inspire me as a person are
the same things that inspire me as an artist.
Going back a bit in time, the autobiographies of Emma Goldman,
Malcolm X, and Angela Davis were really important to help define my
politics. Reading was (and continues to be) a point of entry to so many
ideas. Again, it’s too hard to list but this includes a range of fiction
from Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, and Donald Barthelme to postcolonial
theory from Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said.
Music provided validation for the way I wanted to be in the world. I
didn’t grow up in a big city and this was before the days of unlimited
internet access to different subcultures. I listened to Peel Out in the
States with John Peel, Afropop Worldwide, and a local show called
Defenestration on the NPR affiliate where I grew up, WHRO. That turned
me onto independent music outside of mainstream pop and classic rock
that I was hearing on the radio. A subscription to the early years of
Sassy magazine connected me to stories about DIY scenes,
self-publishing, zines, and fashion not seen on TV. I got into punk, new
wave, and no wave. These things opened up a world where being an artist
was accepted and even celebrated.
It feels obvious but worth admitting that I’m part of generation of
artists steeped in the legacy of conceptual art. I’m enamored with so
many projects that took hold in the 1970s like Aspen Magazine, Ant Farm,
and a bit earlier, Archigram. One of the groups I’ve been excited by
recently is Rimini Protokoll. They work mostly in Europe so I’ve only
experienced one of their projects but I hope to catch them again
How does your identity as someone of Iranian descent influence your artwork?
It influences me immensely, though it may not always be apparent on the
surface. I’ve lived in the U.S. my whole life, but it’s my family’s
first generation in this country and the immigrant experience defines
me. It means I am always dealing with questions about difference,
belonging, passing, language, translation, stereotypes, and
authenticity. The politics of power and representation seep into my work
indirectly and overtly as well.
My personal history heightens my awareness, it makes me hyper
self-conscious and curious about humans and their interactions. This
influences my creative thinking. I grew up as an Iranian in the U.S.
“hostage crisis” era of the 70s and 80s. The tension between the U.S.
and the Middle East continues to drone on and on. Of course this shapes
who I am and what I want for this world, which is expressed in my work.
When I was around ten or eleven years-old, a girl I considered to be my
best friend asked me if I was a terrorist. I had no idea what she meant.
I may not always make work about Iran or being Iranian, but my creative
activities are motivated by playing with perceptions and expectations.
I was just reading an essay from a friend of mine that quoted Toure’s
definition of post-black: “Post-black is talking about people who are
rooted in blackness but not constrained by it. They want to be black.
They want to deal with the black tradition, and the black community, and
black tropes. But they also want the freedom to do other things.” You
could substitute a lot of identity categories here. The dilemma of
constraint applies to many people who are defined by just one part of
their identity. I cringe at the way this notion is sometimes tossed
around, but in Toure’s description, “post” doesn’t mean “after” or even
“without”. It refers to a positive evolution. Are we free to define what
it means to be Iranian hyphen American? I would argue that we’re not
there yet. Often art world folks prefer for me make more work exploring
Iranian history or identity. Fellow Iranians are quick to dismiss me
when they learn I don’t speak Farsi fluently. But I’ve never lived in a
place with a large Iranian community, and my identity includes many
facets in addition to my Iranian heritage. Everyone’s identity combines
gender, class, race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, and so on.
Acknowledging the connections between these categories and living with
fluidity is more important to me than fitting someone else’s
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a project called GARLIC & GREENS: accessible soul food stories.
It showcases the intersections between food heritage, migration
history, social justice, and disability studies. The project has had a
long process, but in short, I’m making a documentary book of audio
interviews housed in a 3D box set. Listeners will interact with objects
that correspond to anecdotal stories about food. The oral history
stories you hear will be enhanced through the sense of touch, taste, and
How can people keep in touch with you?
It’s the best place to find links to my blogs and other nuggets about me.
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