Formation of a Diasporic Body

An interview with Mojdeh Rezaeipour

Hello, my name is Joyce, and I’m currently working as a programming intern at VisArts. Thank you for having this interview with me!

Would you like to introduce yourself to the audience first?

Sure. My name is Mojdeh. I am an artist and storyteller. I’m currently based in Washington DC, I have a studio at Stable. I’ve also been a VisArts studio fellow for the past few months, and I work primarily with mixed media, installation, and film. In the past year, my work has been bringing those things together in different ways. And this exhibition is an example of that. This past year, my intention has been to ground my work a bit more in research, and also to make my work more of a container for collective storytelling, rather than just telling my own story, which is what I had done a lot.

As your interview in IMAGE says, you have a gift of connecting your practice to your early life and your family history. And now, there is a shift from self-attention to the collective consciousness, which’s showcased in this exhibition. It shows a little bit in your work Fractal Futures as well. Do you think this change happens subconsciously or consciously? And do you think this pandemic and the black liberation movement has had an impact on this change?

I don’t know if it’s directly related to black liberation. My life and everything that I do relates to that in some way, but not directly. But in terms of the shift from personal storytelling to collective storytelling, how this work begins, like the very seed of it was that I had a studio visit right before the pandemic hit, at my space at Stable with director of an institution locally, who offered that their institution has a collection of pottery fragments from the Middle East. A lot of it from Iran, that has just been sitting in their backroom in their museum. It doesn’t fit in their collection, and so he asked me if I wanted them. And I was like, of course, yes. They’re mine anyway, thank you (laugh). And then, obviously, pandemic hit, and one thing led to another. We never really followed up on it. And then over the summer, I finally got them. I was looking through them. Not all of them were from Iran. All of them had their site names kind of written behind the fragments. And so I started researching them, and they’re from 30 different sites across the Middle East, present-day, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria Palestine, all kinds of places. Pretty quickly, it became apparent to me that this isn’t just like something for me to create work with. They’re not even online. It’s actually less of a perk and more of a responsibility to have, to have come across this collection. And now I’m the steward of this collection. So I just let them sit in the corner of my studio for a while, and waited for them to tell me what I should do. It became clear that I wasn’t to work with these on my own, but rather that they were asking of me to kind of think about who they have a potential of bringing together. So I started reaching out to different artists with lineage across all of these different sites and connecting with them.

Little by little something is forming. I’m not even sure yet what is forming, but sometime in that process, I started thinking about these sites, the ones that are based in Iran, and how they are connected to my ancestry, and my own sort of cultural and historical background. In that same interview, I talked a bit about my relationship with fire, which is really an important one for me, and it always has been. But I started obsessing about this 1500-year-old fire that has been burning, or many of these fires that have been burning for thousands of years in Austria, temples in Iran, and other places, and really yearning to commune with this element. Obviously, because of the pandemic, and because of many other things, it [is] not really being possible right now for me to say, take a pilgrimage and visit all of the ancient fires that that are there. And so I started to think about ways that I could do that through art. I started to just look up all of the temples that there are throughout the years. Many of them are vacant, and actually, the oldest fire that there is, it’s right now in a newer building. And it’s behind a glass wall, people come and take pictures of it with their cell phones. That’s not really the experience I wanted to have anyway (laugh).

So I was like, it would be better to imagine a more intimate sort of encounter with the fire. I started to print out pictures of the different temple[s], like you see behind me (show the wall behind). And then I started to burn them onto wood, which is a methodology that I’ve used for many years. The pyrography is just using a hot tip to burn marks onto it. I studied architecture so there’s a bit of going back to my architecture drafting drawing days. So [I was] creating all these different environments on wood. And then I filmed my body being with a lot of these themes within myself, and in movement. And then I would take screenshots of the video movement, and cut my head off of it.

I always cut my head out of things. Maybe someone asked me why is your head not there, and I was forced to answer, because it’s not my personal body, it’s referring to this collective diasporic body. Legacies of imperialism, colonialism acted on my people, and sometimes by my people, have separated us from ourselves, from each other, from our homeland, and kind of dispersed all over the world like the fragments of pottery. Anyhow, if my body without the head is representing this collective diasporic body, then why does it just have to be my body that represents that, why can’t it be more bodies than just mine?

And so I started to reach out to some other Iranian friends in my life. Some of them identify themselves as artists, some of them identify themselves as healers, musicians. They’re all kinds of different humans, beautiful humans. [I was] asking them, telling them about the project, and inviting them if they wanted to send me videos of themselves moving or maybe their voices, like humming — just little bits and pieces of, hopefully, the larger puzzle. That process has been really the best part of this. It gets really lonely, being an artist with a solo practice, and honestly, not fulfilling for me for too long because I’m a community builder at heart. For me, this work, yes, it’s a laboratory for, and playground for this collectively imagine pilgrimage, but the actual process of the work, also, is a laboratory. And it’s a laboratory for how to collaborate, how to honor each other’s boundaries and needs in the process of collaboration, and really how to best be together.

How is it like to work collaboratively compared to individually?

It feels really good. I always say my process is very nonlinear, kind of chaotic, and I never know. I never know anything until I know everything, and I’m a student of surrender, so it’s really just one thing leads to another. There’re so many questions until the end. And we’re not even at the end. So what made this really funny and a bit more challenging, but also a lot more fun, is that I invited six other humans, all with their own messy processes into this process this time. And it was like, you’ll like send me a thing, and it would take sometimes like a week or two weeks to hear back or get the thing. But it was really important to me to be spacious because I wouldn’t even want someone to rush to send me something. So, [I was] just navigating my own impatience of wanting to have all the pieces of the puzzle, and wanting to respect that, sometimes, art takes time. And because I can push myself really hard, but I don’t want to push other people (laugh). Maybe I shouldn’t push myself too hard as well, actually.

You used to say that you burn out your body a lot because you let your works carry and lead you during the art creation process. Do you still have this struggle now? Have you found a sustainable way to work which you may be able to share with some other young artists having the same issues?

I don’t think I’m at the point of giving advice (laugh). But I have been working on it. It’s not just like saying I’m working on it. I feel like I was a little bit more aware of and caring for my body throughout the process this time. I did pull an all-nighter, and I did have a couple nights I didn’t get full amount of sleep; but I also made time to go on a hike in the process of the installing this show, I took many baths in the process of doing this show. And I was just like, if you’re pushing yourself really hard, you also have to tend to your body equally as much. It can take as long as you let it take to finish this show. But also having done many installations over the past couple of years, I was working with and understanding that the work will always evolve. And there is always an iteration of it that is already ready. So trusting myself with knowing that, I already have it, is an improvement process from now on. That’s the thing about this show and most other shows that I’ve done in the past year and a half is that I will continue to add to it as the exhibition progresses. So I’m happy with how it came out on the day of the opening of the show. I’m really excited to see how it will unfold and to know that I am not the only one that has said that, that there are other people that I’m bringing in and inviting to be with the exhibition in their own way, and I’m excited to see how it will evolve with their interventions as well.

When I’m looking at your work, wood has been acting as an important medium. It provides a naturally patterned negative space to your college. They’re also commonly used in your video pieces, performances, and installations. Could you please tell us why you chose wood as a vehicle for storytelling?

I’m really drawn to the vulnerability of natural elements. I think that there’s this ephemeral quality to it, which speaks a lot to being a human (laugh). We get obsessed with permanence with works of art a lot — how long will this last or how archival is this piece of your material. But for me, pieces of art are just like us, have a life. And so, they’re born, and they get old.

My creative practice, or at least my visual art practice, began in probably 2015 or so. And at that time, my partner and I were living on 24 acres of deep woods in our friend’s geodesic dome for three years. And a lot of my earlier work, I see as a collaboration between me and that forest in a lot of ways. I don’t know when else I’ll get to live in that vast of a forested land.

I also noticed that you use the color blue a lot. Does it also link to your affection for the natural elements?

There’s a body of my work that uses a lot of blue. Not all of it does. But I do tend to work in saturated colors. It’s like really going back to a tendency I had as a child to just connect or to separate out toys by color and play that way (laugh).

What are your suggestions for young artists on moving forward in the pandemic?

I think just show up to your work as much as you can. Obviously, not everyone has the means or privilege to just do that on its own, but always try to make time for your art, even if it is like 15 minutes, 30 minutes every day. And in terms of opportunities to exhibit your work, I think, building relationships is really important. If you see someone that did something that you really like, like curated an exhibition that you really like, or made a piece of art that you really like, reach out to them. Try to get together, pick their brain. See what you can learn, see how your paths can connect. Share your work with them, share your work, share your work. I’m not on social media. I haven’t been for a while, might go back for a bit at some point, but always finding ways to share my work with people, whether it’s virtually or in person, whatever is possible.

And one other thing that I will say about this past year, and with the uprisings and all that, I have been thinking a lot about how we can have more just experiences in the art world to echo the kind of justice that we’re seeking as a whole society. And my responsibility as a lighter-skinned Iranian American person is how I can use my voice, as someone in this position, to bring important questions to the surface that needs to be addressed in a room in order for us to have a kind of art environment that serves everyone equitably.

Thank you so much for being with me today. It’s a pleasure!

Thank you, Joyce!

This interview was conducted by Joyce, the Exhibitions Intern 2021.

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