Farima Fooladi was born in Tehran, Iran. She is currently living in the United States creating paintings in her Studio in Pennsylvania. Farima is a Visiting Scholar at the Pennsylvania state University, College of Arts and Architecture where she completed her MFA in Painting and Drawing. She has had numerous group exhibitions in Iran, Turkey, and the United States. Her works includes commentary on imagery, themes, symbols and stories from Iranian visual and literature. Her recent research topic has been collective trauma and its long effect on cultures. She is fascinated by the lasting impact of collective trauma caused by Invasion, Migration and displacement. The Glorious Invasion Series are the result of her work on the Mongol Invasion of Iran in 1220.
Repetition, both hidden and clear, is always present in our world, repeated threads hanging, patterns growing continually, windows framing the glory of repetition in our domestic space and chains of mountains framing nature around us. It doesn’t stop there: our history is a recurrent version of ourselves. This prompts me to ask ‘when do our habits and traditions lose their meaning?’ I want my paintings to serve as subtle whispers, whose repetition – like the formulaic and relentless repetition of patterns in Iranian tapestries– will make a quiet but lasting mark on Iranian cultural imagery.
Q&A with Farima Fooladi
by Lydia O'Reilly
What is your work process like? Is it more structured or intuitive?
I start intuitively but it moves towards a structured form gradually.
You recently moved from Tehran to Pennsylvania. What is the art scene like in Tehran?
Tehran is a large metropolitan city with many galleries and new ones opening almost daily. Conceptual art is very popular, at least it was when I was living there, along with installation, performance art, and sculpture. Many works of art have a tone of social and political criticism.
You've exhibited in places as diverse as Tehran, Istanbul, Brooklyn, and Paris. What is a common thread of attitudes toward art in these different places? Can viewers from different cultural backgrounds be affected by your work in the same ways?
I wasn’t present when they were showing my work in Paris or Brooklyn so I really can’t say much about those places. In Turkey though I remember I always had good, long conversations. Culturally we share a historic background, which makes it is easy to communicate. My overall experience with western countries is that they have a limited definition of an Iranian and Middle Eastern art and they expect you to operate within their preconceived definitions. I remember it one time I felt that I was expected to weave a carpet in the middle of my studio! I am not saying that I don’t like that art form but I just don’t know how to make them, I wish I did!
In March 2011, I traveled to Istanbul for a month. I don’t believe in following the standard tourist itinerary, I knew if I wanted to get a sense of Istanbul I should live there for some time in a residential neighborhood. I rented a room in an apartment in a Kurdish neighborhood in Istanbul close to Taksim Square. I would walk around looking for galleries and art scenes which are usually deep in these kind of cities, not easy to find. One night I met a great sculptor named Bahidir Yildiz, who introduced me to the curator Asli Seven which led to a one month residency. It was a great experience to live with four talented and successful artists from Turkey, Portugal, Lebanon and the US. Asli Seven curated an exhibition of our work at a hotel in Torba, the beautiful village which hosted our residency, and another exhibition in September in Istanbul Art Beat in conjunction with the Istanbul Biennial.
Can you tell us a bit about the mountain, rooster, and hairpin motifs in many of your paintings? Some critics have suggested that the rooster and hairpins point to traditional male and female social roles.
I usually start my drawing intuitively and when I get comfortable with my element or when I think this special element is visually and conceptually something that I want to work with I start to challenge it in different compositions. I started to draw hairpins as a visual form that was around me all the time. Hairpins ruled my crazy curly hair! Every night before going to bed I removed around 10 of them from my hair. As I started to use the hairpins in my drawings I was discovering their characteristics, it was interesting to me how their repetition could look like writing. I was attracted to their strong black metal appearance and simultaneous flexibility. I have a similar story for each element I use in my works. I know that many of the readings of my work come after their exhibition. That’s another challenge, what society adds to you or to your works. I don’t say these interpretations are incorrect but they are not the first and only reason that I choose these motifs.
Your paintings employ a consistent color scheme of muted turquoise, reds, and beiges. What drew you to these colors?
Some of it is personal choice, some of it is cultural and my fascinations for Persian miniature paintings. I have been exposed to these colors through carpets, tile encrusted buildings and the subtle ochre of dried mud.
Your paintings, drawings, and prints all juxtapose fluid shapes with precise, straight linework. It seems a harsh dichotomy, yet they balance harmoniously in the finished artwork. Why?
I would say those characteristics relate more to my older paintings. There was a time when I was challenging myself by making my painting space more complex and trying to resolve it.
In what ways is the Mongol invasion still a part of modern Iran's collective consciousness? Why have you chosen to address this specific historical moment?
My previous series was called Glorious Invasion, which is an ironic title and my roosters further that irony with their big bodies trapped on canvas straining to appear regal.
In Iran’s history there have been many crucial moments in which we accepted a temporary defeat while hoping for a better future to come. For instance, during the Arab invasion, we didn’t lose our identity. Instead Arab culture was transformed and incorporated into ours. We have been able to create a golden age after the Arab invasion. We are the only country in which Arabs lived and ruled for many years but couldn’t change the language or culture, as they wanted to. We spread our influence to the whole Arab continent , which has been called to Persianate, a society based on, or strongly influenced by the Persian language, culture, literature, art, and/or identity. When the Mongols invaded they settled in Iran, became Muslim and started to build culture and civilization, don’t forget that they were living as a tribes before and never had such a background.
It ended up that Mongols were looking for a decorative element that could beautify the visible layer. Science didn’t find a chance to grow because of the prevalence of superstition. Literature also didn’t have a chance because of lack of support from kingdom; Mongolian kings were estranged to literature in any tongue. History and any kind of narrative weren’t of importance to them because they didn’t care about future judgment, moreover with the poets losing their sense of patriotism there was nothing left for literature to rely on.
How can art help heal historical traumas?
I am hoping to spark awareness although I know that I have a limited audience. I am talking about trauma, caused by invasion, war or dislocation which is a universal subject. Mark Seltzer, for example describes contemporary culture as one that collects around “shock, trauma and the wound” while Dominick LaCapra writes that, “trauma has been a prevalent preoccupation in recent theory and criticism”.
We are living in a traumatic era, thanks to the globalization of information. It is available in a continuous 24 hour feed. Even unnecessary traumatic information is being served as part of daily news adding to our unending hunger for excitement. Traumatic events in Middle East are not a history of that region anymore; it is the whole world’s collective memory. There are Americans, Europeans, Japanese fighting and dying over there thinking that they are lucky to keep the war far from home but these soldiers are moms, dads, professionals and citizens who return home with traumatic experiences. So I think I have a universal audience. Awareness is a process in which you find time to study something at a deeper level. Freud says trauma is always associated with repetition otherwise the incident is not a trauma. Dismissing or ignoring the traumatic experience is not a reasonable option. The conditions surrounding trauma are played and replayed in one’s consciousness through an attempt to extract some sense of coherence from a meaningless experience. If trauma is healable at all the first step is awareness. In the case of collective trauma, there is often an interest in representing the trauma as indelible (a national shame, a permanent scar, etc.) if this representation is successfully established the memory does in fact take on the characteristics of indelibility and unshakability.
Your work also addresses topography, examining the literal landscape of Iran in addition to the social landscape. How can a nation's natural landscape affect its social landscape, or vice versa?
My personal experience with the landscape and climate of Iran lead me to focus on landscape. Mountains have been a safe place for Middle Eastern people, even for me being from Tehran climbing mountain on weekends was a means to relieve things down in the city such as pollution and restrictive laws for women. Since early childhood I have been traveling from the Caspian Sea in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south and the mountains in Kurdistan. I have been exposed to various cultures existing in Iran and how land influences their lives. After meeting my husband I came into contact with cultures in central southern Iran where drought is a perennial issue exacerbated by recent global climate change. Water is a precious asset there. All these personal experiences make me focus on landscape and topography as a cause of trauma or social changes. We have always been a country struggling with nature as its uninvited guests.
Some of your paintings seem like combinations of topographical mapping, architectural drafting, abstract painting, and script. What is the relationship between these disciplines? How do they come together to help viewers reflect on Iranian cultural history?
Iran doesn’t have a pervasive historical painting tradition. I believe that I create self-portraits of my country through its architectural elements. Architecture is my entry point to social and historical events, I am working with the concept of being in between spaces, defining a third environment as an Iranian living in the US and I create its map. I am producing maps rather than following their reproduction.
Do you feel like you live in two worlds at once? How do you stay focused on your work, when it involves such piercing themes as displacement?
I wouldn’t say I am living in two worlds at once, rather I am experiencing these two worlds. I don’t want to make things more dramatic than what they really are. One thing I learned in a report writing class many years ago was that you don’t need to use adjectives when writing a report, just tell the story as it is and if it is powerful it will do its job. I moved to the US to get my MFA three years ago, a willed dislocation, but the truth is that it is not as simple when you are from a country that is in conflict with the whole world. It’s more complex when your destination country is known for being the source of conflict. I guess I like to complicate things!
Dislocation and migration are piercing themes indeed. I could stay focused because I am talking about what I experienced and I am experiencing everyday. It is my own story, it can become challenging though, when you start to recall and review all the collective historical events in excess of the personal ones. I was discovering more and more about myself and my past by working on this project. When you migrate you feel an urge to find where you belong from the first few days. What I discovered is that it is an unnecessary challenge, I created a third world in between the where I am from and where I migrated to. It is challenging but this is how I like life to be, I will live in between for now.
What was your collaborative process like with Sara Mohammadi Ardehali? Your most recent show, Displacement, featured her poetry in conjunction with your art.
It was not exactly collaborative. We are close friends who grew up under somewhat similar circumstances and are interested in exploring similar issues within our respective mediums. Although we had worked side by side for several months a few years ago this exhibition gave us the opportunity to come together again, despite our geographical separation.
To find out more about Farima and her work, check out her website.