Editor’s Note: Sudhiti Naskar was my colleague in the Media Innovations MA program at UNR, class of 2019. Shu is from India, and often, when we ran into each other in the grad lab, she’d talk about how much Eastern influence she notices in American art and culture. Those conversations evolved into a pair of articles in which she interviews artists from Eastern countries who work in Reno. Check out her article on Miya Hannan, “Common ground is closer than you think.“
Sogand Tabatabaei, a young artist and a Master of Fine Arts student at the University of Nevada, Reno, has been living all by herself during the entire lockdown, away from her husband and parents, who are in Iran. During this period, she has created art that reflects some of the anxieties and uncertainties she has been feeling.
Titled “Lockup-2020,” a new piece shows the moon with the body of a man, and the sun with the body of a woman on a backdrop of textured mustard yellow. The face of the sun, with bewildered eyes and an open mouth, suggests tension and fear. Somehow the fairytale-like visual has gotten jinxed with anxiety. And why is the moon towering above the bright star? Isn’t the sun the most powerful thing in our galaxy? “Lockup – 2020” is not the only art by Tabatabaei that made me want to get ahold of her and quiz her about her work. Its theme recurs in her paintings and installations: discomfort and her refusal to push it under the carpet.
Turning discomfort into art
Tabatabaei said the relation between the moon and sun is a visual metaphor for a man-woman relationship in Iran. “Moon is the masculine gender, and the sun is feminine gender in traditional Persian stories,” she explained. In Iran, she said, “A woman lives under the shadow of a man. Your existence is acknowledged because of the existence of a man in your life.”
In the image, the man controls the ropes. I know this relationship. I have seen it in a different culture and country. (I’m from India). I have heard similar stories from my American girlfriends.
Turning difficult-to-articulate feelings and politics of social construct into art is what makes Tabatabaei’s work relatable. Even if one does not see the cultural contexts, they know what’s going on within the frames. Once, at an exhibition of her work at UNR, a white man in his 20s remarked, “I can see how anxiety can be used to make art.” The pandemic might have given her art a new edge, but its roots have been there for years.
Tabatabaei was born and raised in Tehran, the thriving capital city of Iran. “People think Iran is this dry, colorless place, but it isn’t,” she said. “There are so many lights in the city that it surprises outsiders.” Perception aside, it has a vibrant nightlife. “We have so many cafes where we have movie nights,” Tabatabaei said. “Writers and artists own many of these cafes. They are meant for conversations. I would go out with my friends almost every night and stay out late. Some of these cafes stay open until five in the morning.”
Iran used to be a cosmopolitan and liberal nation in the Middle East. In 1979, its authoritarian rule, rooted in religious nationalism, started after a conservative Islamic revolution dismantled the Shah of Iran, who was allied to Europe and America. The new government not only rejected the West’s ambition to mine Iran’s oil, it also rejected all things Western, including culture and attire. “There is a strict government rule about how women should dress,” Tabatabaei said “My mother did not want to wear a hijab in the early days of the revolution, but it became compulsory. These days about 50 percent of women do not like wearing the hijab.”
Tabatabaei, who was born in 1993, said Iranian women of her generation question everything: “We ask, why do women have to hide their bodies? Why do we have to obey men’s rule?” Currently, women of Iran dress in Western clothes. They are rejecting the traditional coverall hijab and going out with partial head covers. “They know they can get arrested because of this,” Tabatabaei said. “Designers, dressmakers, people who wear the dresses all do it with grave risks. Whether my generation knows it or not, they are sending out a message. They are part of this movement.”
The magic of carpets
When Tabatabaei was eight, she went to Kashan, a city famed for high-quality carpet, located north of Esfahan province, where her father’s side of the family lives. “Here I saw for the first time how a carpet is made,” she said. “I was born and raised on carpets, and my mother tells me I used to daydream around a carpet. I have memories of a childish imagination that I could hide under the flowers. Persian carpets don’t have forms like flowers or leaves. They are abstract forms, but from a distance, they look like flowers. I would try to name the color. This always made me feel warm and secure, but until then I had not seen how a carpet was made. In Kashan, when I saw a woman weaving a carpet in a small room, threads everywhere, an unfinished work, I did not like it. I knew she came from a family that abused her. She had a hard life. I thought she was lying while creating colorful images. It was like she was pretending when she had no bright spot in her own life. I don’t know why I reacted like that; guess I did not want to know the messy process behind something that looked perfect and complete to me.” Growing up, she started disliking the carpet. “At one point, I hated the patterns and colors.” Then, in her early 20s, she became interested in traditional Persian music. This helped her to see the beauty in her culture. Slowly she regained her love for carpets.
In her artwork, instead of showing carpets as uncomplicated and exotic, she uses them as a motif to express her political consciousness, her discomfort around Iranian laws, and her sense of hybridity as an international person in America. She made a collage where carpet-like patterns merge into each other and create a tapestry of maps or landscapes held together by a federal document that also looks like a carpet.
The threads started appearing in her work when she began making art in the United States. “The initial reason that I used thread was to portray my psychological state of mind,” she said. “When I was leaving my country I was having mixed feelings about leaving. I expanded the idea, and I used threads to demonstrate female existence and the amount of mixed and tied up emotions and feeling an individual carries.”
Tabatabaei has experienced anxiety and loneliness since she came to the U.S. But instead of suppressing them, she lets them guide her thoughts about how gender and cultural identity function in her work. She said that higher study in the U.S. is a step in that direction. Since she came here three years ago, she has made deeply personal art using different media such as video, drawing, print, and installation. Her piece titled “Alienated” unpacks the uncomfortable feeling that she is under surveillance because of her foreign origin. Even though her viewers did not know about her discomfort around the term “legal alien,” a tag for international students, they could relate. An older woman told her, “There’s a security camera at my work, and I identify with the feeling of being watched.” A younger woman associated the familiar feeling of alienation with a fast-changing world—and with discord in her own family. Responses like these give Tabatabaei hope that she might be on the right path.
“It’s a big responsibility to talk about your country and culture to an international audience,” she said. And it can get tricky. Sometimes, the ones she turns to for creative inspiration, her people and culture, do not agree with her: “I have had Iranian women living in America telling me, ‘But we are not weak, we are not victims!’ And I say, ‘Yes, that is exactly what I am trying to say, that we are strong and resilient.’”
Some from Iran have asked her if she is blaming men. Her answer: “I don’t think I am! I am talking about political issues that can add to a woman’s burden. I am not saying it is because of men. I am questioning political activities that can be made even by a woman in the government. A woman who is in charge can restrict other women.”
Conversations like these challenge preconceived ideas and make people uncomfortable. Tabatabaei tells me that she is looking for the “common language” that connects her to her audience beyond the cultural, political, and geographical differences. Yet, finding it takes constant work, and it starts by exploring the self.