Artist Spotlight with Amitis Motevalli Documentation of An “Offering of Honor,” 2020. Photo by Pete Galindo

Artist Spotlight with Amitis Motevalli

Posted: Dec 1, 2021

ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Amitis Motevalli as part of our Artist Spotlight series.

Amitis Motevalli moved to the US in 1977 just before the Iranian revolution. Her work explores the cultural resistance and survival of people living in poverty, conflict, and war. It asks questions about violence, occupation, and the path to decolonization, while invoking the significance of a secular grassroots struggle. Through many mediums—including sculpture, video, performance, and collaborative public art—  she juxtaposes iconography with iconoclasm. Her works include both stand alone projects and a variety of ongoing multidisciplinary series. In her recent series Golestan Revisited, Motevalli is working internationally with a broad spectrum of transnational Muslims in order to research what defines home, life, and labor in the urgency of survival. She is particularly concerned with conducting workshops with South/West/Asian, North/East Africans in diaspora coming from places of political and religious conflict and collaborating on public art projects. Motevalli currently lives and works in Los Angeles, exhibiting art internationally as well as organizing to create an active and resistant cultural discourse through information exchange, either in art, pedagogy, or organizing fellow artists and educators.

Motevalli is the director of the William Grant Still Arts Center in West Adams, South Central Los Angeles. She has also taught at Claremont Graduate University and Cal State Stanislaus as an artist-in-residence and adjunct professor, and been honored with several awards, fellowships and residencies in the United States and internationally including Creative Capital, an emerging and mid-career award from the California Community Foundation in 2017 and 2012 respectively, as well as the Vision of California Fellowship by the James Irvine Foundation, a Montalvo Residency, the National Endowment for the Arts/Andy Warhol Foundation Fellowship at 18th Street Arts Center and fellowships with the Danish Ministry of Culture and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit/Arab American Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Motevalli holds a Bachelors in Women’s Studies and Art from San Francisco State University and a Masters’ of Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University.

ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?

Amitis Motevalli: My family have been the caretakers of a Shia shrine in Iran for generations and our name, Motevalli, translates to “Keeper of the Shrine.” Memories of childhood visits to the shrine permeate my work as an aesthetic and structural presence. My art aims to sustain the spirit and actions associated with shrines as a light for collective public art, memory and survival. In my practice, I merge the symbology of Islamic art and ritual with those of secular grassroots peoples’ movements fighting for equality and justice worldwide. My experience as a working-class transnational migrant is the foundation of my art.

My practice has explored and upheld the cultural resistance and survival of people, particularly women and femme identified individuals, living in situations of poverty, conflict, and war. Experiences and observations of collective trauma and survival have no doubt influenced my work throughout my career as an artist and an educator for over 20 years. 

Using varied media including installation, performance, sculpture, painting and drawing, printmaking, textiles and needlework, video and collaborative public art, my practice traverses iconography as well as iconoclasm, secularizing the ritual and aesthetic of Islam while retaining the essence of Sufi dervish tradition. In the current political environment especially, secularizing symbology from Iranian and Islamic art is a transgressive act that I sometimes call “dervish hereticism.”

AE: Can you talk to us about the origins of work, Golestan Revisited, and the database that emerged from its research?

AM: Golestan Revisited is a series that manifests in multiple forms. I’ve been interested in the roots and origins of roses for some time. I already knew that there were several strains of roses that are indigenous to Iran and other neighboring nations. 

Roses are often associated with European gardens and rarified beauty. It is less known that many of these cultivars were imported to Europe, then transplanted and hybridized during the violence of the Crusades by medievals such as Robert I, who led the Second Siege of Damascus. Popular plantings in Western gardens have lineage in Rosa Gallica, Persica and Damascena used for perfumes, teas, medicine and food in the geographic areas of Persia, the Indus Valley and the Levant— known today as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The very first bath I ever had was in rosewater and I have consumed roses since my first breaths of air. But it was during a visit to a rose garden in 2015 that I received an alert on my phone about a story I was following of “Europe’s first female suicide bomber.” While I was reading and questioning the names on the plaques of roses dedicated to American or European nobility and celebrities, the alert I received shared an audio recording of Hasna Ait Boulhacen moments before she died. In the audio, she begged for her life as a police raid took place at a home she was staying in on the outskirts of Paris. The news alert also said that she was not a suicide bomber but that she was either killed by someone in the home or by police bullets. The circumstances were certainly complex, but I realized that Hasna had no agency in this situation. I began to think of all the femmes who had been caught up in wars either in the regions of South/Central/West Asia and North/East Africa, the diasporas or in transit. 

In this project, I focus on the time between the first series of regional uprisings when civil wars added to the violence of militarized external invasions also coined as the  “neo crusades.” It was at that moment reading about Hasna in the garden that I was inspired to rename the roses after the women/girls/femmes who were killed under such circumstances as an act of reclamation of a regional plant/medicine/food resource. 

Golestan Revisited uniquely links current wars to early practices in territorial mapping and resource nomenclature as a means to take possession, remove local agency, numercise, and classify. A subtext embedded in the project’s structure highlights how cataloguing and data are used as tools of colonial narrative control. The rose, literal and symbolic captive, is the entry point to facts of perpetual war, occupation, and resistance. The database I am creating for this project will include botanical names, new names and women’s stories, photos, abstracted drawings of rose lineage and other resources to foreground the collecting of roses since the Crusades and question the nomenclature which erased their history.

This database, still in progress, will decolonize datasets and be an archive that exists when papers, photos, or other evidence of the women might disappear. It is a civic-social project creating impact by recovering narratives of people and places that have been systematically erased due to war, poverty, migration, and reactionary aggression. Stories of the women that are memorialized by a rose cultivar have been personally shared with me, or are drawn from news or online databases documenting human rights violations and civilian tolls.

AE: Your recent performance, Borrowing Authority From Death, took place in New York this past October, 2021. Can you describe the project and the process of preparing for this performance?

AM: I’ve always been thinking about what or who is monumentalized. I think my last name leaves me with this responsibility, yet I eternally stay interested in iconoclasm of sorts, too. In anticipation of the 20th Anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the responding wars, I planned a ritual for healing. 

October 7, 2021 marked 20 years after the first bombs were dropped on Afghanistan which started the “War on Terror.” I wanted to reflect on the toll this has taken not only in the regions invaded, but how the globe has changed as a result of 20 years of war. 

Borrowing Authority from Death was a ritual/performance for a day of mourning dedicated to those who have borne the brunt of the 9/11 attacks, those killed on 9/11, and those killed in the wars. I began with a pain ritual to bear the weight of the day starting indoors at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. Alongside musician Daro Behroozi who played the Daf (Persian percussive instrument), I performed a Dzikr for spiritual alignment. In advance of my performance, I asked various people to send me their pain in connection with this day of remembrance. I worked with spiritual sadist and pain practitioner Dia Dynasty on channeling the pain that I had asked to be energetically sent my way. I ultimately sat for needle piercings on my back as an act of atonement on behalf of my communities. The piercings were in the shape of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. I’ve felt like I had been wearing the impression of those structures on my back since the day of the 9/11 attacks.   

The second part of this ritual was a reflective walk. I designed a wearable sculptural altar based on the alam (symbolic banner used in Shia mourning rituals) carried in street marches from Shia and Sufi rituals. I wore this “altar” costume to become the altar. The costume was also inspired by the Hoopoe bird (also known as the Hudhud) from Farid Al-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds. The performance was not a protest or a march, instead I was re-entering zones that felt forbidden for a very long time. I walked through Broadway to the footprint of the twin towers, into Liberty park, down Washington Boulevard, through Little Syria and into Battery Park; all sites of burials and loss. I stood in front of the monuments placed throughout this path, most not symbols of remembrance, but monuments dedicated to commerce or vengeance. I wanted my presence, consisting of my body, dressed in an alam, taking on the appearance of a hudhud and pierced with the impression of the twin towers on my back, to replace the monuments of violence and commodity.  My body was to become a visual symbol of the pain that so many have endured throughout these past 20 years. 

In preparation for this performance, I trained spiritually and physically. I walked the path many times while chanting and taking in the energy of the locations. I also read public comments on the planning and construction of the 9/11 monument. I continued my rigorous exercise program as well as my spiritual practices. The energies of these spaces coupled with the act of my performance was a lot to take on and I wanted to be respectful. This was my gestural iconoclasm afterall. It was also an ancient way to utilize my body to exercise communal pain. We channeled the pain, walked, reflected and released.

AE: You work in a variety of mediums, including textile, video, painting and of course, performance. How do these various mediums convey different themes or intentions within your work?

AM: For me, the mediums I use and my ideas are entangled with one another. I’m interested in archiving historic and practical methods of evolving philosophies and aesthetics. My particular focus is on archiving the praxis of everyday people and grassroots movements that have had an impression on my life and expanding on that praxis. When I am working on projects, there is always a conceptual thread that connects with the other pieces even if the medium and look isn’t the same. 

I’ve always been interested in polymaths and like the idea of lifelong learning. Pedagogy is an integral part of my practice including my own learning. Whenever I take on a new medium, I dig in, I learn and prefer to labor on it myself.

AE: What is the role of ritual and mourning within your practice?

AM: So much of my work is rooted in research of trauma, loss and pain. I felt that I needed to use my familial practices and ancestral traditions to help me cope and heal. In this process, I invited my extended family of femmes, queers, non-binary and anyone not accepted into the somewhat normative institutions currently defining mystic rituals and spiritual practice. We practice together and we open it up to an even larger community and perform rituals publicly as has been through the masculine body for hundreds of years. Although much of our practice is forbidden or frowned upon by religious policing, our public rituals allow us to not only remember that our spiritual practices are not exclusive, but that we have the right and need to heal and commune.

AE: Can you discuss your recent collaboration from October 2021, The Last Stone – Sangeh Tamam, with artist Sherin Guirguis at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt?

AM: The Last Stone – Sangeh Tamam was an endurance performance in response to Sherin Guirguis’ piece Here I Have Returned. I enjoy having discussions with other artists through our art. Sherin was commissioned by Art d’Egypt to create an ephemeral piece on the platform of The Great Pyramids of Giza. Sherin was born in Egypt and has been creating work on feminist movements there, in particular less celebrated figures. I decided to go with Sherin for the whole process of fabricating and installing her piece, so I can witness and take part in her process. I wanted to experience what it would be like to be at the site of the Pyramids at length in intense labor. Sherin really wanted her piece on a hill visually framing the Queen’s Pyramids of the third Tomb of Menakaure. 

As I’ve mentioned, I have a complicated relationship with monuments and tombs. In the process of being at the Pyramids and its surroundings, I kept thinking of all the hidden labor of women and girls which contributed to the building of Egypt and maintaining this site that hosts vast numbers of visitors. 

I began my performance at the Queens’ Pyramids as an ablution, to commemorate those who have remained unrecognized and as a gestural act of iconoclasm. I used stones, trash and dung found on the plateau to create a path from the Queens’ tombs to Sherin’s sculptural installation; connecting the past to the present. The stones were also used as tasbeeh, to chant and remember all those who lost their lives. With each stone I placed, I chanted out loud a characteristic name of God in the tradition of a Sufi dzikr. With each stone, I placed an intention to remember all the women and girls who have contributed to the monument and history of Egypt. This included the women in the neighborhood who maintain the space, as well as the women and girls who peddle items, clean, archive, write, and tell stories. Together they create harmony and host people from all over the world. 

The events organized by Art d’Egypt were also informative to the overall conversation I had with Sherin through my performance of Sangeh Tamam. As Persian-speaking audiences know, Sangeh Tamam doesn’t just mean the last stone. It’s a Persian saying for putting your utmost efforts into whatever it is you are working on. I saw the intensive labor of all of the cultural producers to create such a monumental event appear effortless–much like how we reflect on the Pyramids today.

AE: Do you have any shows, performances or projects coming up in 2022?

AM: In 2022, my primary focus will be working directly with a designer and engineers to launch the Golestan Revisited database called Roses By Other Names. This will need some travel if the universe allows. I do have some other exciting projects in the works. I’ll be working with Bard’s Center for Human Rights and the Arts to create a new media/virtual piece in April. I’m also planning a labor intensive ritual/performance to launch in collaboration with UC Berkeley in the fall with hopes to travel this piece to at least two other sites. 

In addition to these, I am in the process of an eternal project of community building. I’d like to have discursive, supportive mind spaces of exchange with the intention of abolition from institutions of power and the art market. I’m working with peers to enable advanced discussions through love and caring for other artists while challenging colonial labels and definitions of “Islamic or Middle Eastern art.” This is fluid collective work, bringing together artists who have intra-cultural links with one another via South/Central/West Asia and North/East Africa. Through this connection we can bring together ideas that expand our frame of reference without the constant need to create in response, in reaction or in translation to… I’d like a space of “calling in” and not being a public spectacle outside of our communities, to provide one another with mediation and create our own opportunities. I’m not sure when this last piece will manifest in its ”full” capacity, nor if it’s appropriate for me to define so neatly. With all that, I have been and continue to be willing to put in the work.

AMITIS MOTEVALLI ONLINE:

Website: amitismotevalli.com

Instagram: @amigeddon