ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Aryana Minai as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Aryana Minai (b. 1994, Los Angeles, CA) makes paper-based sculptures and wall works that are intimately linked to philosophies and histories of architecture, migration, labor, the body, and the handmade. Minai identifies paper as a material that links storytelling, tradition, and craft, centering her practice on the diasporic subject’s daily lived experiences as she draws from her personal archive of decontextualized Iranian-American content. The architectural quality of Minai’s works embody a lived survival instinct—to preserve historic space and inhabit safe spaces—as well as an interest in what salvaged and saved materials can teach us. Using bricks and stones from buildings that no longer exist, woodblocks used a generation ago to create textile patterns, parts of vernacular decorative architecture, Minai embosses into paper that she pulps from found materials in small batches in her studio. Minai envisions architecture as a living entity that continually sheds and acquires memories as bodies pass through its spaces.
Minai received a BFA from Art Center College of Design in 2016, an MFA from Yale School of Art in 2020, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. Minai will have her first solo exhibition with OCHI in Los Angeles, CA in 2022. She is represented by Ochi Projects, Los Angeles, CA.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Aryana Minai: The central themes I come back to are architecture, migration, labor, the body, and the handmade. I have an awareness about the changes my body has had to make to settle into a new place. I’ve had to shapeshift in various ways to fit into the new architecture around me. I continuously shed and acquired different layers, trying to find the one that works.
When I first moved to the U.S. from the Middle East, I became very ill. The food was too harsh, the air was too thick, and I got allergies that kept me in bed for a long time. Naturally, I was also very sad, starting high school in a new country. My experience here has consistently taken a toll on my body. It feels very trying to be human! At times, I feel like maybe I’m just not meant to be here, and it’s impossible to force my body to acclimate. Other times, I feel like I am a force, and I could be anywhere because of this experience. Either way, my limbs feel heavy to move most of the time.
In my last year of undergrad, my dad had a brain stroke that paralyzed half his body. I don’t think I liked admitting or talking about it until recently, but this was a moment where I started to think about that toll more. My dad greatly influences my work and my interest in architecture. He put a lot of effort into educating me about Iran’s historical influences on the arts. My introduction to art was through our trips to old cities in Iran together to look at traditional monuments and how they held us up throughout the years.
My dad has been unable to care for his own body for some time now. I remember the way he’d talk about it in the beginning. He’d say he had just forgotten how to walk; he’d just have to remember how to do it again. As if it was not that he was unable to do it anymore, he’d just have to tap into his memory box and capture the thing we learn when we are so young, we almost forget how we even do it. I pictured my dad getting up every morning, waiting to remember. Going deep into his memories, digging to find the ones he needed to learn how to walk again. He’d watch me move around while taking care of him, asking me how it felt, what muscles I thought I was using most, and at what point does my body reflect the thought of movement. Do I command my body, or does my body command me? Both, I think.
Eventually, my dad was no longer in command of his own body. He’d look at his free-flowing limbs as extra packages that he had to figure out what to do with and where to place. He’d sleep with his body weight on one arm all night and wake up terrified that he might have hurt it. Like when you bring home a puppy and let it sleep in your bed, you’re always afraid you might suffocate it. He’d apologize for his body being an inconvenience to us all. He started referring to his limbs as “it” instead of “my arm” or “my leg.” But he wakes up every day, hoping that this is the day he learns to move again, and maybe there’s some strength in that.
I find questions about my experience of caring for my dad that also find their way into questions I have about my work. When do we finally accept that our memory fails us, that the information we once absorbed so easily has been so delicate all along. What do we do from there? How do we build it back up? Do we accept and learn how to cope with our new situation, or do we strive and prioritize to preserve what we can that’s left. Which one is more laborious?
AE: Can you talk to us about the process of creating your work? How did you arrive at the techniques that you currently use in your practice?
AM: I think printmaking has been a significant influence in my practice. I started out with painting but unknowingly explored a lot of printmaking techniques. I created layers of stencils on canvas and replicated architectural motifs in my own language. Eventually, in grad school, I started to reduce my materials and tools and build something from the ground up instead of making the image of something that potentially looks excavated. Pulp is now my primary material. I use a combination of bricks, woodblocks, and metal fragments for embossing. The bricks and metal pieces are found or given; woodblocks come from textile shops in Iran. I recycle what I can from my daily findings and turn them into pulp. Another form of embossment comes directly from my hands. I use my fingers to push down on the wet pulp to make larger pieces, leaving behind a trace, forming a different pattern than what you’d find on a woodblock. I use a variety of dyes and inks, depending on their effects. Sometimes the dye rises to the surface as the pulp dries, outlining the embossments of the patterns from the woodblocks. I also work in various sizes, and it is a challenge to use the same tools but turn down or up the architectural scale into a more visual scene.
AE: Can you elaborate about the colors and motifs in your work? How do you decide on the palette and the patterns that you create?
AM: I have a very small sketchbook of memories, patterns, and architectural spaces. It’s mostly windows and doors and entry or exit ways. They’re very quick, and in pen with some finger painting. I don’t necessarily like taking too long to make sketches; I want to capture a fleeting memory even if it comes out wrong or I have to fill in certain parts later. I like the idea of a small factual memory of a place combined with the current intuitive movement of my hand or body. When I start a piece, I’ll pick one of these sketches and use it as a basic outline. Eventually, as I am physically working, laying down pulp or bricks, the image comes back to me regarding my body’s relationship to it. Working with pulp has changed my control over the process a lot. I have to complete a piece in one sitting, or it will dry and I can’t go back into it. I work on the floor and move bricks around to draw with. So sometimes I work for ten hours straight and have to make decisions in a very intuitive way. It leaves my body sore and extremely exhausted. But it also allows me to release and resolve a lot of physical trauma.
AE: How do you see the relationships between architecture and your work? What kind of architecture do you link your work to?
AM: I’ve always been interested in our relationship to architecture. I’m interested in the idea that architecture has a life span, giving us enough time to investigate and expose ideologies, power structures, history, and social environments. I started to think about home as a space that holds memory, but eventually, I started thinking that the home is something you build metaphorically with your labor and time. We’re always moving and trying to belong to spaces.
I use motifs, patterns, and visual representations of traditional monuments in Iran that I experienced with my dad to deploy a language of safe spaces I want to preserve and inhabit after moving away from home and living in a diasporic mindset, where you’re almost never a whole “something.”
Teaching, sharing, and patience are the labors all immigrants carry in their bodies. What I want to express does not come through in flatness. I wanted to build, mold, touch, and share the experience with my audience. I think about architectural skin and its relation to my skin. I like the idea that my pieces look very tough and strong, but they’re also just paper that can be wet and molded into something else again. I think about preserving our bodies, the way certain countries preserve monuments through war and revolution. I like to think that I am paving a new space to replace the one I couldn’t quite grasp with my hands. I’m interested in how migration affects memory and the perception of time and space. I think most immigrants live this way, part through stories, part through fragmental physical experiences, making for very abstract spaces we live in.
To understand my inner conflict, I’m always looking back, trying to figure out what made what, and it only makes sense that I do the same with the material I work with. As a person living in the diaspora, you’re continually taking what you already know and learn as you navigate new territories and combine them to make something of your own.
AE: Can you discuss the use of recycled materials within the various stages of your overall practice?
AM: I think my studio has come to a point where nothing goes unused or discarded. Everything makes its way into the work. All the materials feed into one another, are reused, and are constantly given new life in one way or another. For example, I have a dehumidifier in the studio. That collected water makes the pulp, and all the dye recycles into new colors.
I keep thinking I’ll have to put out a call for recycled paper on social media, and I haven’t yet. I’ve been receiving a lot of recycled paper in magical ways from people close to me. Before departing grad school, many of my friends were purging scraps from their studios, and I loaded boxes of them into a U-box that shipped to L.A. Here in L.A., friends who visit my studio bring over a lot of recycled materials. Every once in a while, I’ll come across a grocery list, a sketch, or something that feels personal. I recently got in touch with an old friend with whom I share comforting conversations about family and illness. He gave me a large trash bag of shredded paper that has been the source of most of the work in my studio right now. A few days ago, we talked about the contents of the bag. He mentioned that it consisted of 20+ years of his parents’ bills along with his mother’s medical bills through that time. I think that moment changed the way I will remember these pieces. Not only will our shared conversations of guilt and the burden of caring for bodies beyond our own be in these pieces, but actual documents pertaining to the financial burden as well. It’s bizarre to think about how much physical memory the recycled papers given to me by friends hold. I appreciate them as much as the people giving them to me.
AE: Describe the wood blocks you use to emboss your works. From where do you source the wood blocks and what craft traditions are you engaging with?
AM: I had a printmaking class at Yale where we made woodblock prints. It was reminiscent of the Iranian textile woodblock printing called Ghalamkari. It translates to pen craftsmanship, as patterns were painted by hand rather than stamped with woodblocks in the beginning. This craft has been around for over 400 years. I’ve found that they are mainly used for table cloths. A long process goes into printing the fabrics with over 50 different blocks to make one pattern sometimes. The ones I use are usually discarded and only a fragment from a pattern. Some include miniature-like imagery of nature, flowers, trees, and animals.
Many elements about this method have become significant to me. I have a friend that lives in Iran who sends me these woodblocks. They take quite a long trip and are traded between different hands before getting to me. I like the idea of them being passed between different people in this slow process as they reach me. It almost feels like storytelling, passing along information. I want to make my own woodblocks soon and experiment with scale. A large carved wooden mold is something I’ve been meaning to start in the studio. It’s a new addition to my process, and I’m still learning. I would like to find ways to think of their makers and acknowledge that in some way.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
AM: I love the work of Heidi Bucher and her latex skinnings; she was interested in exploring architectural space and the body through sculpture and had a love for abandoned things. I also admire other artists like Doris Salcedo, Suzanne Jackson, and Mona Hatoum.
I mostly get a lot of inspiration from people I see on my drives or walks, moving around their objects, rearranging things in the stores, gates that feel reminiscent of home. Getting glimpses of people in their homes and the things they collect, whether old or new, fascinates me. I have been collecting many fragmented objects during these walks; a headboard, a gate, and various building objects. I’m just dragging various large things into my studio in the middle of the night. I’m curious about their past lives. And just life!
AE: Do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
AM: Yes! I was just in Omaha to attend Maple st. Construct residency for three weeks and participated in the Dallas Art Fair with Ochi Projects at the end of April 2022. In May, I’ll be included in a show about multiples called Many at the Craft Contemporary Museum. The Brand Library also has an abstraction show that I am a part of. In August, I’ll be going to New York for a residency with The Macedonia Institute. And finally, my solo show with Ochi Projects will be in October 2022. I am super excited about sharing work with friends after so long and being productive in general.
ARYANA MINAI ONLINE: