ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Leila Seyedzadeh as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Leila Seyedzadeh is an Iranian interdisciplinary artist and curator who addresses ideas of imaginary landscapes with a focus on natural subjects such as mountains extracted from the subconscious. Her works function as tapestries made from pieces of unraveled memories which have in turn, lost their original meaning in order to give life to a landscape of placelessness. It is as if she is attaching pieces of her memories, and by doing so, she is destroying their meaning, thus creating a landscape immersed in placelessness.
She holds an MFA in Painting & Printmaking from Yale School of Art in 2019 and a BFA in Painting from Tehran’s University of Science and Culture in 2014. She was a recipient of the H. Lee Hirsche prize in 2019 and Soma Summer Fellowship at Yale School of Art in 2018. Her work and curatorial projects have been featured in ANTE Mag, art apart of cult(ure), Artspiel, and the Museum of Non-visible Art. She has participated in numerous exhibitions including shows at Green Hall Gallery at Yale University, Ahvaz Contemporary Art Museum in Iran, Spring Break Art Show 2022, Peter Gaugy Gallery, ChaShaMa, The Border Project Space, High Line Nine Gallery, and Dastan Gallery.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Leila Seyedzadeh: I grew up in Tehran, Iran, surrounded by the Alborz mountain range. The mountains became a beautiful contrast to the hustle and bustle of an ancient cultural city like Tehran. Amongst the snow-capped mountains, I found myself interested in painting landscapes. In my paintings, the Alborz mountains and their omnipresent tranquil beauty represented a guiding force in my life, like a father watching over his child. The mountains became both a physical and metaphorical place of safety and security, while simultaneously reminding me of the natural uncultivated beauty that nature possesses. The mountains became a place of refuge and study for me.
I migrated to the United States in 2017, here in the Northeast I find myself within a landscape that is absent of much of the topography I was familiar with. In contrast to Tehran, a city which is located 3,200 feet above the sea level, New York is at the sea level. My transition from Tehran to New York has involved visual and physical displacement, as well as a great deal of cultural uprooting, nevertheless, these instances of displacement have become some of the driving forces in my current work.
My practice consists of 2D works and 3D installations. Both of which I describe as landscape “paintings” to preserve a site of stability in my life through language and the existing discourse of painting. Over the years, my practice gradually transformed from mimetic paintings of landscapes, to more abstract ones, and in the past few years, my landscape paintings evolved into an ongoing series of suspended installations: large hand-dyed fabrics, draped and installed in the form of mountains. I utilize textiles, hand-dyed cotton fabric, found fabric, fringe, ribbon and other malleable materials that translate non-physical memories.
AE: Describe to us the ways in which your works incorporate legacies of Persian miniature painting.
LS: My works contains various influences from Persian miniature traditions. I first create compositions on paper that I use as the basis for my textile paintings and installations. I gradually create the shapes followed by layers of colors and patterns. In particular, I use the flattened perspective and bird’s eye views iconic of miniature paintings. I also am influenced by the color palette and textures of this tradition that I render into 2D and 3D works of art. For example, in my textile paintings, the mountains are vertical but the rivers and valleys are seen from the perspective of a bird’s-eye view. In my installations, the mountains remain vertical while I incorporate objects, such as Persian carpets and Jajims (lightweight nomadic carpets), to maintain the bird’s-eye view in the 3D installations. It is only by entering and walking through the installation that viewers break the initial flattened perspective.
AE: How did you begin using fabric in your work, and where do you source the fabrics you use in your installations?
LS: I began using fabric within my fine art practice in 2015. However, in actuality, I have been immersed in fabric my whole life and my mother is undoubtedly the main inspirational force behind this great experience.
I began using fabric within my fine art practice in 2015. However, in actuality, I have been immersed in textiles my whole life, and my mother is undoubtedly the main inspirational force behind this incredible experience. Our house was always full of fabri: curtains, mattresses, sheets, and many of my mother’s Chador Namazes (prayer veils). As children, my brother and I often made a big tent in our bedroom out of my mother’s chador that almost occupied the entire room. I was excited to experience a different space between the wrinkles of the fabric, as if entering another world. What surreal joy to lie down on the carpets and stare at the floral chador ceiling.
Another memory that has impacted my relationship with fabric was my mother soaking white curtains in indigo dye, a practice traditionally passed down from mothers to daughters, which transforms the white fabric into clear blue hues. Afterwards, she would hang them to dry in the wind.
It’s not surprising then, that I made my first installation by upcycling old sheets and curtains with the help of my mother, who taught me how to dye, sew and mend textiles. I want to credit my mother, a traditional housewife, who mastered countless skills (part of which were passed on to me). Yet like many women, she was never formally paid for her work.
AE: In 2018, you completed an artist residency at SOMA in Mexico City. How did this experience affect your practice?
LS: Being in Mexico City helped me perceive and imagine the mountain from a completely different perspective. In Tehran, the mountain range is seen in the background of the city; we are at the foothills of the mountain. Mexico City was built on the top of the mountain and it has an altitude of 7,200 feet above sea level (whereas Tehran has an altitude of between 3,000 to 6,000 ft). Mexico City ignited a curiosity within me to delve deeper into ideas of altitude and gravity and to explore their intense physical effects on our bodies. I was inspired to write a poem about this experience called Gravity, which became the source of new works. I began thinking about the bodily experience of physically rising to the top of the mountain and the effects of increased altitude in tandem with the feeling I had when I first arrived in the U.S. and I was often stuck going between translations of Persian and English.
Back in the U.S., I started experimenting with the frequency of my voice, transforming it into a visual mountainous landscape. I etched the frequency onto glass, yet the lines can only be seen through a shadow cast on the wall, like a sound drawing. This work is called The Landscape of my Voice, and it reflects the duality of my life in the U.S. and my memories of home; the tangible and invisible spaces of my current reality.
The force of gravity
Pulling me to the ground
I hang my hand against
Up and down
I go walking on the pyramids
Immersed in the forces
I listen to the wind
I look at the sky
The sky here is higher
Let’s pack our travel satchels
And commence an endless journey
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
LS: I have referred above to various influences such as mountain landscapes and Persian miniature paintings. I want to add that I am also influenced by the Persian literary tradition, incorporating stories taking place on mythical mountains (such as mount Qaf). I began writing poetry after immigrating to the U.S. and feeling unable to translate many of my experiences in any other form. These poems have become the foundations for new works and experimentations in my practice.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
LS: I am currently working on a piece called East River, inspired by a poem I wrote about the East River in New York. In the poem, I use the intangible fluidity of water as a metaphor of boundless movement from the shores of the East River to the peak of the Alborz mountains in Iran. I will be once again rendering the sound of my voice reading this poem into a digital frequency. For the actual piece however, I will be combining the visualization of this frequency with my past installation works.
One of my works is currently on view in the group exhibition Vector, at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, which closes on October 16, 2022.
LEILA SEYEDZADEH ONLINE: