By Rebecca Fulp-Eickstaedt
In many of your works, your body serves as the canvas on which you express your ideas. Why is that? What about the body makes it an effective channel for artistic communication?
Through twenty-five years of art practice I have learned that photography is part myth, part reality, part fiction, part truth. But how to explore this rich paradox within my own art? This was the dilemma that motivated me to conceive of the Tales Left Untold (2000) series. I had already investigated issues of identity in earlier work, but I was coming to see that the way the photograph makes and breaks identities within the image itself is entirely another matter. The struggle, then, is to make photographs that comment on the very nature and culture of photography.
In this paradoxical and irreverent spirit, I dressed up in a traditional Persian outfit and explored hiding places. After traveling in the West of the United States, I found the recreated Mormon Pioneer town in Salt Lake City to be an ideal setting for exploring identity, playing roles, being known and unknown, telling and withholding. I never reveal all of me, nor all of the scene. In most of this photographic series, actually, only part of a feature or scene is shown, so as to allow more space for interpretation by showing less. Just as I have had to pick up the pieces of my identity along the way, so too, must the viewers of my exhibition turn the photographs into tales which make sense to them. My aim was to invite people to come and see this real and unreal world, this theater of identities. Ultimately the tales are ways of a new North American woman trying to write her own myths within the older myths of North America.
In my subsequent series, I Am Not A Persian Carpet (2001), I challenge the ways that cultures have been reduced to commodities. Based on my observations in Europe and North America, it is not an exaggeration to say that in the West, the only thing known about Persian culture may very well be its carpets. In the United States specifically, all products from Iran were banned, the most lucrative ones—and, therefore, the most forbidden—being Persian carpets and caviar.
I printed my body with black ink from wooden printing blocks that have many of the motifs used in Persian carpets. At times it is difficult to tell where the “real” carpet on my floor ends and the “human” carpet begins. However, the full female body or self is never shown, only fragments. At the same time that I embody the stereotype, I challenge it by being disembodied, as each photograph shows bits and pieces of a female identity that defies neat categorization. There are hints and clues to a particular identity, but they are neither definite nor complete.
Through this series I hope to facilitate an encounter that will lead viewers to think deeply about the ways the Middle East has been stereotyped, where people have been turned into objects and categories. My photographs explore these issues in and of themselves, but also provide the space for others to debate them. At the same time that I am Not a Persian Carpet is a protest, it also serves as an invitation to ask difficult but necessary questions.
In my series, She Speaks Greek Farsi (2009), my abdomen serves as the site of language. An expression in Greek, to speak any language in a “Farsi way,” is a comment on how fluent and well someone speaks that language. So to speak “Greek Farsi” or “English Farsi” is to speak Greek or English well. By implication and inspiration, if such a compliment exists today (despite the ancient history of war between the Greeks and the Persians), then other similar signs of respect between antagonistic nations might be possible.
From the concrete world of my embodied experience, language is abstracted. At once personal and universal, private and public, I write words on my skin from the flesh of my own tri-cultural heritage. Words whose meanings, however, hold great potency for anyone who has had to relocate and emigrate: family, place, language, love, friend, birth, land, home, person, history, life, memory, body, self, and world.
My own skin is the surface paper on which my art is born. Imagine love written on a womb like the stretch marks from giving birth. Words turn into marks of labor in the creative act. I write in what was my childhood’s handwriting on my skin, performing language. The Greek and Farsi words come from opposite directions, but meet in the middle, creating a calligraphy that travels somewhere between private graffiti and public tattoo. Against the backdrop of the political tensions between Iran and the United States, my work stands as an alternative interaction between differing cultures to the usual domination or demonization.
In my series, I Am Not a Miniature (2013), I take on the exclusively male artistic tradition of miniature painting, by performing it and including my own story. The marks on the artist's skin form a canvas interwoven with the marks of the projected painting, where miniature becomes monumental and personal becomes political, bridging the histories of once enemy empires—Persian, Greek and Ottoman. From the flesh of my own bicultural heritage, the photographs travel somewhere between private graffiti and public tattoo. My abdomen serves as the site of the intersections of competing cultures and politics, where Alexander the Great is depicted in Persian miniatures, or Adam and Eve are depicted in an Ottoman one, or a miniature begun in Shiraz is then completed in Istanbul.
Throughout my diverse series, my body is both symbolic and performative, at once a canvas and a metaphorical self performing narratives.
You describe photography as a medium that reveals aspects of both fact and fiction. How do themes of reality and illusion manifest themselves in your art, and how do you deal with tensions that arise between the true and the false?
My performance-based photography series Super East-West Woman (ongoing since 2002), is motivated by a strategy of using humor and my own body for political and cultural critique. The idea started to take shape in 2002 after former President George W. Bush branded Iran as one of the three nations comprising an “axis of evil.” It re-minded me of the Islamic revolution in 1978-79 when Iran’s new leaders labeled the United States as the country of the “Great Satan.” Growing up in the USA, I was destined to critique the two nations and cultures that inhabit my identity and who are so bent on vilifying each other.
I took a chador (Farsi for Islamic covering) and turned it into a cape. The Superman figure of popular Western culture is transformed into a Superwoman (my metaphorical self) whose chador turns into a cape of agency. She pokes fun at herself, her cultures, and the ludicrous situations in which her life, between East and West, has placed her. Cultural displacement has not left her incapacitated; rather, it has given her the capacity to live out her healing vision. Armored with her Persian amulets and Greek anti-evil eye bracelets, Super East-West Woman hopes to chase away the evil for which each nation blames the other.
In my multimedia installation, Super East-West Woman: Forty Pillars (2011), I performed as a pillar, marking each of my forty years of life. Like the sculpted female figures, the Caryatids, of the Acropolis’ Erechtheion in Athens (421-407 BC), Super East-West Woman is both the literal column and the metaphorical support, carrying the weight of her Greek and Iranian heritage on her head: a history of both war and peace. In each of the ten photographs of the installation, Super East-West Woman’s veiled back is linked to the reflection of her face in the glass of the retired Tramway cabins of her permanent home in the United States which has severed diplomatic relations with Iran. These cabins have been replaced by new ones that are busy taking passengers back and forth on cables suspended in air from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island in New York City. The 20 instances of Super East-West Woman in the photographs are reflected in mirrors, creating 40 representations of her. The installation re-enacts the architecture of the Chehel Sotun (Forty Columns in Farsi, 1664 AD) palace of Navab’s native city Isfahan, Iran, where 20 actual columns meet 20 reflected columns in a pool of water in front of the palace, creating 40 columns in the imagination and giving it its name. After thirty years of taking Navab back and forth since she relocated from Iran as a ten year-old, the Tramway has become her portable Chehel Sotun, the exiled palace of a nomad.
Super East-West Woman performs as a modern Caryatid supporting a Chehel Sotun in the air, carrying the political histories of war and peace of her three identities. Just as her chador (Islamic veil in Farsi) turned into a cape, allowing her to fly in earlier series, Super East-West Woman transcends being a stationary column into a ferry-woman who takes her passengers back and forth, between East and West. The installation invites a third space for re-imagining our conceptions of passive and active, past and present, real and unreal, life and art, presentation and re-presentation, personal and public history, and relations between Iran and the USA.
Identity is a key issue in many of your works. As an American woman of both Iranian and Greek descent, how do the intersections of your various identities play out in your art How does your art speak to the complexity of “identity” and to viewers’ own identities?
It is in the process of my art that I dislocate and relocate my place between Iran and the United States. Each exhibition and publication provides a material reference for me after having left my first relatives, friends, home, language and culture. Each work places a foundation stone into a new home that I am building away from home, but always in critical dialogue with the memory of that first home. To be ‘unhomed,’ as cultural studies theorist Homi Bhabha puts it, does not mean that I am ‘homeless.’ Nor does it mean that I can be accommodated easily. By occupying two places at once, a cultural hybrid becomes difficult to place. It is within this ‘third space’ of working, contesting and reconstructing that the hybrid cultural identity creates an opening for other positions to emerge—a space of transnational and cross-cultural initiations. Homeling was my maternal grandmother Efigenia’s pronunciation for homeless in English. Neither homeless nor at home, homeling captures both the horror and the rapture, in re-locating home and world.
You talk about growing up in the United States. Can you tell me a little more about what that was like? What were some early life experiences that have influenced your career as an artist?
My first name symbolizes love and my first memories are of unconditional love between my Greek mother, Katina Armenakis, my Iranian father, Dr. Ali Navab, and my three siblings, Alexander, Pericles, Demetra and me. I am Iranian Greek American. I joke with my parents that I am the peace child of the Ancient Persian-Greek wars. I was born in Isfahan, Iran to an Iranian Muslim father and a Greek Christian mother. During the 1950s my father completed his residency in Cardiology in the United States. He met my mother in New York City and so began a love that still exists after fifty years together, spanning three countries, a revolution, separation as a family, and a close encounter with death. They were the first in their families, in both Greece and Iran, to marry outside of their cultures and religions. They were the first to teach me about cultural diversity, respect, patience, compromise, understanding, loyalty, and the priceless value of education. Their own example, their high standards and integrity, continue to inspire me today.
My first language was Persian, but Greek language, food, and music enveloped my childhood memories. For the first eight years of my life we spent ten months in Iran and two summer months in Greece, embracing both of my parents’ cultures and families in harmony. My mother had us four baptized at the chapel of St. George on Lykavittos Hill in Athens. On Sundays in Isfahan, we would attend the Armenian Orthodox Vank church.
I was eight years old, however, when the Islamic Revolution of 1979 ended that. My parents decided that we would be safer in Greece. This decision had a horrible price: at the airport we discovered that my father had been placed on forbidden passage and would have to stay behind in Iran. We waited for him in Greece for two years. Finally, my father was allowed out of Iran for medical care as a result of a close brush with heart failure. Reunited as a family, we arrived in New York City in 1981 as anti-Iranian sentiment was at its peak.
With spit on my face and the taunting words, “Go back home you dirty Iranian!” I was welcomed to the United States. It was 1981 on a New York City public school playground. I was nine years old. I stood there in silence. Ever since then I have been asking through my art and my writing what I could not ask my taunter: “Home? I’ve lost my home. Can you tell me where it is?”
Ever since then I have wanted to facilitate other people’s need to understand the world and to be understood beyond the boundaries of language and culture, through art. Being a practitioner of art for over twenty years, I sought not only to make art for public exhibition, discussion and debate but also to include the artist’s voice in the writing of history and criticism of art through my publications and lectures.
It is through my art and writing, too, that I write my own story as an immigrant within, alongside, and against the grain of the documented story of North American history.
It seems that, through your art and your academic pursuits, you have learned many valuable lessons about yourself and the world around you. During your time as a professor, what were some lessons you strove to impart to your students of art?
I am an interdisciplinary artist who uses image and word in exhibitions, publications, and teaching to investigate transnational issues in art and cultural studies. My art and writing have been shaped by the road of my personal life, which has taken a number of unpredictable turns. The Islamic revolution of 1978-9 forced me to leave my childhood, my relatives and friends in Iran. After living as a refugee first in Greece and then the United States, struggling to find some coherence, some place for myself within these new cultures, I discovered photography as an undergraduate in the Visual and Environmental Studies program at Harvard University. This was the first time that I was able to explore and express through art, what was lost and what was gained from my life’s translations.
I have a single-authored book and fifteen refereed published writings in academic journals, anthologies and encyclopedias, from: “Re-picturing Photography: A Language in the Making,” in Photographic Theory: An Historical Anthology (2014), edited by Andrew Hershberger, UK: Wiley Blackwell, to POWWOW: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience, Short Fiction from Then to Now (2009), edited by Ishmael Reed. Hershberger’s anthology on photographic theory was a deep honor for me as my writing on photography was published alongside my favorite theorists and writers on photography. The fiction anthology was a profound honor, as I was published alongside some of my favorite writers: Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Zora Neale Hurston and Gertrude Stein.
Formerly, I was Assistant Professor of Art after completing four years of teaching art studio and art education in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Florida as Adjunct and Visiting Assistant Professor (2000-5).
I am simultaneously making art, teaching art and through my publications, participating in the discourse on contemporary art and education. The issues with which I am concerned in art and education keep coming back to the things in my life which I have had to re-define in exile: memory, language, identity, and culture and the ways in which images include certain visions, while excluding others. One of my aims in teaching, therefore, is to encourage students to investigate and debate the images of identity and culture circulating in mass media, not to supply more narrow and stereotypical images, but rather, to contribute more sensitive and informed visions to the public; where art and education become one.