05 May Featured: Sepideh Mehraban | Unveiling Contemporary Iran
Me and Dad
Sepideh Mehraban is an Iranian born, Michaelis Masters graduate whose work explores memory and its link to personal and shared histories of contemporary Iran. Working between abstraction and figuration, and using both primed and raw canvases where the paint is unstable and seeps through onto both sides of the canvas, Sepideh’s work presents fragile and temporal moments from her memory in response to recent Iranian history. Farsi text is incorporated into many of her works, simultaneously signifying and scrambling any fixed reading of the works. Sepideh’s paintings are moody and deeply introspective, which provoked us to learn more.
How and why did you become interested in art?
My aunt was a graphic designer and we used to spend lots of time doing school art projects together. She inspired me as a child and I dreamed to become an artist one day. Later as a teenager my sister who is a photographer supported me to enrol for an art school and my journey started from then.
What appeals to you about the medium of painting?
The process of painting and its materiality creates endless possibilities that always surprise me.
How would you describe your style of art making, and what influences it?
My work is a constant movement between abstraction and figuration. My visual research draws on many sources including photographs, the media, histories and memories.
Family Album series
Can you tell us a about your techniques – multi-media, painting on raw and both sides of canvases – and whether this has a thematic as well as aesthetic function?
The materiality of the surface in my paintings is an important element that results in the creation of different marks. I use both stretched and unstretched canvas, and boards, for my paintings – the type of surface creates its own marks. While unprimed canvas allows paint to seep through both sides, creating an unfixed picture, the images on a primed surface are stable and controlled. I use both primed and unprimed canvas to signify the fragility of the painting and the possibility of integration.
I worked on raw canvases in a series of paintings entitled Retracing. I started painting from the back of the canvas, with residue colour seeping through to the front. I often placed text on the back of the canvas in order to conceal it. The texts that I wrote on the back of the paintings repeat a selection of letters from the Farsi alphabet, which, through their combination and translation, read: “Iran”, “mother land”, “home land” and “promised land”.
Because I paint in oil on un-primed canvas, the paintings, without their protective layer of glue size, are vulnerable and will disintegrate over time. In this sense, they are like memories that disappear. I use both very thin and very thick paint to set up the presence of paint itself as a material for meaning.
Veiling (From Retracing series)
Your work is concerned with personal and shared histories and memory – can you tell us more about this and how it figures in your work.
Retracing Memories: Public and Personal History in Contemporary Iran is the MFA project that I recently completed at Michaelis School of Art. In this body of paintings I examined the disjuncture between the official history of Iran and my families’ stories, including my experience of growing up in post-revolutionary Tehran.
I use my family photographs and other visual markers, such as newspapers related to Iran’s history, as a reference in my paintings. The use of these images in the process of my paintings parallels the personal and public histories I contest.
How does your own history infiltrate your art?
I am retracing memories of both private and public events that happened in Iran, which had an impact on my life: setting up parallel narratives between personal experience, public events and the official history to understand my own state of dislocation. In exploring the paths of parallel narratives, I choose to use the visual material that recorded the events. I am using family snapshots, but also photographs that document the socio-political history of Iran – both in the Iranian media and images that are censored in Iran.
How do you use colour in your work?
The choice of colours in my paintings is not from a pre-conceived palette. Instead the process of imagining specific memories leads me to make formal decisions about colours, composition and the use of pictorial reference or specific mark-making during the process of painting.
Family Album series
Please tell us about your interest in and use of text in your work.
The act of mark-making, defacing the surface and use of wall-sized Farsi text on the back of my canvases references the graffiti’s history as a form of protest against the Iranian government. Writing on the walls during the 1979 revolution was a form of political resistance that continues today. Such graffiti is suppressed by the Iranian government, who often hire people to paint over it.
While use of the Farsi text in my paintings references graffiti, it also forecloses straightforward interpretation and invites viewers to unveil the text as a sign. The meaning of written Farsi words for ‘mother land’, ‘home land’ and ‘promised land’ alter in the process of translation. Newspaper articles written in Farsi and photographs that contain Farsi text are inaccessible in their subtleties and nuance to non-Farsi speakers. Therefore the experience and the direct interpretation is not available to those who do not have the language. Translation causes a gap between ‘author’ and reader and makes it impossible for straightforward reading, as translators also act as ‘authors’. This instigates a potential loss in the original author’s intended meaning and resonates with my process of retracing personal histories from artefacts of memory such as my own personal photographs and contrasting them with a collection of doctored artefacts often seen in the Iranian media.
What symbolic or conceptual significance does mark-making have in your work?
I refer to mark-making as ‘graffiti’, which finds its origin in the Italian word graffiato, meaning scratched. For me the act and process of painting is also like ‘graffiti’. It is through adding and removing paint and scratching the surface of my paintings that I create an unfixed picture to reflect my search for visual resources and retrace what has been disregarded in my history. The search for what has been concealed ignites a great sense of being robbed; the process of mark-making and defacing of the surface in my paintings is an act of violence and anger and a reaction to the same. The anger of being controlled, suppressed and forced to accept unreliable information surfaces in my paintings.
The act of writing and the indexicality of paintings is another area that I explore in relation to ‘graffitiing’ the surface of my paintings. By ‘indexicality’ I mean that ‘presence’ indicated by the mark on my painting’s surface, the ‘singular expressive moment’ (Heywood, 1999: 210) of making a mark that signals the presence of an ‘author’. According to Ian Heywood, a visual culture theorist, the: ‘“singular expressive moment” is a deconstruction between form and content through a painting’s surface that makes direct interpretation impossible’ (Heywood, 1999: 210). ). In this sense defacing the skin of ‘form’ and ‘information’ in my paintings creates a space to translate a history, which is open for interpretation. Pertinently Michel Foucault (in Horrocks & Jevtic 2005: 87) states that:
All history is a document of the past – the traces it leaves in our present through books, accounts, acts, buildings, customs. But we should treat these documents like monuments – not for their references to historical validity, but for themselves. Documents should not be studied in order to determine their historical accuracy. This would be to reconstitute the ‘truth’ of history.
Veiling (From Retracing series)
How do your portraits and abstract works relate to each other?
I depict images that are obscured in the media and then further veil them in my paintings. Concealing the pictorial images that I create on the surface of the painting ruptures the viewers’ access to information while paralleling the action of control and ‘doctoring’ by the Iranian government. This is evident in paintings like Obliterated, where through this process I am bearing witness to the act of violence against information.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I am exhibiting at the show curated by Hentie van der Merwe at Turbine Art Fair in July.
Memorial (12 pieces)
Veiling (From Retracing series)