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Identities in Movement - Amir Soltani

co-curated by Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi and Daniela Veneri

"I think the artistic impulses exist pretty much in everyone and I would be very careful about saying that there is a class or caste of artists, that they have a particular advantage that others don't, I don't believe that for a minute. I think that, whether we call it listening to our heart or whatever, the ability to withdraw from the world that you're in is crucial to seeing it. When you're in something you don't see it, but when you withdraw from things you can see them more clearly.” - Amir Soltani

Dogtown Redemption, cover.

Amir, what projects that you are working on excite you most and why?

I'm thinking about turning my graphic novel, Zahra's Paradise, into an animated film. A few other ideas. I'm drawn to stories, and the ways in which they serve or disrupt power, the voices they silence and energies they unleash. We humans are absurd, and that is both funny and frightening, and in that space, between fear and joy, is where there is room for creativity and community, revision and revival.

What are your most important goals as an artist?

To create spaces and relationships that I can inhabit with honor and dignity, to belong to communities that can evolve and endure.

What moves you in your work?

What moves me is intimacy and vulnerability, proximity to life, the closer you get to sources and springs, the more present you become, the ability to take something as dead as time and to create something as vibrant as a moment. Most of all it is the knowledge, when working, that I am alive.

What is the most exciting moment for you when you start working on a new project?

Most of my work typically begins with something that bothers me, something that feels off about the world, something that doesn't feel right. For instance, my film, Dogtown Redemption, was inspired by the sight of people having to find food and money by digging through garbage, my garbage. That just felt there was an indignity and that people were being forced to live without dignity. Same with my Iran work. There's an indignity involved and I think that as an artist, as a human being, you want to dignify the world that surrounds you, and I think dignity is a big part of our work. I think that human beings are incredibly beautiful, then when you find them in situations that are so severely compromised and compromising, whether it's refugees dying as they're trying to cross the Mediterranean, or African-Americans living in abject poverty in America, or Iranian women being subjected to the most brutal persecution, all of this stuff feels like it's wrong and that it can be changed, and because you feel that you can change it you engage it. That has been my approach to my work.

Who are your most important partners and interlocutors?

My friends, other artists, historical characters, dissidents and my dog, Louie.

Which of the feedbacks that you received over the years have been particularly meaningful for you or surprised you most?

Feedback is irrelevant. Faith is what matters--the leaps you take in the absence of feedback. The most powerful feedback is what you get from the body of work that you engage - it's not in what people tell you so much as how deeply you listen to yourself. Far too many times, I have had people, other voices that get in the way. What matters is where your instincts - your biology meeting your environment - takes you. The instincts are often a function of an encounter on the periphery of your consciousness, for example, seeing someone rummage through your trashcan. That's not feedback, it does not happen after the fact. It is what lies before the fact - the way in which consciousness turns into attention.

Do you feel that the ability to listen to yourself is a distinctive ability of an artist?

I don't think that we should sort of separate artists into a class that is distinct from the rest of society. I think the artistic impulses exist pretty much in everyone and I would be very careful about saying that there is a class or caste of artists, that they have a particular advantage that others don't, I don't believe that for a minute. I think that, whether we call it listening to our heart or whatever, the ability to withdraw from the world that you're in is crucial to seeing it. When you're in something you don't see it, but when you withdraw from things you can see them more clearly. I think occupying this other space is not a role or a job - it is the space you can retreat into and look out from - a way to see yourself and the world through fresh eyes again. I think that's what I mean by listening to your heart. You need a measure of silence, you do need to walk away a little bit from your habits. I think that's what I mean by listening. You can't really listen when you are in a crowd.

Dogtown Redemption, frame.

What makes you feel free to create your art?

Trust in the universe, trust in others, trust in learning, trust in sharing. And joy along the way.

What kind of contribution would you like your work to have?

I would like it to become a part of a community, to live in and through other as

consciousness. I want it to affirm the beauty of life, that every second and every encounter with the world is a miracle. It's a kind of ecstasy isn't it, a kind of exaltation and salutation, a form of prayer and gratitude.

What unites past, present and future in your artistic practice?

A desire to break new ground, find new ways of seeing and relating, a sense that nothing is dead and that everything can come back to life, be redeemed.

What kind of relationship do you feel should exist between aesthetics and ethics today?

I don't like to deal in shoulds. I don't think an artist has to play the role of a philosopher or a theologian. Aesthetics in the service of ethics can become an ideology. And we all know what brutal forms morality can take. But aesthetics divorced from ethics can also lead to an emptying of human experience, and that can pave the way for decadence, nihilism, narcissism. You can't approach art this way - you approach art through its own essence, and your integrity and ethics can be a function of how you let your work and material guide you.

How can arts and culture make an effective social contribution in our time?

Yuck! Where are we heading here? What's this obsession with social contribution? And "effective" social contribution? As opposed to what? Frivolous social contribution? Can we dismantle these words: effective, social and contribution. Was Picasso out to make an effective social contribution? What about Chagall? Why impose "effective social contribution" on free and creative spirits? Isn't their freedom and creativity enough? This question makes me recoil. Are we out to create a bureaucracy that measures "effective" and "social" and "contribution?" What's the agenda here? I think the challenge is to get the world - social, effective and contribution - out of the artist's way.

Do you feel like maybe we shouldn't even ask these questions?

I think it's impossible for artists not to reflect their times or not to be part of the power structure but I also don't think that an artist necessarily has to have a political agenda. I think that is important for art not to become propaganda. Artists should be in a position to assign value to whatever it is that they wish to do. That internal freedom is wonderful. If somebody wants to draw jellyfish for instance, and the colors and the beauty of jellyfish, that's what they are giving value to, and then you can say it's part of the environmental movement or whatever it is. But that internal sovereignty, that ability for the artist to choose and assign value and purpose and meaning to whatever it is that they want to do I think is the need of human freedom. I don't think that artists should be burdened with all these external requirements about what is and what isn't art. I think that's their choice, that's their freedom. That's I guess where I come from. I don't see the artist as an extension of the collective necessarily. I think that being able to tap into their instincts is itself the most important contribution they can make, that's good enough.

Excerpt from Zahra's Paradise.

Our planet has been dealing with a public health crisis spreading all over and museums, exhibitions, arts and cultural sites, have been closing the doors in many countries. What is your feeling about how this pandemic will influence our approach to producing, sharing and experiencing the arts?

The pandemic is an art form, and the disruptions that it creates will, in all likelihood, create a shift in perceptions of space and time, and thus in the institutions that govern our ways of seeing, valuing and framing art. That's not a bad thing. Trust people to figure it out. Or not.

Where do you see current shifts in the transformation of the contemporary art system, where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?

I don't know much about the contemporary art system, thank God. But, obviously, in a realm like film, everything is going to change - funding, producing, directing, marketing. And that's bad, because a lot has been invested in the infrastructure but it is also good in that the power structures are being altered.

I think for me the real point of departure is how we define the system. One part of what makes the conversation complicated is that it's not clear that we have a mutual understanding of what systems we are talking about, how those systems function, who they serve. From where I'm sitting it's not clear whether we have a mutual understanding of what we mean by systems, how those systems are functioning and where I sit in relation to them. The other thing is that I think every artist or creator, they also have their own system, their own media, their own language, and how those things intersect obviously is a complicated question. These things are obviously very vast and complex.

If you were able to change one or two things in the area of responsibility of artists, art curators, institutions, cultural producers, exhibition platforms, what things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all?

We need art, culture and media that serve the poor, that is rooted in life.

Is there anything that I did not ask you that you would like to add?

Many things but really each of your questions is vast...

Just that I think that philosophically, looking at an artist's life or work and then wanting to open up to understand that process it's almost like dissecting the dead. You miss the animating spirit. I think that by its nature, because there is an inclination towards life and instinct and spontaneity, the artistic types can resist the process or analytic approach to whatever they do because that is always an attempt to reduce things to factors that are comprehensible and so on. I think that by definition there are aspects of inspiration and instinct that may not necessarily lend themselves to analysis and would resist analysis. There is mystery, always. Analysis takes something that's creative out of you and if you don't really know what its source or intention is and turn it into something that is functional, that for me creates some kinds of tension. Where is this analysis going? What is its point? What can it achieve?

Can you mention three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about this conversation?

I'm turned off by this process. By the end, turned off completely. It's like dissection, even worse, it's like asking a frog to dissect itself. Don’t ask these tiring questions. This kind of knowledge only generates paralysis. Engage the art. If you are interested in who I am and what I think, go read Zahra's Paradise. All the answers are in the work, not in the artist. Go watch the frog jump. Or even better, jump yourself, and you will have an answer to all your questions. Find out what it is like to be a frog, or an elephant or a kangaroo- do it on your own terms. And maybe you will discover things intrinsically. Stop thinking about the frog. If want to jump, jump. And if not, recognize that you are paralyzed. And knowledge is just a crutch - an excuse for not daring to jump. If you want to be an artist just be an artist - you don't need knowledge or even questions. Just the instinct. Do it. One key word: jump.

Amir Soltani, Portrait, with Miss Kay, one of the characters in Dogtown Redemption. Courtesy of the artist.
Amir Soltani with Miss Kay. Courtesy of the artist.

Amir Soltani is an Iranian-American activist, author and filmmaker. He grew up in Iran until he was twelve and left Iran in 1980, shortly after the Islamic Revolution. Much of his education, work and activism is informed by that revolution, from executions to war, displacement to exile, and ultimately, to the reclamation of his worlds through memory, literature and art. Amir studied history at Tufts, the Fletcher School and Harvard, before dropping out to launch the blue initiative, his first human rights venture, a reaction to the 1999 crackdown on students and scholars at Tehran University.

He has written extensively on human rights and religious freedom, culminating in a NYT bestselling graphic novel, co-created with Khalil Bendib, about Iran's 2009 protests. Zahra's Paradise was translated into 16 languages and was nominated for two Eisner awards.

Amir has also produced and co-directed Dogtown Redemption, an Emmy-nominated documentary film about recyclers in West Oakland. His latest essay, The Keys to Paradise: On Children, Martydom and War, appears in the LA Review of Books (January). Amir is currently the Executive Director of the Semnani Family Foundation, a philanthropy based in Utah, with a focus on addressing health and poverty. He has directed the research and writing of two policy papers on Iran, the Ayatollah's Nuclear Gamble and Where is My Oil? A Study of Corruption in Iran's oil and gas industry.


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