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Identities in Movement - Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi

curated by Daniela Veneri

“When there is inclusion of what is happening now, almost automatically, the past is always included and simultaneously the future opens up, moment by moment. This has a major impact on my artistic practice because it determines if I am present and open to what I am creating.”

- Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi

Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi. Mozaffar Al Din Shah, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

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

I am revisiting an old project, a timeline of human identity, involving human history and desire, to help shape our future, The Matrix of our Identity. The first project was created in 2014 and presented in 2015 in a pop-up art show, Crescent Moon Project, in New York City.

It was framed with these words:

How to capture from a visual perspective the matrix of our identity?

If we created a timeline on a white wall, no dates, some selected texts and images that we consider to be iconic, ordered in a chronology, and ask you to add your own chronology of factors that brought you where you are and further... through drawings, writings or your own iconic images: what would we see? Would we get out of a limited view of some "parts"? Would we enter in a space of inclusiveness, curiosity, compassion and courage?... Would we see the true Human matrix? Would we become the whole? Would you see what you love and love it?

The intention is to simultaneously sense the history of humanity as a whole, by including all individual's history, and to sense humanity's aspiration as a whole, by including all individual's aspirations. It seems relevant to include everyone's body and voice in the history of humanity and in the aspiration of humanity. The assumption is that only then, we can have enough ground to sense what is needed for our future with unconditional confidence.

I was deeply touched by the impact of the project on visitors, the story that they brought with them, the deep desires to shape our common future. The experiment at Crescent Moon Project was only 2 dimensional, and built upon a series of 10,000+ historic images that I have collected from the net and exclusively related to Iran. Of course, the personal experience of living through the Iranian Revolution as a young child, and the sudden shifts of identity, separation, and homelessness informed deeply this project. The exhibit was meant to remember and celebrate Iran or the memory of it. So the visitors were mostly Iranian expats living in New York City. The experience remains within me, touched me deeply, and was followed by a need to understand inclusion.

When we bring a picture, a word, a sentence, a history, even innocently, we name a race, a slice of history, a religion, a group, we bring in set notions, set groups, we exclude, naturally, even when we want to include. Unless we go further down history, assuming that we all were one, at a certain point, and that we will all become one again, at a certain point…

So gradually, I realized that my need to be included could only happen when I let go of the need of becoming Iranian. I am also very interested about how we understand time, how we can bring together past, present and future, and integrate and absorb all in our consciousness. Including those who came before us, and those who have yet to be born. Our bodies, our parts (water for example), in many ways, beyond me, include all. They are are older than our age. They have lived longer than us. They know more than what we know. They will survive us. So I started to experiment with embodiment practices, specifically Social Presencing Theater, a wonderful social art created by Arawana Hayashi. I have been studying Social Presencing Theater with Arawana since 2004. Arawana is a real guidance in my life. In 2017-2018 I had the chance to be part of her advanced year long program and I revisited “ The Matrix of our Identity” using Social Presencing Theater methodologies. I tried it with small group of artists friends, unfamiliar with SPT, with families and friends. These were timid attempts. A real sense of necessity and urgency to bring forward this project is happening only now. How can we even imagine a future if we do not have a full grab of human history, human desires? If we do not include every single story, voice, body? How can we solve climate change or pretend that science has a voice if we have a mind that naturally, proudly, deeply, ignore or exclude most data?

Another project that is deeply important for me is one co-created with photographers Gohar Dashti and Hamed Nouri: The (Im)permanence Platform. It is an exciting project because in my lifetime, only now, thanks to the pandemic, all humans have a common language for “ impermanence”. The creation that comes out of allowing to stay with the state of impermanence is what interest me in this project. We are in uncharted territories, there are no data to rely on. Suddenly artists, homeless, immigrants are in the expert seat. People without a goal, people who are familiar with, and who let themselves be with not-knowing. Our art platform has three basic practices: interviews, exhibitions and events.

Can you share a bit more about what you mean by saying "gradually I realized that my need to be included could only happen when I let go of my need of becoming Iranian." What's behind this and how does it relate to your art practice?

My art practice really started because I don't have a strong first language. I am multicultural and since the beginning I was spoken to in many different languages. Maybe as a result of this multiculturalism, since a very early age, I have used drawing, instead of a mother tongue, to express myself. As a kid, I often relied on photographs to understand people. Meeting in person wouldn’t be enough for me and wouldn’t allow the same understanding. These were the bases of my art practice. Life brought the Iranian Revolution and I had a need to understand why it happened, and who were these political leaders that lead these changes and why they did so. I started searching for answers in the photographs of these leaders, and then make line drawings to search for more information. I was a child when the Revolution happened and we moved to Europe. I've been living in the West since the 80s, a time since Iran and Iranians are depicted negatively. A desire to understand in my own terms was what I was looking for.

The first version of the project “The Matrix of our identity” allowed visitors to feel safe enough and compelled to tell their own history/story, spontaneously. These were very intimate events that happened in their personal lives that completed and, at times, changed my understanding of history. But by defining my identity there is a silent aggression that comes into play. I am excluding all those who are not part of this identity. I feel like that's one of the problems. As we define ourselves in very small ways that seem legitimate, we are creating separations. We have difficulties in defining ourselves in a more inclusive way. Anyway, there's no way to just limit one culture historically or ethnically.

Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi and Cyrus Samii, "The Dar Al-Fonon is established”, from the series “Other Kings… Other Stories…” , completed in 2019.
Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi and Cyrus Samii, "The Dar Al-Fonon is established”, 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

What are your most important goals as an artist?

Fall in love with life. This is very similar to falling in love with impermanence. I fully fall in love with life each time I let myself be surprised by it, when I loosen control. This is so much easier to practice with art than with life…

What moves you in your work?

Nothing more than art makes me feel free. Unless I think that I have to feed my kids with the product of art.:)

Art allows me to be fully myself, finally, completely. For a moment, I can experiment just for the sake of curiosity. Allow myself to make mistakes, to misunderstand, to play.

Who are your most important partners and interlocutors?

My children, without any doubts, Kassra and Soshant. Their ways of seeing the world is shockingly different than mine. They are from another generation. They were born and grew up in a country that I still do not know. They speak a language that I still do not master. They live with a mentality that I do not understand. They have an education that I did not have. I love them. They have ways to make me listen to them. So who can be a better partner, a better interlocutor, a better interpreter than them?

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

“It is not about what you want. It is about what is needed.”

What makes you feel free to create your art?

Having no other choice. This is the only way for me to feel free to create.

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

I dream to bring all perceptions in one….

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

Past, present and future come together when I allow inclusion.

When I am stuck somewhere, in the past or in the future, with my thoughts, it's a time when I'm excluding a lot of what is happening in my reality now. When there is inclusion of what is happening now, almost automatically, the past is always included and simultaneously the future opens up, moment by moment. This has major impact on my artistic practice because it determines if I am present and open to what I am creating. Time is a difficult concept in general. It really depends how you look at it. If I had a deep understanding of diversity, I may also understand time better.

Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi and Cyrus Samii, "Amir Kabir is assassinated", from the series “Other Kings… Other Stories…”, completed in 2019. Courtesy of the artists.
Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi and Cyrus Samii, "Amir Kabir is assassinated", 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

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

Aesthetics is a wonderful way to awaken and bring us here and now. If it is genuine. If not, its danger relies on the fact that it distracts from the essence. You are so attracted by what you see or hear, etc. that you have no incentive to go beyond, to be curious. It involves only the attention of one sense, and excludes all others, not allowing a full experience to happen. Ethics' value also relies on its ability to bring us here and now. Otherwise, it limits you in a set reality that it does not want you to question. It basically asks you not to trust yourself, limit your imagination, and thus does not let you discover who you are nor reality. So both need to be in service of the here and now.

It is interesting to think about this relationship. Aesthetics is something I think a lot about in relation to my art.

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

Arts are an extraordinary tool that can go beyond what we believe is reality. It can bypass time, bypass mind, bypass unconsciousness and consciousness, bypass lands, nations, cultures… it can redeem the past, create the present and the future, and bring us to the here and now. These are all effective social contributions. Yet, I do not think that we use enough of art’s potential…

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?

Hopefully, the reality of impermanence that this pandemic has made us face, will empower artists and others who are far more accepting of impermanence. Artists who value the unknown. We can learn so much from them. So much. From another point of view, art itself has its independent life and freedom. It will survive no matter what. Museums, exhibitions, cultural centers, etc., on the other hand, will need either to truly understand diversity and inclusion, and become more creative, or keep relying on even more wealthy, but less numerous, hands.

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?

The current crisis made us face the reality that we are living in uncharted territories. It brought together people on all issues. In the USA, where I live, issues of inequalities, injustice, and racism are more and more evident. There is less work, less money, more inequalities, more injustices than ever, and people have more free time to kill. The art world needs to deeply incorporate these divides. It is serious and we have no time to waste. We live in a world where all our values are based on devaluating the other. A world where freedom, democracy, education, health, even spirituality are all based on the principle that it can only be for some. Diversity and inclusiveness are the biggest challenge. There is a need to change a paradise that has been there for many, many, many generations. But all challenges incorporate an opportunity. I see efforts made in this direction... Are they deep enough?

Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi, “Sanctionwear”, mixed media, completed in 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi, “Sanctionwear”, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

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?

I see the most benefit in working with the perspective of one planet, one race, one history. While realizing and showcasing the preciousness of diversity. I really believe that inclusiveness and deep understanding of diversity is key in our time. The use of art as a tool with which we can create, literally, our current reality, our future on a ground of full understanding of the past. I see benefits in the use of arts as an awareness-based practice and a way to include in our consciousness more and more until all living being are included.

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

The questions were more difficult than I expected but so helpful! I cannot think of anything right now…

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

Gratitude. Your questions helped me clarify my artistic process and intention. Thank you!

My five words: Planting seeds - would they bloom?

Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi, Self-portrait, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

Artemis Akchoti Shahbazi (b. 1972) is an an Iranian born Swiss artist, co-creator of “The (Im)permanence Platform", lawyer, and longtime Social Presencing Theater and Theory U practitioner, who investigates identity, history and cultures. She makes scars and cultural wealth simultaneously visible, in order to investigate the potential of being human. Among her latest art work is “ Sanctionwear" and ”Other Kings... Other Stories...” where she analyzes, together with her collaborators in the latter, the relationship between the West and Iran through illustrations, the lenses of Western legal documents, travel accounts, and Persian history and poetry. With her interactive “Matrix of our Identities”, Artemis investigates time, diversity and identity. In her newer prototypes of this project, she is using tools such as visual and contemplative arts, photography, and Social Presencing Theater. Artemis exhibits internationally, and develops and teaches classes in fine arts in order to bridge cultures. She is a graduate of Université de Genève, Switzerland and Boston University, United States.


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