Soheila Esfahani: Third Space

NK: Hello. My name is Nadia Kurd and I’m the host of Profiles on Practice, a podcast that examines the life and work of women artists of colour in Canada.

SE: My name is Soheila Esfahani, I’m a visual artist. I moved to Canada in 1992 to study at the University of Waterloo. I studied architecture back in Iran. I was born and raised in Iran and I was hoping to continue studying architecture in Canada but for multiple reasons, I ended up taking a degree in fine arts, which was the turning point of me becoming an artist.

So, I’m not one of those people who would say I’m going to be an artist when I grow up when I was younger. But I think that turn was a really good turn in my life. And so that idea of movement from one place to the other has influenced my practice, throughout I’ve always sort of connect to my own personal ways of being and thinking as I make art. I studied Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts. And I did that on a part-time basis. So, it took me a very long time, it took me more than eight years to do a fine arts degree on a part-time basis.

And once I sort of graduated, it was interesting to see that as an older person, my perspective had changed and compared to my classmates who were younger. Once I graduated from the fine arts program, I thought let’s try to be an artist and see how it goes. I got a studio in Kitchener and started actively creating at that time paintings and exhibiting my work, which was well received.

And that sort of sets me through the path of becoming an artist. And then about six years after, even though my practice was fairly well known, I had quite a few good shows and I started to feel that my work is basically too comfortable. So, I had a bit of a comfortable position as an artist at that time. And I felt I need to bridge that comfort zone because as an artist, you always need to have some sense of urgency. Otherwise, I feel your work cannot move forward. So that’s the time I then went to do my Master of Fine Arts at the University of Western Ontario. And got my MFA degree there, and that’s when I shifted more towards installation work and did a lot of research on Cultural theory, particularly Homi Bhabha. That’s when I sort of started to closely look at his work, and we read a lot of the texts that he had, and really connect to the ideas that he talks about. And that shift again was another sort of pivot in my work and ways of being able to talk about my situation, but from a different angle.

NK: Really, I feel like installation is more of an immersive experience. You know, it’s not again installation, but it’s far more immersive in terms of materials and techniques. Can you talk a little bit about that as well?

SE: When I first started, when I was in my fourth year of undergrad, I was very interested in abstraction particularly in painting, but any of the abstract works that I made did not satisfy me.

I couldn’t connect to my own work. I was reading books that my mother had sent me and it had poems by Rumi. And when I started reading those poems, I connected back to those ideas that I grew up with, so that connection. And then I started writing those points in Farsi, my first language, onto the canvas, and that act of writing in your first language.

And this is at the time, I’ve lived in Canada for almost eight, ten years. I’ve not necessarily, [been] reading and writing in my first language on a very regular basis other than at home. So that connection was quite interesting. So that’s where the idea of the painting started. And, of course, there is a whole tradition of using texts in Islamic art in an abstract vein in the 20th century. One of the main movements is to use the alphabet to create abstract painting. I was connected to that, but funny enough, I didn’t know about that movement until later in my career because my training had been very Western. I actually did not know about the art history in modern times of Islamic lands. I had to sort of go back, study that, and figure that out.

But when I was doing the paintings after a while, I started feeling that I’m not committed to the painting as a medium. What I’m more committed to in my practice is the concepts. And when I do a painting, people do not necessarily see the concept. They get caught up in reading a painting, which is very different from looking at a sculpture or an installation. So that was the turning [point] to abandon the medium that I didn’t think serves the purpose of my art. Even though I connected to that medium at the beginning, I felt the medium is becoming an obstacle in the message that I’m sending.

And so, I sort of shifted to using a lot of found objects in particular. I use a lot of shipping pallets and when I do that because the object is not necessarily an art object, but at the same time very familiar to people, I feel that my audience now can start thinking about what are the concepts behind the piece rather than “How is this made? Is this a good painting or not?”

NK: Your work has moved from painting to more collaborative and installation work. Can you talk about this shift?

SE: One of the things that I’ve always been looking at is what does it mean to live between two cultures? And I look at my own practice. I have two degrees in art, both of them are very Western, but my work always had that Eastern influence in it. And I always thought, how do I sort of connect back and forth between these two? And this sort of question started when I was doing paintings, then I did the paintings of actual texts by Rumi because it was in Farsi and I always exhibited it in Canada.

There was always that question of, “Can you translate the text?” People always asked me to provide the translation. And as an artist it bothered me when they asked me this question because I felt that I’m working in a visual medium, meaning that if I do a painting, I’m hoping that the painting would sort of give you the concept.

If I wanted to give you a translation, I would do a piece of writing rather than do a visual format. But that also [had] me thinking that maybe the question that people are asking, it’s not just a literal translation, maybe what people are also asking is, “How do you translate that work?”

That’s a specific in one culture in that kind of a second culture. And there [were] some interesting comments viewers would give me such as when we look at your work, that the paintings that had texts, some people said that if I’m left-handed and that would come from looking at the text and thinking that it’s written from left to right. Whereas Farsi is from right to left. So that sort of stoke, or they gave them the sense that it was, I was left-handed or sometimes in one exhibit, [someone in] the audience asked me if I had made the series from left side to right side like they looked at my work backwards.

But I intended that the right side was the beginning, and the left side was the end. So that kind of a back and forth of how people see my work and how I see it myself got me into that kind of in-between situation. By reading Homi Bhabha, there’s texts on cultural translation, which he talks about translation as the actual act of moving from a place to the next and that moving that happens usually for immigrants.

That act is the act of what translates in culture from one to the other. But that’s that translation, meaning it’s a negotiation back and forth between this and that. And that negotiation brings something new out of it. So, it’s not necessarily a bit of this or a bit of that, but it’s that newness that comes out of it.

And I think fits my work with the recent work. So, the shipping pallets came out of that idea of if I’m talking about movement, what’s the one object that moves? So, that one object for me became the shipping pallet that almost has an origin, but at the same time has no origin, and it can constantly be in transit without reaching your final destination.

NK: That’s safe in our previous conversations, we’ve talked about the history of Persian and Islamic patterning. Can you talk about the importance of patterning in your work and how it’s evolved?

SE: One of the things that’s interesting about Islamic art is that it’s different from Western art in a sense that it’s very ornamental. And that surface ornament within the Western tradition has been always the problem of considering that as more of like artisan work or craftsmanship rather than high art. But then you go and study Islamic art you sort of get a different perspective that not everybody needs to think about high art in the same way and that ornamentation and texts and Calligraphy was high art because the context was very different. When you bring that context to the lens of Western practice, it’s always the push and pull of, are you making a crafty piece, or are you too ornamental for being contemporary art?

And I liked that because that sort of position is that again that position of in-between is that position of negotiation of how things happen and how do we view things from various perspectives. It’s not necessarily one is right, and one is wrong. I looked at a lot of arabesque designs. And a lot of them, when I picked them, I looked at books that are not necessarily art books, they are actually craft books. So, a lot of works of illumination of how to illuminate a manuscript. And a lot of times I pick designs that have personal connections to me that a lot of things times I’ve seen them personally somewhere. One of the major ones that I have used is the arabesque design under the dome of one of the most famous mosques in the city of Isfahan in Iran, the Shah or Imam Mosque in Iran.

And there was this time that was very fascinating for me when I actually visited Iran. A few years ago, maybe more than 10 years ago now, for the first time in a very long time. And that visit was quite interesting in the sense that I felt quite like a tourist in a place that my last name is [named] after [since] my ancestors are from that city. That’s why my last name is Esfahani, in being from the city of Isfahan. 

And that sort of fully engulfing myself in being in that space of third space of in-betweenness, even in a place that maybe 20 years later, I would have called my home, but now that no longer is home. So that pattern, I have used that in a lot of my work almost as to claim my Iranian side. But at the same time, I can’t fully claim that because I’m not in that sense, connected to the image. And that idea that its surface ornamentation works well with that kind of a metaphor. It’s just, I’m basically covering it up, covering another found object with this image that I’ve been using back and forth, and sort of claiming it as my signature.

When I did my paintings, I quite liked the minimalist approach to work. But over the years, I feel like I’m really embracing that idea of exaggeration in pattern in Islamic art. I really liked that, the overly patterned object that’s aesthetically pleasing to look at. I think I sort of try to bring that into my recent work. It’s something that is highly crafted, and it looks like it could easily be in somebody’s home because it’s a desirable, aesthetic object. It surprises me and myself, but I still don’t know why I do that. 

Let me talk about some of the projects that use the blue and white pattern. So I’ve done a couple of projects, collecting objects with blue and white patterns. And the reason I did that was [to look] at the history of the blue and white china and that history goes back to the 10th century. That’s when the Chinese started to produce the blue and white. What’s interesting about blue and white patterns is that every time it moved to a different culture, they claimed it as if it’s theirs and they adapted it. And now that centuries have passed, we recognize them as being from that culture, so it sort of started in China, we can see the English version, there is a lot of Islamic versions, there is the one from the Dutch version from Delft. And we can sort of specifically say when we look at will one white from Delft, you think it is from that culture, whereas it has at some point moved there and they claimed it and they put their own images.

So, I find that quite interesting when we talk about movement of pattern and culture and how they integrate within a second culture. I was, when I was reading the history, it was interesting that the cobalt that’s used for the blue. Of the glaze actually, for centuries came from Iran. The material existed in Iran and they would ship it to China.

And then a lot of times the Chinese would also get images from the Islamic lands or the Europeans and they would produce the China and ship it back to those countries. So, we think now everything is made in China, but for centuries and centuries, everything has been exported from China. We’ve been using that for a very long time.

So, as I was doing the reading and the research was interesting that they were saying that sometimes that those artisans that they’re looking at an image and transferring it to the product, let’s say plate because the image was not familiar or culturally. When they would copy, they would make mistakes because they would not quite understand what is this image, what kind of flower it is, or if there’s text in it, what does that mean? So sometimes they would include sort of guidelines that were in another language, thinking that it is actually part of the design. And those sort of nuances of how do you translate an image and how you understand it? I find quite interesting. 

When I did the series of the plates called The Immigrants, Canada 150, I asked people to give me a label of their clothing because a friend who had given me before an image of clothing that said Made in Bangladesh because she is a child of parents from Bangladesh and she sort of had that superficial connection to that first culture. 

NK: So, this project was a series of plates?

Yeah, this is a series so this was the second one. The first one was actually interesting to come about because I was invited to have a show at the Varley Gallery in Markham. And the curator asked me if I could respond to Varley was one of the Group of Seven artists. And that was the moment of being scared for me too because I actually don’t connect to the Group of Seven’s work. And I think that’s partly because I grew up in a big city in Iran, so that kind of landscape is not in my memory of places. I always connect to it as a postcard level, it’s just an image that looks nice.

But at the time I was working at the AGO and the AGO has one of his works that is very unusual called The Immigrants and it’s a group of people getting off a ship. So, rather than working with the landscape, I’ve used this image and bought a plate, a blue and white plate, that either had an image of a place and asked a bunch of people to also give me images of places or anything that relate[s] to their culture. I also made decals, blue and white decals, and put them on the plates. The arrangement at the end of the installation is these set up the plates that are put on a wall, but they correspond to a face in that painting by Varley. So that’s how it’s done. One of the pieces was by my friends and from a Bangladeshi background. That she gave me after months of thinking, she gave me an image of her H and M clothing tag that said “Made in Bangladesh” because that’s what she felt represented her culture. So, for the second series, I asked the same people who had given me an image for the first one to give me a label of their clothing.

And in all of these things, I include one myself. In the first one, I use the image of the arabesque designed from the mosque that I have used for a while in my work. For the second one, I actually used the label of my favorite scarf, which interestingly enough, it’s made in India. So, it is quite interesting that that plate that represented me did not say the name of the country that I’m coming from.

NK: You often cite Homi Bhabha’s the Third Space as a major inspiration for your work. Given the polarities in our current society, how do you situate this concept? 

SE: I think that this comfort is the negotiation. And I think that’s what I like about the third space because then you never have to settle to answer that those kinds of questions, like you can always be this or that, that not necessarily make sense together and that’s the in-between space. 

If you can fully settle these questions and not have that fluid movement, then you’re out of the third space, you’re out of in-betweenness, you’re on the ground that you actually know where you are. So, for me, I have two kids that are born in Canada, but I feel like when I was raising them, I didn’t try to tell them too much that you are Iranian or too much of your Canadian. Just accept that here we are here and this is how we do it. If you want to negotiate that, we can negotiate that, and move forward. But at the same time, because you still have those connections. Depending on the child, I think my daughter is very much into this kind of a thinking. So, she even like at university, she refused to study Farsi as a young child, but at university, she took a Farsi course and was interested in the language of her parents. So, I don’t know if I have a sort of a very prescriptive answer to this. It’s that fluidity that I like, and that’s why I don’t ever want to come out of this space because as an artist if you know what the answer is, then it has nothing to look forward to work for.

If I know what the exact end product is, I probably will not make it. I do it because I like the adventure of it. I do it because that sort of progress is interesting. 

NK: Can you tell me who some of the artists that have inspired you and have made a big impact in your work? 

I’ve been very inspired by Xu Bing. Xu Bing is a well-known Chinese artist that lived in New York City for a while. I think he is one of those artists that came out of the cultural revolution. I think he’s close to the age of 60 and works with a lot of texts. His work is very clever because he subverts the texts in many different ways and plays with ideas of language and meaning, but at the same time, giving, you know, content.

So, one of the works that he has done, that I always look at is called The Book from the Sky and for this work he invented, I believe about 4,000 Chinese characters. Like they’re all fake Chinese characters, but Chinese looking enough. And then he printed multiple books using his fake characters. So, this work, when it’s exhibited in China, People are puzzled because they think it’s Chinese. They should be able to read it, and they can’t. I mean, it’s shown in the west. People are puzzled again because they think they can read Chinese, but at the same, the content is in there. So that kind of a back-and-forth I quite like in his work or this, I would say Jamelie Hassan who’s local. When I was doing my MFA, I researched a lot of her work. And quite interesting for me being somebody who lived in London, Ontario, and did quite interesting work at the time when in Canada diverse artists were not in demand. And she did interesting interventions and interesting projects that people are doing now and she did them maybe 30 years ago. 

NK: Can you tell me about your current work and some of the ideas that are shaping these projects?

SE: A lot of things that I’m thinking about [are] about that sort of a movement of patterns, movement of culture. How do we collect them? How do we sort of attach to ideas we’ve as sort of human beings, we need to have that kind of belonging. So we sort of need to collect an object that’s cultural. We need to hang on to it to represent something.

But at the same time, I feel like that could be at a very superficial level. If you’re a tourist, you also do that. Like you go to visit a place and then you collect the plate that represents that culture, and then you bring that in and hang it on your wall. So, there is sort of the deep way of thinking about it, but at the same time, there is that sort of very surface level of it, so back and forth. 

Recently, I’ve been sort of looking at a lot of objects that are very recognizable. More work that I do, I’m hoping to use some technology. So, use some 3D printing or laser cutting. And that’s partly to take my own hand out of my work as an artist. So, I actually don’t make the work, it’s only the concept that I’m bringing to the work. And then the technology allows me is to almost produce an object multiple times in the same way as a commercial object that is produced and, and sort of trying to think, what is this craze, let’s say 3D printing does for me as an artist, what is it that I can do with the medium that otherwise, I will not be able to do so well, we’ll have to see what comes out of it.

So, I’m for the next show, I’m hoping to actually collect already existing 3D print models. And then maybe use some of those to print something rather than actually building. Cause the last time I had a 3D project, we build a model, but this time I feel like the same as collecting objects, I collect files that are in existence and see what I can do with them.

I look at the work as trying to resemble what is already in existence in the commercial market. Rather than this being defined more fine art that came out of the artist studio. 

NK: How easy is that to find those? 

SE: It’s not that easy. It’s hard to do because in those commercial places, even though let’s say I want to print a hundred, a hundred is still not a large amount for mass production. So, it still feels very small. And then it doesn’t make sense for a lot of these places to do. With these projects, it’s interesting how I sometimes use a couple of hundred pallets, but I have a hard time getting the pallet companies to sort of ship those to me because they work in thousands and thousands and a couple of hundred doesn’t seem to be a big number for them to [be] worthwhile of their time to work with that artists.

It is interesting to be an artist and think about these things, but at the same time, I feel like there’s always a risk of when you talk about culture and your own first or second culture and sort of how they come together is you get into a point of pigeonholing yourself that. That as an artist, do I have to talk about this for the rest of my life?

Like in my case, I lived all my adult life more than half of my life in Canada. Like when do I stop saying and talking about being from another culture, but that’s the moment that I have to negotiate if I want to come out of that third space, that in-between space and ground myself, or do I still like that kind of a negotiation, or is that possible even?

NK: Thank you to my guest Soheila Esfahani and podcast collaborator Femme Art Review. Audio engineering by Riaz Mehmood, and music by Kevin MacLeod, the profiles on practice podcast was generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Originals initiative.