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Interview with Fahimeh Vahdat
by Haley Huffman
21 October 2017

fahimeh vahdat at duke hall gallery of fine art

Fahimeh Vahdat in front of Slaughter of the Innocents (2006), Charcoal on paper.

I met with Fahimeh Vahdat, an Iranian-American visual artist whose current exhibit entitled, Call Me By My Name, is on view at Duke Hall Gallery of Fine Art from October 24 - December 09, 2017.

Haley Huffman: Thank you for being here to share with me about the heart behind this exhibit. I noticed your works include designs inspired by Persian rugs, and you incorporate Persian calligraphy into the textiles. Can you tell me how your hometown of Tehran, Iran influences you as an artist?

Fahimeh Vahdat: I moved to the US as an asylum seeker during the Iranian revolution of 1979. I think where I grew up has a lot to do with who I became as a person, educator, artist and activist. I knew as a little girl that I was looking at things much more keenly because I was so quiet and observant. I used to lie on our marble floors that had all of these speckles and I would lie down and observe the forms and shapes and create all of these stories with those for hours. That was one of my earliest memories as a child.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 can be compared to the same magnitude that the French revolution of 1789 had on the political and social framework in France. There were complex agendas and motivations behind the revolution, and it resulted in the overthrow of Iran’s king, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the installment of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. The political state transitioned from a pro-Western authoritarian monarchy to an anti-Western authoritarian theocracy.

fahimeh vahdat at duke hall gallery of fine art

The artist in Sacred Crossings (1995-2003), Mixed media installation.

HH: How were you and your family affected by the revolution?

FV: During this time of political unrest my mother was imprisoned, and my brothers and father remained in hiding because they are Bahá'í. My cousin Tahereh, who I honor in my installation Sacred Crossings (1995-2003) was also a follower and was publicly hung in Shiraz.

HH: Most of your works in this exhibit focus on violence against women and children in the US and other countries. Was gender inequality evident to you growing up in Iran?

FV: As a young girl, I would notice differences in how men and women were treated. As a Bahá'í my family believed in gender equality, and in the education of women, because women become the mothers of sons and daughters. Sons are preferred over girls in most societies and infanticide is still widespread. One memory has remained with me over the years. When I was four years old I would walk with my grandmother to get water when our water would get disconnected. I remember we were holding hands and walking early in the morning and I saw a little body of a newborn girl on top of a pile of trash. My grandmother shoved me away so I would not see, but I saw it. She tried to cover the body, but I was traumatized. This environment was a huge part of who I became because of these injustices.

HH: What did your research process look like for this exhibit?

FV: I flew to Chicago to do research at the Bahá'í headquarters to understand the extent of suffering experienced by Bahá'í followers during the revolution. Following their execution, their tortured bodies were documented and photographed. I saw so many photographs of the bodies. Each of these images reminded me of the courage that so many Iranians had during this time, and continue to have. The victims of this tragedy inspired me to develop a commemorative installation.

HH: What do you miss most about Iran?

FV: I miss the language. Farsi is filled with all of these beautiful expressions about life because poetry is so embedded in Persian culture. My family and friends often communicate through famous poets such as Hafez, Shirazi and Ferdowsi.

HH: As I walked through the gallery I noticed all of your works share this unrelenting devotion to examining the state of womanhood in today’s societies. Almost all of the women in your charcoal drawings are naked. What guided this artistic decision?

FV: I wanted to show women without all of the roles that they play. I wanted them to stand alone as women and girls without carrying all of the roles that are often imposed on them.

fahimeh vahdat at duke hall gallery of fine art

What Will Befall Her? (2006), Charcoal on paper.

HH: Why did you choose to keep all of the works monochrome?

FV: I did not want to embellish the work with bright colors because of the harsh emotions attached to such dark realities. My work entitled, Women Are Not For Burning (2006) reveals the moment of inhumanity inflicted on this unidentified woman as she is lit on fire. Each work speaks on issues such as violence against women, children and refugees as well as misogyny, infanticide, torture and sexual assault. It is important that we feel the weight of these circumstances.

Fahimeh Vahdat’s art questions this continuous nature of violence, and demands for human rights and preservation of dignity. Her work questions fabricated disconnections between the divided East and West and encourages us to challenge how our social structures and ideologies develop how we interact with the world. This exhibit illustrates how injustices and dehumanization have been present in every society since the beginning of humanity, and the forms in which they occur in our modern world.

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