Published January 31st 2024
By Maggie Trela
Starting January 29th, Raheleh Filsoofi will spend two weeks at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida as the Artist-in-Residence. Based in Nashville, TN, Filsoofi is an Iranian multi-disciplinary artist, ceramicist, and collector of sound and soil. She travels the globe to collect soil from different places and then uses it to build ceramic vessels. While on her expeditions, she also collects sounds on her phone, recording nature, people, and the ambient noises that surround her. It’s the intermixing of these two methods that she builds her body of work, allowing the juxtaposition of clay and sound to tell a story of the human experience. Her exhibitions can be deceivingly simple at first: beautiful clay pots with lids sitting on a table; seemingly unstructured sounds reverberating around the room. But then you’ll notice that the sounds are emanating from inside the vessels, inviting you to touch, lift the lid, and turn your ear within. It’s the intersection of noise and clay, something ephemeral contained within something so solid, that creates a visceral experience for the audience. Through her artistic expression of sound and ceramics, Filsoofi transports you to her experience as an immigrant and as an Iranian woman — hearing a history that is so much louder than words.
Raheleh Filsoofi in her studio. Courtesy of the artist.
Filsoofi moved to the United States in 2002 from Iran, and charts her upbringing with critical times in her home country. She was a child during the revolution in the 1970s, and a teenager during an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. Often trapped in buildings, homes, and shelters, sound became a way for her to understand her surroundings. Prayers, poetry, sirens, bombings, and birds all wove a story of what she couldn’t see on the outside. These challenging times, she says, gave her an understanding about the human condition, and as a woman, taught her about survival. It is women, especially Iranian women, that she takes inspiration from, and that she learned traditional methods of clay from — methods that she continues to use today to mold her vessels. Moved by these ancient traditions of her ancestors, she began digging in the ground to extract clay from the dirt. She wanted to unearth, literally and metaphorically, the texture and history that lays in the ground beneath us. Sound joined as a medium because of its transient quality, and how so often memory and identity is tied to the noises of people and places. The textures of both clay and sound, the feelings they inspire and the memories they hold, guide her work, and express critical narratives about politics, immigration, culture, and heritage. Her multimedia installations and immersive sound performances have an ability to disrupt the borders of the clay in the room, as well as the borders that exist between us. As an artist, she hopes this disruption can illuminate and challenge policies and politics, creating a path to a more inclusive world.
Filsoofi will be the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum’s (CEAM) Artist-in-Residence from Monday, January 29 through Friday, February 9, 2024. An artist talk will be held on Tuesday, January 30th at 6 p.m. at Flagler College in Ringhaver Student Center’s Virginia Room, 50 Sevilla Street, in downtown St. Augustine, Florida. During her residency, Filsoofi will engage with Flagler College, St. Augustine, and the surrounding community through class visits and critiques, and will conduct local site visits. A critical component of her practice is processing clay that she has dug up at locations in which she has worked and traveled. While the clay she processes in St. Augustine is yet to come, you can see clay resurface as finished ceramic objects in installations such as A Transient’s Paradox, a project Filsoofi created for the 2022 exhibition, Fragile:Earth, at Grounds for Sculpture.
A Transient’s Paradox, 2022. Installation: Video, Sound, Vessels, and Wires. Courtesy of the Ground for Sculpture Museum.
In A Transient’s Paradox, Filsoofi communicates her experience as a woman and a Middle Easterner living in the United States. “Sound and soil represent autochthonous knowledge and values of a place. They urge me to explore its human geography, past and present,” she shares. She created sixty ceramic vessels for the exhibit, each made of clay from a different location, that are a record of where she traveled the previous year. Twenty five vessels are being exhibited as a part of Fragile:Earth. “Not everyone who wanders is a traveler; not everyone who resides is a native,” Filsoofi reminds us. “I travel not to find but to lose myself, to become a body among thousands, a body in action and motion, pursuing permanence, acknowledging fragility.”
Imagined Boundaries is an acclaimed series that began as a multimedia installation consisting of two separate but parallel art exhibitions that debuted concurrently in 2017. One was in a solo exhibition at the Abad Gallery in Tehran, Iran and the other in a group exhibition, Dual Frequency, at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Florida. On the night of the show opening, the installation connected audiences in each country, aiming to build a culture of communication through art. At each location, there was a series of boxes in a collage-like composition. Some boxes contained video screens showing people looking out at the viewer. In Florida, the people looking out were Iranians, and in Iran, the people looking out were Americans. Filsoofi asked viewers to consider space, as in physical space — the air, the surroundings — and how space creates a boundary between us and oftentimes whom we consider “them.” In Imagined Boundaries, but in her other work as well, she asks the audience to question space, boundaries, and limits, and look beyond it, past assumptions, judgements, political differences and divisions, and even social and cultural norms. She begs us to see past the political rhetoric and see one another as human, people, living together, but apart, with merely space between us. Filsoofi is currently the Visiting Artist Limited at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC, where she’s invited the Charleston community to be a part of her most recent iteration of Imagined Boundaries.
BITE, 2021. Ceramic Objects and Performance. Courtesy of the artist.
In her 2021 performance art piece, BITE, she offers her body, and teeth, as a tool to embed marks on clay for future narratives and interpretations. As she sinks her teeth into the clay, over and over, creating a unique and identifying pattern, she leaves a mark of her existence for the future, she says — “To change the narrative and to become the narrative.” In her most recent work, acclaimed 2023 multimedia music installation, Listening: The Fourth String, she works in collaboration with musician Reza Filsoofi. The two introduce an experimental instrument called ShahTár. The ShahTá is a Kermani rug (a traditional Persian rug from Kerman, Iran) that traditionally serves as a gathering space. The artists transform this culturally significant floorcloth into a new and interactive four-string instrument, where artists and community members alike can experience sound and music together. The name of the installation, as well as the instrument itself, is a reference to the traditional Iranian instrument, the setar. Through public performances, they bring to light the historic contributions of the silenced Iranian musician and Sufi, Moshtagh Ali Shah (from 18th century Iran), who added the fourth string to the originally three-stringed setar, dramatically changing the instrument, its sound, and compositional possibilities. Persecuted for his religious beliefs, the project honors Moshtagh Ali Shah while amplifying the immense power in merely listening, not only to remember, but to drive community engagement and promote social change.
Raheleh Filsoofi will be the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum’s (CEAM) Artist-in-Residence from Monday, January 29 through Friday, February 9, 2024. She will host an artist talk about her work on Tuesday, January 30th at 6 p.m. at Flagler College in Ringhaver Student Center’s Virginia Room, 50 Sevilla Street, in downtown St. Augustine. The event is free and open to the public, and Flagler students will receive co-curricular credit for attendance. If you are a person with a disability and need accommodations, please contact Phil Pownall at 904-819-6460. Sign Language Interpreters are available upon request (please provide a minimum of three days’ notice).
Crisp-Ellert Art Museum (CEAM) is located on Flagler College’s campus at 48 Sevilla Street in downtown St. Augustine, Florida. Museum hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. CEAM programming is supported through generous funding from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and a grant from the Dr. JoAnn Crisp-Ellert Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. This program is sponsored in part by the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council.
Raheleh Filsoofi was born in Iran and lives in the United States. She is an Assistant Professor of Ceramics in the Department of Art at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, and holds the secondary appointment at the Blair School of Music. She received her M.F.A. in Fine Arts from Florida Atlantic University and a B.F.A. in Ceramics from Al-Zahra University in Tehran, Iran. Filsoofi’s current and recent exhibitions include Imagined Boundaries, an interactive multimedia installation at Gibbes Museum in Charleston, SC (2023-2024), and Only Sound Remains, an interactive multimedia installation at the Sharjah Biennial 15, Thinking Historically in the Present in Sharjah, UAE (2023). Filsoofi has been the 2022 Winner of the 1858 Contemporary Southern Art Award and the recipient of the 2021 Southern Prize Tennessee State Fellowship.