Under the Rug: an interview with Ziba Rajabi hosted by Nuveen Barwari
Nuveen Barwari: According to my “good friend” Merriam Webster the definition of ‘sweep (something) under the rug’, means to hide (something that is illegal, embarrassing, or wrong). You know when someone comes into the studio and they end up talking about that one piece that is “swept under the rug”? Well, that is what I plan on doing as I visit studios virtually and in person throughout the south for this “under the rug” series. If there is one thing that you could share with me that is usually swept under the rug by other people when entering your space… or viewing/talking about your work what would it be? And is there something that you sweep under the rug that you try to keep away from others when they view your work or enter your space?
Ziba Rajabi: Any political content of the work is usually under the rug. Politics causes trauma. I used to talk about that. But after a while, I felt discussing pain and trauma – that I carry with myself coming from the Middle East – with people who have not had similar experiences seems nonsense and somehow embarrassing. So, I decided not to share the “pain” anymore and talk about more common experiences and things that are familiar for more audiences in the west.
NB:Can you give me an introduction about yourself and your work? What’s your favorite snack?
ZR: My name is Ziba Rajabi; I was born in Tehran, Iran. I moved to the states in 2017 to attend the MFA program at the University of Arkansas. I came the day the president of the time signed the Muslim Travel Ban executive order. Since then, my work has been about my experience of physical and psychological spaces caused by displacement. My favorite studio snacks are fruits and, obviously, pistachio and roasted almonds.
NB: What have you been thinking about lately? What have you been reading?
ZR: I have been thinking a lot about the flatness and weightlessness of presence. I have been away from my beloved ones for a few years now, and during this time, my only way of communication with them was through video calls and social media. Consequently, I have been seeing a flat version of them. This “flatness” is not just about the image; it is about my experience of them and how my understanding of “real them” is becoming shallower. I have been reading “On Beauty and Being Just” on a fellow artist and friend recommendation and still working on “Painting beyond Itself” and “1Q84”.
NB: If I was in your studio right now what would I see? Be honest. Works in progress? Tell me about what you are working on right now.
ZR: Many drawings on the wall, a painting in-progress on the floor, a pile of painted fabrics in a corner, my Haft-Seen––since it is Nowruz, the Persian New Year this week, two Peace Lilies that one of them is blooming, two in-progress paintings on the wall that I don’t know what to do with them next, so they are up for more stare and study.
NB: What is it like being an artist/human in the south? Culturally? Politically? Anything.
ZR: I live in a small college town whose majority of the population consists of high-educated people and students, and because of the university, it is a pretty progressive community. Since the Walmart HQ is near us, this region is relatively in a good economic situation. I have been hanging out with artists and international students most of the time, so I am unsure if I have a comprehensive view of the real south. Because of the Crystal Bridges Museum, the artists’ community is growing here, but it is still very different from big cities’ art scene.
NB: You currently have a show up called “Caged Bird and The Blue Room” at Faulkner Center in Fayetteville, Ark. What was the inspiration behind the title of the show?
ZR: The “Caged Bird and the Blue Room” is presented by Art Venture at the Faulkner Performing Art Center Venue. In Persian literature, we rarely talk directly about stuff. If you want to talk about war, you talk about flowers, trees, and a garden. If you want to talk about your lover, you talk about a burning candle and a butterfly. Here I am. The “Caged Bird and the Blue Room” reflects my current living situation. In Faulkner Performing Arts Center, I installed works in two halls; one of the halls contains only works in a blue palette. I call it the Blue Room. The blue room is the Sky for the Caged Bird. However big the room is, it is not the sky.
NB: Can you talk about your color palette?
ZR: My color palette is inspired by Persian painting and its unique perspective, which embraces bright, saturated, and flat colors. However, after moving to Mount Sequoyah, where my studio is currently located, I can see how nature inspires my color palette. When the season changes, I usually see new color combinations that I had never thought of before. Observing it every day, I feel the urge to try these new color harmonies in my work. I should say my favorite one was this recent winter storm that I saw a whole new quality of color and transparency that I had not seen before.
NB: Your piece “you see poppies, I see martyrs” is so heavy… and I can draw connections to so many topics. I guess I will try to narrow it down. How do you deal with titles? Are titles a helpful tool for story telling? How do you navigate “opacity” in your work? The multiple layers that may be covered or go unseen by an audience in the west? Layers/symbolism that gets lost in translation? How important is it that they see the martyrs AND the poppies?
ZR: Even if I try so hard, many audiences will not see poppies and martyrs connected in the way that we see because that is–in many ways–deeply cultural, historical, and even personal. Inviting more audiences in requires more hints and clues. So, I found titles a solution to give audiences more context in a poetic way, something like a teaser for the imagination to start with. The degree of opacity is still questionable for myself. Before I find an answer for this, I need to answer many primary questions. Firstly, I have to decide how much of what I put in the work I can reveal because of personal and political reasons. I come from a background that makes me uncomfortable talking about political backstories. On the other hand, even if I reveal, does anyone really care? How many people would understand it? Does it help anyone in pain? Does it cause more pain for people? Am I using other’s pain to showcase my work? To be honest, I am not sure if there are any exact answers to these questions.
Yes, many original and traditional definitions and symbols are lost in translation. But in these works, that could lead to new meanings as well.
NB: From following you on Instagram I see that you have a pretty consistent drawing practice. How does drawing inform your larger scale paintings or vice versa. is there ever a need to turn these drawings into paintings? What’s the space between drawing and painting to you?
ZR: I don’t see them as drawings, although they are made with traditional drawing tools: colored pencils and paper. I think through these small paintings. They allow me to quickly explore visual solutions such as compositions, color combinations, and even conceptual ideas. I don’t feel it is necessary to scale them up and re-paint the exact work; however, I steal visual solutions from them. Besides, working with colored pencils is therapeutic for me. It helps with anxiety, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
NB: You have a drawing on your website called “Study of Iranian architecture” can you tell us more about the different way’s architecture gets filtered and deconstructed/reconstructed through multiple lenses? Do you make connections to the politics behind Iranian architecture or just architecture in general?
ZR: The role of Iranian architecture in my work is to reference an intimate space that is fundamentally different from western architecture. I deconstruct and break it down into abstract forms and collide interior and exterior spaces to reconstruct a fusion space and, therefore, to form a new reality. We have impressive architectures in Iran that date back thousands and hundreds of years ago. Iranian architecture reflects our worldview. It is multifaceted and quite complicated that interacts with and reflects several things, for instance, privacy and protection. In traditional architecture design, you have a public court to receive visitors, a semi-public-semi-private court for guests and gatherings, and a private part only for households, women, and children who live there. Even in contemporary architecture, we have relatively smaller windows compared to western ones. It is usually covered with two layers of the curtain, one thinner for the day to allow light to come through and a thicker one for the night to not let anything be seen from outside. In my work, Iranian architecture represents home, as it is different from Western architecture. Also, the aesthetic and design are quite complex, unique, and stunning that a painter’s eye cannot miss.
NB: Something I see a lot in your work is your decision to leave the canvas unstretched. In a tapestry form… can you tell me about that. Decision? Where do you see yourself in the history of painting?
ZR: I am inspired by movements in art, especially painting after 1968 and individual artists such as Alan Shields, Helen Frankenthaler, and Sam Gilliam. There is also a personal narrative behind this decision. Ever since I moved to the US, I have always been prepared to pack and move anytime I had to. So, consciously and unconsciously, I was drawn to relatively lighter materials for my art. Also, I was bored with the traditional painting and looking for more possibilities. With the unstretched canvas, I was more liberated to push traditional painting boundaries and explore beyond its conventional borders.
About the artist:
Ziba Rajabi (b.1988, Tehran, Iran) received her MFA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and her BFA from the Sooreh University, Tehran. She is the recipient of the Artist 360 Grant, a program sponsored by Mid-America Arts Alliance. Her practice as a Female Iranian artist is focused on abstraction and its conceptual relation to Persian and Islamic art and architecture. She has developed this through drawing, painting, and fabric installation. Her work has been included in a number of exhibitions, nationally and internationally. She has been an artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center. website: www.zibarajabi.com