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Diaspora

Hall of reflections
Powerful, humane archive of Iranian immigration to the US
By Persis M. Karim
December 9, 2003
The Iranian

"Echoes of the Iranian Diaspora": Readings from Hall of Reflections and a Community Dialogue. Hosted by Persis M. Karim. Sunday: December 14, 2003 : 4 – 7 pm, Persian Center, 2029 Durant at Shattuck, Berkeley. Reception Saturday September 13, 6-9 pm.

It is difficult to describe Taraneh Hemami's Hall of Reflections -- not because it is abstract -- but because it works on so many different levels. It is at once art, history, archive, and, as the name suggests, reflection.

The visual archive and installation invites you in and assaults you with the images and photographs of a simultaneously private and public world; it is a world that traces the scattered memories and migrations of Iranians in the later half of this century to the place where they live now, the San Francisco Bay Area. Hall of Reflections awakens and presents the stories, "remembrances" and traces of the multi-generational and multi-faceted history of Iranians in this area >>> See samples

Hall of Reflections draws on an important cultural space in Iran -- the talar-e ayineh, the traditional gathering halls of historical buildings in Iran. But rather than recreating a spatial motif with mirrors only, the installation re-appropriates traditional patterns and designs to display on mirrors and glass, images and text that present a kind of broken map of Iranian migration, displacement, and assimilation on this continent.

The installation of the many mirrors is physically and conceptually designed to piece together the fragmented stories of Iranian immigrants, exiles, and second-generation Iranian-Americans whose voices and lives have been "veiled" by the media images that have dominated since 1979. Hemami has relied on the inherent reflective quality of her material, glass and mirrors, layered to create an almost double-image effect.

The pieces are continuously changing with the reflections of the viewer, different lights and colors illuminating the pieces. On some of the mirrored pieces, silk-screened traditional Iranian patterns and motifs set off the photographs and shift your focus back and forth between different layers of pattern, image, mirror and reflection.

There are some general themes at work in the different shapes that they create; Hemami has grouped some of the photographs around the concepts of time, place, memory, the spatial configuration of "home", a family portrait of generations of Iranian-Americans.

One piece, for example, uses the pages of an American high school yearbook, showing the senior portraits of several Iranian graduates and the athletic pages that highlight the dominant number of Iranians on the high school soccer team in the 1980s while a post card a man has written to his wife as a political prisoner in Iran at around the same time is placed in another tile.

A series of paintings documents the process; layered and organized collected materials, scanned, printed and copied are collaged and mounted as contact sheets or rows of negatives on wood that, from a distance, read as a mosaic or a series of tiles.

Hemami's paintings and sculptural wall installations evoke the complexity of the immigrant experience and convey loss, memory, as well as a strange sense of dislocation, while offering for the first time, an avenue for the expression of the voices and images that have been so often silenced by the prevailing media images associated with the history of the hostage crisis and the Iranian revolution.

These images and texts convey a humanity and dignity so often occulted by the stereotypes of Middle Eastern people -- made only more potent after the events of September 11th. "For the past 24 years, I have lived with the images and representations of Iranians in the media here in the US; potent images painting a false and altered reality of my people for the American audience, yet so strong that they have at times influenced my perception of who we are.

Part of what I had in mind in doing this project was to create some kind of documented history of our community and to preserve it for the future generations; while creating an outlet for us to come together as a community and be a part of creating a portray of who we are."

Another goal of Hemami's was to create a common ground, a connection between the two communities, "to build a bridge between our worlds, to share our true stories while taking control of our own image, something that other immigrant communities have done successfully in this country."

Hemami is also making this archive accessible to Iranians all over the world. By creating a website that will give the stories a permanent home, she is creating the opportunity for Iranians outside the Bay Area to view the installation as well as the raw materials she has collected for the project (hallofreflections.com).

"I would like for Iranians around the world to add their voices, images, memories to this archive. Furthermore, Hemami hopes that the website will become a communication tool between Iranians living back in Iran and those living in the U.S. and elsewhere. "It is a vehicle for us to be able to share our stories with each other.

We have been separated for so many years and we have both suffered from the same simplistic images portrayed of us ," says Hemami. While Hemami hopes that the stories will grow with time on the website she also hopes to be able to add to the pieces that have been made physically, "I want the glass and mirror bricks containing our stories to be part of a growing Wall of Stories that convey the patterns, and the private and public spaces that belong to all of us."

Hall of Reflections builds on some of Hemami's earlier installations of working collectively with the community to tell a shared story. For the installation "Sacred Space" at The Lab in 1995, she collected wishes, secrets, memories , and voices of women to construct three structures of a mosque, a zarih, a mehrab, and a houzecheh.

The archiving aspects of the Hall of Reflections project connects to works such as the "Wall of Tears", 1998- a thin translucent passageway made from pages of her journals as well as paintings of twenty years, dipped in wax and sewn together- a reflection on her two decades of living in the United States.

Whereas "Wall of Tears" draws on her own story as an individual, the Hall of Reflections project uses the stories of many people to tell the collective story of a community. "Our memories fade with time but this archive of photos, text, and memoirs is a way for us to gather ourselves together and remember some part of who were and to weave it into our present, offers Hemami."

The artist is less interested in a traditional notion of the "archive" (a place where public documents are kept), but rather to expand it to include the very private events, activities, and memories that constitute personal and family history.

"Part of my motivation to create," says Hemami "is to build connections to my rich cultural heritage. My art has gradually become my only means to hang on to what I know of my country and its people," says Hemami.

"This project has allowed me to create a piece that weaves together the stories of grandparents, parents, and the new generation of Iranian-Americans born in this country, all of whom are looking to hold on to and to capture their connections to this complex history of immigration and exile."

Hemami acknowledges that without the generosity and the spirit of collaboration this exhibit would be far less rich." The project has allowed us to come together to share and connect with each other although, as you know, revealing private stories in public is not looked upon favorably in Iranian culture," Hemami added.

The response to Hemami's call for photos, and for participation in series of writing workshops (led by Persis Karim, Shahrnush Parsipour, and Zara Taheri) has been dominated by women. "Women have always been the storytellers in our culture," says Hemami, "and I think they are the ones acutely aware of what will be lost if we don't find a way to tell and keep these stories alive."

She has exhibited portions of the project at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, the Sharjah Sixth International Bienniel in the United Arab Emirates, the Articultural Gallery in Los Angeles and the Richmond Health Center all within the last year and a half, and she hopes that the installations will be shown in future exhibitions around the world.

Actively seeking ways to get this collection to a wider audience, she is working on a book project that will incorporate the many stories, photos, and writings. "While I am pleased at the response from the Iranian community, and wanted this to be something by and for Iranians, I would like the project to be about something what we all share on the most human level," Hemami states, "it is at once art but also about building community, trust and making sense of our times and history." >>> See samples

Hall of Reflections is funded in part by a grant from the Creative Work Fund and the Cultural Equity Program of the San Francisco Arts Commission; and by a Grant from the California Council for the Humanities, and with the help and support of many individuals in the Iranian community living in the Bay area.

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