Supper Projects NYC, Sara Rahbar , By jack & Olivia, 2020
What is your rose and thorn of the past week?
I feel like I'm in a dream these days, like Alice in Wonderland, nothing feels real or solid. The good is always when I get a new idea. Sometimes it feels impossible in this climate, everything is so heavy, there is so much to work through on a daily basis. You just want to be able to move forward, you just want some peace of mind. The rose would be continuing to have ideas, any kind of continuation, even though I'm super lost right now.
I guess the thorn is having ideas and wanting to move forward with them, but not knowing when I'm going to be able to get back into the foundry or go on road trips searching for objects again. I like moving fast. When I get a solid idea that I am excited about, I want to be able to make it immediately. Not being able to move as fast as I want is really painful right now. All the flea markets and second hand shops that I usually went to in search of objects to make my sculptures have been shut down. I usually spend the summers collecting, and then I attempt to piece things together after I have accumulated a good amount of stuff. But right now everything has stopped. There are some shows happening, but the process has completely shifted. And every one's like, “this is the new norm, get used to it”... I am trying to stay present, accept change and flow with what is in front of me, but I think that we can all agree that these are some seriously challenging times that we are living through.
Have you been able to go to the foundry at all since quarantine started?
They closed for a long time, just like everyone else, everything came to a blinding halt. I had cast a bunch of body parts and objects, and I was waiting for them to come out of the oven, and then suddenly they closed for several months. They eventually opened during the summer, but by then I was foggy, my ideas were all over the place, I had so much distance from it that things got a bit scrambled in my mind. I went back and began piecing it together again, maybe the separation, the distance from the work will be helpful in the end. I have a solo show coming up in November at my gallery, Carbon.12, in Dubai, I'm very excited about it. I'm showing the work that I made during the lockdown.
In other interviews you also talk about trusting the process and allowing for things to happen as they come. Do you think that kind of mindset is helpful in these specifically precarious times?
You have to find your way of survival through difficult & challenging times in life. In the end, I had to surrender, there was no way around it. I had to let go of my false sense of control. I had to trust my instincts. We’re all born with it, my dogs have it, despite the fact that they spent their entire lives in animal testing laboratories–cold, sterile, kept away from anything natural–but when they got out, I saw their instincts come back to life. When I got sober, became vegan and started meditating, I felt my instincts return to me as well. The calmer I became, the smoother the work flowed, the softer and lighter everything became.
How did you learn to take a backseat to the process? Have you always sort of had that mindset or is that something that you really had to work on?
I really had to work on it, I still am–it's an ongoing process. I remember In AA they always used to say, “you should be grateful for your addiction, because it brought you here.” I never understood that until a decade later. Having so many issues with anxiety, depression, addiction and trauma, I was forced to work on myself constantly, there was no way around it, if I didn't I would sink, that much was clear. I became vegan and “spiritual,” started realizing that the more still I am, the clearer the work becomes. I started looking inward, and the more inward I went the louder my inner voice got. I'm not sure if I would have taken this path if I was not constantly battling addiction, depression and just generally being so uncomfortable in my own skin all the time.
Can you talk about that solo show? Is it a whole new series of work?
I think the good thing about being in these strange and challenging times is that it pushes you, propels you forward somehow if you let it, if you just flow with it instead of becoming paralyzed with fear. I just felt so much pressure, I was scared at first, flooded with anxiety and fear of the future, and then all of a sudden I detached. Not sure if it was the lack of sleep or all the meditation and nature walks that i took with my dogs. What ever it was, it pushed me into fuck it territory, whatever will be will be terrain. I could feel the shift in myself, and the new found freedom in my work. I casted 3 different pieces of wood that were parts of an old tool, and like pieces of a puzzle everything started coming together and making sense, I love it when that happens. The arms and legs that I cast are resting on these objects, it's like the aftermath of something. The show is called “The Space Between Us,” dismembered body parts on architectural-like objects alongside my newest body of work “animals.”
It's so clear, formally, that the assemblage works are more cluttered and so was your mind at the time. There’s a funny mirroring going on.
With the flags, and with the War series, there were so many objects, so much stuff. I needed so badly to say something, I was screaming at the top of my lungs. Once I calmed down, I felt I could say everything with just two objects, and realized that there is no need to scream at all, the calmer I am the clearer everything becomes. it's all about being in flow with life, i see that now.
With 206 Bones, War and the flag series, there were a million collected objects pieced together. The Confessions series is body parts and maybe one collected object, the body parts, in certain positions, say everything that i want to say. I am always working on saying more with less. Clarity, conciseness, like a swift punch that knocks you out.
Can we go back a little bit to your development as an artist? You went to FIT, then Central Saint Martins. The flags involve a ton of textiles, did you study fashion or design?
When I was at FIT, everything was so chaotic, I was so lost. I always made work, but I never thought this is going to be my life, because I didn't think I could support myself from it. I thought, I have to do something else to make money, and then just do this on the side to stay sane. There weren’t any artists around me, I didn’t quite understand what it meant to be an artist. I was super young and lost, doing drugs and drinking. I was just a mess. I basically followed a friend to FIT. I just thought, shit, everyone is going to college after high school, I hadn't even applied anywhere else, didn't even fully understand the SAT’s. I didn’t know shit. I was just not there, I was dealing with so much emotional stuff. I barely graduated high school, still not even sure how I graduated. I wish I was better, more together, but I wasn't.
I remember coming across Alexander McQueen and John Galliano and thinking, this is like sculpture, I could do this and be happy and make a living at the same time. I was obsessed with McQueen. I just wanted to be an artist and make things, but i wasn't sure how i could do that and be able to survive. I had to survive, there was nothing to fall back on, so I thought couture is kind of like sculpture. One day, I was reading up on Alexander McQueen, and I saw that he went to Central Saint Martins. I instantly knew that I had to go there. I knew that I could not move too far away from sculpture, from art, or I would go even crazier than I already was. I didn't apply anywhere else, I didn't have a side plan. I just tried to do the best fucking portfolio that i possibly could, and to be honest I didn't quite understand what a portfolio was at the time. I bought some sketch books and just wrote poems, drew, photographed, collaged, put everything that I had into it. I felt like this was it, there was no going back, so I gave it my all and I got accepted! I saved enough money for the first year, I was so broke and at that time you would give a hundred dollars and get back fifty pounds, it was super expensive to live in London, but somehow I made it work for a year.
I can see a lot of parallels with McQueen, in terms of the mood and the tonality, it’s almost mischievous.
He was Magic, pure magic.
How did you eventually find solid ground, a foundation for your work and life?
FIT was an absolute nightmare, it showed me everything that I didn't want. Central Saint Martins was a dream come true, they didn't care how or what you made, they taught you how to think, and they gave you total freedom to dream, play and experiment. It was the best time of my entire life. I felt so free, so alive, I was in heaven. That gave me the freedom to make my first piece, that led to a body of work that I would work on for the next 15 years. This body of work was my entrance into the art world, it sustained my life, and it all came out of a space where anything was possible. Everyone was doing the craziest things, and it was fine. That's what I needed, freedom, room to breathe. It was such a beautiful environment.
I noticed a portion of the flags have Farsi written on them, and they have poetic titles. Are there stories behind certain works, is there a narrative?
I can't read or write Farsi because I left Iran when I was very young. I went back to Iran in my 20’s and I couldn't read anything, it was super frustrating. I remember seeing the texts as beautiful and abstract shapes. That’s what is reflected in the work. When I finally stopped going back, the Farsi faded from my work, I shifted tremendously and so did the work, it always moves with me. After a few years into the flag series, the flags became really dark, militarized. It felt like the endless wars and violence everywhere were being soaked into the very fibers of the flag. The flags continued to become darker and darker, and heavier through time. I don't have a specific story for each one. That series felt like a long relationship. It was an obsession, I couldn't stop doing it if i wanted to, it was as if something beyond what i could put into words was speaking through me.
I’m thinking about how much time you must have spent with these materials, really getting to know them, that are usually used in war. Was it a tiring experience to work with material that has a very different, more violent purpose than what you were using it for?
There was this drive, I feel like I was just a vessel for this energy. I sometimes feel uncomfortable saying it's my work, because this stuff comes from places that I can't explain, and can't quite put it into words. It comes and it keeps pushing me until I make it. There is definitely guidance, a calling that I feel, and I let it take me wherever it needs me to go. I can't work with new objects, they can't be shiny and clean, they have to be used, kicked around and beat up. Some of the objects have very particular spells and stains, personal messages written or carved on them. I needed that life in the objects and the materials that I worked with, it was important to me that they had lived and survived the test of time. I don't like clean, perfect looking things. Life is messy. Maybe because I feel like I'm messy, imperfect, bruised and in pieces, by piecing these objects together and in finding the work, I am piecing myself back together again. It's so cathartic for me.
Where did you source those materials, Army Navy stores?
I would go to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, to fairs, to flea markets. Sometimes, the Vets would be trying to get rid of their stuff because they didn't want the memories. Some were sourced online, if I was looking for something very specific like coal miner tags or a military backpack, but they always needed to be used, second hand. Online is always tough, I only do it when I am absolutely desperate. I need to touch the materials, it's a visual thing that needs to happen, it's instinctual. Viewing things off of a cold computer screen is never my preference.
When you source it from the Vets, do you ever ask them about the objects?
Some people would be willing to talk about it, and they would share stories with me. Sometimes it was their stuff, other times it would be their family member’s things, or someone had passed and they inherited it. These are sensitive subjects–violence, war, pain, death. Lots of strange and uncomfortable stories are attached to these objects. Because I'm a girl, and I kinda look Middle Eastern-ish, it gets a bit awkward at times. When I was buying bullets, grenades and guns, they would say why don't you go get your husband and come back.. or where's your husband young lady? It was always a mixed bag, I mostly tried to be incognito, just blend into the environment, get what I needed and to get out.
Is there an influence of literature in your work? The titles of your works are often poetic, for example, Wandering from One Strange Place to Another, Anxious Prostitutes and Sleepless Nights.
That's a really heavy one that you picked! The first titles were sometimes full paragraphs, but now I try to keep them short and to the point, like uncomfortable or grasping. I'm trying to say and do more with less. I used to write poetry, I used to write a lot. I actually wasn't sure if I was going to be a writer, a poet, an architect or a sculpture. I just wanted to make things, to build something.
There was always this violence in the works, and then the soft and romantic titles. I don't know where that came from. I always felt the piece was finished with the title. That title was from a very specific time in my life. It's always a reflection of what I'm going through, I can't lie or keep things in, everything always bubbles to the surface somehow. There's no hiding from the truth.
Do you ever read writing about your work that you really disagree with?
Yes. There are so many different ways of looking at something, so many different perspectives to consider. I'm not trying to brainwash people into thinking a certain way, I think art should make you think and question, not force things on you. I want layers upon layers for new ideas and emotions to emerge every time people see the work.
For example the Flags series has been interpreted in so many different ways. It is so heavy with history, violence and war, there are so many layers there, but people like to simplify it to: it's about her identity as an Iranian American. I don't believe in nationality, organized religion or countries. None of these made up concepts are of importance to me. If anything I find them strange and unnecessary, causing further distance between us. We are all one, everything is connected. We are all sharing this planet together–humans & animals–none of us know where we came from or where we are going after this. We are all just hanging out on this floating green and blue ball temporarily together. I guess all of these unknowns are just too frightening for people to bear, so they make up all of these stories to give themselves some sort of false comfort.
In our conversation with Baseera Khan, she also asks “how can my work only be about identity politics?”
People need to label, I can't get people to stop mentioning I’m Iranian-American, it's absolutely ridiculous. I don't believe in any shape or form of organized religion, and I had to fight to get Muslim taken off different texts. You don't inherit religion! It's a choice, all of this is a choice, I chose to be free of these labels that I have absolutely no belief in.
What does the cross symbolize for you? They're recurrent throughout many of the different series.
Living in America, you see the flag and various symbols of Christianity everywhere. Jesus Christ, for me, is more about surrendering, guilt and shame. It has all these layers, it's heavy with time and history. I was constantly seeing the flag and the cross, eventually it found its way into my work. It wasn't so much about Christianity or the American flag, as it was about the emotions and conversations that are associated with these symbols. The weight and meaning that we give them.
How and why did you arrive at bronze for the Confessions series?
I always wanted to work with bronze, it was an obsession. At the end of my time at Central Saint Martins, I was sure that I was going to study sculpture, but I didn't have the money to continue, so I had to leave. I had to work with what I could and build from there. The work just kept growing and getting heavier. I was always pushing myself towards sculpture, towards bronze, it was inevitable. There was a point with the War series where I was working with prosthetic legs and arms, and I felt like the body parts needed to be more human, I needed textures, pores. I needed tense gestures, trauma, frozen in states of anxiety. The prosthetics take you so far, but they're kind of flat, I needed actual arms and legs. My instinct, my gut, told me that I needed to find a foundry and cast my body. I also needed it to be human scale. There was no way around it anymore. But I still had to work within a budget, so I started where I could with what I had. An arm, then a leg, I just kept adding to it, changing the gestures, building on the body.
It feels like a move away from themes like war, as if it comes down to a more personal violence, or a localized pain.
The work grew and expanded with me. I started to calm the hell down and get more in touch with myself. I'm constantly trying to get more authentic and more to the core of things. People in pieces, dismembered bodies, lost in the things that they made, or are trying to make, the aftermath of people attempting to survive in this world.
The objects are anchored in place, they don’t move, but action is very much embedded in the function of these objects. They are guns, hands and feet, among other things.
Embedded is a good word to describe it. Whether it's the cast body parts or the tools and guns, they have life in them, I can feel it when I'm making the work. They are heavy, they carry so much weight. That's what I'm looking for, for a reflection of life, raw, sometimes painful, imperfect, broken, yet still fighting to continue.
We are pushed together, compressed, on top of each other, tearing each other apart. A lot of the objects in the 206 Bones series are objects that are meant to hold things in place, to control, to push things down and create tension.
The first five years of your life is your foundation as a human being. My first five years were tense. Everything was uncomfortable. I was a child who was dealing with issues that I couldn't explain or understand at the time. When you are in an environment where your parents, who are supposed to guide you, are too overwhelmed with their own challenges to care for you, you are forced to take care of them and yourself. I was always trying to hold things together, so that they don't fall apart. I'm still doing that, only now it's with the pieces that I make. I spend all of my time making objects that make sense to me, that give me a sense of calm and peace. Nothing makes sense to me on this planet, it's all so strange and alien. I make this work in order to survive being here, and to somehow make sense of all of this chaos. There is so much violence, so much pain, my brain just can't make sense of it–we would be so much better off without it.
When I was young all we did was move from place to place, so much uncertainty and chaos. We left Iran, running away from war and the revolution. Then in the states we moved from house to house, there was always so much tension around me, all I wanted was to feel safe and secure, to stop running. And now, as an adult piecing together my life's work, all these things come into play, how could they not? In the end it's about the human condition, not Iran or America, it's about being alive on this planet, attempting to survive and make sense of it all.
It does feel like you’ve moved back to the basics of emotion, pain, and the shaping of these relations.
I want to get to the most bare, basic level to the core of the human condition. I want people to feel things when they see this work, I'm not here to decorate.
You're shrugging off all these other things, this is what’s left. I think it’s hopeful, and this is shown in the pieces where the arms are locked, or the fingers are gripping.
I think part of that is that there were so many times in my life where I just wanted to let go. With addiction and depression, some days were just too much to handle, it's exhausting. There's this piece that I did for the show, it's called grasping, I think that it's just so accurate for the times that we are in. Sometimes it feels like you are slipping off of the edge of a mountain, so you cling on to anything that you possibly can so that you don't fall off and disappear into the abyss.
So many layers compressed down to things that we all have. Maybe I don't even need to know what your experiences are because I can just feel it too.
That's exactly it. It's about trauma, pain, love, violence; it's about emotions and experiences that we can all relate to. There is always a wider lens to look through, a bigger picture to see.
Do you have a dream project?
Being able to go to the Foundry and cast, not just body parts, but whole bodies in awkward positions. I have all these positions in mind. I want to cast what trauma looks like in our bodies. I want to capture the rawest emotions that i can, our bodies always tell a story. That would be my dream, no compromises, major life size pieces, some outdoor, some indoor.
Are you interested in public sculpture at all?
I wasn't before, but the more I see public sculpture, the more I want to do it. I want to bring uncomfortable, awkward bodies into everyday public spaces..
Do you think of your solo shows as driven by an experiential or narrative goal?
For me, it's more emotional. When I was younger it was a different drive, now it’s more thoughtful, I move slower, I'm softer, it's more about spilling open. I'm just much clearer in what I want to say, and what I want to put out there. I want to trigger emotions. Two years ago I had a show with Carbon.12, it was called Salvation. There were people crying and feeling so many different emotions while viewing the work. I want that, I want to trigger emotion in people, move them beyond words.
Canvas Magazine/ Alexandra Chaves/One on One /2019
Alexandra Chaves: The flag is a prominentmotif in your work. Why did you choose it as a symbol and what does it represent for you?
Sara Rahbar: I have been living in the US for almost 40 years. The American flag has always been in the background of my life, so the Flagseries came naturally to me. I used to paint, and the series was a place where I could continue to do that using textiles and objects. My work stems from what I see, what surrounds me, and what I decide to hold onto. A flag is just a piece of fabric – I think people lose sight of that. Like art or any other object or idea, its value solely depends on the value we give it.
AC: Tell us more about your relationship with textiles and found materials, and the process of putting these together. How do these visuals come to you?
SR: I began with textiles, but have moved on to
bronze and wood, which is the main foundation of my practice. For me, the constant has always been the collected objects. I prefer beaten-up objects with stains and scars, and am drawn to objects that have lived and survived the test of time. Life is aggressive and harsh, and I want my work to reflect that. Even when I work with bronze, my current material of choice, I stain it and beat it up. I often work in series, includingWar, 206 Bones, Flag, etc. These bodies of work occur organically; I slowly begin to see it all come together in my mind, piecing it together until I feel the conversation is complete.
AC: What role does your personal history – of your family fleeing Iran in 1980 – play in your work?
SR: I don’t think that any one event plays a significant role in my work. The first five years of my life did have an impact – but so much has changed and happened since then. There are endless layers and filters that have been added. For me, art is a reflection of life. This work comes from 43 years of living. My work addresses a broader conversation: the human condition, being alive on this planet and surviving each other, ourselves and our geographic locations.
AC: Nationalism is one of today’s most challenging issues. How do you see contemporary art responding?
SR: There needs to be a shift in consciousness. We have completely lost sight of the fact that we are all interconnected, and that the only limitations that exist are the ones we’ve created. I don’t believe in nationalities or organised religion. I believe that weareallequal–aman,aworm,adog,acow. It is about a shift in perception, and anything can trigger that.
AC: Though your works are often inspired by personal experiences, they also reflect contemporary sociopolitical events. How do you translate an individual perspective to a collective one? Is it done consciously?
SR: I don’t analyse or overthink my work. I know in my gut when something feels right or wrong. I make what I feel passionate and over the moon about – if I’m not crazy excited, I’m not making it. I envision things and play with materials as if they are pieces to a very large puzzle, then I move them around until everything fits into place. I know when something is complete. I can feel it. Yes, this work is very personal to me. Yet, I think that these feelings that hit me like a tornado are universal to us all. In the end, we are all just visiting. We all simply want and need to belong – to something, to someone and to somewhere while we are here.
Finding Sara Rahbar |by Kevin McElvaney | PBS | Articulate | 2017
Sara Rahbar has found the antidote to her existential angst in art.
Sara Rahbar's approach to both her life and her art is bold.
Sara Rahbar: Honestly, if I was gonna think things out, I wouldn't do anything. I just jump in.
She finally succumbed to becoming an artist at the dawn of her 30s, after years of trying and failing to find another satisfying career. A decade later, the mostly self taught mixed media artist has had her work shown at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and London's Saatchi Gallery and the British Museum. Self-trust remains at the heart of her entirely intuitive practice.
Rahbar: I can't try. If I feel like I'm trying, I need to leave it alone and come back tomorrow. I'm very clear that that ruins everything.
But though she's not one for planning, patterns still do emerge in Rahbar's work. The theme of belonging comes up often, not because she craves it, but she doesn't understand other people's obsession with it.
Rahbar: I never needed to belong to something, so I think that's why. I noticed that was existing around me, so I was always questioning it. My whole work has been about trying to understand that need, to have to belong to someone, to something, to a nationality, to a religion. I'm good with not knowing. I have no idea where I'm going, and I have no idea why any of us are here. And I'm okay with not knowing, but I don't wanna make up a story to give myself a feeling of security while I'm here.
Still, Rahbar does know where she comes from, though she has little interest in label Iranian-American. She was born in Tehran in 1976. Her family fled the Iranian revolution when she was six. She returned for the first time in her early 20s, tagging along as the photographer for a friend's documentary project.
Rahbar: So, I just bought a camera and went. And I don't know why, I did not know how to use a digital camera. And I learned how to use it on the plane, read the manual, and I took a lot of awful photos and just learned while doing it. Once the film was done, it was me and the camera. And I hadn't left Iran yet. And a lot of things were proving to be very challenging. I was someone in public, I was someone with my family, I was someone in private life. I was constantly going through all these personality changes, because you couldn't fully be all the things that you are in one place. There was a lot of covering up. I almost feel like I went into the studio and just put on all these layers and all these costumes and photographed myself and it was, like, a scream, I don't know, it was like a release. I didn't really know what I was doing, and I didn't really think this is art, I just needed to do it. And once I left Iran, I came back to the States, I never touched a camera again. So, I think that was something that was very situational that happened. And that series was about a lot of love and frustration.
Over the years, Sara Rahbar has used textiles, wood, and found objects in her work. But today her favorite material is the strongest she could find: bronze. The series, Confessions, freezes Rahbar's own tense gestures for the ages.
Rahbar: I just have this angst. I mean, it's getting better, but I'm not comfortable in my skin all the time. I wake up just like that. My whole life has been a process of, "how do I deal with what's happening inside my brain? What do I do with this?" And I think the only thing I found is that I continue to work.
LOVE IS SOMETHING HEAVY: AN INTERVIEW WITH MIXED MEDIA ARTIST SARA RAHBAR, AUTRE
Intro text by Keely Shinners/Interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper/Photographs by Arash Yaghmaia/2016
OLIVER KUPPER: Your work deals a lot with conflict and identity loss. This sense of tumult has really seeped into your upbringing. Do you have really clear memories of leaving Iran during the revolution?
SARA RAHBAR: No, I really don’t. I have blacked out allot. I left Iran when I was like four and a half or five. And I can barely remember anything from that whole time period. In the beginning people just assumed that my work was about identity because my first body of work was the flag series, but I wasn’t thinking about identity at all when I made them, it was always about so much more than that for me.
KUPPER: That’s really interesting.
RAHBAR: It’s more about what I’ve witnessed. I’m recording, like a camera, this history that’s happening around me. I don’t think much about my identity. I don’t care much about it, to be honest with you. The only time I care about it is when I am being labeled. Being labeled as “Iranian American” really bothers me. I just don’t feel like I’m any of those things. I’m just a human being living on the planet earth.
KUPPER: So at that age, you really had no memory of that. The art you’re making now came from a later period. And it was just a circumstance.
RAHBAR: I don’t consciously try to bring anything back into my work. Iran is such a faded memory for me. The last couple of times that I was there, I felt so disconnected. The memories are gone and it doesn’t feel like home. I’ve stopped going back. I don’t remember anything enough to actually be able to use it in my work. But there’s something there. The memories are gone, but the feelings are left. There’s a lot that is subconscious – frustration, anger, fear, confusion. But I’m definitely not trying to mesh any two cultures or identities together, I just follow my instincts when it comes to my work.
KUPPER: How old were you when you started to communicate your ideas through art?
RAHBAR: I think I started drawing when I was very little. I think that i was around five or six years old. I remember collecting stuff and drawing. Of course, I didn’t think it was anything serious. I just always liked making things.
KUPPER: You were being creative.
RAHBAR: Yeah. I think it was an instinct.
KUPPER: Were your parents really traditional, or did they support you being creative?
RAHBAR: They weren’t very traditional. My mom, and my brother were always very supportive. At the same time, I don’t think anyone really understood what the hell I was doing or why, including me. There definitely was a fear of, “How the hell are you going to be able to support yourself doing this?” I wouldn’t say anyone was religious, traditional, or conservative. Nothing like that at all.
KUPPER: It’s rare when a kid wants to become an artist as a career.
RAHBAR: Unless you have a family that has a background in the arts, it can be be kind of scary thing. It’s hard to imagine how you’re actually going to sustain yourself from doing this. There is a lot of unknown, like everything else in life.
KUPPER: What did your parents do?
RAHBAR: My mom was a social worker in Iran. She worked with runaways and abused children. But when she came to the US with my father they went into the restaurant business. You have your degree when you’re in your home country, and you come to a new country and you have to start from scratch. When we came here, we had nothing, and my uncle owned a restaurant. So that’s where my father went to work. It was easy and it paid the bills for a family of four. And later on they eventually went on to own their own restaurant.
KUPPER: Well, Americans love to eat. You open a restaurant, and Americans will be there to eat it.
RAHBAR: [Laughs.] Yeah, you figure, it’s a basic necessity…
KUPPER: You went back to Iran, and you worked on a really interesting photography series. What did you discover about your return and this work? What did you discover about yourself?
RAHBAR: That was when I finished school. And by “finished school,” I mean I ran out of money. So I had to figure some things out. I didn’t understand what it meant to have a body of work, or to do a series. I just knew that I had to find my own voice. My first instinct – and I always go by instinct – was to take a plane right from school in London to Iran. Everything happened like a domino effect. It was the 2015 election, so there was a combination of influences. First, I would go into the studio with all these things I had collected – costumes, objects and decorations that were used for horses and donkeys, random things I’d find in flea markets. At the same time, I was documenting the elections with sound and photography. For some reason, the camera was the first thing that I picked up when I went there. I always painted and drew, but it wasn’t enough for me. So I figured, I’ll do photography, sound, and projection. Painting always left me feeling like I needed more. Also, in Iran, I had a lack of space, so it was just easier to photograph. Everything was so new and different. I kept going back and forth, photographing and documenting. Now, when I look back on it, I think, “What the hell was that?” Not the stuff on the streets with the election, but the stuff in the studio. I don’t know what the hell that was. It was just about objects and color. I was trying to sort some things out. I’m more connected to the sculptures I’m doing now. I feel like the photographs were me trying to resolve something in my head.
KUPPER: Or it was an experiment.
RAHBAR: That period was very experimental. I was also super young. This was ten years ago. It was very raw. Like, “I like this. So I’m going to put it on my head and take a photo.” But then again I was just following my very basic and immediate instincts, and I still am. [Laughs.]
KUPPER: Did you ever feel like what you were doing was going to be censored while you were there?
RAHBAR: For sure. But I always knew that I would leave eventually. There was always this angst and discomfort that I felt when I was in Iran. I was always reminded somehow that I was a foreigner and a woman, and this always made me feel very uncomfortable. So I always knew that I could never show the work there, or stay there long term.
KUPPER: Is that why you left, to be able to show that work?
RAHBAR: No. It was like a relationship that comes to an end. It just ran its course. I remember waking up and being like, “I’m done.” I’m getting a plane ticket and not coming back.
KUPPER: Interesting. And you went to New York after that?
RAHBAR: Anywhere can be your home; it’s for you to decide what “home” means to you. You can restart anywhere. And for me, New York has always felt like my home.
KUPPER: Did the flag series become before or after that? Or during?
RAHBAR: I made my first flag for my graduation project when I was still in London. It was right around that time of the crazy chaos of 9/11. I never thought that in 10 years I would make 52 flags.
KUPPER: As a mixed media artist, what do you enjoy about each medium that you employ, and what are some of their limitations?
RAHBAR: I can’t think of too many limitations. I love bronze, and I love wood, and there are so many different kinds of wood and bronze, and so many different techniques that can be used, I’m learning more and more every day. I didn’t specifically study art. So I don’t have any specific technical skills. I make things and I learn as I go along. And I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing. I make mistakes, I figure things out and I don’t let anything stop me, I keep moving forward no matter what. And I like that freedom. Sometimes, it’s a limitation and it can be frustrating. With bronze especially, because it’s expensive, definite, and time-consuming. But I feel like it’s good to make mistakes, learn and make your own way. Sometimes the mistakes are the best things that can possibly happen, good things can happen when you let go and let things come on their own, naturally.
I always knew that I was going to do sculpture. Working with textiles, painting, and taking photos, always felt safer for me somehow, it took me a while to make that jump to bronze and wood. I had to work up the courage, but now I feel completely free.
KUPPER: There’s a lot of freedom, but you also have a lot of control over your materials. It seems like control is also an integral part of your work. Would you say that’s true?
RAHBAR: I have issues with control. It’s a very strong underlying theme in my work– guns, police nightsticks – objects that hold things down, hold things together, and contain things. I use these objects a lot. It definitely stems from my childhood. I don’t like to feel controlled. I have issues with police and authority. It comes through in my work.
KUPPER: What can we expect with your new work being shown at NADA?
RAHBAR: It’s new work. I’m recording a history that is taking shape and form around me. There are a lot of old tools and guns used in these works. They are like these historical sculptural totem poles. There are so many different elements at play– violence, workers, pain, love; it’s the human condition. Being alive on this planet and trying to go from one day to the next. I don’t really think it through too much. It’s instinctual. It comes from what I’m witnessing around me. And If I sit there and analyze it too much, I will kill it.
KUPPER: It’s hard to live sometimes. It’s a very intense world.
RAHBAR: [Laughs.] Not to be depressing and negative, but that’s how it is.
KUPPER: It seems like we have art to be able to put those pieces together, like a psychological puzzle.
KUPPER: Which is why your work is so interesting. Is your work about finding peace or coping with war?
RAHBAR: I would like to find peace. I find peace when I’m making the work. I was definitely not at peace when I was younger. I’m getting closer to it as I get older. As long as I’m working, there is peace within me. I’m very aware, that when I’m not working, I’m uncomfortable in my own skin. The work makes me feel comfortable, and allows me to be able to be with myself, and the world around me. My work is very therapeutic for me. It saves me from myself time and time again.
I’m very sensitive, I don’t like seeing humans or animals in pain. I’m a vegan, and it upsets me tremendously when I see animals being slaughtered and tortured. Images of war upset me, violence kills me, sometimes it feels like we are constantly trying to kill and eat everything around us. And there is so much happening at the same time, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel exhausted and paralyzed.
KUPPER: I agree with you. There’s a lot happening.
RAHBAR: You just want to hit pause, and tell everybody to stop what ever it is that they’re doing.
KUPPER: You just want to stop and have a moment to think, and get people to consider what they’re doing.
RAHBAR: Humans behave very badly. We are constantly attempting to kill off each other, this plant and all the living things that live on this plant with us.
KUPPER: The animal torture, the war– with the Internet, you have so much access to what’s going on. It gets even more intense because you can’t hide from it.
RAHBAR: Exactly. I go on Instagram, and I get so overwhelmed sometimes. The images, the videos – there’s so much access and information. And just because you aren’t looking at it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.
KUPPER: Do you have any other series that you’re working on? Or are you continuing to work with these materials? Do you have a dream project you want to work on?
RAHBAR: I feel like bronze is my dream material. I love strong things. Glass makes me super uncomfortable. Lace, soft fragile things make me uncomfortable. Bronze makes me so happy. I feel like I found my material. And mixing wood and bronze together, that’s my happy place. Right now, I’m working on a lot of isolated body parts in bronze. I read this quote the other day by Benjamin Alire Saenz that really got to me: “Love was always something heavy for me. Something that I had to carry.” …That hit me supper hard when I read it, and It has been the inspiration for the body of work that I’m working on currently.
Bronze, on its own, can feel cold, but when I combine the bronze with wood and the objects that I collect, it softens it some how. Making objects with bronze and wood, that’s my happy place :)
ART REPORT/ Sara Rahbar
On The Transformative Power Of Art/ By Jenny Held /2015
Originally born in Tehran, multi-media artist Sara Rahbar has spent the past 35 years in New York creating a body of work that is both physically and emotionally heavy. Rahbars work spans a variety of media from thick military tarps to wood and cast bronze. Objects are sown, nailed, and soldered into emotionally charged works that are simultaneously sensitive and aggressive. Since the beginning, her artwork has been a means to express herself, catalyzed by a lifetime of social and political tensions. Sara is presumably best known for her flag series. The collection, which spans from 2005 to 2015, consists of multimedia collages of American and Iranian flags. She primarily used traditional Iranian textiles and military paraphernalia in order to explore deeper concepts of nationalism and belonging. As the series progressed, her works got larger and bolder also taking on topics of democracy, capitalism, and religion.
Recently, Sara has stepped away from assembling found objects and has begun to cast her own body parts in bronze. Her willingness to explore the raw roots of her own emotions have pacified her more antagonistic artistic styles. Through this maturation she hopes to tackle the construct of the Self versus the Other and the universally complex impulses of human nature.
While it would be easy to imagine Sara as a brooding artist based on the masculine, aggressive nature of her work, in reality she is a light and humorous woman that uses her work as a peaceful outlet. She is a true testament to the healing power of creativity and expression.
The Workers Trap: An Interview with Sara Rahbar/ Jadaliyya / By Danna Lorch/2015
Dirty gold is the color that smothers every surface of Sara Rahbars New York City studio. Disembodied casts of the artists own anxiously clenched hands and feet are laid out, clinically, on long tables alongside bullet casings, rifle butts, chains, and other found objects. With the same studied intensity that won her the art worlds lofty recognition for her earlier textiles, Rahbar spent the past two years with her ebony hair pulled back out of her face, hunched over these tables, teaching herself how to sculpt.
We held our interview in Dubai at Carbon 12, the gallery that represents Rahbar, which is tucked in a warehouse in the gritty industrial area of Al Quoz, a world away from the opulent hotels and skyscrapers that the city is best known for. We floated in swivel chairs over the gallerys polished concrete floor, surrounded by Swarming, the show that represents the culmination of Rahbars first sculptures, and the marriage of 206 Bones and Confessions, two heavily loaded series addressing sociopolitical issues in America, from the high expectations and perceived failings of Obamacare, to the raw PTSD experienced by returning soldiers; a group the artist considers as part of the workforce. All of the materials for the sculptures-from sickles, to wheels, and wood- have been heavily used by workers and call into question civilizations collective surge towards both everything and nothing.
In her unmistakably New York accent, Rahbar stubbornly suggested that although the show is personal, it does not deal with her childhood escape from Iran with her family, nearly dying in the mountains, then struggling to pull together a new identity in America. Though that story unfolds like a box office hit, its been over hashed in the media, and after thirty-five years spent in the United States, Rahbar rejects that narrative as having any influence on this latest work. Like a ghost, her refugee past has shadowed her whether she likes it or not in every interview shes ever given.
Rahbar first became known for her Flags, a prolific, numbered series that consumed her for nearly a decade, and was the topic of a lecture delivered at The British Museum in October, following the acquisition of two works for the institutions permanent collection. Rahbar rent, patched, and embroidered various textiles from Iran onto and into the American flag, reappropriating the traditional flag into a new kind of canvas. Interestingly enough, the series began as the artists desperate exploration of the tearing of her own family fabric, but was interpreted as political art, while Swarming is engaging directly with political and social issues-the stuff of public monuments presented in a gallerys sterile white space.
Our conversation at Carbon 12 began nervously, progressed bluntly, and ended in laughter.
-Danna Lorch (DL): Your sculptures introduce some distance between you and the flags you are best known for. Did you feel trapped artistically by the success and recognition of that early series?
-Sara Rahbar (SR): I did for a minute, but I dont feel trapped anymore. The flags came instinctively to me and I worked on them until I was complete with that conversation, and then I very naturally moved on.
-DL: There are themes of labor and oppression evident in Swarming. Are you insinuating that modern capitalism invites a vicious cycle?
-SR: The concept of swarming refers to a group of living things gathered in one place, whether its wasps, soldiers in an army, or the growing heartbeat of a revolution. There is a sense of tension in the cast hands and feet. When I get really nervous or angry, I clench my feet and my hands. These sculptures reference that frozen state of pain and anxiety. The two series are about modern day slavery, the laborer, soldiers PTSD, and the everyday pain and violence that surround us all.
-DL: If youre a worker who is paid by the hour, you generally put your own needs and desires on hold for the good of someone else.
-SR: The worker becomes part of a machine. Its a trap, a prison. Accumulating money, and more and more of it, symbolizes freedom and having additional choices in life. This show is very personal for me, as all my shows are. It takes on these bigger conversations, but its all still to do with my life. Im focusing on these subjects because they closely impact me.
-DL: How do you feel about being labelled as an Iranian artist? Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with that designation?
-SR: Honestly, Im very anti-label. My left eye twitches when Im referred to as an Iranian artist, an Iranian American artist, or a Female Iranian artist. As a kid I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was struck by the paintings of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. At the time I never knew where these artists came from or had any background information on them. It was simple-I encountered something visual, it moved me beyond words and I never forgot it. I hope that my work can surpass all these labels and speak a more universal language.
-DL: So out of principle, youre not interested in capitalizing off the latest art world buzz words, even if it grows your name?
-SR: When people call me Iranian, it feels awkward sometimes because I am so disconnected from that culture. Ive lived in New York for over 35 years now. Its my home. I speak, think, and dream in English. My whole life has happened in the United States.
-DL: Nothing left to win, nothing left to lose is particularly unsettling. How and why did the concept for the sculpture appear to you?
-SR: I remember this game from my childhood that I used to play. A small object is hidden in a hand and then moved around behind the back. Its a childrens game, and you have to try to guess whether the object has been concealed in the right or the left palm. This piece stemmed from that idea. Its about empty promises and games people play. You think youre holding onto something, but in reality youre holding onto nothing. You never really own anything. It always owns you and it becomes a daily struggle just to sustain what is yours.
-DL: You once said that youd like for people to view your textiles and sculptures in the same way that they encounter a painting. Why did you suggest that?
-SR: I said that because I work with collected objects from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and I am always being asked to explain the history behind them. I dont necessarily know the origins of my materials, or need to in order to be able to work with them. Its not about that for me. I search for odd and interesting objects at flea markets and garage sales, throw them in a pile in the corner of my studio and then focus on arranging them by color and composition; moving them around until I find balance. Painting is where I began my practice and for me its still about color, composition, texture, and finding a beginning and an end.
-DL: In terms of color, this newer work stays within shades of gold and brown. Thats quite a departure from the vivid textiles and embroidery of your flags.
-SR: Sometimes Im a little embarrassed when I look back at my earliest flags, or initial works in general. They were so bright. Now I need less to say more. Im in love with dirty gold, black, and dark greens. I pour ammonia on the bronze to darken it. I want these pieces to look beat-up, dragged through the mud, scraped, and scratched. I want them to look like they have been to hell and back; I love imperfection.
-DL: Every interview with you always starts off with the dramatic narrative of your familyâ€™s escape from Iran. Do you feel that your history is intimately connected to your artistic practice or does it take away from the strength of your work?
-SR: I wonder if that portion of my biography is even relevant anymore. The work is about much more than that. Oftentimes in interviews Im not asked about my past, yet the writer still inserts that portion of my life at the beginning of the article. I have moved on, so that narrative feels imposed.
-DL: How were you taught to sculpt? Was it part of your graduate curriculum at Central St. Martins?
-SR: Id always wanted to do sculpture, but it can be expensive and challenging, it took me ten years to be able to begin and Ive never been trained in any particular medium beyond sewing. At Central St. Martins they didnâ€™t teach us how to make things, they taught us how to think. I had to figure the rest out on my own.
-DL: Did you have any help in the studio or did you learn to do everything by hand yourself?
-SR: I dont have a crew of assistants helping me. I figure out how Im going to do something by experimenting. The first time I drilled into wood for 206 Bones it split down the middle because it was so old and fragile. I worked with wood and bronze for over two years until I finally got a good sense of it. Ive been working with textiles for ten and I know that there is still more to learn.
Since I dont have an oven in my studio, I go to Modern Art Foundry in Queens. This foundry has been around for eighty years and was actually the place where Louise Bourgeois cast her first spider. I chose them because they let artists come and work for hours and that is very important to me as I need to be involved in the making own my own sculptures.
-DL: Would you say that you nurture or beat yourself up in the studio?
-SR: Since I was very young I was constantly questioning myself, and the world around me. That questioning has always been a vital part of my practice. Sometimes its smooth and sometimes its painful-its a rollercoaster ride, a wresting match-but its necessary, and part of the process.
-DL: This kind of sensitivity is critical. In the UAE, which is a young, yet accomplished country, there is still not always enough heaviness to the art, although a lot of it is certainly pretty.
-SR: It takes time for history to happen and you cant fake it or fast-forward that process. Life is raw, messy and chaotic. You get beat up by it all. Its painful to be on this planet day in and day out, and the only way that I can survive it, is by making work about it.
-DL: Art referencing the American flag is typically associated with folk art. In America there is a tradition of textiles and flags that traces all the way back to Betsy Ross hand sewing the first flag, to Jasper Johns mixed media reinterpretations, and then feminist artists like Barbara Kruger reclaiming it in a fresh form. Similarly, there is an established tradition of sculpture referencing workers rights and issues, often in memorials found in public parks or in conjunction with monuments. What place does this tradition of Americana have in your practice?
-SR: Its all just a reflection of my life, what I have witnessed and the memories that I have held on to.
-DL: Out of the corner of my eye I keep checking on Do you love me from across the gallery, and waiting for its feet to begin scuttling across the concrete floor.
-SR: Originally this piece was meant to be installed on the wall, so that the feet would never touch the ground and remain in a frozen state of anxiety and waiting. The feet are controlled by the object above them, which moves them in different positions and directions. I battle feeling awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin on a daily basis, feeling restless, irritable and lost, and Im addressing those feelings in this piece.
-DL: Are you uncomfortable now?
-SR: Im always uncomfortable and there is a very angry, negative, and judgemental voice in my head on a daily basis, which causes me a lot of angst. Making art is the only thing that makes sense to me and allows me to go on from one day to the next. Sometimes while Im in the studio I play recordings of Sylvia Plaths poetry readings and it calms me somehow. Ive battled depression my entire life and art has been one of the few things I have found that has helped me tremendously. Seeing it, being around it and making it, gives me purpose and hope.
-DL: If you somehow banished that voice how would it change your practice?
-SR: I cant even imagine being without that voice. Maybe Id start to paint flowers?
Harper's Bazaar Art/by Katrina Kufer/2014
Sara Rahbar toes categorical lines that the art world is eager to impress upon the dent in contemporary art that she is making (two works recently acquired by the British Museum, current presence at the Centre Pompidou). Call her neo-dada for intuitive assemblage, reference German practice for materials, havent Rauschenberg or Marisol been thrown in too? Rahbars practice is unintentionally shrewd, offering itself to potentially everything, but fitting nothing in actuality. Her trademark use of conflict-inundated forms permits enough plausible clarity that should be easily definable, but counter-intuitively, there is isolation in her multi-faceted belonging.
Belonging to an art historical categorization, not contextualization, is restrictive, she laments. This applies to her being, too. Rahbar is Artist first and last. [My work is] layered with life, definitions and meaning... we have enough boundaries, borders and limitations in this world, I want someone 400 years from now to still understand and connect to [my work]. Its about being human, not Iranian, American, Woman' nor Immigrant. It's about being alive on this planet and trying to survive your self, life and the world. Before we consider those secondary factors anyway, we have to rectify where her practice even art historically exists... if shell let us.
Belonging is a curious thing; culturally, an amalgamation of globalized (ancient and present) influences; artistically, a seminal text and retrospect. Belonging is something that is easy to say and easier to take for granted... what happens when you cannot? Third Culture Kids, a term coined in the 1950s for children raised outside of their own culture/country reveals a phenomenon of individuals who rapidly absorb and assimilate but lack concrete roots to identify fully with anything. They constitute a new non-culture culture, a position of permanent flux... fragments that make a new kind of whole. It doesnt pertain to the pain of lacking, how can one miss what one never had, rather, the search for cohesion, often clinging to what parts they can. For Rahbar, objects. Because of experiences in my first few years, Ive spent the rest obsessively collecting and piecing together in a way that made sense to me... as if I was reliving something, trying to crazy-glue a broken lamp back together. Rahbar is referencing fleeing Iran with her family at age four due to the Iran-Iraq war, and merely does what TCKs do best: reevaluate the parameters of belonging.
Identity is fluid: the nature of existence, the fact we age, acquire life experience, move, and even if we do not, the world around us does. We may passively absorb the changes with our senses, but our minds eye pays attention, periodically leaking latent influences. Rahbars mind's eye has been on over-drive, gravitating towards objects instinctively, perhaps referencing the circumstances of her relocation, possibly just indicative of her aesthetic. It causes her works to emerge organically, focusing on one at a time until it reaches the apex. This completes sublimation and catharsis, but Rahbar isnt sure why or how, this is just way it is. There is no subduing the Beast (latent memories) so one must let it be, I just trust and listen when it needs to be heard.
Rahbars oeuvre consists of carefully collected, curated and hoarded objects found at flea markets, vintage auctions and dealers that tackle subjects I want to address, initiating a conversation in my head, building a universe. But it also comes from memory, that feeling of longing, a place I cant touch or hold onto. With scientific precision, she meticulously reorganizes disconnected materials with surprising tendernes... the kind of love expected when creating a state of stable permanence. Juxtaposition is poignant.. Rahbar unites objects by hand (drilling, sewing, etc.), an obsessive fix ensuring they (her inner, creative and external worlds) do not fall apart. But it is an unsettling harmony, created with objects that are by nature destructive. The stability is instability, what sustains simultaneously destroys in an inescapable catch-22. Its a vicious cycle. I want and desperately need security and safety, yet I am drawn to things/people that arent. I don't want pain yet I cause myself pain and am attracted to painful things. You repeat what you know and have learned. The paradoxical tone is unmistakable, as is the blunt statement of fact via retrospectively captured moments of anguish. Im not necessarily trying to be an artist, simply attempting to visually communicate my traumas and emotions... turning something ugly into something beautiful. It is beautiful, but it is terrifying; this is the Kant-ian sublime embodied in the form of adorned flags, stained tarps, repurposed gas masks, makeshift guns and contorted feet.
The violent materiality does not overwhelm the poetry though, from lengthy emotive titles to the compositionally considered musings on the human condition. While her 2005 flags were heavily populated with textiles and varying cultural elements exploring her origins, she moved forward with her War series (2009-), assemblage using almost exclusively military materials copiously adorned with metal weaponry, abrupt script and blood splatter. If War was the instigator, the following Confessions (2011-) is the aftermath immortalized in sepia-hued mixed media. More sculptural, more humanly identifiable...and thus more agonized with bronzes of her own hands, feet and head attached to chains, rods and boards to represent shoulders, arms and legs with a plethora of near-piercing spikes.
Her choice of appendages, often used historically to indicate vulnerability and suffering, are body parts that can have pain inflicted upon without leaving physical traces, much like psychological trauma. Mental discomfort rises exponentially at the awareness of pain but inability to see what/why/how. Rahbar associates tension to these irreplaceable essential corporeal elements, in extreme moments of anxiety, I curl my toes, make tight fists...it only felt right [to cast them]. Everything that I do requires all three (feet, hands, head)... they are so fragile, so easily broken.
The artworks may cut into your space, but she brings you into them, transferring trauma from artist to work to viewer, allowing the spectator to finish the story. Rahbars memories are hers; we do not need her past in ours to awaken the universally accessible existential quest for stabilizing belonging that the works incur. Even superficially, the works beg the question, where did these objects come from, why are they together now? I remember when I was a child at museums, I didnt know the artists names, never read any wall texts, I was simply moved beyond words by something visually strong, sometimes beautiful. I want that for my work, to surpass labels, time, my/any back-story. In the end its visual art... it needs to be visually potent. Anything else is extra. I like works that keep giving every time you see it... like a great book that you never get tired of, discovering new things every time you read it. Given the quantity of components substantiating her works, viewers have a rich starting point from which to incite their own sensorial memories.
Memory is also curiously fickle... residing in your mind but coming alive through your senses. The art world may decree look, dont touch, but you don't need your eyes to understand a Rahbar; they play to each sense: inviting your eyes to rest as you carefully hold that cast-white bronze hand dangling from a chain; asking your sense of smell to cast aside the must of historied patriotic textiles in favor of the gentle jingling of ethnic bells; keeping your fingertips pocketed as your eyes grow accustomed to the accosting dense unification of stuff. She uses her experience to create an external visceral one, capturing that internalized lacuna both before and after trauma.
206 Bones (2013-), though the next logical step in her trajectory, is also a noteworthy shift away from shattering towards regeneration. The objects no longer lie side-by-side in solitary impersonal confinement. Her body casts, expanded to reference laborers, are still dismembered but not disjointed, now interacting with each other, reassembling into forms that resemble but will never quite be the way they were before.. but one step closer to finding a more complete state of being. Trauma may denote trauma, but through observation and experience, Rahbar challenges the fragility and inevitable ephemerality of something that should last/exist but doesnt, gently rebuilding and redefining sustainability with her metaphorical crazy-glue. Is Rahbar transfixed in the past, or does she understand that stability may not exist without instability? Every push has its pull; what happens when the pain stops and the cycle ends?
I am calmer and clearer, and as a result, the work is too. Time is also a strong factor. 18 years Ive been working, pushing myself to experiment rather than stagnate; the recent series are a more in-depth continuation of the same conversation as flags. This inner voice kept telling me that Im going in the right direction despite any fears, there is definitely a calm, less resistance, more trust, in my life and work because they are and always will always be intertwined. But my practice isnt dependent on any one thing. As long as Im alive Ill make work, its as natural as breathing, a reflection of where I am emotionally, physically, mentally. I address a lot of heavy subjects but... for the first time in my life, I have found my peace.
Belonging may not need the pre-determination; Rahbar shows it forges itself a new space when there is none. And so it seems, for a moment at least, the Beast can finally go to sleep.
rooms magazine/By Jesc Bunyard/2013
-What concepts and thoughts drive your practice?
My work is a very instinctive, and its its roots stem my life. I have this deep obsession with piecing and holding things together. Maybe Im afraid that things are always falling apart around me and by sewing and welding things together, they will some how stay together, and that some how I will stay together. Its cathartic & very therapeutic for me. I have to do it and I cant seem to stop doing it, its my lifeline, my sanity. I think that when we are nakedly honest and sharing our basic human emotions, ideas and feelings become borderless. Thats how I make-work; I am just nakedly sharing all that I am witnessing.
-Your practice explores autobiographical elements whilst reworking ideas of nationalism. Can you explain a little more about how these aspects interact?
The work is a direct reflection of my life. And I focus on ideas that are important to me and that I am passionate about. Memory also plays its role; what I have lived through and experienced for the last 30 something years has its effects as well. I am constantly in a state of questioning, dissecting and attempting to understand myself, and all that I see taking shape and form around me. I have this obsession with flags and ideas of nationality and this need for belonging to something, to someone or to somewhere. My work addresses the human condition, love, pain, fear and violence, attempting to survive our selves, our lives and our geographic locations. I have always just wanted to feel a feeling of being safe, a feeling of security. I haven been running since I was a child, to and away from, people, circumstances and life in general. And I have always longed to just be able to sit & stay for a while & feel like I can trust & let go. I have never felt like that & that longing shows up in my work allot, staring me right in the eyes. I know a piece is complete when I reach a point of salvation and closure; its instinctual, like love.
-Your work deals with political themes in an aesthetically pleasing or poetical method. Has this always been a concern and why?
Its not so much a concern, as its just my natural way of working. Im obsessed with color and composition and strive for some kind of balance and order in the midst of all of the chaos. And in the whirlwind in my mind where violence, pain and love all live in the same place, I strive to make sense of it all, and in the balancing and composing of the work, I find balance and peace, even if only for a short while.
-Your flags are probably you most recognizable works. Can you explain a little more about them?
I have been working and experimenting with various types of textiles and collected objects for over 15 years now. And the first textile that I began working with was the American flag. I had so much emotional attachment to America, the idea of the American dream and the American flag, that it was the most natural thing for me to do; I was instantly drawn to it and worked with it for about 10 years. I need to piece things together, to put them back together again in a way that makes sense to me. The flag series was my way of trying to understand something and to find completion with it.
-Which medium do you prefer to work with a why?
I dont really have any preferred medium. I work with whatever moves me and best communicates that which I wish to communicate. I work with materials and objects that I am excited to work with. I love a wide array of textures, colors and shapes and am not attached to anything specific. Everything is constantly in a state of motion and change. At the moment I like wood and metal, I like tough, heavy duty, strong materials that have lived and survived, and stood the test of time.
-Where do you see your work going next?
My best guess would be sculpture. A continuation of what I am currently working on, but perhaps at a much larger scale.
-Whats next for you?
My life and work always surprise me and particularly when I think that I have it all figured out, mapped out and planned and organized. But what I would really love is a proper studio where I can work at a really large scale and really go above and beyond what I ever thought was possible.
Art Radar, Batons, bones and guns: an interview with mixed-media artist Sara Rahbar
Art Radar/By Lisa Pollman/2014
Mixed-media innovator Sara Rahbar transitions from textiles to wooden guns to examine economic and political tension in contemporary society.
Sara Rahbar, well-known for her pivotal Flag series, has recently moved from working primarily with textiles to wooden and metal assemblages. Art Radar spoke with the artist to learn more about why she is collecting nineteenth-century objects and how her escape from Iran in the 1980s impacted both her life and her artwork.
Iranian-born artist Sara Rahbar roared onto the international art stage in 2005 with her emblematic Flag series. Residing in New York for the past 33 years, Rahbar has recently been exploring sculptures made of wood and metal in response to societal tension and violence.
The artists work has been widely shown throughout the world, including recent offerings at Art Dubai and Art Brussels and is a part of prominent international collections, including those at the Centre Pompidou, the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art and the Sharjah Art Foundation.
Art Radar sat down with Rahbar to learn more about her newest series 206 Bones and Confessions, what catches her eye at remote flea markets throughout the United States, and the cathartic manifestations of her artwork.
-Please tell our readers about your familys escape from Iran to the United States in 1981, and how that experience plays out in each piece of art that you create.
I dont believe that I consciously think about the impact on each individual piece or even the impact on my life in general. When I left [Iran], I was four years old, and Ive been in the United States for 33 years. So, I dont even think about it. Its just automatic.
My work is always a reflection of my life: what Im focusing on, and what is boiling, twisting and turning inside of me. Sometimes I feel like Im falling apart, coming apart, piece-by-piece. I always feel like Iâ€™m right on the edge. Yet, through it all, somehow the work keeps me together. Its my own private catharsis.
I work so intimately, from my deepest, personal feelings and memories. Its very emotional. This way, I think, everything has an impact, in every part of my life. Even things that I dont consciously think I am incorporating, are being incorporated because everything is very deep-rooted. The things that you think have disappeared sometimes show up again and again. This is like therapy for me, this work. Its all playing a role, even if I am not aware of it.
Regarding how we left [Iran], basically we had all of our paperwork and visas but the Iranian hostage crisis happened and the Iran-Iraq war had started and they closed the borders. We had to escape. We escaped on foot, and it took about seven days. It was not what we anticipated. We thought it would be a lot shorter. We were promised cars, airplanes and things which would make it easy, but it was not that way. We were tricked.
There was one point when we were in the mountains, and we ran out of money. Our smugglers pretty much took everything that we had brought. We thought we had enough to get us through. They wanted more, and we didnt have it, so they left us. A lot of people died in those mountains. We got lucky. I guess the guy felt sorry because my brother was a baby, and I was four. There was a moment when somebody actually felt bad, and this one guy helped us get to the border. We went from Turkey to Dubai to New York.
-Is your artwork a blend of Persian and American motifs, or do you think youve been in the United States long enough that youre drawing primarily from American symbolism at this point?
My immediate surroundings definitely effect me. There are always things that pop up from my childhood when I least expect it. We [just] talked about borders and boundaries. I am working on a piece right now thats about borders and boundaries and lines that we should and shouldnt cross. I am remembering every day, things that have to do with our escape and that time. Its not specific and not conscious. I have to sit there and analyse it, or it just goes right by, like a soft wind, always there in the background. Its very instinctual. I am not always aware of why I do something, I just trust my instincts.
-Would you say you work organically?
Yes, its very organic. I dont map, sketch, analyse or plan things out. I see an object, it triggers something, and I just go with it. Sometimes, I know why. Most of the time, I dont know why. Years pass and still I dont know why. I work with what I am drawn to. Its very organic, and it just comes together.
-At this point, as an artist, are you accessing your ideas from a place of trust? How are you guided by the pieces that you choose intuitively?
Exactly. As you said, theres a trust. Thats something that just comes with time, age and experience. When I was younger, there was a lot of doubt and a lot of confusion. As time passed by and [I created] piece after piece after piece, I just became more in tune with my intuition, and I listen because it never leads you astray. If somethings showing up over and over again, if something is pushing me towards something, theres a reason for it. I just trust, and now its so smooth. The only bumps in the road now are actually troubleshooting, [such as] figuring out how to attach the pieces together and make the work. The technical stuff. My ideas are so much smoother, I listen now.
-You are a mixed-media artist. What found-objects, in specific, interest you most? Why?
Its hard to say that one object specifically moves me or interests me more than another because its constantly in transition and changing. Basically, wherever I am, whatever I see; its random. At the moment, I am working with a lot of wood and metal and objects that hold and tie things together, like chains, a lot of tools. I like objects that are very strong, things that arent going to break or fall apart. I know I am attracted to them for different reasons. I go towards things that are strong, help hold or piece things together and hold them in place. It has a lot to do with ideas of control. Someone once told me that when I was sewing, I was in a state of mind that things around me were constantly falling apart. So sewing was cathartic and I was trying to hold things together. Whenever I finish something, theres a [feeling of] ease. There is a calm in the ocean for a short period of time.
A very full studio
-Are there any interesting or surprising stories behind one specific piece or found-object that youd like to share?
Actually, this is the only question that you sent that I couldnt think of anything specific for. Its because of the amount of objects that I accumulate. I am a borderline hoarder right now. Ive been thinking of getting a booth at a flea market, or figuring out some other way of getting rid of all of this stuff. I go to places in the middle of nowhere, and compared to the amount of stuff that I see, I dont buy that much, but still my shelves and tables at my studio are filled, and there are objects and things everywhere. Sometimes [collecting] is hit or miss. You think something is amazing. You think its a great idea, but it doesnt go through. What do you do? I cant throw it out! So, you collect and become a hoarder.
-Many know of your work through your Flag series (2005-2014), a fifty-two piece series using American and Iranian flags. Would you say these pieces are deconstructed?
I am just piecing things together and deconstructing something at the same time. Some things are falling apart, and other things are coming together again and deconstruction is definitely a part of it.
-How has this series been received by Americans?
I have been asked this question a lot, because it is the American flag, because I live in the United States and because of the extreme sensitivity that surrounds the American flag. I have been showing this body of work for around ten years now, and I have had a mix of reactions to the work. It was the first body of work that I ever did, and it was a really successful series for me; from the first flag to the last flag. In no way was this series meant to be angry, hateful or negative in any way. It was just a reflection of my life, as all my work is, in the end. I was just recording history, my history.
-Is there a meditative quality to sewing together pieces or painstakingly adding a found object/s to complete a piece? How?
Definitely. I think all of the work is meditative, soothing and cathartic. First of all, I have to do it. I dont think there was [ever] a point where I thought I choose to do this. Find broken things, mend them and put them together. Its an obsession. When its complete, I definitely feel lighter. If I didnt do this, I cant image what I would do with my life. Theres nothing else that would really get me out of bed. I am a bit all over the place when I am thinking, processing and planning especially when pieces are complicated. But when its done or when I am working on it, and its working smoothly, its definitely so soothing and relaxing.
-How do you know when a piece is done?
I just know. There are definitely some pieces that I have done immediately. Others, Ill go back to in a year or so and Ill think, Thats what it was! Sometimes it happens with one or two [pieces] and it bothers you like that name that you forgot and you cant sleep until you remember it. I just put it aside and keep looking at it. Now, I am calmer. I just let go. If its not finished, its not finished. I cant force it but when its done, I am so sure. Theres no doubt in my mind.
-As a female artist born in Iran and residing in the United States, which visual artist has inspired you most?
I may have to email you a list. I have so many! I dont ever think about those type of labels such as Iranian or female artists born in Iran and living in the United States. I always had problems with Middle Eastern shows putting me in the Iranian section. When I think of my favourite artists, I never think about where they are from. I just remember the pieces that moved me.
New series, new materials
-Pieces from your Confession series were just shown at Art Brussels 2014. Could you talk about the work You gently ripped me to shreds and what the series is about?
When I started sculpture, I immediately went to my hands, feet and head. It was very instinctual. I cast my hands and feet, the positions that my hands and feet are in when I am stressed, angry or nervous. I caught myself doing that once and realised, I do this every single time. When I began making [these] sculptures, that was the first thing that I wanted to do. In You gently ripped me to shreds, its this tense position with my hands, and the object its hanging off of is called a ratchet strap. Its a device that is used to hold things down or tie things down. It uses tension to hold things in place. They use it for caravans, huge trucks, trailer homes, tie-down packages or to move heavy things like sand or dirt. [Its] the same idea with the chains, too. There were so many things in my mind. I was thinking about jail and control and things that make you feel chained down or feel tension. Thats where that came from. 206 Bones and the Confession series came from this feeling of tension, violence and pain.
-Tell us about your newest series, 206 Bones. Does the title reference the two hundred and six bones found in the human body?
Yes. I dont know why this came so naturally. The body parts were all cast in metal but the title worked for me. It was all about hands and feet and workers working with their hands and feet. Ive been working on it for two years, but it seems like it just started. For the first time, I am working with wood. I have fifteen pieces now but I have a long way to go. There are a lot of found objects and I spend a lot of the time piecing the wood and metal together with very old pieces of wood. Many of these pieces, tools and things, are from the nineteenth century. So theres a lot of troubleshooting.
In the beginning, I had no clue. Id buy these aggressive drills from Home Depot. Iâ€™d drill something, and the thing would crack in half [because] it was super old. Basically, I was just learning how to work with the wood. Ive worked with textiles my whole life, so I was just figuring it out. One of the reasons that I went towards wood was because at one point, I couldnt ship guns and grenades anymore. If the X-ray machine saw that shape, theyd just send it back, and it was a big hassle.
I was talking with my mom about this and she said, What about deconstructed guns? I was in Pennsylvania then, and I started seeing these incomplete wooden guns. I realised I could work with these. Then, I started finding old, wooden batons. There was this idea of force, control and violence. It all kind of stemmed from there and just escalated. It has to do with this idea of the worker. Coal miners, construction workers and making a living wage. Theres been a lot of stuff going on in the last couple of years in America, and all over the world, regarding the economy and how peoples lives have changed; health, education and having a basic quality of life. Taxes. The prison system. All these things. Just the levels of stress and tension on people. Working night and day, year after year and for what? What do we really have at the end of the day? Our governments have become bullies, taking everything that they can by force. On a personal level, I was feeling it myself with my friends and family. These things really took their toll. Then war and nationalism entered the conversation. I also saw soldiers as workers. Most people do not necessarily want to go to war. The places where they recruit people are in poor neighbourhoods. They go there with promises of education or money for their families. All these things started coming into play, and they really began to play their part in this series.
-Your work is currently exhibited at the Centre Pompidou through 2016. Where else can our readers see your work in 2014 and beyond?
I am having a solo show at Carbon 12 Dubai in November 2014, where I am showing 206 Bones and Confessions. This will be the first time Ill be able to properly show these series outside of Art Dubai and Art Brussels.
QUESTRE/by Sonja Steppan/2013
-If you were to ask your future self one question, what would make you most curious to know?
Did it all work out in the end?
-What is the most precious item you inherited?
When we escaped from Iran we lost everything along the way. But my mother hid and held on to 2 of her gold bangles and she gave them to me recently, they mean the world to me and I never take them off. They are a constant reminder of my mothers great strength, determination and love. I wear them on my right arm where I have my tattoo that is another reminder for me always, and dedicated to my brother Arash, from a distance you glistened and shone.
-Have you ever stolen from anybody?
Only from myself, its a bad habit and I really have to stop doing it.
-When lucid dreaming, how does your storyline evolve?
My house has turned into a castle, a huge palace, and as I am running through it, I keep opening door after door and discovering that it is so much bigger than I could have ever imagined.
Sara Rahbars Swarming reflects human conditions
Gulf News/By Jyoti Kalsi/2014
Artist Sara Rahbars family moved from Iran to the US when she was five years old. In her earlier work she has dealt with issues of identity and the traumatic memories of violence and displacement that still affect her. Rahbars third solo show in Dubai, Swarming, also has autobiographical undertones; but it goes beyond personal concerns to address the general human condition in our times. The show speaks about the anxiety and loss of control felt by ordinary people as they toil ceaselessly to deal with the demands and constraints of contemporary life.
Rahbar has a huge collection of workers tools and war related objects bought from flea markets, used goods stores, Army and Navy stores and families of war veterans in Iran and the US, which she uses to create her unusual artwork. In this show she has used farming equipment, police batons, old weapons, shoe forms, butchers hooks and carpentry tools to make a series of interesting installations. The series, titled Confessions of a Sinner pays tribute to the hard work and sacrifice of soldiers and other ordinary workers in our society. In another series, titled 206 Bones, (referring to the number of bones in the human body) Rahbar has used casts of her hands, legs and head to create bronze sculptures that talk about our aspirations and apprehensions, while questioning our idea of success and progress. By combining memory, ideological symbols, and body parts, the artist highlights the fact that our minds and bodies have become like tools, worn out with the daily grind of our relentless pursuit of individual desires and collective progress.
The word swarming makes you think of a group of bees or wasps about to attack. The army also uses the term military swarming for an imminent attack. The thousands of protesters who came out on the streets in recent times also reminded me of a buzzing swarm ready to attack. So, the title of this show reflects the tension and extreme anxiety of seeing a swarm coming to attack you, Rahbar says.
The tools and the body parts in my artwork refer to people who work very hard in difficult jobs for poor compensation. They are trapped in a vicious cycle with no scope for improvement in their quality of life. Many of the tools in these artworks are used to hold things in place or exert pressure. Like the bullets, batons and other weapons in my pieces they evoke the idea of control and of trying to hold things together. And the recurring presence of wheels alludes to the endless vicious cycle that ordinary people get sucked into by social and political systems, including revolutions that are also controlled by hidden forces. The objects in my organic yet precise arrangements are all old, used, beat up, scratched and dirty because life is imperfect and messy, she adds.
Rahbars bronze sculptures are more personal. I decided to use this medium for the first time because I felt the need to move away from found objects and make pieces that are more intimate. My work is about my feelings and my life, so it had to be my body. I tend to curl my toes when I am tense; and I have cast my legs with the feet in that particular pose to convey the general feeling of anxiety that pervades in our society today, she says.
The titles of her sculptures offer insights into the thoughts and emotions behind every piece of work. A piece featuring two hands with one desperately gripping the other is poignantly called Stay. This piece is about holding onto something that is gone or slipping out of our control. It is based on my own relationships; but it is essentially about the memories that traumatise and paralyse us, tying us down to the past and preventing us from moving on. On another level, this piece alludes to the images from Syria and Palestine of people being pulled out from the rubble and orphaned children traumatised by their experiences of war and death, Rahbar says.
Similarly, Do You Love Me, features two hinged legs chained together and placed on the floor. These disembodied legs can be moved in different ways, but the distance they can travel is controlled by the chains. The feeling of violence and anxiety is inherent in this piece. And the hinged legs also evoke the feeling that we have all become like machines, working incessantly in the futile pursuit of happiness and love. The work reflects my own pain of never feeling loved in my relationships; but it also questions the idea of the need to be loved or to belong, the artist says. In other works such as Championship, Victor and I will shelter you the artist questions the logic of war, the idea of winning a war and the general obsession with being number one regardless of the physical and mental cost.
The competition to keep doing better and the fear of being left behind in the race has made us like machines who keep working to build things that sustain us but also destroy us in the end. We need to stop and think about the dreams, anxieties, memories, relationships and sociopolitical systems that affect our choices and actions, Rahbar says.