My mediums change, but the focus of my work has centered on signage and symbology from Iranian and Islamic/Shia art and how they are significant in the construction of histories through documentation. I’m also interested in how the Shia aesthetic is one based in resistance, rebellion and sacrifice. I look at daily uses of images or symbols from the battle at Karbala, or the ways that Islam was adapted to convey messages of justice/injustice. I’m not so much interested in conveying the devotional or spiritual aspects, rather the uses of icons, iconoclasm and symbols. I am also influenced by symbology used in American pop culture in particular, as generated from within a people’s struggle, but also from American media. My exploration is in methods, which construct a collective perspective. Although my work changes in form, the connective thread in the content looks at the creation of symbols or icons through persuasion or other means. I am interested in what gives power to images or language and how they can represent philosophies or actions.
All symbols are things that represent something else. I focus on those created by a collective understanding either locally, influenced by culture and context or understood globally based on human experience. My work is influenced by art production that isolates and discusses those symbols, ranging from minimalism to communication art. More than anything, my body of work exploits the signifiers relayed through iconic symbols. It looks at how icons can be complemented through their various linguistic messages and how they can be manipulated to change historical circumstances.
I use my personal experience but touch upon historical documentation and critical analysis to blend the subjective with the objective. In much of my work, I use text and writing as performance. The text is hand written and sometimes a stream of consciousness and other times a narrative depicting circumstance. In a solo exhibition in Tehran, I translated a transcribed speech given by Fannie Lou Hamer to the US Democratic National Convention in 1964. In the speech, she described her arrest and beating while attempting to vote. I wrote this on the windows of the gallery in Farsi on the first anniversary of the 2009, disputed election of Iran.
My last name, Motevalli, is Farsi for “Keeper of the Shrine”. My father’s family has for hundreds of years been the caretakers of a shrine. The memories of this shrine and my visits there as a child have had a strong influence on me and have a reoccurring aesthetic and or structural presence in my work. The shrines are not only sacred and holy places, but also symbolic of the ultimate sacrifice for the collective survival under oppressive conditions. I have dedicated much of my installation work to recreating the spirit of the Shia shrine. Although I do believe that recognition of this history is important, I also adjust and create works that push the boundaries of the Islamic definitions. I don’t want to create devotional or spiritual work within my Shrine series. I’m interested in the Shia shrines as a collective collaborative public art monument that represents each city they are in with their own particular localized materials and iconography.
“Haram eh Massomeen va Shohadha – Threshold of the Innocents and Martyred, I hand carved a wooden shrine sculpture and installation, physically inspired by my family’s shrine in Sari, Iran. The shrine was dedicated to people killed by law enforcement. Inside was a second rectangular layer nearly equal the size of the outside structure made of plexi-glass. I performed inside the shrine, writing all of the incidents I could find internationally of civilian deaths by police or military. I wrote backward so it could be legible from the outside.
In other shrine pieces, I have used items not traditional to the Shia practice but in that spirit of using materials to fit different contexts. Some shrines installations are made of plastic knives, others made of string bikinis. All of these installations are representative of the labor and struggles of transnational culturally Muslim people.
My performances are immediate and physical reactions to media, perception, events and phenomenon. Through all of my performances I use my body, my history, my knowledge to create dialogues that can impact perspectives and influence change. In “Baba Karam Lessons”, inspired by Adrian Piper’s “Funk Lessons”, I taught an audience in California how to do a dance, mythologicaly from the south side of Tehran, considered the slum. The dance is a caricature of something danced by street tough men called “jahel”. The tradition of the dance has many complex layers that question, class, gender and sexuality. The installation for the dance included all of the costume items and two mirrors with directions for the dance written on them. I taught my American audience to dance like the jahels of south Tehran.
In other performances, I have created characters to enhance and exaggerate aspects of my own personality in a blend with other people I have observed with a similar background to me. Two of these characters are the Sand Ninja and Ak-Ami who constantly overlap/oppose. They also allow their audience to define them to a certain extent through a projected understanding of how their “type” of character would be, Sand Ninja, the over exaggerated orientalist fantasy or AK-AMI a masked hijabi created from a perspective of guerrilla struggle of dominant power systems and a reaction by so many transnational Muslims post 9/11