Soody Sharifi is an Iranian/American artist based in Houston. Her work primarily deals with the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in living between two cultures. In many of her series, she has explored the notion of identity and what it means to participate in two cultures from both an outsider’s and an insider’s perspective. From her Maxiatures to Persian Delights, she investigates the emerging concept of self-identity in Moslem youth from the Middle East and the US and specifically, how they accommodate modernity and the indulgences of exploration within an otherwise traditional society.
A 2011 Jameel Prize nominee, Soody Sharifi has been exhibited nationally and internationally since 2004, including the Baku Biennial, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Portland, Farjam Collection, Sharjah, and Museum of Art, United Arab Emirates.
Artadia: You received the Houston Artadia Award in 2006. Can you tell us about where you were in terms of your work/practice?
Soody Sharifi: My work deals with Iranians, mostly women. I started with my “Moslem Youth” series. I traveled to Iran many times and became very interested in the interactions between young women and their environment, as well as their interactions with each other. At that time, I don’t think young Muslim women were depicted. Of course, I saw many images like mine from other artists later. But at that time it was well received because people had no idea. I sort of opened up these very closed contemporary lives of Iranian teenagers, and because I was a woman I could photograph these young women. Sometimes they were covered, sometimes I asked them to cover themselves because I didn’t want any trouble with the government as a photographer. Later on, I used those images as part of the collage in my work, and I created the “Maxiatures” and later the “Persian Delights.”
A: How do you feel the reception of your work has evolved in the past decade since winning the Award?
SS: When I did the teenager series it was 2004 and I was graduating from my MFA from University of Houston. I showed my work to one of my professors and they said something like, “Who would be interested in these? Do you think an American audience would be interested?” I was actually surprised because Shirin Neshat was already photographing Iranian women in “Women of Allah” but no one was shooting teenagers. I kept doing it, I didn’t care. After I got the Award in 2006, I showed at the Contemporary Museum of Art Houston. It put me in a much more national space, so people actually paid attention to my work. Islam became more of a subject for people, and for artists to work with. At that time, when there was no interest, I was doing it because I just went back to Iran and I felt like as a photographer I needed to show these things.
A: The “Moslem Youth” series captures teenagers in intimate moments – in groups and solitude alike. What drew you to teenagers as the subjects for your photographs?
SS: When I was spending time with my family and friends at their homes, I noticed these young teenagers being sort of fanciful and playful. Because I had a teenager at that time in America, I noticed that teenagers, no matter where they live, have the same characteristics. They like the music, they like self image, they like the opposite sex, they’re on the computer talking to other people. I realized this is something that’s not known in the West. All the images you see on the radio and TV are about protests, oppression and religion. Most of my work is staged, because I want it to look beautiful in the way I see it, but it is based on the actual events I observed in the environment.
A: What is your relationship to the sitters in order to achieve the intimacy and candor found in your photographs?
SS: I ask my sitters to act in certain ways. It’s funny – they actually take it on themselves sometimes – and that’s what I think makes it more real. One time I was photographing this girl in Persepolis, an ancient area, watched by the police and security. So I said “It doesn’t matter, just do whatever you want to do and I will take a photograph.” One of these girls actually laid down on a piece of rock and said, “I’m a Persian princess, now you can take my photograph.” It became such a great subject. Another example was with Enrique [the musician]. “Bailame” was a song that I listened to in Iran as well as in America with my teenager. So I asked if my sitters had a picture of Enrique. And they all had it. So I had them sit down and I took a photograph with Enrique. It’s sort of coincidental and staged, that’s why it looks much more intimate.
A: In your “American Flag” series, Muslim subjects are captured with American flag paraphernalia in the form of earrings, flip flops, basketballs and flags. How did you choose these assortment of items and why photograph them?
SS: After 9/11 I questioned my identity as a Muslim American rather than an Iranian American. In Iran, the flag is very respected. Here, I saw bikinis, flip flops – all of this American flag paraphernalia, which I started collecting. And of course after 9/11 you see these things much more everywhere. And then you see the slogans like “In God We Trust.” I wanted to use the objects to say I am American but I am also Muslim – how do I interact with these objects? Where do I stand? Where is my identity right now?
A: Can you speak about the process behind your “Maxiatures” series in its use of both photography and collage?
SS: I feel like I’m a storyteller. I stage stories that I create. When I did collages with photoshop, it opened up a whole new world for me – I could be more imaginative. The miniature has so many stories within it that I could create. It takes me a long time, but I really love it.
I collect Persian miniatures, scan them, put in my own images and landscapes, change them and enlarge them. That’s where the idea of “maxiature” comes from – maximizing what we used to see only in 7 x 10 images. Now digitally we have a choice of looking at all the details and appreciating it. I feel like I’m collaborating with the artists working in the 15th and 16th centuries.
A: How are your photographs chosen to accompany the illustrations within the Persian miniatures?
SS: Persian miniatures usually depict the life of the court people. When I looked at these images, I saw these Persian figures interacting together and I imagined what it would look like if this was happening in the 21st century on the streets of Iran. Since I had documented a lot of landscapes and images of younger women and men in their environments, I could look at the miniature and create my own story of what is really happening culturally in Iran.
A: What draws you to a certain Persian Miniature for an artwork?
SS: Sometimes it’s about covering like in “frolicking woman in the pool.” I noticed I had gone to many places – especially beaches – where women are covered, but men are not. When I looked at the original miniature, I saw these naked women depicted in the pool. The men are in their bathing suits but the women are covered.
“The feast of Id” is about how many young people can not afford to pay for their wedding in Iran. The government started to use a whole place for six or seven weddings to happen at the same time. And then I used the women again as performers, although they’re covered. I want people to question these cultural things. This is how I choose many of my images.
A: “Persian Delights” is a series of collages that are pared down in comparison to “Maxiatures.” How do you find this act of simplifying to affect the viewing of the work?
SS: I feel like “Persian Delights” is more talking about an Iranian who is living in the West. I use a focused image because I want to show how we westerners stereotype the Middle East and the Middle East has a completely different image of us. If you look at “Kite Runner,” for example, it has flags, one with voluptuous women in bikinis, the American flag, Mickey Mouse. I wanted to show how I feel as an Iranian American living in the West, as we Americans think of Iranians as very religious, always reading the Quran, and not really having a life.
A: Can you tell us about your collage series, “The Desert Beyond the City Belongs to Me”?
SS: It is actually very relevant to what’s going on. I did it right after the “Maxiatures.” I had a lot of images of the landscape, which I wanted to use in a more political way. Not using actual figures but using animation in the landscape so it’s the complete opposite of the “Maxiature.” I think it was too political at that time, or even now. Galleries didn’t want to show it as much, so I’m hoping that it will be shown in more group exhibits.
A: In the context of these stories, are they historically based, religious, mythological? How are those landscapes chosen and the figures within them?
SS: It is from events actually. Events that I read about in the newspaper or in novels. I document a lot of places because I always have my camera when I travel. At the time I’m photographing, I don’t have an agenda. I think “this is a wonderful landscape for me.” Then later on I have a story to tell and I choose the right landscape for it. “Stoning of the Woman” for example. There was a place that I visited where they used to leave bodies on top of the mountain until the vultures would eat them. I used that space because it was such a beautiful space up on the mountains and I could use the woman and have the men looking at her.
A: What are you working on now?
SS: I am very sensitive to Muslim women’s issues, the female body, the hair. Everything is of interest to me. That’s how it started actually. I did a black-and-white series where my body wasn’t showing but my hands and feet were showing. Then when my camera, a sort of male object comes into this, I cannot actually depict the body of a woman. What is it about the body of the woman that cannot be shown?
I am interested in what’s happening on the streets of Iran right now. I’m going back to my images because I always thought why is the hair so controversial? During the Shah regime, they forced women to take off the hijab, and the Islamic regime now is forcing people to put it on head to toe. This is the focus of my next project and I’m very passionate about it. The hijab was something I was always questioning. I never wore a hijab and I was sort of conflicted when I went back to Iran. I’m thinking of using my images, assemblage, and found objects that I brought from Iran. I’m inspired to make a Hannah Hoch kind of a work, using my hands and pieces of bodies of women. What is it about the idea of the patriarchy that practices their power through the body of the woman?