Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
It is a cool, crisp day in Venice. With my boots still on, I climb carefully inside the wooden crate, bow down my head to avoid hitting it on the "ceiling" of the crate - a photograph on stretched vinyl of the intricate tile work on the ceiling of a Persian mosque. I wriggle into a comfortable position on the well-worn Persian carpet and cushions scattered inside and become part of "Break the Lass and Fall into the Glassblower's Breath," a mixed-media, modular performance piece currently on view at Shulamit Gallery in Venice.
The title of the work puns a line from a poem by 13th-century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi: "Break the glass and fall into the glassblower's breath," words that encourage us to let go and accepting our life, our fate. The "lass" here is Marjan K. Vayghan, an exuberant emerging artist of Azerbaijani-Iranian background who has lived between Iran and the United States since her family moved here in 1995. Not yet thirty, Vayghan is passionate about her homeland, its art, literature, architecture, food and people, but is far from accepting the horrors many Iranians have experienced in recent years -- abuse against women and non-Muslim residents, kidnappings, and murder. Her series of transformed art shipping crates, her "Legacy Crates," not only symbolize her journey from the land of her ancestry and her transcultural life and identity, but more significantly, they provide a safe place in which she can retreat from these horrors and nourish her soul on the art, poetry and dreams of the Iran she loves.
Vayghan has experienced these horrors first hand. Since her family moved to the US, they have returned every summer to Iran. In recent years, Vayghan had been using her trips back to Tehran to explore her creativity, work with artists there and curate exhibitions that introduced foreign artists' works to Iranians. On August 5, 2009, she was driving to an art gallery in Tehran with her partner when suddenly a man outside the car started yelling at them. He pulled her out of the car and took her away for interrogation. She was interrogated at length by strangers, who undoubtedly worked for the government. Her eyes well up as she describes how, after several rounds of interrogation, verbal abuse and separation from her loved ones, she almost longed for death to come. "I just wanted to see a loved one's eyes one more time before I died." She was released early the next morning, and though she was never actually accused of a specific crime, she fears what might happen to her if she were to return to Iran. Just two days after her kidnapping, she attended the funeral of a childhood friend who was murdered.
Vayghan was profoundly traumatized. After returning to the US, she spent two years hiding inside her closet reading and "geeking out" learning about art theory and poetry. She filled her closet with Persian carpets and cushions, creating a safe, womb-like place of beauty and art to help her heal. Making art also helped her numb the pain. When a local artist gave her several shipping crates he no longer needed, she realized that she could use them to create similar safe places to share with others. "The Breaking the Lass series," she explains, "is about turning fear and anxiety into a therapeutic, creative means of expression." She invites participation. "Sometimes I kidnap people," she explains. "After they have spent time in the crate, they come out feeling happier, not traumatized. I wish I could send a crate to everyone."
Beyond therapy, she hopes that the crates will remind people here that, despite the lack of news coverage here since the Green Revolution of 2009, many people in Iran are still suffering at the hands of an abusive regime. Visitors who sit inside will hear audio recordings of people shouting at a gravesite protest in Tehran, as well as people whispering that it is inappropriate for young lady to dry in public. For those visitors she "kidnaps," she is more than willing to share with them her own experiences, political views, and even her prints and poetry if they ask. This intimate engagement with others is the heart of her performance.
"Marjan uses her art to speak in a generational voice about Iran," says Shulamit Gallery owner and co-director Shulamit Nazarian. "She is the youngest artist we are featuring right now, but she is a pivotal artist -- she knows both worlds, Iran and the US, so she fits into our gallery's mission, to create a bridge between cultures." In the exhibition "Leaving the Land of Roses" at Shulamit Gallery, Vayghan's crates themselves share a safe space with the works of more seasoned Iranian artists -- David Abir, Krista Nassi and Tal Shochat -- all of whom left Iran behind to create a new home (Abir and Nassi in the US and Shochat in Israel). Their works all explore ideas of exile and the nostalgic longing for a fragrant, beautiful homeland. "Vayghan's artworks are highly political," explains Nazarian, "but they are powerful because they express a childlike longing for a homeland of her imagination."
Three summers have passed since Vayghan's kidnapping, and she has spent them all in Los Angeles. She longs to go back to her "home" in Iran, especially now because her grandmother, one of the three women who raised her, is very ill. However, Los Angeles has now become her "safe place," and for the time being, her Legacy Crates and the powerful human interactions they invite will sooth and heal her spirit until she is ready and able to return again to the land of roses.
Marjan K. Vayghan's work is on view at Shulamit Gallery in Venice as part of the exhibition "Leaving the Land of Roses," which is open to the public from January 19 through March 9, 2013. The exhibition is a satellite exhibition of the exhibition "Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews" at the UCLA Fowler Museum through March 10, 2013.