Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Taraneh Hemami, Artist, Activist, and Curator for “Part and Parcel” and “Once at Present”

by Samira Damavandi

Taraneh Hemami has been involved in the arts since she was a young girl living in Iran. As a child, her mother encouraged her to take music lessons and art classes at the Kanoon-e Farhangi Koodakan va Nojavanan, or Cultural Center for Children and Youth, a community collective environment that focused on the arts in Iran. “I was always drawing as a child – it was my way of creating a world for myself,” she said. She attributes her experience in this collective environment as a major influence on her longstanding commitment to the arts and to becoming a visual artist herself.

Hemami came to the United States in 1978 to study art at the University of Oregon, Eugene. Like other Iranian students during that era, she says that “the idea was to study and go back, but life had a different plan for me.” When the revolution erupted in 1979, her path changed course, and she became a kind of “accidental immigrant.”

TaranehHemami“After the first decade in the U.S., I wanted to go home,” Hemami says. “But my dad died by the second decade, and it became clear by then that I was going to stay.” Hemami went on to receive her Master of Fine Arts from California College of the Arts, the institution where she currently teaches in the visual arts program.

Hemami’s life as an immigrant in the United States has naturally informed her work. However, a 1990 visit to Iran dramatically impacted her vision of her work. Becoming immersed in her native culture during that visit sparked a growing interest in Islamic architecture and arts. “I was also deeply immersed in my family’s narrative again, and that inspired me to notice and draw on the traditions being handed down by women from each generation.”

Utilizing mediums such as glasswork, textile production, and sculpture, Hemami boldly and unapologetically examines complex themes of displacement, memory, and representation within the Iranian and Iranian-American experiences. Her creations are often distinctive and handcrafted, using a variety of mediums and themes: shattered glass forming traditional Muslim prayer rugs; laser-cut wool carpets that depict a map of Tehran; fabric imprinted with icons of Iran’s dissident history; elaborately-beaded hangings depicting scenes of political and historical turmoil in Iran; and, imagery taken from U.S. governmental sites or banned propaganda from the Iranian underground.

A primary goal in Hemami’s work is to give voice to unheard stories and marginalized histories. For example, one of her first installations, “Sacred Space” (1994), focused on the stories of Iranian women. For the performance around this exhibit, she brought women together for a series of visual arts and storytelling workshops. Since then, many of Hemami’s projects and exhibits have focused on the Iranian diaspora community and aim to foster conversation and reflection about the experience of immigration to the United States, as well as challenging some of the representations of Iranians in the media and “official” narratives. She has long championed the work of other Iranian diaspora artists in her role as a curator. In addition to featuring the work of fellow Iranian and Iranian American artists, she has created opportunities to promote greater community by engaging in diverse histories of displacement, immigration, and by responding to larger narratives about Iran in the U.S. She has mined the rich history of Iranians in the San Francisco Bay Area and their long political engagement in this region. Among those installations that feature her Bay Area roots are “Hall of Reflections” at the San Francisco Arts Commission gallery (2002) and “Cross Connections” at the Oliver Arts Center in Oakland, CA (2005-2006). Her solo shows include installations at the Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates (2003), and her installation “Ruins” at the AG Galerie in Iran (2003).

Among her other current projects, Hemami will be participating in the Market Street poster series, a public art series in San Francisco on display this upcoming November 2019. The poster series examines Market Street as a place of gathering for protests and celebrations. She is also creating a public art project for the city of Oakland which will look at the symbol of the oak tree, and will build a sculpture of reflective stainless steel and glass, which she aims to finish by January 2020.

Most recently, Hemami has curated two current exhibitions that are occurring in the context of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies’ “Forty Years and More” conference from March 28-30, 2019. “Part and Parcel,” with 4 Bay Area Iranian diaspora artists, will be on display at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery until March 30, 2019. “Once at Present,” co-curated by Hemami and Kevin B. Chen at the Minnesota Street Project, featuring work by 19 Bay Area-based Iranian diaspora artists will open on March 30 (with a reception on the final day of the conference), and will remain on display until April 21, 2019. To learn more about events surrounding the “Once at Present” Exhibit, go to: https://www.facebook.com/onceatpresent/

To learn more about Hemami’s work, go to: https://www.taranehhemami.com/

For a full list of speakers and the conference schedule, go to: https://ids.sfsu.edu/conference.

*BANNER CAPTION: Detail from Hemami’s installation “Hall of Reflections (Mirror Assemblages),” San Francisco Art Commission Gallery, 2000.

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