By Roya Ahmadi, Summer Intern at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies
A conversation with Shirin Towfiq is a rhapsody of passion for her vision and work as a conceptual artist. This same passion for color, texture, and story are present in her diverse body of work and echo her interest in capturing a hyphenated Iranian identity, and the complex cultural relationships of her life. Towfiq, the most recent recipient of the highly prestigious Murphy award, and one of the artists who participated in the Center’s exhibition last spring, “Once at Present” is being recognized for her outstanding work as she continues her Masters in Fine Arts program at Stanford University.
Towfiq grew up surrounded by her extended Iranian family; so much so, that the San Diego street where she and many of her relatives lived became known as ‘Towfiq Street’. Unfortunately, that strong sense of community did not extend to Towfiq’s life at school. “I wanted to assimilate so badly,” she says looking back at her younger years. It was only much later that Towfiq developed the language to express this complex struggle with identity, including in her art. Her desire to “fit in” was so strong she convinced mother to pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her lunch. She says laughing, that her mother ultimately gave in to her demand but made the sandwich from pita bread with a sour mulberry jam she had made from mulberries from their backyard. “I realized then that no matter how hard I tried to be American, I would always be Iranian.”
After high school, Towfiq sought unique global opportunities that led her many places: to do service at the Bahai temple in Haifa, Israel, and to Ukraine for an internship where Towfiq first registered her fascination for contemporary and conceptual art at the Ukraine Biennale, a bi-annual contemporary art exhibition. “All I knew about art was classic Euro-centric art that had nothing to do with my experiences and identity. I realized that art could relate to all aspects of life including narratives that have been previously overlooked. ” With a newfound passion for the arts, Towfiq returned home from her travels abroad to attend UC Berkeley where she studied art.
Several of Towfiq’s pieces were featured in the “Once at Present” exhibit sponsored by the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies for the “Forty Years & More” conference in March 2019. Consisting of three parts “No, I Never Went Back” is a series of artistic “ghostprint” renditions of the only photographs her father brought from Iran. One of the prints features her father surveying an area of rural land for development. She describes the nuances of the piece: “My father is looking into the future, imagining what could become of this barren land, while we, the viewers, look into the past. And this was taken so close to the 1979 revolution that the changing landscape almost seems like a metaphor for the turbulence of the national politics of that time.” There’s so much meaning hidden within the photograph that Towfiq takes it a step further by crafting the viewer’s experience. Initially she printed the photograph on fabric, but ended up using the paper backing of the fabric that the image had transferred onto, calling it a “ghostprint”, which, she says, “creates another step removed from the image.” By crumpling the paper, Towfiq says she makes it “look like the rocky landscape and almost like a piece of granite rock — like a moment stuck in time.”
Towfiq is working to take more creative inspiration from the stories of her heritage. She says, “A lot of what I’ve heard about Iran seems theatrical and dramatized. Much of my idea of the country is what I imagine or what my family members choose to remember.” Because of that, for her Iran has become more a collection of memories than something that exists authentically. Towfiq aims to use this feeling to make a series of imagined photographs “playing out the memories” in this strange but familiar land, exploring what is kept and what is lost through storytelling and intergenerational communication.
As a part of her artistic process, Towfiq begins with a concept that she wants to explore, then decides which medium would best suit the idea. Towfiq’s art transcends mediums as she uses performance, installation, photography, textiles, and more to express the complexities and nuances of her identity. The common thread however is Towfiq’s loving and passionate engagement with her past. It’s easy to notice that practically every member of her family and their narratives are somehow represented in her work. Towfiq herself credits her work’s deep connection to identity to a large part of her success. “I’m so fascinated by my family’s story, my embodied archives.”
The Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies would like to congratulate Towfiq for her incredible accomplishment winning the Murphy award and excited to see how her work continues to grow and engage thoughtfully with her Iranian American identity!