Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Azin Seraj—Making Art from the Archive of Her Diasporic Life

By Persis Karim 

For Azin Seraj, being part of the diaspora is not only a reality, it’s also one of the most regular metaphors that appears in her artwork. Seraj was born in Iran, but considers herself transnational. She is Iranian and Canadian, but her life in the Bay Area has been formative for her artistic oeuvre. Seraj’s body of work—in film, video,  photography, and mixed-media installations are a reflection of not just her life and her family’s, but also of the community where she grew up just outside Tehran, Iran just after the 1979 Revolution. It was the experience of living in the gated, suburban community of Dehkadeh, built several years before the country erupted into protest and revolution, that has deeply touched Seraj’s life. It was, however, no ordinary suburban town. Seraj, who was born in the early years of the revolution and at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, reflects on how those events and the safety of the Dehkadeh affected her perceptions of how she saw and experienced those bigger cultural and historical events. 

“My father was a doctor, and it was through him, in those times of crisis—when there were food shortages, and people relying on the goodness of neighbors, that I witnessed the incredible connection and communal spirit that can grow from crisis,” Seraj says. “It affected me. We helped each other. We, my parents and all those children like me that lived in Dehkadeh, grew up together in times of crisis.” 

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Seraj’s family eventually moved to Tehran where she attended elementary through high school, and it was there that she became aware of the acute lines drawn between public and private, and how much more challenging it was for her to navigate them. “It was in the first decade of the revolution, and we had to learn ways to resist and decode, and I missed how close we had all been in this idyllic community. We kept our house there and we’d return on weekends and holidays, but I counted the days until the weekend when we would go back and I would feel the freedom, community, and joy that had had been such a strong part of my childhood,” she adds. During her adolescence, Seraj became increasingly aware of immigration as an inevitable part of any young Iranian person’s life. “One by one, my friends started to move away, and families were starting to separate. Fathers were staying, while mothers and children were leaving to make a life in another country.” Perhaps because of this, or because of her awareness of the fleetingness of her childhood, she became obsessed with the idea of photographs, home movies, and especially, the TV show her father hosted (and also executive produced) called, “Danesh,” which was a local, Iranian precursor to the BBC “Planet Earth” series. 

“My father’s involvement with Danesh was my first introduction to media and video; he invited scholars and knowledgeable people to discuss nature. For example, one episode focused on the endangered tiger found in Iran. But after the revolution, those videos were not available to him. He tried to get those tapes back, but couldn’t. I became aware of how important those stories and that show had been for him.” 

Seraj relates that her father had always been interested in technology, in archiving. “I guess I was obsessed with those videos too, and they seeped into my DNA,” she says. “I think that’s when I started wanting to preserve memories, to record life in our family, because I felt it was fleeting. It was that time when everyone was leaving, moving to other countries, in search of a better life,” she says. 

As a teenager, Seraj was interested in stories, in drawing, and yes, cameras. From the time she could hold a pencil, Seraj would draw stories, scribbled in notebooks, used calendars, any paper she could get her hands on. Although she was not disciplined, she was always recording things: making stories with her pencil and her camera. These practices, and the memories she’d stored, followed her in her move to Vancouver, Canada at the age of nineteen, where she was first admitted to Capilano University before transferring to the University of Victoria. “I experienced real culture shock, and had lots of complicated emotions around displacement, “ she says. “I’d left Iran when it was just emerging from crisis and I missed my family and friends. I felt little excitement about the things I was studying.” After almost a year, she found her bearings when she took an art history class and was working on her final project; it prompted her to pick up her camera again and produce a series of photographs that evoked her real passion and interest in being an artist.

“I realized I was interested in using some of the archive of my own life to express myself,” she says. Her professor, Lynda Gammon, pushed her to see the connection between metaphor and symbols in her own life, to close the circle; this initiated her journey into looking at her own “ethnographic biography.” It was around the time she’d graduated from university, that her sister passed away from cancer in Vancouver. “It was a devastating loss, and I knew that I had to remember how we had been as a family and to be there for my nephew.” 

Seraj’s growing interest in the idea of drawing on her family archive and in video and photography found its fullest expression after she came to UC Berkeley in 2008 for an MFA program. “I began to revisit the family archive, finding that I had to ‘restage’ a whole story from fragments of memory and everyday life in Iran. I became engaged with the ‘impermanence of moments’ and the ways they brought me back to people and times that were singularly important. Like my grandmother.” 

The stories of her family, and the stories that were told to her by her mother have become part of both the way Seraj has kept the trace of Iran in her life, but also given it to others through her visual art—in film, video, and photography installations. “I want my work to resonate with those who might have shared experiences, but I’m not interested in nostalgia. Nostalgia flattens. What I want to do is to build connections between the audience and the viewer, so that they can see themselves in an image, a video segment, a fleeting moment.  I want to give life to those images in the archive, as if they are entering an intimate space that feels welcoming regardless of who is viewing.” 

The intimacy expressed in Seraj’s work draws on some of the national and familial rituals that are important to her. This year, during the COVID-19 “shelter-in-place,” Seraj was acutely aware of the absence of one of the most important seasonal gatherings and rituals that accompany the spring equinox, Norooz. “It was bizarre this year,” she says, “even during the Iran-Iraq War, we celebrated, we marked the passage into spring, we joyfully greeted the idea of rebirth. None of that was possible this year,” she says. Seraj is currently working on a new series of photographs titled, “Spring Memorabilia,” which uses images from her last visit to Iran in 2011 during Norooz. “I’m using my body to bring forth some of the elements of spring, and those very meaningful spring rituals to create a kind of connection to the past, but also a yearning for closeness in the present,” she says. That yearning has been made more profound by the recent and sudden death of Seraj’s mother, who was battling cancer. Sadly, Seraj could not see her or say goodbye because she could not travel to Iran both because of COVID-19 and US travel restrictions. 

“My mother and I shared a deep bond, and it was more expansive than a mother-daughter relationship,” she says. “She was my biggest inspiration and I so admired her resilience and strength to not only face life, but also to really live it, even in the midst of the most painful events,” says Seraj. “She walked this life with so much integrity and open-heartedness and she so believed in me.” 

???? ????-walnut treeAlthough a dual-national, Seraj’s journey as an Iranian-born Canadian citizen with deep California roots, has inspired her to think about the intimacy, not of place, but of the strange and wonderful “architecture” of belonging. “My mother was a deeply matriarchal figure, and her resiliency, her passion to keep on living, even after my sister passed, has inspired me. Now, with her very recent departure, I’m feeling that need to share and honor their stories,” she says. On her Facebook and Instagram Seraj shares images of her vibrant and resilient mother with this message: “You have given me the purest and most beautiful unconditional love. You have given the world the most precious gift of love. . . You taught us how to love stronger even with a broken heart.”

Seraj will continue to pass on her mother’s stories, vision, through her archival artwork wherever she goes. For now, she is passionate about working with young people to help them understand the urgency of telling their stories, finding their voice, and creating radical new ways to tell the stories of their lives. “We have to see this moment, this crisis, whether it is manifest as personal or national loss, as an occasion to share how resilient we are, and to show how we ground ourselves in the past and in this current yearning for closeness.” Remembering her mother, Seraj says, “my mom would advise me to keep going, keep making things, keep telling my story.”

We know, that her mother would encourage and support her to keep going, keep telling her stories, and to remember “all the places from which she belongs.” Seraj was one of the 20 artists who were part of the exhibition, “Once at Present” that the Center sponsored last year at the Minnesota Street Gallery as part of our conference, “40 Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies,” and her work appears in the soon-to-be published catalogue from this exhibition. To learn more about Azin Seraj’s work and to learn more about her past and current projects visit: www.azinseraj.com and @_azin.s_ (Instagram). 

All photos courtesy of Azin Seraj: 1) Banner Photo: Azin and her mother, Farideh, in their house in Vancouver;  2) Azin and her walnut tree in her backyard in Dehkadeh (she was last there in Norooz, 2011); 3) Azin with one of her recent pieces from “Spring Memorabilia” which superimposes branches of her walnut tree onto her face.

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