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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Spaces of Possibility with Iranian Diaspora Artist, Afruz Amighi

by Peppa, Center Research Fellow, New York

Most renowned for her seemingly weightless sculptures made of steel, chain, and light, artist Afruz Amighi creates artwork using beautifully ornate Iranian-inspired aesthetics to reimagine connotations of materials and form. The simultaneous ethereal quality and the weight of her materials create a unique celestial and esoteric experience. Always intentionally illuminated, Amighi’s sculptures hang from the ceiling, extend from the walls, and rise from pedestals. In a recent interview she offered wondrous and fluid interpretations in her work, specifically of the forms and materials in her pieces. Structures resembling buildings, missiles, flames, lanterns, bodies, domes, bird cages, windows, arches, curtains, and carpets recur, and she embraces time as a natural process in redefining the meaning of her work. When she first started making sculptures out of chain, she says she “saw them as half missile, half chandelier – a hybrid representing the material abundance we gain from the arms industry.” Now, they are “figures with long gowns on, traipsing across the earth.”

Amighi’s openness to potentiality and possibility is woven into her artistic process and her perspective on life. Growing up most of her life in New York City, Amighi left her home of Tehran, Iran when she was only three years old. Amighi refers to identity as a “shifting landscape,” something that is not fixed. “I hear people (sometimes myself) say, ‘as a woman’, ‘as’ this or that. I’m interested in loosening the grip. Allowing a future self in,” she adds. Amighi also shares the experience of growing up and feeling out of place– between homes, between countries—that others in the diaspora feel. “When one feels out of place in life, it is easy to think that if you were to somehow find your place, then everything would come together. For a long time, I attributed this feeling to being taken away from my birthplace. As a result, my early work was a meditation on Iran – its history, its birds, its tumult, its architecture. But more specifically, it was a way to mark my absence from the latter, to shine a light on the fact that I was not witness to all the things that, in my youthful fantasy, would have made me feel at home in the world,” she explains. Her art became a way for her to create her own environment, spaces of possibility.

“Spirit Canopy” (photography by Genevieve Hanson), 2021

Amighi’s inspiration, she explains, is from patterns she was surrounded by in her childhood: “Persian rugs on walls, on floors, for sale, to keep, under our bare legs as furniture upholstery.” She adds, “I grew up… in houses filled with dust motes in beams of light created from the constant unfurling of carpets. They were never vessels of color to me; I only saw the intricate forms. I pestered my father about the stories they held but he didn’t know them. Their beauty was enough.” Amighi went on to study political science at Barnard College at Columbia University before pursuing her art career and completing her Masters of Fine Arts at New York University. From the time she was in graduate school, she followed her curiosity in the materials she found around her. Her home of New York City has always been a place of material inspiration. Referring to the built environment, she explains, “we see these materials everywhere and we don’t acknowledge them—we feel an awe for the cities that we have made from them—but there is little intimacy with the materials. They were once in the core of the earth glistening. Or in the plants and sand. We extracted them, boiled them, did all kinds of things to them.”

Amighi approaches materials spontaneously and thoughtfully, allowing for the material to tell its own story. She remembers a moment in graduate school in which she “stumbled upon a white diaphanous material called woven polyethylene… I found out this material was used by the United Nations to construct tents in refugee camps. I loved its transparency and airiness, and that it could carry such heavy history in its folds.” In a recent group show, Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection at the Asia Society Museum, Amighi’s piece, “Angels in Combat I” (2010), shows an intricately hand-cut design on woven polyethylene. The piece hangs from the ceiling like a carpet or curtain, displaying a floral pattern resembling those of Iranian carpets. Amighi explains that she directly burned the design into the material, “like drawing with a hot copper pen”; light then shines through the material to leave a captivating shadow on the wall. Upon closer observation, small angels line the floral patterns. In the arms of these delicate angels are machine guns. This detail speaks to the quietly provocative nature of Amighi’s work, and the subtle, yet weighted, way she reveals meaning.

The presence of light and shadow also contribute to this sense of provocation. Lighting can change the effect and meaning of a piece, and becomes a crucial factor visual artists consider when exhibiting work. For Amighi, light is more than a factor for the final presentation. The illumination of her pieces essentially completes the artwork, and is of such importance that she includes “light” in her materials list. She states, “we all work with light but it’s unconscious. It guides our internal rhythm, our calendar, our work, our sleep. Architects play with it, blocking it, allowing it in, refracting it through colored glass.” When asked about why she started regarding light as a material, she explained, “I had exhibitions where the lighting requirements for my work were completely disregarded, or at best, seen as an add-on. I began listing light as a material to remedy that.” She goes on to say, “when I leave my studio, I keep the lights on. Without light, the work is naked; it’s painful for me to think about. And when my sculptures dream about me at night, I don’t want to be the villain in their story.” The consideration of how the art will think of her is perhaps the perfect example of Amighi’s connection to her work, and contributes to the sense of sacredness in her pieces. As she says, “Light activates our sense of the sacred. Despite this, it has no status as a material.”

“My House, My Tomb” (photographer Pamela Gentile), 2015-2021.

Light in Amighi’s sculptures creates a complex network of shadows, which mimic the forms in such a way that a magical, at times ghostly, dimensionality is created. This dimensionality can be strongly felt in Amighi’s recent series of which two parts have been completed, “Spirit Canopy” and “Guardian.” Made from chain, these pieces hang at different heights from the ceiling in forms resembling cages, chandeliers, and bodies. Only by walking among the sculptures will the viewer notice that much of the work appears on the wall, existing as shadows of its physical counterparts. There are also singular pieces of chain that hang among the more detailed sculptures. These chains hit the floor and form into a circle almost like a mandala. Each work is displayed in its own rooms and evokes a deep feeling of both presence and absence. Amighi explains, “In ‘Spirit Canopy,’ these figures are ghosts. I made them during the pandemic when the weight of death was immense. It seemed like the underworld was above us instead of below, like a dense canopy of confused spirits. Confused as to where to go, how to un-tether themselves, some unaware that they were dead at all.” She explains that in her process of making, she was “giving the spirits form through sculptures made from chain. When you walk among them, your shadows intermingle with theirs. It’s a place where the living and dead can walk together before transitioning.” Somber and spiritual, this work holds the emotion and reverberation of a historical moment, reflecting Amighi’s ability to reimagine material and space so as to recapture an otherworldly ambiance.

Amighi has creatively channeled her home(s), traditions, and history into her work, from her early process of reflecting on her relationship to Iran to her current practice. She has found solace in the fact that she is not alone in her experience, saying, “like many others, I realized that being out of place was simply my condition, no matter where I was. And that in order to survive my discomfort, I would have to make places, carve out physical and mental niches for myself to periodically inhabit. This is what people sometimes refer to as ‘installation art”—but I don’t like the term.” Whether niche or installation, Amighi invites a spiritual element into her space, explaining that “I make work so I can dissociate from reality… it’s the somatic experience of making it that allows for the escape. I am part of a long tradition – dervishes whirl, rabbis rock – movement is a portal.”

In this nod to spirituality, movement, and fluidity, lies her understanding of material, her mesmerizing use of light, and her relationship to her art. Amighi opens doors for us to think about where and how we consider political history and meaning. “Last summer I heard a man say that we have no true self, just a series of identities, fanning out before us like a deck of cards,” she says. “At certain times we focus on one facet of ourselves to try and root down into the earth. But often just as we have settled into an identity, we find ourselves clumsily bumping up against it. Our movement is curtailed. Some of these identity boxes are self-created and easy to flee. Some are institutionally formed and require a collective mass exodus. We straddle both,” she adds. Living in a diaspora may allow for both vast and limited expressions of how we see ourselves, yet like the weighted histories behind the forms and materials of Amighi’s art, perhaps we too can allow ourselves to be re-defined over time, no matter how heavy our stories.

Look out for Amighi’s next piece, “The Labyrinth,” the third part of the series “Spirit Canopy” and “Guardian.” You can find more work at her website,

Horizontal artist portrait taken by Chris Carr and courtesy of Afruz Amighi.

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