Sunday, February 17, 2008

Art Space Talk: Shadi Yousefian

Shadi Yousefian was born in Tehran, Iran and moved to the United States when she was sixteen. She received both her Bachelors (2003) and Masters (2006) of Fine Art in photography from San Francisco State University. Her work explores themes of identity, duality, and the clash of cultures that she has endured.

Brian Sherwin: Shadi, you were born in Tehran, Iran. You moved to the United States when you were sixteen. Can you discuss your early years and how they influenced the art that you create today? Do the cultural differences between Iran and the US play a role in your work?

Shadi Yousefian: At the time I moved to the United States, the social atmosphere in Iran was very different than what it is today. There was a lot less freedom, especially for women and many people dreamed of getting out of the country to live in a place with more freedoms. Despite this fact, for the first couple of years, I still preferred to go back and live in Iran.
Even though I was familiar with American culture to some extent through movies and the music we listened to in Iran, the culture shock was too overwhelming when I moved to the United States. I didn’t know the language well, I didn’t have my old friends around, and I was unfamiliar with the new environment. This forced me to reflect on myself on a deeper level. I was more aware of myself as an individual. In Iran, I was part of a group, but here I became more aware of my identity as an individual, and later of a double identity.
The double identity came when I started to adapt to the American way of living. I still had my Iranian side, but there was an American side that was shaping. I felt like I had two identities, but neither one was complete. This situation reflects in my self-portrait series, which is about double identity.

BS: It is my understanding that you studied photography on the academic level. Where did you study? Did you have any influential instructors during those years?

SY: I studied photography and received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at San Francisco State University. Professors, Lewis DeSoto, Alice Shaw, and Dale Kistemaker, were influential in shaping my art. They familiarized me with photography techniques and artistic concepts and helped me find my own individual artistic direction and style and never tried to change who I am as an artist. Also, professor Whitney Chadwick, my art history teacher helped me understand art theory and criticism.

BS: Tell us more about your influences... are you influenced by any specific artists?

SY: One artist whose work I’ve always admired is Joel-Peter Witkin. My work is by no means similar to his neither compositionally nor conceptually, but I’ve always admired his use of textures and his emotionally moving concepts. The use of textures reflect in my work as well. Another artist whose work is visually and conceptually moving is Erwin Olaf. I also love the visual compositions of Kurt Schwitters, and the use of collage and fragmentation in the works of Hannah Hoch.

BS: Shadi, your early work involved-- as you have stated in the past -- an abstract expressionistic style. This works involved close-up shots of marks and scratches on surfaces such as walls, telephone booths, and trash bins in public places. Can you tell us more about these earlier works and how the experience of working in that manner directed or enhanced the self-portraits that you now create? Is there a connection?

SY: My early work started with a series of abstract compositional studies. I was exploring the medium of photography as a visual tool to create these compositions. The reason I say "abstract expressionistic" is because these compositions were abstract and they were created by photographing scratches, marks, and "expressions" that had been created by different people.
I would look for surfaces that had expressive marks and textures and, looking through the viewfinder, I would find compositions that appealed to me. Later, when I was creating my self-portrait series, I started creating these expressive textures by hand, working directly on the surface of my negatives.

BS: Tell us more about the social implications of your work? What is the social message that you strive to convey?

SY: My work mostly deals with identity. Identity of myself as an Iranian-American immigrant, which also relates to identity of all immigrants, and identity of any individual. One important message that I strive to convey is that living in a diverse society, and interacting with people from different cultures, races, age groups, and genders, our identity starts to get fragmented.

BS: Can you tell us more about your process? What are the methods that you utilize in order to make your photographs a work of self-expression rather than straight representations...

SY: I work directly on the surfaces of my negatives leaving my own expressive mark, the same way a painter or a collage artist creates a piece of art. I scratch the negatives and combine pieces and fragments of different negatives to create my final piece. In this way I’m introducing other layers besides the photographic shot.

BS: Is photography a spiritual or therapeutic practice for you?

SY: I would say therapeutic. I release personal emotions through my work. These are emotions that I don’t normally communicate through words. I think communicating these profound feelings through art has a therapeutic effect on me.

BS: Select one of your works and tell us about it.

SY: As the title suggests, the piece "Duality" (image above) is about duality. The double identity that I experience as an Iranian living in the United States. In this piece, I’m sitting in a calm position, contemplating my identity as an individual. I have no head, but am holding two heads in my hands. One head, wearing a scarf representing my Iranian side and the other representing my Western identity.

BS: Finally, do you have any works in progress at this time? Can you tell us about them?

SY: Yes. I’m working on a series called "The Letters". When I first moved to the United States, I kept in touch with my friends by writing letters regularly. We exchanged letters that ranged from 20 pages to 70 pages. This continued for a couple of years, but as time went on, it gradually faded and, after a while, it stopped. I literally had two huge boxes full of these letters that I had kept and, unfortunately, I had to throw one away when I moved to a new place.
A while back, I was thinking of these letters and went back to them and started to read them again. I was so amazed by the effort we all put into keeping in touch and all the emotions that we communicated to each other. It was almost like a diary. Now it had all faded and all was left was an abstract thought of letters that we once exchanged and the content was forever lost. I decided to create a series from the letters that I had still kept to convey this experience.

You can learn more about Shadi Yousefian by visiting her website-- Shadi is also a Featured Artist on You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

Great work.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

i like your photos...laila..thankyou

Unknown said...

i like your work.


Shagadelic said...

very good visual ideas , and so simple - me like :)