2020/21 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Katayoun Amjadi | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2020/21 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Katayoun Amjadi

By Bo An on April 23, 2021
Katayoun Amjadi posing with her eggplants sculpture ; Katayoun Amjadi
Katayoun Amjadi

Katayoun Amjadi is an Iranian-born, Minneapolis-based artist, educator, and independent curator. In her artworks, she often considers the social systems that continually construct the binaries which shape our perceptions of Self and Other, such as religion, gender, politics, and nationalist ideologies. Amjadi is interested in blurring these boundaries and creates a balanced hybrid style both in life and art. Her art is an attempt to understand the relationship between past and present, tradition and modernity, and individual versus collective identity, as well as to spur discussion about our understanding of time and the tangled roots of our histories. She holds an MFA in Ceramics and Sculpture from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and currently teaches visual art at Normandale Community College. Her work has been exhibited in several group and solo exhibitions nationally and internationally, including the Minnesota Museum of American Arts; Rochester Art Center; Instinct Art Gallery; Weisman Art Museum; The Soap Factory; University of St. Thomas; Public Functionary; Beijing Film Academy; Karlsruhe Art Academy; and 7Samar Gallery in Tehran. Amjadi is the fiscal year 2015 and 2019 recipient of the Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She was born in Tehran, Iran, resides in Minneapolis, and maintains a studio in the Q.arma building in NE Arts District.

In this interview, Katayoun Amjadi discusses her role as an artist, storyteller, and amateur cultural socio-anthropologist and talks about our shared humanity through the poetry of her materials.

Religion, gender, politics, and nationalist ideologies are some of the systems you talk about in your work. Can you share some examples of the type of research that goes into your projects that address these topics?

I believe that the battleground is in each of our bodies. Mine and yours. My research begins with the body. The body as a socio-political construct, a vessel, a container that carries forward effects of trauma and resilience across time, memory, and place. Each body upon birth is assigned with a gender, given a name bound in politics of language, and inherits a nationality and a religious or spiritual worldview. These simple and yet overlooked aspects of our shared humanity more often than not become sites of contestations and conflict, but also sites of resolution and renewal. I seek to expose and explore the rifts as potential sites for insight into the human condition.

My method of research would perhaps resemble that of an amateur cultural socio-anthropologist, but one who gathers the data points, artifacts, and histories along with the pulse of today’s world into the raw materials of my work. I look for fissures and connective threads that might provide insight to a worldview or individual or global circumstance.

For instance my work Nightingale and Rose is an extended series of deliberations whose origin is found in an old Persian fable about the unrequited love of the Nightingale for the Rose. Historically the story is told through text, verse, textile design, ceramics and fine art. Yet in my work, over several years and through multiple iterations, I was able to use this core thematic arc to produce elaborations on nationality, economy, food production, the hidden labor of the homemaker, the dichotomy of destruction/creation, death/rebirth, and yes, love.

A sculpture installation of red latex gloves and a cast chicken
From The Nightingale and the Rose seriesWhere Red Tulips Grow, 2019, kitchen gloves, cast resin hands, CNC machined styrofoam, latex, 43 x 43 x 57 in.

You work with such a diverse array of media, from large-scale installations, sculpture, ceramics, video, sound to poetry. How do you choose the medium for your different projects?

These media are all simply tools of communication and can be additive, combinative, reductive etc., much like letters become words, words become sentences, and so on, and then get reduced back to the essential syllables of poetry or rhythmic structures of music. In a sense it’s less about how I choose the media and more about what needs to be said. The media then begins to suggest itself.

Another way to look at this is that my body of work becomes my language, and like any language it is organic, synthetic and essentially creative. Each work, each component piece, has its own set of signs and signifiers, yet their reach may be limited by their formal or material nature. If I find a limit to what can be said within one medium I will often look to another, or combination of others, to complete the voice.

Much of my work is at heart poetic, or at least strives to be. By that I mean that part of poetry that can distill a thought to a few crystalline strokes. Yet the counterpoint to this is that often I am trying to say a great deal, thus the struggle is to say as much as possible while speaking with an economy of words. To this end I find that a combination of media carries a structural richness that allows elaboration within simplicity.

You mentioned that your work is an exploration between the past and present, tradition and modernity, and individual versus collective identity. How have these ideas shown up in specific pieces/projects? Why is this exploration important for you?

We tend to think in binaries, comparing and contrasting past and present for instance. What I find fascinating is that even if you look at your own personal history, the you of today is built upon past experiences and circumstances. The past is always present. The temporal fabric of the lived world is a braid of connective tissue that runs between and weaves together dualities and intersections of the past, present, and the yet unfolding future. My work is narrative at its core, and gathers together the often-binary threads of the human condition. For instance, for The Names We Change project, I asked the participants the common question of “What is your name?” and let this very first marker of one’s identity reveal its past and present. Unusual names from foreign countries, as well as common names like Mary or John all carry historical references to myths, heroes/heroines, biblical figures, etc., yet also are signifiers of self, family history, country of origin, etc. Thus a deceptively simple question, “What is your name?” begins to unfold narratives that even the carrier of the name may not be aware of until given the prompt to dig a little deeper.

As a story-teller I seek to expose and contextualize who we are, what we do and why into the larger historical ground, not just as a method of exploring individual identity, but as a way of locating our identity collectively. The topography of this particular landscape finds its depth and relief by weaving identity into a temporal frame of past and present, tradition and modernity.

People sitting in airplane
The Names We Change: Transit-Air, 2020, re-purposed airplane seats, iPads, HD video interviews, Namezines, 6.5 x 8 x 4 ft.

Your practice reflects on the social systems that continually construct the binaries which shape our perceptions of Self and Other. I am curious if there is a piece that changed your awareness of yourself through the production of the work.

I tend to be a reflective person, so self awareness is an integral part of my being and work as an artist. That being said, I think one of my recent works, The Names We Change took me to places I didn’t anticipate at the beginning of the work. The origin of this work was about how our names are signifiers of our identity, and how through our names we can trace our history, culture, ethnicity etc. This work explored what happens in the immigrant’s experience, or with those living in various states of diaspora, who have names that are difficult to pronounce, or are too foreign, and thus are changed, modified, or held onto as sites of resistance.

This piece was intended as a dynamic work, i.e., to be edited, added to and reconfigured over time. What I didn’t expect of this process is that it would begin to unfold in surprising and deeply emotional times of rupture and violence, first with the near-war between Iran and the US in January of 2020 and the shooting down of the Iranian passenger airliner, and then last spring after the murder of George Floyd and the BLM movement for the better part of the year.

What began as an inquiry into our names as markers of identity through a series of video interviews, moved through several iterations and became a meditation on what it means to be alive; that we die many times, marked by our last heartbeat, last brain wave, last breath. It meant that to be alive after your death, one has to say your name. The refrain so often heard in the BLM movement coursing over the world became the coda in the last iteration of this series. “Say their names!”

What do you hope the audience takes away from your exhibitions?

I think we physically arrive to an artwork or exhibition; our bodies arrive first. My principal interest is to create work that has an affect on the viewer. We are creatures of cognition to be sure, and too often in the gallery setting we stay in modes of cognitive inquiry. I would like my work to strike your heart or nerve, to make you feel something, to disturb, disrupt or inspire; to place you in a mode of apprehension, to tip you out of comfort and into heightened anxiety or the acute awareness that makes your blood race. I would like when you leave one of my exhibitions, that you feel a little changed, that you are taking something with you as you go, not simply going.

You are also an educator. Are there ways in which your teaching practice influences your artistic practice and vice versa?

I find that teaching has a symbiotic relationship with my practice. Part of this is due to the fact that I’m relatively new to teaching, so I err on the side of over-preparation. For me this means a good deal of reading and research, both of which are at the core of my practice, so in a sense while preparing a syllabus or presentation draws on the methods I normally use and have a natural inclination for, it also pushes me further or in a different direction than I might have otherwise thought to do. Thus while gathering data and narratives for a course, I am also finding triggers and insights for my own work.

How has COVID affected your art-making process?

If nothing else, this last year of COVID has caused me to review my past work, both as a source of ongoing thematic explorations, but also to inquire about different methods and media for creating work, and of types of distribution to the public. With the shuttering of our normal venues, museums, galleries, installations and shows, working in media that are lighter on their feet and adaptable to various presentation methods has been a central part of my recent practice.

Black and gold eggplant sculpture
Eggplants, 2021, cast porcelain, 18k gold luster, blood meal, approx. 8 x 3 x 3 in.

What are your plans for the future? If you are working on a new project, could we get a sneak peek at it? Can you tell us a little about it?

Eggplants. That’s all I’ll say for now.