Interview of Maria Kheirkhah by Rachel Garfield 2003
Rachel - What strikes me about your work is the interplay between the
poetic, the formal and the conceptual. None of these individual factors
takes precedence over the other particularly. Having said that I would like
to start the interview by concentrating on the notion of identity in your
work. Has your work always been informed by debates the identity politics
Maria - Not really - I feel that I have always dealt with the personal.
I suppose, as someone with a "difference" [ that is to say, a Middle Eastern woman
artist ], I have become more and more involved in these issues.
R - When did you start to realise that your identity was a valid
subject matter for your work? When we were on the Foundation course at East
Ham, for example, there weren't many people out there. I remember Sonia
Boyce but that was because she had been to East Ham the year before, but
there wasn't a language for making work that explored issues of identity in Britain
then in the same way as now. I think it might be interesting to hear a bit
about your journey to the kind of work you are making now.
M - I can divide my work into two parts.
The first part lasted nine years [ from 1979-88 ] . The second part began in
1991 and has lasted through to the present.
1979-88 represents for me the Occident - freedom, discoveries and
homesickness. In the first few years I dealt with the trauma of leaving
home, discovering and demystifying the West as far as an illusioned
Easterner was concerned.
While on my degree I began to look at myself in relation to
my culture as well as my immediate Western context. This resulted in me
producing many controversial pieces. I then progressed on to my M.A.
In 1989 I returned to Iran, 1989- 1991 represents for me home and teaching.
In Iran I was teaching in two different Tehran universities. So there I was
within the comfort of my own context in terms of language, family structure
and all the cultural elements. Being able to walk upon a land where your
presence is not in question does make a huge emotional and psychological
difference. For various reasons, at the end of two years I returned to Britain.
This was a pivotal point for me.
On my return I could no longer say I was a student waiting to go back. This
time I was here to stay. This is when I started to see things differently.
I asked myself some new questions - Is this ( Britain ) home now? How does
the way in which I am perceived and I perceive others
affect my life in real terms? The hundreds of issues that one confronts
living on a day-to-day basis have made me more aware of these questions.
Thoughts such as these heralded the arrival of identity as a concern in my
R - Do you make your work specifically for Western audiences ?
M - I usually make what I feel I need to make. So far I have exhibited
mostly in Europe or shall we say within a Western context so I imagine that
I must have had a western audience in mind. However, since my intellect,
emotions and visual vocabulary were first shaped in Iran (and balanced by
the fact that subsequently I have looked at and gathered visual, historical
and intellectual information while living in the West) my concepts are made
up of all these elements. I feel that the issues I deal with are often at
least partly about fundamental human experiences and I try and make it
However this remains a problematic and debatable area for me - I feel there
are no straightforward answers to this question.
R - I presume that when you talk of " fundamental human experiences "
that you mean anger, pain, loss, etc but the difficulty with art is that
everything is mediated through cultural signs, so, for example ' Silenced' is
understood ( by me at least ) as referencing a grave and memorial candles and
so death. But would the grave be obvious to communities where cremation is
the norm? How may they understand it? And is there any place left which
hasn’t imbibed Western tropes on some level?
Maybe the case of being somewhere where "your presence is not in question"
is the other exploration within your work, which can be seen in pieces like
the “Evidence Pieces”, and "I think therefore I question”, which inevitably
problematises Western models of thinking. Is there any way out of Western
Secondly, your work has been using sculptural motifs but seems to be moving
more into a photographic practice, why do you think this might be?
M - Firstly, in my opinion, as the economical and political landscape of the globe changes so will different influences and ways of seeing - I guess it really depends on how we come to insist, renegotiate and define a new space for thinking , language and understanding.
In response to your second point I trained as a sculptor so that was my starting point. However, in recent years I have made temporary installations as well as performances.
Photography and time-based media are a natural progression from that. I have always been more loyal to my concepts than my material - whatever medium expresses my concepts then becomes my point of entry to that particular piece.
I don't usually like to limit myself to any specific medium - I realise
that this makes it more challenging to locate myself or to be located by others.
R - So are you saying that it is the concept that dictates the medium
or the other way around?
M - Sometimes I start with the concept and sometimes I start from the
material. However, it's not as simple as that.
I have a visual imagination and my ideas and impulses tend to come to me visually and usually in a fairly progressed state, having been preceded by a process of rumination, which I have always referred as " brewing" the idea_.
This "brewing" can last any amount of time, sometimes for years, depending on the idea or theme.
For example, the triptych "In love with the Red Wall" came to me visually.
That is to say I saw the triptych, pretty well as it eventually turned out.
I imagined it before I did it and I knew that it was a piece which
included me or an actual person documented as a film / video or photograph -
it was partly about having to be that directly visual.
In the process of shooting the photographs it became clearer to me that this was a sequence of images, which were, or could be seen as, an idea expressed over and through time.
As a result this developed understanding of "In Love with the Red Wall" the idea has now become very much about a film / video piece in my mind, which I'm actually developing at the moment.
At other times the idea or impulse is less well formed, and I find I have to
clarify it through drawing, and / or notation.
Despite the fact that, as I say, the core of the idea is arrived at as above, the details of
a work are often the result of the potential of the medium - I suppose I'm
here talking about something more technical in nature.
For example, the way that the glass was visually held and immediately framed in 'Evidence 1' was a result of a range of factors - the weight and thickness of the glass, what appropriate materials were available and how to process / manipulate them, what types of electric light source to use, how to get the blood to look right sandwiched in the glass layers, what is the right height for the table, etc, etc.
R - To go back to Identity Politics - you use a range of metaphors to
explore the dual influence on your life as spanning East and West. Some of
these metaphors will be understood in Iran and not in Europe for example
(such as the piece "Silenced"). Are there any metaphors, which may not be
understood in Iran?
M - I think in this particular piece the appearance of an elevated grave
with candles is visually overwhelming and strongly felt as you enter the
room. The map of the world and the black and white carpet contained within
the grave I feel are also obvious international symbols.
Ultimately unless I am specifically speaking about issues which only concern
a Westerner, for example concerns that are specific or problematic here in
the West, it is obvious that an Iranian or anyone who lives outside of those
kind of experiences wouldn't understand the value or the why of it.
Sometimes the balance of my work tends one way, and sometimes the other.
R - That is a valid point, but if you take Sarat Maharaj and his
thinking on translation, about how people may understand the same reference
differently, there is always an issue between the particular and the
universal. The candles are, at least for me, to do with memorialisation and
that I think is probably an obvious, universal statement but I don't know
that for sure and I wondered whether there were any instances where
translation was of interest in your work (apart from the obvious ones of
using words). A better example for me may be “Unlike You” which, as a Western
woman, especially a Jewish western woman, sends chills down my spine as it
remind me of Eugenics and the Holocaust (“Evidence “' also). Would it have
that kind of resonance in the Middle East? Is it a problem that I have
overlaid a western reading on this work? Albeit one of major trauma for
Europe? Is there any way that an artist can mitigate against that?
M - A very interesting and much debated area. I haven't much of a
problem with a Western reading or otherwise. I think people read your work
in many different ways (as our understanding and perception of the world is
only limited by what we have come to experience or know) but what is
important in reading any work is allowing the possibility of it having a
different significance to that of your thinking. Also possibly questioning
the work in relation to the artist and the references that they may be
drawing upon. What is often problematic is the yard stick that one is being
read by and the reader not even questioning the yardstick itself.
R - Could you explain the yardstick thing with examples - I'm not sure I
know exactly what you mean.
M - By yardstick I mean the way we come to judge or read a piece. I can only
explain it in relation to the question of translation. The way language is
read, perceived, understood and felt is certainly an important issue to me.
That is why some work takes me years to resolve clearly.
I experience this in very basic ways. For example when I take and bring
stories from Iran to here and visa versa. Generally, I think language
changes according to time, geography and the relevent experiences of it in
relation to a particular context.
For me it's all about the journey of getting there, debating it and being
open to possibilities.
R - Are the Eastern metaphors specifically Iranian or do they have
M - Iranian poetry and words often crop up in my work. However, within a
Western context, emotionally I see them as Middle Eastern. In terms of
language we do share a great deal phonetically and also politically and
historically - actually, if one views transcultural ideas and influences,
one realises that there has been a great deal of migration of concepts and
culture, for example in Spain.
Most Iranians have studied Arabic as part of their education as a Muslim, so
there will be that sense of recognition and understanding, but there will
also be a level of recognition when, for example, Arabic script is viewed by
a Western audience. Alongside this will, of course, come associations and
misunderstandings regarding the exotic, etc, etc, which I feel
[incidentally] actually goes both ways in both cultures. One of my creative
themes in this situation is the subsequent need for further exploration.
R - Its interesting that you should say that the exotic goes both ways,
and I agree with you, I think this is partly why I am interested in how your
work is read both within the Middle East and in the West. And even more so
how the West has influenced your work as much as Iran? Are there any
examples in your work of the exotic going both ways, or is this to come?Or
is it difficult to see unless you are from both cultures yourself?
M -All I can comment on is that I have my formal art studies within a
Western context and tried to understand the formal language of Western art.
I also experienced and developed a sense of aesthetic mostly through what I
felt passionately about. For example Persian miniature painting and the ways
in which the space for a visual language is constructed and the way patterns
and ornament come to visually add meaning to the function of the
architecture. The way that calligraphy adds to it.
My concerns are of my time and mostly personal. The way I put it across is a
discovery for me and open to debate.
R - How important is it that the audience views the work as a specific
commentary. That is, if one doesn't understand the exact reference does it
M - I'm not sure, it really depends on what you want out of a specific
work or your audience. My feeling is sometimes yes and sometimes no. Which
work do you have in mind?
R - The question was a general one but thinking about it, I would say,
the question would be appropriate for” In Love With a Red Wall”, which is a
piece of work I really like, by the way. I understand the work through a
number of allusions. Firstly the dialogue with an inanimate object, which
could be like being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back. It could
be about negotiating with a hostile nation state, or people. In English,
"talking to a brick wall" is a popular refrain, so it can be seen both
emotionally and politically. Your clothes place you within a Muslim context
culturally. And you're reading a book. Can you see what the book is in the
real image (as opposed to the reproduction I am looking at). Does the viewer get to see that it is a theoretical book? Anyway, the title makes emphasis of the red wall and the red seems significant within the language of the work, but I don't know why. I get the
feeling that there is a metaphor that I as a Westerner am not aware of. It
adds intrigue to the work, but that intrigue makes me aware that I probably
don't fully understand the artist's intention. Do you have any comments on
M - I have used red for a complex of reasons:
1 - It visually creates a dramatic scene ( black and red ).
2 - It is associated with love and passion, hate and anger,war and
It is the multi-layered significances of the colour in the context of the
concept of the work that interests me.
R - Red in china represents good luck and richness, marital harmony, a
good colour (and they wear white at funerals). It also doesn’t mean passion,
hate and anger in India. So although red is multi layered it doesn’t have
either the universal symbolism you expect and can be read in ways you may
not feel are appropriate.
How has your work been received by audiences (do you know?)
M - The question highlights the very issue that I allude to above, since
stepping outside of either the Occidental or Oriental Art continuum to admit
other ideas, questions or influences is by definition challenging and
counter to the idea of a cohesive, exclusive tradition.
R - Who are your artistic influences, and where do you place yourself
M - On the one hand my experience is embedded in classical and
contemporary Persian writers, poets, musicians, classical 16th century
miniature painters, Persian architecture, both sacred and secular, and many
contemporary Iranian film makers who tap into all that I have mentioned
In the West the list is just as extensive - basically I have had at least 15
years to observe many different artists' influences - Zaha Hadid , Mona
Hatoum are a couple of artists that have interested me.
On the other hand, although my work can be described as charged with issues,
it does not arise as a result of direct literary influence. Thus it is not
a process of making visible a critical theoretical or literary position, but
the work being inflected with many influences often in an oblique or