Renison Studies in Islam professor talks about her recent exhibits
Many of the people around the College are familiar with Professor Soheila Esfahani through her Calligraphy to Conceptual Art class that posts art installations on Renison windows at the end of term. What they may not know is that Professor Esfahani is an accomplished artist, having won the award for visual arts at last year’s Arts Awards Gala for Waterloo Region.
Professor Esfahani has recently wrapped up one exhibit at Republic Gallery in Vancouver, BC and has another running until early April at the College Art Galleries at the University of Saskatchewan. This Week at Renison asked her to tell us more.
Please describe your exhibits. My exhibitions present works of art that are based on concepts that I’m exploring in my artistic practice.
Why did you put together these exhibits? As a conceptual artist and academic, exhibiting my artwork in public galleries is similar to publishing papers in a journal. My research of cultural theories as well as my investigation of different ways of art making culminates in bodies of work which I share with the public through exhibitions.
What are you looking to explore with these exhibits? In my work, I explore the terrains of cultural translation and the processes involved in cultural transfer and transformation. My installations focus on both translation in its etymological meaning as the process of ‘carrying across’ or ‘bringing across’ and Homi Bhabha’s notion of the Third Space (the space of in-betweenness) as a site for cultural translation.
What led you to such themes? I started my career as an artist by creating paintings that consisted of writings of poems by Rumi in Farsi. One of the questions that I was always asked was ‘Can you provide translation of the poems in English?’ My viewers would also ‘read’ (look at) my paintings in the opposite direction of the original text, which is right to left. These kinds of cultural questions led me to think about my role in translating culture (I was born and raised in Iran) in artworks that are exhibited in the cultural context of Canada.
Why did you choose this topic? Throughout history, cultural artifacts and traditions have moved from place to place resulting in dissemination and transformation of culture. I am fascinated by the movement of culture and the act of cultural translation in today’s globalized societies such as Canada. As an artist I define myself as a cultural producer. As an immigrant myself, I believe I am part of the movement of culture and translation of it in a new context.
How does this relate to what you teach? I find fine art programs in Canada to be heavily influenced by Western traditions of art. In my two courses (Calligraphy to Conceptual Art and Islamic Visual Culture), I am aiming to focus on art traditions from other cultures. In these courses, we look at culturally specific traditions in visual arts as well as their connection to the broader art world.
How would you describe to a friend what you teach? I teach hybrid theory/studio culture courses. The content of these courses (theoretical/historical/etc.) becomes a starting point for creating art works which provide students with new ways of thinking.
How should your audience explore the topic of these exhibits? I see the role of contemporary art as a vehicle for opening up conversations. I hope my audience comes out of my exhibitions with questions that may not have come to mind otherwise.
What is it like to have your artwork on display and subject to critique? Exhibiting my work and being critiqued is challenging. As an artist, I always look for such a challenge since it propels me to look deeper and with fresh eyes at my own work.
What advice do you have for people seeking to produce art? Don’t be afraid of being rejected or failing. Just go for it.
Studies in Islam offers you the opportunity to explore and learn about the diversity of Islam and Muslims through the study of traditional and modern Islamic civilization and culture.