Artist of the Week: Solmaz Shahbazi

Solmaz Shahbazi: "Persepolis", 2005, single channel video, exhibition shot

Solmaz Shahbazi was born in Tehran in 1971 and has been living in Germany  since 1985. She studied architecture and design at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design and has been based in Berlin in the last few years. In addition to her participation at the 7th Sharjah Biennale and the 9th Istanbul Biennale as well as the 1st Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, Shahbazi’s works have been exhibited extensively in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. Her first solo project in Stuttgart will be opened soon at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart.

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Future Audience Feuilletion: When did you find yourself in the process of filmmaking? How did your relationship with contemporary art start? How would you elaborate on that your background in architecture contributes to your filmic language?

Solmaz Shahbazi: I have been interested in images for a long time. While studying architecture at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design, I increasingly began to present my works together with photographic installations. My first video work was a short-term project, which was part of my main course. The work was about perception processes. A series of discussions on modernist architecture in Tehran and the city as such encouraged me to produce my first filmic work. Shortly after my graduation I suggested to Tirdad Zolghadr with whom I had been leading the just mentioned conversations to join me in making a film about Tehran. We were aware of the fact that the point of view from which we would see the city would raise many questions and challenge perspectives which up to that point in time had not been as well-known as they are now. Tirdad mainly grew up abroad and studied in Switzerland. I had come to Germany when I was fourteen and had studied architecture in Stuttgart. We were both interested in Tehran’s architecture, its development and transformations in the wake of political changes in Iranian society. We were also following the political fabric in the country and its presentation and representation both abroad and within Iran, and we were very well acquainted with the images generated by the media back then, both as insiders and outsiders. So, we had great fun leaving out all of the images of Tehran that are well-known abroad and challenging the prefabricated imaginations of viewers. I still try to follow this concept today. Shortly after the film was completed, a curator who had been on a research trip to Tehran and was interested in contemporary female Iranian filmmakers contacted me. She wanted to work with me even though I told her that I was an architect who had produced only one film, that I lived in Germany, and for a number of other reasons was not the right person for the job. We eventually met and I presented the film at an art fair, after which I found myself in the art world. I can’t say for sure that architecture has an influence on my filmic language; it certainly has an influence on the topics I choose.

FAF: Can you briefly define the artistic idea behind the film project "Persepolis"? When did you decide to make the film, what was the production process like, and what kind of responses did you get during the years?

 SS: After my first film I immediately got the opportunity to shoot a second one and I decided to continue working with the video camera to enhance my knowledge. The topic as was demanded by the producer back then was again Tehran, of course. Exotic and sexy enough to make sure the investment would pay. I used the exotism and instrumentalized it for my own sake to advance my work. “Persepolis”, the third film in my Tehran trilogy, was the first work that I was able to officially produce as an artwork; the first piece of work the partial funding of which had been made possible by an art institution. It was Vasif Kortun who encouraged me to apply for a residency in Istanbul. That’s how I got to know him and November Paynter, both of whom enabled me to shoot and complete the third part of the trilogy, “Persepolis”, over the course of various collaborations. I wanted to make a personal film in order to question my position as a representative. I, myself, also have to ask other people if I want to know something about Tehran. I did this by asking the neighbors of the house in which I lived at the time in Tehran, to tell me about their memories of the city and the changes over the years from the days of the revolution until today. You don’t see the places in the film though, nor the narrators. What you see are still life shots of the living rooms of the persons you hear talking. The viewers and this goes against their normal viewing habits have to imagine both the narrator, based on the voice and the individual setting of the room, and the work’s main topic: the city, of which the viewer has already seen so many pictures in the media. I think that this approach introduces a new level to the work: each individual’s own imagination. So far, there have been many positive reactions to the work. It is being exhibited frequently. I think the way the work is done enables it to be shown in a variety of different contexts. If my guess is right, I might as well claim that the work has escaped its niche.

 FAF: Your recent work "Dreamland Cairo" plays key role in your coming solo exhibition at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. As places of exhibiting exoticism, zoos are very problematic, and the questions around their institutional legacy is very interesting for me, especially in terms of the history of modernity. Tell us more about your artistic motivations behind the project.

SS: The zoo project is part of a larger work that includes a series of photographs and texts which I produced in Cairo. The concept follows a piece of work I showed at the 9th Istanbul Biennale. It revolves around urban and social utopias and new forms that enable groups to define themselves and to also distinguish themselves from others. In “Perfectly Suited for You”, which was realized in Istanbul, I explore the concept and development underlying gated communities. This business idea also flourishes in a mega city such as Cairo, of course. “Dreamland Cairo” is the continuation of my Istanbul project. I found the origins of the idea of social classes dissociating themselves in cities in the middle of the 19th century by using the example of today’s Giza Zoo. In this sense, the zoo as such does not form the center-piece of my work. The focus rather lies on the social function the zoo had to fulfill back then and on how this function underwent a shift following the revolution in 1952 and Gamal Abd al Nasser’s accession to power. One text on the subject forms the key part of the photo series that can be seen in the exhibition.