As an artist and photographer, Farhad Bahram is interested in challenges: What does it mean to be from a particular place, from a particular background? What do labels mean, and what happens if we ignore them, or tear them down? What does it mean to be a performer, and a member of an audience or an observer? What if the line between them is blurred?
This approach to his work was shaped by a number of factors: Bahram’s childhood in Iran, his move to the United States, and his experiences as an immigrant, and before that, as a photojournalist.
“After my camera equipment was confiscated by the cops in the street, I started to realize that my camera is not only a professional device for the documentation of people’s life,” he says of this evolution. Suddenly, he says, he saw that a camera “could be a simple tool for initiating an active dialogue among people.” In 2009, Bahram covered the unrest following the disputed presidential election. It led him to set up the collaborative group the Global Mission of Art (GMOA) later the same year. Promoting “a free platform for creative communication and cultural activities,” more than 30 artists around the world ran exhibitions, published books, and organized conferences and training workshops. “Most importantly, we decided to allocate all the funds raised through these events to non-profit organizations and humanitarian movements such as the society for supporting children suffering from cancer (Mahak) and UNICEF. For our most recent project, we worked with The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).”
Before coming to the US at the age of 29, Bahram worked as a photojournalist for two magazines and Hamshahri Newspaper. He traveled around Iran, including to the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan in the southeast, Khuzestan in the southwest and Mazandaran near the Caspian Sea in the north, among others, documenting diversity and the lives of people around the country. This experience led him to think about tools of communication, and how people respond when they are limited or threatened. “As we know, a totalitarian state always tries to subjugate its people by controlling various aspects of their life including social communication. However, this limitation showed me how I could go beyond the traditional ways of communication such as language.” In Iran, he recognized, anybody with what he calls a “fluid social identity” can be at risk because they do not conform to the fixed rules of that society. So it was natural at this time that he began to see the value of looking at his creative practice through a social lens, and to consider how public interaction and participation can feed into art. Some of his public performances, such as One Minute Engagement with an Iranian (2015-2016) and Re-identification (2014), are the products of those revelations and considerations.Pushing back on these norms and trying to carve out a space for individuality and creativity is, Bahram says, “the story of any active artist in Iran.”
Bahram left Iran in 2011 to pursue a graduate degree in art at San Francisco Art Institute. Prior to this, he received a Bachelor’s degree in mining and rock engineering from the Azad University of Southern Tehran in 2007 and served his mandatory army service. After completing a graduate degree in Fine Arts at the University of Oregon, he completed a Graduate Certificate in New Media and Culture, also at the University Oregon. He was awarded the OUS-Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff) graduate fellowship for International Research in 2013, which recognizes individuals from a range of disciplines whose work focuses on overcoming “cultural boundaries to address global issues.” He was also given the Carlene Ho Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2013. Since 2015 has been teaching at the University of Oregon’s College of Art and Design. He lives in Eugene with his wife Pooyesh, a therapist.
His work has been exhibited internationally in more than 30 shows and exhibitions, including at galleries in Brooklyn, Paris, San Francisco and other cities in California, across Oregon, and in Finland and India. He has had two exhibitions in Tehran, at Fravahr Art Gallery and the Sazmanab Center for Contemporary Art.
Like many Iranian-Americans who have emigrated to the US over the last two decades, Bahram’s childhood memories are shaped by the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). But he has fond memories of family life, especially of his grandfather, a professor of theology and philosophy of religion. “His charismatic character was always the source of inspiration for the whole family,” he says. His family still live in Tehran, where his mother is a housewife and his father, a traditional businessman with a good education, works alongside Behram’s younger brother at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar.
Bahram hasn’t been back to Iran since he left, but his work continues to be shaped by Iran, and by what he calls its deep-rooted “social mistrust.” Culturally, he says, Iranians tend to conceal “their daily life, including their wealth or possessions — and even their thoughts and emotions — from the political state.” And it’s not only about the current regime. It goes back to a history of “authoritarian crowns and turbans,” and is undoubtedly embedded in the Persian language.
But this doesn’t mean that people are silent. Iranian citizens — and artists and journalists in particular — have to find ways to say what they want to say without getting into trouble. And Bahram believes the Persian language, which is “full of idioms and metaphors that serve as an envelope to wrap the intentions and implications of our daily interactions,” has evolved to deal with this balancing act of concealment and expression.
And even as these restrictions seem to dominate Iranian expression, they have also done something quite unexpected: They have preserved a set of “unique social interactions,” a set of characteristics that set Iranian people apart. This, he says, is of enormous value to journalists and anyone trying to document the lives of Iranians. “If you want to make a genuine story about people, you must learn how to engage them in a context that give you access to the preserved stories of their life.”
So, for him, what’s it like to be an Iranian-American today? Bahram says his Looking Glass installation, part of Eugene’s Platform Festival, is a partial attempt to answer this.
He and artist Tom Lundberg asked 15 Iranians living in Eugene to send them a list of words in Persian that represent their individual identity. They then printed the words on black vinyl and pasted them on the ground at the entrance of the exhibition space. During the two-hour show, the 15 participants (including Bahram) positioned themselves inside the displayed text and didn’t move. People attending the exhibition were immediately confronted with a series of questions and considerations about national, ethnic, sexual, and religious identities and what it means to belong. “The audience who wanted to enter the space had to find their way in by passing through this space/text populated by the Iranians,” Bahram says.
“To me, an artist is not only a creative creator but also a facilitator or curator that invites the audience into the process of constructing the art piece,” he says. “In this context, the viewer and their interactions may actually become the artwork itself. This is the most exciting part of art practice for me.”