An interview with performance artist rbshapour
moved back to Iran three years ago. Two years ago, she performed a
performance art piece in a public space in central Tehran. She is
currently working as a “bureaucrat, albeit a glorified one”.
First, the usual questions. Where did you grow up, what did you
study, your age, etc.
36. I spent my early childhood in Iran, then moved to the US where I
lived for 22 years. I came back to Iran three years ago, stayed for
over a year, left, then came back again. I studied theatre and
postmodern critical theory.
your parents intellectuals?
you want my opinion, or the opinion of society at large? [laughs] My
father is a retired engineer. My mother is much younger than he is,
which is very common to marriages of that time. She is
considered an intellectual. She makes films. Both of them are
Let me ask you that question of WHY
you came back.
RS: Do you want the Reader’s Digest version?
The Bad Jens version.
RS: Well, the reasons for coming back are always complex, for
And often you don’t realize them
RS: Yes. The stock answer I give everyone is, “My father is
old, and I wanted to hang out with him”. That certainly did have a
lot to do with my coming back. Also, my parents were divorced when I
was very young, and I didn’t spend much time with either of them.
So on a very personal level this was an attempt at reconciliation.
But there were also other reasons. I was having an identity crisis.
That’s going to be the title of this
RS: I needed to explore the dimensions of my identity or culture. I
needed to find certain ingredients of my makeup that were still
ambiguous to me. When I was coming back, I would tell my friends
that I wanted to go someplace where I looked like everybody else.
That’s important to every person of color who has lived in the US.
It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from – it’s something
that speaks to you. And I wanted to experience what it was like to
live someplace where people wouldn’t react to the color of my hair.
(They can’t see it here. [laughs])
I wanted to know what it was like to go to a store, and not have the
clerk follow me because I didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes.
TZ: And did you find that here?
RS: Of course not. Because the female experience here is very much
like the experience of being a person of color in the America. And
while store clerks no longer follow me around, there are other
things at play here. They have to do with your mobility.
Let me give you an example. The other day, I needed some PVC piping.
Not just some, it wasn’t a matter of just going to your local
hardware store. I needed several hundred meters of it. I had to go
to the part of town where all the PVC wholesalers are. I was the
only woman. I went with a male colleague, and he negotiated the
price. Essentially, I would tell him, and then he would tell them.
It took them 15 minutes to acknowledge my existence. I was, after
all, the one who was making the decisions. I was the one who
was paying for the piping. But I didn’t have the power to
negotiate the terms of the transaction.
This happens all the time here, particularly when find yourself trying
to maneuver in a context that falls outside the accepted gender
roles. Women often have a hard time defining the landscape of their
lives. For example, a woman’s word is only half as good as a
man’s. Hell, even cab drivers ignore you when you ask them to take
a certain route. I have come to a country where I look like
everybody else. But by virtue of my gender, I’m still on the
outside looking in.
TZ: What are you doing professionally
RS: I’m trying to find the funds to finance my next project. The
project has to do with my relationship with my mother. In many ways,
it’s an attempt to reconcile myself with the reality of our
My mother was a largely absent figure in my life. But nonetheless a
very influential one. When I came to Iran, the physical absence was
no longer an issue, but the emotional one resonated tremendously in
my life. I used to think the absence was a function of geography. I
realize now that it’s a lot more complex than that.
I want to make a video piece. I’d like to confront my mother, but
I’d like to document it. That’s what I’m working on.
TZ: Can I mention who you work for?
RS: I don’t think they
would appreciate that. I have a day job, like many artists. But I
don’t think it defines me in any way.
One thing you can put in, that I feel very strongly about, is that I
found Tehran a very difficult place to live, like any other urban
area. If someone had told me it takes THIS kind of money to live
here. I mean, a 1985
Honda Civic costs you $9000. Unless I’m dreadfully out of touch
with the car market in the US, I don’t think it costs you no more
than $3000 there.
So it’s a difficult place to live. I can remember during the first
week I was here, I was alone at my mother’s place, everyone had
been invited to a party, when suddenly water started spurting out of
the kitchen drain. There was a spring in the middle of my mother’s
kitchen. So I ran over to the neighbors and asked for the yellow
pages, and they said, you know, “what’s a yellow pages”. So I
phoned my family, and all the while there’s this deluge coming out
of the kitchen, and they have me phone the plumber. Well, see, the
thing you unblock your drain with, in English you call it a “snake”.
So I call the plumber and ask for a snake and he hangs up on me. But
that’s just an example. Nothing in Tehran is easy. Buying screws
at your hardware store isn’t easy.
That’s why I thought I should make a website for expats who are
coming back to Iran, or foreigners who are going to make Tehran
their home. It would be good to have this sort of reference.
A guide that would tell you things like where to get a
plumber, or where to buy ironing board covers in Tehran. But also
other information, like what are you supposed to look like when you
arrive here and you’re a woman. This was a big issue for me –
none of those travel guides have a picture of what real women look
like walking down the street. It’s simply not enough to say,
“wear loose-fitting, long-sleeve clothing”. You can make loose
fitting, long-sleeved clothing out of cellophane. But is that
Once, in a survey I did among Iranians in the States, I asked them, if
they could bring only one thing to Iran, what would that be. They
all said “something
to wear that is black”. That was virtually unanimous. They said
I’d be going to a lot of weddings and funerals. [chuckles]
You know, most people, and certainly most foreigners, say they had no
idea of how exciting Tehran is.
It has a very wonderful urban character, and some really
great things to offer. You
just have to know where to find them. I love it here.
You had a career as a performance
artist in the US, and then you moved here and continued working.
I’d like to know how that affected your work.
RS: The limitations on my work
here became an issue that I had to confront. In many ways it was a
very good thing. Essentially, the limitations the hejab put on my
work were very positive. I didn’t have unbridled freedom, and as a
result, my work grew in many ways. I had to redefine my idea of what
my body was doing in my work, to accommodate the social and legal
constraints here in Iran. The process has brought out many
It’s very different to sit down, and conceive of a piece, and not be
able to say “I’m gonna do THIS, and then I’m gonna do THAT,
and THEN –“. The very idea of women and performance, well, you
know: you can’t dance, you can’t sing, you have to comply with
the hejab laws.
TZ: It’s interesting that you’re
speaking of your constraints in these terms. If you’ve never lived
under censorship, it’s hard to imagine it as anything other than
dulling, or as hampering your thinking.
RS: Well, now that you’ve
brought up censorship, I think that there’s a lot less censorship
going on in Iran than many people – including Iranians – would
imagine. A lot of the censorship is self-imposed. People aren’t
willing to push the outside of the envelope, to see where the limits
are. Maybe censorship isn’t even the right word for it.
Much of what people call censorship here is really about
limitations that people put on themselves, based on their
perceptions of the order of things.
I’ll give you an example that has nothing to do with art. When I
first came to Iran, both my parents told me that I wouldn’t be
able to travel through Iran by myself. They said it was illegal for
a woman to travel alone, without her husband, brother, father, or
someone like that. And that’s a total lie, it’s a total misnomer,
I mean, these people are running around spreading misinformation.
But what is important is that they believe it to be true, and
their belief in the truth of it is so strong, so irrefutable, that
they are not willing to question it in any way.
I’ve traveled many times, to many places, and I have never
been denied a hotel room, or anything of the kind.
TZ: Can you talk about the work you did in
My work dealt with identity. I feel that there is a common geography
for everyone who has shared the American immigrant experience. It
does not matter where you were from. By virtue of the experience of
migration, you occupy a common space. I explored that space. What it
meant to be, particularly, an immigrant daughter of America. Towards
the end of my stay there, I found myself moving toward a
middle-eastern identity, or Islamic woman issues. My work centered
on how Muslim women experienced the migration. By virtue of certain
religious and cultural issues, Muslim women share a particular
orientation that women from other immigrant groups don’t share.
TZ: I’d like to mention that you did
have a successful career, especially for
a performance artist. I don’t want readers to think
that Iran was a last resort
after doing open-mike nights in San Francisco, or
something like that.
RS: “A successful career,
especially for a performance artist,” I am not really sure what
that is supposed to mean. I
was a working artist. I didn’t go to open-mike nights in San
Francisco, because stand-up comics go to open-mike nights. Anyway, I
have my problems with success, and what success is and who defines
TZ: Are there particular expectations towards an
Iranian woman artist?
RS: That is a big problem.
There are always expectations of an artist of color. Some you put on
yourself, some the art world places on you, some of them are
embedded in social currents like the PC movement.
At some point in my work, it was difficult. There was a period when I
found myself constantly apologizing for who I was – for being
Iranian, for being Middle Eastern, for being Muslim. But that
didn’t last very long. There came a point when I wasn’t
interested in explanations or justifications any more.
TZ: I like the fact that you speak of
being Muslim. What does that mean to you personally.
RS: To me, it’s important
to claim the religion and the title, with all its denotations and
connotations – I came of age in America during a time when being a
Muslim meant that you were a terrorist. It meant that you were to be
avoided at all costs. The
perception was that when you moved into a neighborhood you were
likely to blow it up. And I embrace the
concept with all of its negative connotations, because in my
experience, a Muslim isn’t someone with an AK47 under his coat. Remember that it was a white fundamentalist Christian, and
not a Muslim, who blew up the Oklahoma State Federal building.
In the early hours of the explosion, however, Muslims were
being accused by the media, and even Clinton stopped just short of
making that accusation.
TZ: I also think it’s important because in
Iran, the other major label that people have come up with is
Aryanism. The myth of the Persian-Aryan race.
RS: You know, I don’t want
to be called an Aryan for all the tea in China. It’s a label I
disassociated myself from a long time ago.
TZ: It’s shocking to come here and to
see with what ease people use it.
RS: It’s appalling. I have
no interest in aligning myself with a label for which some of the
worst atrocities against humanity have been perpetrated. I am not an
It’s funny how Iranians, especially Iranians in America, are so
vested in the idea of being white. They fight so hard for the right
to call themselves white.
TZ: So what happened when you came to
RS: When I came to Iran, I
really wasn’t expecting to work here. I didn’t know what the art
scene was like. I was lucky to meet people. I call it luck because I
have since met many people who have come back, and have led very
I got to know a burgeoning, and very interesting and active art scene.
A lot of artists here grapple with things in very much the same way
any artist does anywhere else in the world.
And you did do a piece here.
RS: Yes, I did. But I have to
tell that so much of my work is about the process, and so little
about the product – in the end, the product doesn’t stay around
for very long.
But the process of getting to that piece was a significant one.
Originally, there were five of us who wanted to do a group show.
Ultimately, and unfortunately, three artists ended up leaving the
project, and it came down to two of us, myself and Ghazal Radpey,
who refused to let it die. But the initial process, of finding ideas,
and looking for a space, and talking to people who owned these
spaces, was fabulous. Because the whole idea of
and installation art is so far removed from what the mainstream
expects of art – anywhere, not only in Iran.
Besides, we were trying to negotiate the use of those spaces with
people who had very little exposure to the arts. And, well, our
ideas didn’t jive. It was hard, and we couldn’t get it together.
But after several months, we talked to Fereydoun Av, who is himself
an outstanding artist. He agreed to show our work in his space.
He did so with commendable integrity, and without holding
some kind of discourse on the identity of art, and on whether our
work fell into that.
Ghazal took the gallery space, and I took the window.
TZ: Which looked out onto a busy street.
RS: That’s what was
fantastic. Ever since coming to Iran, I had been enamoured with the
idea of doing public art. But it became clear early on that it
wasn’t possible, because the process of getting necessary permits
from the various overseeing bodies is very arduous. It would mean
someone would have to forget everything else in her life for six
months and just go from office to office. Neither of us had that
kind of time, so we gave up on that idea.
But this experience came very close to public art. The space is on what
is perhaps one of the busiest streets in Tehran, and we got tons of
people who just happened to be passing by.
It was good to do a kind of work that reaches a public beyond the usual
gallery set, one that doesn’t usually have access to art.
TZ: What was there to see.
RS: One saw 100 meters of
crumpled cheesecloth, and people had to really look very closely to
see the figure lying underneath. As you can imagine, 100 meters of
cheesecloth is a LOT of cheesecloth, and I was very much buried
under the whole volume. And there were also chrysanthemums that were
placed outside the gallery, which people could choose to put on top
of the cheesecloth, or take home, or whatever.
TZ: And it worked well.
RS: Yes, the reaction of the
people was really remarkable. The northern Tehran gallery set, they
were very angry. They came to the gallery expecting something else,
something hanging on the wall, and they felt infringed upon.
A couple of young women kicked me. That whole crowd that we know as
“intellectuals”, or “beautiful people”, they were
very hostile. Whereas regular folk who just happened to be passing
by, and stopped because they saw some sort of happening, they were
the ones who connected with the work. And ultimately that was the
main reason why we had to shut it down. Because these people refused
to leave. They just stood around and talked about the piece. I
couldn’t see anything, but I could hear, and I knew that it was
quite a formidable crowd, and in the end, we were told to close down
the show early because the crowd of people could pose a fire hazard.
During the happening, there was this police officer on his little
scooter who was passing by, and he saw the large group of people,
and he stopped to see what was going on. He certainly didn’t
expect to see all these people crowded around what, to him, was
nothing at all. Someone wrapped in 100 meters of cheesecloth in a
And he started screaming, “would SOMEONE explain to me what the
MEANING of this work is!” A friend came over and told him what his
understanding of the work was, and the police officer said, “ok,
there’s just too many people here”. I could hear all those
things, but I was still happily fermenting under my 100 meters of
cheesecloth, and in the excitement no one clued me in on what was
TZ: Do you really think closing it down
had to do with some fire hazard, or with the interpretation of your
work that your friend offered to the officer?
RS: I refuse to speculate on
I hear people say, “the show was CLOSED DOWN”. And, well, that’s
true, but it wasn’t like that. I understand that there was a time,
years ago, when art shows were carefully monitored. But this
incident was about an officer unfamiliar with art - certainly with
performance or installation - who saw a bunch of people in a very
small space watching something he just didn’t get, or didn’t
think was art, or whatever. I really don’t feel like speculating
on what his motives were.
TZ: Do you think young Iranians expect
something different when it comes to
art compared to the West?
RS: That’s a good question.
I think that the idea of art as being something decorative is fairly
universal. It’s only people like us who sit around for hours
talking about what art is and who defines it. I don’t think young
people here have very different expectations compared to their
counterparts in other places. But there are other things here,
culturally and socially, that add some interesting twists. I find
that young people here are a lot more broad-minded than their say,
American counterparts. Their definitions are a lot more flexible,
and that’s refreshing.
TZ: I also think they’re more
comfortable with contradictions. They don’t put themselves under
pressure to have these perfectly coherent positions that would sound
exactly the same if applied to x, y, and z.
RS: Well, that there is a
very Western notion, I think, and it has to do with the ownership of
actions and ideas. In the West we’re told that we have to claim
our actions and ideas. We
have to take responsibility for them, and so we work very hard to
make these actions and ideas into something that is defendable. And
that completely falls apart in a place like this, because Iran is so
full of contradictions in general.
So they’re more willing to accept contradictory thoughts, because
they’ve grown up with them, in terms of, say, your public face and
your private one –
especially for the women. There is an incredible amount of dualities
that comes with being born a woman here.
TZ: I don’t know whether you want to
talk about this murky chapter in your life, but you’ve had a brush
with journalism, and for one thing, I wanted to credit you with your
copious ideas on stories about women that Bad Jens has been stealing
RS: I’m glad to hear that.
TZ: Compared to other countries, Iran has
a very low number of foreign journalists. The few foreign
correspondents who are here, they hold a disproportionate amount of
power over what the world is going to think of this country. And I
think this has hurt Iran in the past.
When working for Bad Jens, it’s hard not to take on
this missionary attitude of being out to “rectify” the picture
that the foreign media is giving.
RS: I agree with you. I
don’t think that foreign journalists are giving a fair and
accurate, or well-rounded picture of this country. Iran has a lot of
stories to tell, and the foreign media isn’t telling them.
They have to print what they think is best for selling their
advertising space. So essentially, they’re after what happens in
the political arena. As you know, the media moves along fashion
trends. So all of a sudden, you get this whole gaggle of journalists
who descend upon Tehran, and the hotels are filled with these
foreign journalists who all want to talk to the same people. And who
all want to tell the same story. For example, they all want to tell
a story about the hejab.
In my opinion, the hejab is not the most significant issue in the lives
of Iranian women. It’s an issue, to be sure. But it is
simple-minded to think that one yard of fabric is the biggest
problem in the lives of 30 million people.