Ghazal Ghazi on Persian Poetry, Collective Memory, and the Language of Power [Q+Art Interview] cover

Ghazal Ghazi on Persian Poetry, Collective Memory, and the Language of Power [Q+Art Interview]

“Poetry is the foundation of my life,” Ghazal Ghazi tells me when I ask which books occupy the prime real estate on her undoubtedly overstuffed bookshelf. She names the Persian lyric poet Hafez, Mowlana (or the oft-quoted Rumi as he’s known in the West), and Agha Shahid Ali’s final book Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Collection of Ghazals (2004). A short, often lovelorn poem, the Arabic ghazal exploded in popularity during the Middle Ages because of Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez, who mastered the verse form’s rhyming couplets and melancholy mysticism. Ali, a Kashmiri American who fled state violence in the disputed region between India and Pakistan, modernized the ghazal in Ishmael, his heartsick meditation on cultural homelessness.

Unsurprisingly, the artist Ghazal is also a poet, incorporating the curling flick of Persian calligraphy into her ceramic vessels and enormous mixed-media canvases. “It often comes as a surprise that the script [in my work] is poetry,” says the librarian, explaining the public reaction to her recent series Fish Without a Sea. “A lot of assumptions can happen in this space, which I find curious. Some may make charged assumptions about the script in the paintings, assuming it is religious or of certain political affiliations.”

In ‘Fish Without a Sea,’ artist-poet Ghazal Ghazi uses traditional Persian art forms to rewrite harmful narratives surrounding Middle Eastern communities.
Ghazal often incorporates Persian calligraphy into her enormous mixed-media canvases; photo: Nicole Donis.
Using her family archives as a reference point, Ghazal wades into portraiture, domesticity, and familial relationships; photo: Nicole Donis.

Born in Tehran, Ghazal immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was six, an experience she found disorienting and alienating. “For the first few months after the move, I remember I refused to speak at all,” she says. “As if I withdrew from language altogether. A part of me always rejected the assimilation and the centrality of English and how Persian was cast aside in our household. I became obsessed with language because I could feel both its absence and its imposition. Later on, in my early adolescence, I would take books and teach myself to read and write in Persian in order to not lose the language entirely. While the language was salvageable, being separated from our large extended family in Iran, where life tends to be more shared and communal, caused a feeling of isolation and loneliness that permeated my entire childhood.”

In Fish Without a Sea, Ghazal cultivates cultural intimacy with traditional Persian art forms such as calligraphy, rug weaving, ceramics, and miniature painting. Using her family archives as a reference point, she wades into domesticity, familial relationships, and the collective memory of a geographically distant culture. The series also includes embroidered tapestry paintings, beak-spouted vessels, and zoomorphic pottery in the tradition of Gilan, the Iranian province where Ghazal’s maternal ancestors lived. “I learned the same lessons and faced the same design challenges potters did thousands of years ago in making these pots,” she says, explaining her deep connection to the craft. “In this way, there is a memory that lives in the form and the materials.”

In Today's Q+Art Interview…

Ghazal Ghazi discusses the “curious” public reaction to her work, the history of Persian miniature painting and illuminated manuscripts, and the transmission of cultural knowledge.

In ‘Fish Without a Sea,’ artist-poet Ghazal Ghazi uses traditional Persian art forms to rewrite harmful narratives surrounding Middle Eastern communities.
‘The History of Power II’
In ‘Fish Without a Sea,’ artist-poet Ghazal Ghazi uses traditional Persian art forms to rewrite harmful narratives surrounding Middle Eastern communities.
‘Migratory bird’

What are you trying to express in Fish Without a Sea? Can you unpack the title?

Ghazal Ghazi: The series illuminates contemporary issues facing diasporic Iranian-American and Middle Eastern communities, exploring topics like collective memory, migration, state violence, and the intergenerational transmission of culture. The works revolve around the family unit, and often, the narratives of domesticity and intimacies that surface end up subverting the Orientalist, caricature-like representations of Middle Easterners that have become so normalized in American culture. I intentionally chose a visual language that displaces both the English language as well as Eurocentric modes of representation in order to monumentalize the visuality of Persian and Islamicate visual traditions.

How does your writing/poetry inform these works?

GG: The text I write in Persian is often poetic in nature and may retell some aspect about the subject’s life experiences: their childhood, what they find beautiful and moving in life, a challenging time they lived through, or their doubts or aspirations. Sometimes, pieces of the text are redacted with embroidery floss, and parts of the words may be visible through gaps I leave in the redactions. I think the vulnerability inherent in the text—both in what it reveals and what it conceals—subverts reductionist narratives that altogether erase intimacy, longing, love, and tenderness from the portrayal of colonized peoples.

An interesting pattern I noticed with the redactions is that non-Persian speakers would often approach me to ask specifically about the words concealed behind the embroidered redactions rather than ask about the non-redacted words. I liked that the paintings provoked a desire and longing for a script that has otherwise been demonized in the West. I also found it funny that through my decision to write in Persian, essentially, the entire text has been intentionally redacted to non-speakers. Yet, they only seem concerned with having access to the words they can’t see. So, there is a lot of curiosity and desire that the redactions evoke, as well as occasionally entitlement or defensiveness.

How do you use language to rewrite harmful narratives? What does your work say about existing power structures and the language surrounding them?

GG: I use language in both direct and subtle ways to address harm—be it symbolic or material in nature. Sometimes, I provide the translations of these texts on the artwork label, though if a word or phrase is redacted in Persian, it remains redacted in English. Other times, I don’t provide translations, leaving a gap and creating distance between the art and the viewer. Here, a person may experience othering if they do not speak the language.

For some people, it may not be a common experience to inhabit a space where they are not part of the linguistic hegemony. They don’t often feel what it's like to be the other. There may be some curiosity, confusion, or frustration. It is, in effect, a form of subverting the global domination of English and recreating what the majority of the world, especially the inhabitants of the Global South, experience with the constant barrage of the English language in advertising, products, billboards, and movies, which of course is a byproduct of centuries of imperialism and the brute force of neoliberal capitalism. The imposition of English as the language of assimilation or as the marker of social mobility is also extremely harmful. Second and third-generation kids of the diaspora may have lost this connection to their mother tongue, and that loss or grief may also inhabit the space between the viewer and the painting.

In ‘Fish Without a Sea,’ artist-poet Ghazal Ghazi uses traditional Persian art forms to rewrite harmful narratives surrounding Middle Eastern communities.
‘Monumental Redactions: Ali’s return to America from the Middle East four months after 9/11’
Ghazal uses embroidery to redact passages of Persian calligraphy on ‘Monumental Redactions’ (detail)

Can you tell us about the Persian miniatures your work is modeled after? What significance do they have in Persian culture, and why did you choose them as a model?

GG: In the Persianate context, miniature paintings have traditionally depicted either royalty and their courts or folk heroes and heroines. They were often used to illuminate manuscripts and were painted on small sheets of vellum with brushes containing just a few hairs to achieve fine details. In my work, the subjects are drawn from family archives and are living individuals in the region as well as immigrants in the diaspora.

Sometimes, I take the exploration of fibers further so that the portraits resemble carpets, while other times, they are sewn and attached to a larger piece of canvas that is then made to resemble the page of an illuminated Persian manuscript. Calligraphic text is incorporated into these paintings since the Persian manuscript was where painting, calligraphy, and poetry came together and coexisted. Pieces of the text may be redacted with embroidery floss so that slivers of the hidden words peek through the strands of fiber, visible but just beyond reach. I think the relationship between the portrait and the frame resembles a collage or quilt and conveys a mended rupture between subject and background, reflecting on the notion of a form of belonging that exists simultaneously with un-belonging.

What does Fish Without a Sea say about collective memory and shared geographical spaces?

GG: Fish Without A Sea expresses various relationships with collective memory, ranging from sites of memory that are contested to others that are embodied. I think that through my work, I recall the archival work of collecting, preserving, and transmitting generational memory, even when that memory may be hidden or suppressed for different reasons. For example, the redactions of the text are vehicles for exploring archival erasures, where official records may use power to disrupt access to mediated truths—though these truths are embodied lived experiences, and the memory persists nonetheless.

In this way, the project was rooted equally in genealogical and archival research, and memory presents differently in the paintings than the ceramics. There are two types of Indigenous Iranian ceramic vessels that have been reinterpreted for this series: the bird-like, beak-spouted vessels characteristic of Iron Age-era pottery from the pre-Islamic Iranian plateau, and the gamaj, a traditional Gilaki cooking pot which continues to be an essential part of the food culture in my ancestral region of Gilan in the northern Caspian Sea region, where the potters have traditionally been women. These wares are from two separate time periods and have varying statuses in their functionality in modern life. Reinterpreted in this series in stoneware, these diasporic vessels represent the symbolic disruption of and attempted reconnection to the chain of knowledge about ancestral Iran and my Gilaki heritage.

Do you ever feel marginalized by the art world?

I think the deepest sense of marginalization I get is when I look at the systematic nature of the art world as a whole and how it is really just built for a very select group of people. For example, studies show that the majority of artists who manage to make a living from their art are white men with MFAs. That is the staggering aspect of it all—that the structures are really not built for us to thrive. Beyond careerist notions of art, who has a shot at positive life outcomes, serious engagement with their work while they are alive, or the financial stability that would allow for experimentation? It is a privilege reserved for a select population of a particular race, class, and gender. I don’t know what the data will look like in a couple decades, but looking at it now, it can feel discouraging. The entanglements of art institutions with weapons manufacturers are also very distressing, and I often recoil from the careerism of art for this reason. Is the end goal to participate and collaborate with institutions that are profiting off of wars and genocides?

‘The Origin Story of Sass: Goat Sacrifices are her love language’
In ‘Fish Without a Sea,’ artist-poet Ghazal Ghazi uses traditional Persian art forms to rewrite harmful narratives surrounding Middle Eastern communities.
‘Matriarch II’

What’s something you keep in your studio that would surprise us?

GG: I'm not sure I have anything surprising in my studio. I've seen a lot of quirky studios, and mine probably pales in comparison. I have traditional textiles from Iran and my travels, stacks of poetry books, and family photos and mementos I keep around. Lots of snacks. Nothing too crazy.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

GG: I'm not sure I'm the best at this because I tend to take on too much. But I do notice it is made infinitely harder if I don't respect my own boundaries around time to rest and have fun. One day a week, I try to be free from work, and on that day, I try to avoid commuting if possible. I try to weave in walks, movies, nature, or time with friends.

What’s your favorite creative ritual?

GG: Going out into nature is essential for me. It helps me slow down, recharge, and work through whatever emotions I may be feeling at the time. Disconnecting from the process of making and the weight of expectations is a vital life source for my creativity.

In ‘Fish Without a Sea,’ artist-poet Ghazal Ghazi uses traditional Persian art forms to rewrite harmful narratives surrounding Middle Eastern communities.
‘Tell me again how the white heron rises’
‘Goat Water Vessel’
‘Your place’

Ghazal Ghazi: Website | Instagram

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of Ghazal Ghazi; featured photo: Hannah Crickman.

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Morgan Laurens

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.