Born in Tehren, Iran, where self-expression is a rare privilege, San Francisco based artist Shadi Yousefian’s scratched and mutilated images of dual identity, could get her arrested back home. “It’s true!” she claims, her big brown eyes growing wide and solemn. But that doesn’t stop her from making her work- highly charged personal statements about some of Iran’s most heated contemporary issues - women’s rights, cultural identity and youth infatuation with mass media. In fact, she’s not afraid to speak up about these concerns precisely because she’s been arrested before.
During a visit back to Tehran in 2002, Yousefian, her husband, and their friends were arrested at a party when it was raided by the police. Under Iran’s strict Islamic laws, the mixing of unmarried men and woman is illegal, and even punishable by flogging.
“I was really scared," says Yousefian. "I thought, ‘This is the last time I am coming to Iran.'"
After this experience, her photography took a decidedly political turn, transforming from abstract expressionist examinations of marks and surfaces into explorations of “double identity” forged from two cultures.
By cutting, scratching, burning, tearing and rearranging pieces of 35mm negatives with scissors, glue and paint, Shadi physically expresses her frustration with Iranian restrictions of freedom in contrast with her American “self”. In many of her altered photographs, her mouth is taped over or scratched out, symbolizing women's experience under Iran's theocratic government and her own frustration at being “gagged” by repression.
“In order to express these complex feelings, it became necessary for me to explore the potential of photography as a medium for self-expression rather than straight representation, “ says the 24-year-old MFA student at San Francisco State University. “For instance, I cut pieces from different negatives and paste them together to create negative collages from which I make my final prints. I’ve also started to incorporate other sculptural materials, especially wood panels to construct my bigger projects.”
Soon to enter her final year in her graduate photography program, Shadi’s exploration of materials has expanded with the complexity of her content. Her latest work incorporates recycled building materials, paint, paper, wax, and fabric with photographs. She is also printing a series of negative collages on life-sized canvases.
“My work has been dealing with my personal identity crisis, “ says Shadi. “I've started to think about what identity is-as it relates to all people, different races, ages, and genders."
By mixing body parts culled from various “identities”, Yousefian’s recent life-sized canvases reflect a universal experience by presenting her own personal identity crisis as a global one. She is also currently collaborating with Cross Connections, a group of Iranian-American artists and writers who are working with a space at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.
"We drew a timeline on the walls and each of us picked a year that had in some way affected us as Iranians in the US, “ explains Shadi. “I picked 1995 - 1997, my first two years in the US. It was a very personal piece for which I used copies of letters from my friends that I had kept from those years to create a wall of words and images.”
For now, Yousefian’s work continues to push the edge of her own personal boundaries to break through false cultural ones. By asking questions of herself through her own creative process, she is physically constructing identities that reflect back the answers. The danger inherent in the making of her work translates directly into artistic risks, something this deep-feeling Iranian-American artist is not afraid to take.