Before We Were Banned: Interview with Kiana Pirouz and Mahya Soltani

Kiana Pirouz (left) and Mahya Soltani (right). Photo by Jack Newton.

Kiana Pirouz (left) and Mahya Soltani (right). Photo by Jack Newton.

What music were you listening to when setting everything up?

K: Lots of Googoosh! 
M: More Googoosh.

What does home mean to you?

K: Home can be a smell or a memory. It’s a feeling, not a place. So if I am cooking in the style of my mom, or see pictures of my trips to Iran, I feel the sense of home. I suppose this flexibility was a result of being an immigrant, but it’s the only perspective I’ve known. 
M: I used to have a different definition for home, I used to think there should exist a place that I feel like I belong to. I’m coming to realize that home is anywhere you feel welcome. I learned this after living as an expat in a country (UAE) for 20 years that doesn’t want me there anymore, and my ‘home’ country (Iran) that limits my rights and freedoms, so now anywhere I feel welcome and can stay, is home.

Where are you a local?

K:  To date, I feel foreign everywhere.  The idea of belonging has been a part of my immigrant existence that I’ve grappled with the most. Perhaps I feel like a local when I am in the midst of people who see me and hear me; when I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. 
M: Feeling local for me is more small scale, I feel local in my neighborhood where I know the deli downstairs, the smoke shop at the corner, the pizza guy, etc., this can be in any city/country. Feeling local for me is more about the people than geography.

Please describe the journey (emotional, physical) behind organizing and curating this show. What feelings and ideas helped bring this project to fruition?

K: The 2016 election made me realize that I didn’t have any Iranian or diasporic friends who could relate to me. It was a rude awakening that I had no community.  I bashfully DM’d Mahya on Instagram—we had followed each other for a while but never met or got to really know each other. But once we met, we totally hit it off and produced a Persian New Year party about a month after meeting.  As our friendship developed over the course of the year, we kept having conversations about the familiarity of feeling alienated in the US (and even in our home countries). The media did a good job of talking *about* immigrants, Muslims and other marginalized communities affected by the Trump regime’s policies. But what about the voices of the marginalized?  Who is telling the story? Who is owning the narrative? Who is helping heal this terrified community? 
M: It was in the summer that the idea for ‘Before We Were Banned’ crystallized when we came up with a name. We wanted to highlight the fact that these communities have been living under oppression and marginalization for long before this ban was imposed. And we wanted this to be an open call because our first and foremost mission was to foster a community or a collective that not only exhibits work together—but can connect through their experiences. Throughout planning this show, this never felt like work, and it was always a sort of a meditation, or self-healing for us too. 

Art can be a vehicle to break down myths, like the “good immigrant myth.” What did you hope to achieve with this exhibition? What kind of discursive work did this exhibition aim to do? 

Mahya Soltani. Photo by Jack Newton.

Mahya Soltani. Photo by Jack Newton.

K:  Going back to the idea of owning one’s narrative in the face of media stereotypes, we simply hoped to build physical and emotional for artists affected to tell their stories, unfiltered.  Words can be so limiting, and the idea of expression through art felt like it had the potential to heal.  We didn’t advertise it as such, but our intended “vibe” was celebratory, not militant.  Much of the work is emotional in that it involves longing and memory, but at the end of the day, the stereotypes and labels don’t matter. We (immigrants) know what’s real and true, and we know our cultures are all worth uplifting and celebrating. We wanted it to be a respite from having to explain one’s story.
M: We also didn’t want to advertise this as “arts of the seven banned countries” because these are unique stories told by these individuals, and they don’t necessarily represent the geographical borders they are associated with. 

In what way did BWWB allow artists to voice their narratives? 

K:  Before We Were Banned’s mission is 100% about individuals owning their own narratives, agnostic of where they are from.  As organizers, we tried to stay as behind the scenes as possible. The show was not about us; it’s about the stories. 
M: By simply providing the platform, we don’t take credit for more than that.

'Contradictions' characterize this event. There is focus on individuals from nations, yet the concept of nationhood dissolves in the porous exhibition space. The US, and NYC particularly, is one of the few places where an event like this can actually happen, and yet it is the US’s structural and discursive violence that makes it imperative to host events like this. Similarly, this event seems exceptional—the first of its kind—yet is also has a quotidian flavor to it (as you noted in the iD interview). Do you think the exhibition’s power to form a sense of community derives from these contradictory dichotomies? 

M: This is the duality we tried to highlight in our mission statement too. The duality of living in the US as an immigrant, thriving while made to feel misunderstood and unwelcome. And this is the truth every immigrant in the US lives every day, and the sting is yet deeper when you consider this land your home and feel helpless in the face of a ban like this.

Would you encourage more Middle Eastern, [North] African, South [East] Asian (MENASEA) curators and artists to organize similar events?

K:  Absolutely. We didn’t originate from the art world, we just did this because we wanted to heal, and we figured we are not alone in our pain. 
M: Of course, I think it’s necessary for any community to portray their own true image, and I think art is just a channel to achieve this goal.

What issues did you have to consider when conceptualizing and actualizing this project?

K: Our partnership made “working” feel like hanging out. We did this over brunches, drinks, time at each other’s apartments. But it never felt like stressful work. 
M: And we’re so lucky to have many kind friends who helped us throughout, especially during the install and making the physical space a reality, that we hardly had any road-bump becoming a serious issue.

Now that you have some distance, how did the event go? Was community formed in the ways that you had hoped?

K:   We are still buzzing from the love. It was beyond our ambitions.  From the artists we were honored to work with that made the whole experience feel like family—to the attendees who thanked and encouraged us… completely overwhelming.  After seeing the community respond in that way, we know there’s still so much potential for more healing and solidarity, so we have more in the works. 
M: We have achieved more than what we had wished for, but we also know that this is a beginning and we need to water and foster the seeds we planted, now that we have a responsive community.

What was the most meaningful comment you received or heard? And why?

Kiana Pirouz. Photo by Jack Newton.

Kiana Pirouz. Photo by Jack Newton.

K:  A woman visiting the gallery asked if it was okay to pray in the back room of the gallery, amongst the art.  I, of course, said yes, and had to excuse myself to wipe my tears.  I was so moved that we created a space she felt comfortable and at home enough to pray.  I still get chills.

Many living in the region heard about this event and posted about it in one way or another. How does that feel? On that same note, how has the reception been so far?  

K:  Putting something from deep within our hearts into the universe, we had no idea what to expect. The response – from the artists to the visitors – has been extremely positive and supportive.  It feels rewarding. It also feels validating: two people with a lot of passion and drive, but zero curation experience did this. I hope people see this and follow in our footsteps.  

Did this event change the way you think about your identity? If yes, how so?

K:  There’s a meme or quote that has been going around “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams” (not sure where it originated). That sums it up.  After living in shame of my Iranian identity for most of my childhood and upbringing due to Islamophobia & otherizing, today feels nice. I am full of pride. 
M: Nationalism and patriotism sometimes masquerade themselves as one’s identity, and I have always been avoiding any action that can be perceived as such. I felt I had to respond when I felt my existence is under attack because of my identity, or because of the land I was born in, which I had no choice over. That’s why I insist on considering this initiative as a ‘platform for individual stories’ rather than associating the work with certain geographies, or borders.

Time seems to me to be a central concept in the exhibit. Those in power abuse immigrants at their own leisure and based on their own inadequacies. The time of immigrants in the US is disposable. Did BWWB serve as a space for artists to reclaim that time?

K:  As organizers, timing was a focus because of the anniversary of Trump’s first travel ban. The anniversary of the weekend myself and many people flooded airports to protest and volunteer for weeks.  We wanted to honor that time and provide a sanctuary of familiarity and celebration for immigrants and Americans alike. 

Was BWWB a space for healing for immigrants under Trump’s administration? Can you imagine other similar spaces? How can we strengthen our sense of community and solidarity? 

M: I think any space that cultivates openness and respect can become a safe space for the immigrant community. For us, BWWB was a personal healing journey as much as it was a community project. We meditated several times to keep our intentions in check and bless the space. We aspired to become a channel to inspire new friendships and undiscovered alliances.

Kiana Pirouz immigrated to Atlanta, Georgia from Tehran, Iran at the age of 3. After attending the University of Georgia with a degree in Journalism, she has spent over a decade working in media and marketing in New York City. Fusing her interests (music & art) with her knowledge (media & immigrant life experience) in her personal work, Kiana is focused creating strategies and avenues for the marginalized to maintain and spread their authentic narrative while leveraging the tools of mass media to ignite cultural conversations and illuminate real stories.

Born in Tehran, and raised between Tehran and Dubai, Mahya Soltani is an Iranian designer and visual artist currently residing in Brooklyn, New York. After practicing as a designer and an art director in Dubai, UAE for four years Mahya moved to United States to pursue her MFA in Design Entrepreneurship at School of Visual Arts in New York. Her practice as an artist engages time as a tool challenging expectations and perceptions while delineating the existence of alternate realities.