Before We Were Banned: Interview with Soraya Majd

Soraya Majd. Photo by Jack Newton.

Soraya Majd. Photo by Jack Newton.

What does home mean to you?

What a heavy first question! I feel like I’ve been trying to figure this out my whole life, I’ve never felt settled any place for long. I think it means being with those we love and hold dear. How that actually looks with so much distance between us is hard to name, and that’s where art has given me the space to be always working that out.

Where are you a local?

Currently, I’m living in Portland, Oregon.

Please describe the journey (emotional and/or physical) behind your work. As wars have intensified in our home countries and the immigration system tightens in the US, what/who was the source of strength in your creative process?

I developed this photo series for my thesis project. I was living as an immigrant in Costa Rica, and to deal with my homesickness I began to explore the root of my constant feeling of displacement. My work has always revolved around my identity, and this project really leaned into that. So I began to study, I began to read up on a lot of things like characteristics of kids of immigrants, specifically Iranian immigrants. And through investigating, and reading and finding more stories like my family’s it made me feel less alone.

Here, 2013 Large portrait 24" x 36" and 6 portraits 8" x 12" Photography

Here, 2013
Large portrait 24" x 36"
and 6 portraits 8" x 12"

My family has never been able to go to Iran, my dad’s whole family is there. We’ve been able to see a few family members a few times, but it’s always for only a few days, in neutral countries that are not our own. We’re never able to just exist in each other's homes. My family in Iran has always been far away and unfamiliar most of my life, which is a huge contrast to my mom’s side of the family. My mom is from Oregon, we were able to run around on the farm that she grew up on, and sleep summer nights in the house my grandpa built. I know the smell of the earth where she came from, all the stories she tells us are places we know, we’ve been to. But for my dad and where he came from, it is an absence. 

This project was awesome because it started giving me a place to name things that had been heavy, hard, and isolating for a long time. It gave me the vocabulary that I needed, but also it brought us together in a really awesome way. I started asking more specific questions, I looked at our photo albums closer, and I got to hear a lot more stories from my dad. I decided to build a set of my grandma’s living room from back in Iran after I saw a picture of my grandpa, my dad’s dad, in front of a painting of the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, Iran instead of the shrine itself. I was fascinated by it, fascinated by the performance of taking a picture in front of a copy of a thing, rather than the thing itself. So my family built the set, took pictures, and drank tea together. I’m so grateful to this project because of how collaborative it was, and it was really beautiful.

Besides my family being the obvious source of strength for this project, my thesis professor Sussy Vargas, an amazing and insightful artist, really helped me guide and shape this, it wouldn’t have been possible without her. 

Did BWWB allow you to voice your narrative authentically? 

It really did, Mahya and Kiana did something really beautiful by giving all of us artists unhindered space for what we’ve made.

How did the event go and how did it feel to show your work?
Because I took these portraits four years ago, I was blown away by how emotional it was to be part of this. I had tears in my throat the whole show. It was so humbling and healing to be in the same room with so many amazing artist and people whose hearts were in a similar place. I haven’t had that before now.

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

I was able to talk to a few people whose families’ stories are similar, who have also had to navigate and work out what home looks like in the diaspora. Having other people, strangers identify with this feeling of absence that we carry every day is so humbling. When I was making this piece I was inspired by artists who voiced the heavy things because it made me feel less alone, so to be able to do that a little bit with my work feels fucking rad.

Did this event change the way you think about your identity? If so, how so?
No, but it reminded me that I’m not alone. We’re not alone.

Being an artist from the BWWB regions in the US can feel inherently politicized. Does this dynamic apply in your ‘home nation’? Do you hope to show your art in your home country/country of origin, or can it only exist outside of that space?
I haven’t thought about this yet. I do hope to show these portraits more though, starting where I’m at now.

How did your art fit in with the larger themes of the exhibition? In your own words, what were those themes (both yours and the exhibition’s)?
When I first saw the call for art, the name of the show really stood out to me because it managed to convey the history of the heaviness we’ve carried for a long time. It’s been hard; this ban was just salt in the wound. I never met my grandma because of how shitty visa laws have been for a long time. I made this series of portraits to bring some healing to the emotional inheritance that comes with being a kid of the diaspora.

Art can be a vehicle to break down myths, like the “good immigrant myth.” What kind of discursive work does your art—on its own—aim to do?

This project was a cathartic process for me. I needed a space to find healing with all the things that come with growing up in the diaspora, and it definitely gave me that. For a long time it was a very personal project, I mean I still haven’t even presented my thesis yet (maybe it was too cathartic hahaha). But when the Muslim Ban 1.0 came out last year, I realized it wasn’t just for me anymore, so I published the portraits on my website that same day. It was a small act of resistance, but I think there is a lot of healing in being open with our stories.

How do these myths strain our communities?
They make things murky and heavy. Having to constantly navigate other people’s projections of you is exhausting even in short interactions. They exhaust us and take our energy.

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 inadequacies. The time of immigrants in the US is disposable. Did BWWB serve as a space for artists to reclaim that time (time spent separated from family, time spent worrying, and time in limbo)?

I don’t know if that time can be reclaimed. This show did bring us together, and that is a powerful thing right now.

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? 

It really was. Using art as resistance to take back the damaging narratives told about us is so powerful. We need to be doing this more, making more spaces like these. Spaces like these remind us that we are not alone.

Soraya Majd’s work revolves around identity and memory. As an Iranian-American she uses both photography and printmaking to work against the cultural erasure that comes with growing up in the Persian diaspora. For her, the investigation and research that goes into planning a piece is just as rich a part of the process as creating the piece itself. Constantly inspired by her family’s photo albums, she weaves together portraits and Persian design elements to create space for what is lost to political division.