WHAT YOU KNOW: Interview with Taravat Talepasand

by Laila Iravani, RUOKAY.com

Khabar Keslan is proud to present the first installment of “What You Know,” a documentary series by Laila Iravani that brings you up front and personal with first generation Iranian Americans.

…But also to ultimately have that respect of being Iran—um which was really great.

*dog barks*

There she goes. Ashley, do you mind taking her inside?


My name is Taravat Talepasand. My mother’s name is Azar, my father is Iraj, and my sister is Tannaz. I was born in 1979 in Eugene, Oregon while my dad was studying at the University of Oregon. We moved to Portland, Oregon…

…We were very challenged by just being Iranian, just being other, being brown. Most of the kids I grew up with were white, but everybody just assumed that I was brown and I was Mexican. And I would always fight with it, like “No, I’m from Iran!” Which shifted to, “I’m Persian!” To now back to, “I’m from Iran.” You know? Like I claim that. And I just I kind of––I don’t want to say I accepted it, but I just kind of rolled with it. I wasn’t comfortable having the conversation with these other white kids or even their white parents and family to try to defend myself. I just really worked on myself as an individual person and as a woman.

Going into college, people asked me like, “What are you?” What does that mean? What do you mean, what am I? I’m human! And they’re like, “Oh, I mean like, where are you from?” And then realizing,Oh wow…I’m being exoticized.” You know? And that’s when I realized, like, this is not ok.

During the Iran-Iraq war, my mother told me, “When you go to school or when you’re out and about and people ask you where you’re from, tell them you’re from Iraq.” And I was like, “What? Why can’t I say I was from Iran?” She was just like, “It’s gonna start some problems in many conversations you might not be ready to discuss right now.” I mean I was, I don’t know––eight… I don’t really remember, but I was young. I was young [sic] not to really understand. I remember feeling very offended by that. I mean I respected my mother and I did as she wished, but at that point I was like what’s the difference really? Even though I knew there was this war between Iraq and Iran.

I think 9/11 for me was like––I think that was the big turning point. Because at the time I wasn’t making work about necessarily myself or my identity or me being Iranian or female. I was being told, once again by my parents, to not tell people where I’m from. They were like, “You’re American, you were born here. You are Iranian, but just be safe.” I mean there were people getting beat up just for looking like you were Middle Eastern or wearing hijab or being seen as Muslim. No one hassled–I did not get hassled at all. Again people just didn’t know where I was from. Or they assumed oh maybe she’s from India, or Mexican, South American, or mixed Italian. People could never put their finger on where I’m from until you run into someone who actually knows an Iranian. And when you do meet someone who knows an Iranian they usually like love you. 

When I first started making this work about being Iranian, being a woman from Iran. It kind of transitioned between finding the similarities between American and Iranian culture-popular culture, what I mean. Like the drug addictions, for example, how sexuality is expressed in media or not. Censorship––there are a lot of similarities. I felt like it would educate my viewers in a way. I am making a point to focus all my work to remind people, to educate people, to never forget about these countries that are in complete turmoil and all we have is CNN or FOX News or these terrible media stations that are giving us not the entire story.

So it really takes your own self to educate yourself to learn to find those channels to be in the know. So we need to come together we need to educate ourselves, we need to be involved. How you wanna be involved? It’s your own choice. For me, it’s to make the artwork that can survive past my own life and to just be a part of history. That’s kind of me giving back to being Iranian. 

TARAVAT TALEPASAND, born in 1979 in the United States to Iranian parents during the Iranian Revolution. Retained close family and artistic ties to Iran, Isfahan, where she was trained in the challenging discipline of Persian miniature painting.  Paying close attention to the cultural taboos identified by distinctly different social groups, particularly those of gender, race and socioeconomic position, her work reflects the cross-pollination, or lack thereof, in our “modern” society. Talepasand's interdisciplinary practices draw on realism to bring a focus on an acceptable beauty and its relationship with art history under the guise of traditional Persian painting. Her interest, however, is in painting a present, which is of and intrinsically linked to the past, making it easily understood by the Iranian and indicative of assumption for the Westerner. Taravat Talepasand reconsiders the various ideological assumptions that index Iranian identity, state power, and gender in order to consider how the body and the image come to signify and rebel against normative notions of Iranian subjectivity via paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations. “ Since I myself am considered a taboo in that I am a conglomerate of equal, yet irreconcilable cultural forces, my work challenges plebeian notions of acceptable behavior,” says the artist.

Taravat lives in San Francisco and is tenure-track as the Department Chair of Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is in permanent collections of the De Young Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Orange County Museum of Art, Orange County. Taravat was included in the 2018 Bay Area Now 8 at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts and the recipient of the 2010 Diebenkorn Fellowship at the San Francisco Art Institute. She is a featured artist in Different Sames: New Perspectives in Contemporary Iranian Art, edited by Hossein Amirsadeghi and the Documentary Pearls On The Ocean Floor by Robert Adanto. Talepasand received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001 and MFA and the San Francisco Art Institute in 2006.

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