Anahita Norouzi, May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy, 2023, glass, clay, polyurethane sealant and metal, installation view at the National Gallery of Canada

Anahita Norouzi, May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy, 2023, glass, clay, polyurethane sealant and metal, installation view at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Courtesy the artist. © Anahita Norouzi Photo: NGC

Sobey Art Award 2023: Anahita Norouzi

Anahita Norouzi was born in Tehran in 1983. A self-described “child of the revolution” that rocked Iran in 1979, raised under a “theocratic and misogynist” regime, she focused her early art practice on feminism and social engagement. As a responsive vehicle for protest and resistance, the theme of the body quickly emerged as her key creative tool. In the filmed performance Tehran, The Apocalypse (2012), shot at the summit of a small hill near the city, the solitary artist slits a sheep’s throat. In Iran, significantly, women are forbidden to take part in the ritual slaughter that occurs during the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which celebrates the values of sacrifice and sharing.

In a later work, Flesh Memory (2017), Norouzi can be seen laboriously dragging a heavy animal carcass and attaching it to a truck-mounted crane, where it remains starkly hanging. The site of this performance is the same piece of waste ground in Tehran where, as a child, she witnessed a public execution – an experience she never forgot. Politically charged works like these irk the Iranian authorities, and the artist, concerned for her safety since participating in the Green Movement protests of 2009, decided to leave Iran and settle permanently in Canada.

Anahita Norouzi,  Flesh Memory (still), 2017, video documentation of performance, colour, sound; 28 min, continuous loop

Anahita Norouzi, Flesh Memory (still), 2017, video documentation of performance, colour, sound, 28 min., continuous loop. © Anahita Norouzi Photo: Courtesy the artist

Though Norouzi holds a B.A. in art and graphic design from Soore University and had exhibited her work on several occasions in Iran (her submission to the Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize attracted particular attention), once in Montreal, she was obliged to start over. Her status as a promising artist had shifted to that of an immigrant struggling to find a place between two territories: “I decided to see the position as interesting, rather than as a source of suffering and nostalgia. It was a situation with potential for freeing the gaze.” Her personal experience as an exile became the pivot of her explorations, sometimes shaped by a relational approach, as in the series Other Landscapes (2020). Resulting from a collaboration with refugees from North Africa and the Middle East – notably countries burdened by a colonial past – these photographs take the form of still lifes composed of personal belongings they brought with them on their flight to Canada.

During the creative process, Norouzi observed the recurring presence of seeds among these diasporic objects. This broadened her interest in migration narratives by triggering a reflection on the migratory paths taken by plants throughout history, and particularly the way some species are appreciated in one place and considered undesirable in another. “Why,” the artist wondered, “do the rhetoric and vocabularies used in the Global North that address certain plants as colonizers, exploiters and aliens, sound awfully similar to those used to address refugees from the Global South? Thinking about the North and the South, what kind of power dynamics are at work behind these categories?”

Anahita Norouzi, Other Landscapes  (detail), 2020, 6 photographs accompanied by 6 audio tracks

Anahita Norouzi, Other Landscapes  (detail), 2020, 6 photographs accompanied by 6 audio tracks, 177.8 x 124.5 cm. Installation view at Entre les lignes – Writing Mountains, Stewart Hall Art Gallery, Montreal, 2023. Courtesy the artist. © Anahita Norouzi Photo: Courtesy the artist/Alexis Bellavance

The importation of seeds into Canada is restricted or prohibited on the grounds that some might produce herbaceous plants that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) identifies as “pests” or “invasive.” Elaborating on the symbolist portraits of Other Landscapes, Norouzi asked her collaborators to identify which of the plants classified by the CFIA as “prohibited noxious” are indigenous to their country of origin. She then assembled dried specimens of these plants that were mailed to her from across the ocean, made cyanotype impressions of them (Displaced Garden, 2020) and reproduced them as life-sized glass sculptures (From the Other Side, 2021). With the transparency of the glass evoking their absence and the material’s fragility their vulnerability, these displaced plants embody the struggle of migrant populations to put down roots in a country that is sometimes hostile.

Anahita Norouzi, From the Other Side (detail), 2021, 6 life-size glass sculptures of invasive plants in Canada;

Anahita Norouzi, From the Other Side (detail), 2021,6 life-sized glass sculptures of invasive plants in Canada, approx. 25.4 x 38.1 x 58.4 cm. © Anahita Norouzi Photo: Courtesy the artist

In the artist’s early works, the flesh of animals is a bearer of trauma, while her own “embodies the psychological through the physical,” since the body is shaped by “a memory, bones, a psyche, a history and a geography.” In the new corpus, the vegetal becomes an equally effective conveyor of human experience. Botany provides Norouzi’s practice with a fertile breeding ground, allowing her to discern links between the migratory history of plants and colonial history – and the power relations behind them. As curator Cheryl Sim has noted, Norouzi’s botanical inquiry “helps us to contemplate the interests that inform the construction of discourses to establish what is local and therefore familiar, versus what is foreign and therefore a threat,” and encourages us “to appreciate the efforts that necessitate adaptability and acclimatization.” The image of resilient plant life operates in the artist’s work as a metaphor for migrants who have triumphed over the obstacles encountered on their journeys.

These botanical explorations are pursued in a subsequent cycle of works focusing on the geographical displacement of Persian hogweed. Prized both as an ornamental plant and a diplomatic offering, Persian hogweed was first imported into England from Iran in 1817, reflecting territorial expansion. It arrived in Canada and the United States following the Second World War. In Canada, the plant – whose seeds play an important part in traditional Iranian cuisine and medicine – is often confused with a close relative, giant hogweed, which owing to its toxicity has become the object of vigorous eradication efforts.

With Constellational Diasporas (2022), Norouzi’s aim is to alter the negative North American perception of Persian hogweed. The sculptural installation is composed of around 550 blue glass balls, each of which contains a seed of the precious plant, harvested by the artist’s mother in her native city. Scattered across the floor, isolated yet grouped, unstable yet immobile, these little ocean-hued spheres conjure migratory movements, thus transforming into “a poetic expression of longing and the safeguarding of cultural memory.” Evident again is the remarkable skill with which Norouzi explores sensitive subjects, subtly transposing them into a compelling formal aesthetic in which material and technique are also charged with meaning.

Anahita Norouzi, May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy (detail), 2023, glass, clay, polyurethane sealant and metal, installation view at the National Gallery of Canada

Anahita Norouzi, May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy (detail), 2023, glass, clay, polyurethane sealant and metal, installation view at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Courtesy the artist. © Anahita Norouzi Photo: NGC

In the same vein, Norouzi’s current work traces the path taken by artifacts looted or removed from archaeological sites in the Middle East that now reside in the galleries and storage facilities of Western museums. She is particularly interested in objects that are rarely exhibited, either for aesthetic reasons or because their provenance is difficult to establish.

These investigations have resulted in new projects, such as the installation May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy (2023), created especially for the Sobey Art Award. Norouzi confronts us with the case of Persia’s ancient Elamite city of Susa, whose 5,000-year-old ruins were, from the 19th century on, stripped of part of their heritage by French archaeologists funded by the Louvre. This ancestral territory has also been the focus of considerable colonial interest because of its rich petroleum deposits. Many artifacts uncovered during the French excavations have ended up in the Louvre’s collections, including several Elamite funerary heads. Stuck today in “a sort of museum limbo,” these heads were originally intended to protect and guide the ancestors of the Iranian people as they descended into the netherworld.

For this most recent work, the artist has made a large-scale clay copy of one of these heads. Despite its monumental enlargement, the delicacy of the material has enabled her to capture the fragile, even damaged look of the original. The head’s cheek is laid against the floor, and from its wide, almond-shaped eyes – enhanced with bitumen, according to the Elamite craft tradition – flows what looks like a pool of petrol.

Anahita Norouzi, May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy (detail), 2023, glass, clay, polyurethane sealant and metal, installation view at the National Gallery of Canada

Anahita Norouzi, May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy (detail), 2023, glass, clay, polyurethane sealant and metal, installation view at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Anahita Norouzi Photo: NGC

The head is surrounded by ten imperial fritillaries made of black glass, reproduced life-sized. These flowers, characterized by their “upside-down” nectaries, are among the most ancient of Iran’s ornamental plants and have graced Europe’s most celebrated gardens since the 17th century. According to Iranian folklore, their nectar, dubbed “tears of Siyâvash,” is produced as the plant weeps in mourning for the departed. This installation-monument, which commemorates the vestiges of the city of Susa that vanished as the Iranian people looked on helplessly, represents for Norouzi a first step toward collective healing. After raising questions about the responsibility of lands of “refuge” in the integration of both migrant populations and plant species, she turns her attention here to the accountability of institutions dedicated to the preservation of humanity’s heritages. The exhibiting of this work in a museum reflects a pivotal moment in history, when the decolonization of collections has emerged as a matter of fundamental concern within artistic and institutional circles.

Quotes by the artist are cited from her conversations with author Eve-Lyne Beaudry and her interview with Caroline Loncol Daigneault, in “Anahita Norouzi : entendre les lieux, faire parler les corps,” Vie des arts, no. 258 (Spring 2020).

 

The 2023 Sobey Art Award exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 13, 2023 until March 3, 2024, with the winner being announced in November 2023. The Sobey Art Award is funded by the Sobey Art Foundation (SAF) and organized and presented by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​
 

2023 Sobey Art Award – Anahita Norouzi

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