Aileen Bahmanipour is a Vancouver-based, Iranian-born artist with a long-standing mythical obsession. Many of her works combine a highly technical, almost medical view of the human body with echoes of Persian folklore. Through this strange but beautiful mix of the earthly and the legendary, she examines hybrid dialogues between Western and Eastern perspectives, deconstructs cultural truisms, and explores cyclical political power and cultural identity. The resulting works are extremely intricate, gorgeously rendered, and immediately arresting—if not a little unnerving.
Starting this week, a collection of Bahmanipour’s drawings will be on view at Vancouver’s grunt gallery in an exhibition titled “Technical Problem.” In anticipation of the show, SAD Mag sat down with the artist to talk art, immigration, and ancient legends.
SAD Mag: Tell me about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
Aileen Bahmanipour: I have a Bachelor Degree in Painting that I did in Tehran. I grew up there until I was 24 and then in 2014 I immigrated from Iran to Canada. Now it’s been a year that I’m studying my master of fine arts in Visual Art at UBC.
SM: Tell me about the mythology that informs so much of your work.
AB: The story goes back to 2009, when an election happened in Iran. The majority of people seem to have voted for a specific candidate who wasn’t selected as the President of Iran. [Instead,] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued as president for the next 4 years, and that made people angry, because [the results of the election] didn’t make any sense.
The government started suppressing people in the streets in any way possible. The people just had a very simple question: What happened? Everything was very suppressed, and it was very hard not to show any reaction.
[This leads us] back to the myth that I choose to work with: it’s a story about a king of Iran, whose name is Zahak. By the kisses of the devil, two snakes start growing from his shoulders. He is very afraid of his snakes and seeks a doctor to help him. But the devil transforms himself into a doctor and instructs Zahak to cut off the heads of the young people of his country, make a meal of their brains, and feed it to his snakes. [“Otherwise,” the devil tells him,] “the snakes will eat you.” So Zahak starts beheading the people, he starts taking away the thinking or intellectual power of society just because of his fear.
For me, working with this myth was easier than digesting the reality of what was actually going on. At that age, that time, that mythology gave me a shortcut to digest things. I started working with mythology as a way to cross section the present.
SM: What are some other key themes or ideas that appear in your pieces?
AB: One is the idea of the cross section. I’ve been dealing with it for years as a way to cut through the surface of reality and see how a system works, from the inside. Often, at first glance, the functionality of a system is not visible to us, because it’s covered by a skin or by a facade. The cross section can give you that point of view to see how a system works.
[Another common theme is the cycle or system itself]. In the cycles or systems in my paintings, there is no production happening; they are cycles that repeat themselves. They feed themselves through their own bodies or organs without producing anything.
SM: Why are you so interested in this idea of the cycle that feeds itself?
AB: It’s given me a point of view to understand what’s going on in my own life. There’s often [some] knowledge that I want to employ to make a piece [of art]. But the things that I’m making also help me to understand my reality. It’s not just a one-way relationship where I give everything [to my work]; the [artistic] process, the piece itself also gives me knowledge. It’s a two-way relationship.
SM: How has immigrating to Vancouver changed the way you think about or look at your art?
AB: It’s hard for me to articulate how it happened, but something changed. It’s interesting for me to see how the ground of my images, or the process of image-making, changed as soon as my ground of living changed. So instead of working on a tight surface, like canvas or paper, I really wanted to try working on something very transparent, like acetate sheet. Instead of thinking about on a legible image that people could see, I really wanted to make that chaos, that noise, that illegibility of an artwork.
SM: Do you have any artistic rituals or routines, or seek out special spaces to help you work?
AB: For painting and drawing, yes, I really need a familiar studio or place where I can concentrate. But that’s just a small part of my process. I think, being an artist, you are curious about your everyday life. When your brain is concerned with some idea or concept, your daily life is entangled with all those thoughts. When I see the news, read the newspaper, walk in the street, I’m ready for anything that could happen—for anything that might make me go, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” It’s hard to divide what is studio time and what is not studio time.
SM: What do you hope people (viewers?) get out of the show?
AM: It’s hard for me to assign an expectation that people “get that” or “get this.” I’m looking forward to seeing how people who have no background in all this mythology, all of these stories, or even the aesthetic of Persian miniature will perceive things. I’m not hoping to explain things, or even hoping that they “get” the mythology—that’s not important to me. I’m actually looking forward more to seeing what happens, to seeing what their readings will be of these works [without having that background].