“Being connected in everything is a big part of my life philosophy”
Sara Niroobakhsh is inspired by many things, from Persian proverbs to tribal traditions. Her childhood in southern Iran features heavily in her work along with the concepts of body, movement, time and space. So what’s next for the Canada-based artist? ‘Improving,’ she says, ‘is always the best plan.’
Please introduce yourself to our readers:
I’m Sara Niroobakhsh, originally from southern Iran, a Toronto-based visual artist. I have been working as a painter, photographer and video artist since 2005.
Tell us about your education:
I hold a MA from the Art University of Tehran and a BA in Graphic Design. I’m now studying Master of Fine Art in the School of Art Institute of Chicago.
What was it like growing up in Iran?
I was born and raised in the southwest of Iran, in a place called Khuzestan, which borders Iraq and the Persian Gulf. It’s a multicultural home for Persians, Arabs and different tribes so many of my childhood friends and family members spoke different languages. I spent the hottest summer on the planet and shortest winter there and am now experiencing the complete opposite in Canada. My father was a manager in an oil company so I was lucky to reap the benefit of all the facilities such as summer camps, good schools etc. I have lots of pictures in my mind; memories of port cities like Abadan or Genaveh and Persian Gulf when we were there for shopping, seeing ancient sites and Ziggurats like Shush, also visiting my eldest aunt with all the families for the holidays in Haft Tappeh.
What are your favourite childhood memories?
I used to go the central library at the company club, reading books and enjoying beautiful garden views out of the large windows. My grandpa also had a big library in his house that had been organized based on the height and age of the books. I remember always climbing up the bookshelves to discover the bigger novels which weren’t necessarily for a child to read. When I finished secondary school, I could have finished most of the novels written by well-known authors.
How and when did your interest in art develop and when did you begin to take it seriously?
I was about to go to high school when I met my father‘s friend’s daughter who was studying graphic design. For me, that art was all about book covers and illustrations and that meeting opened up a new sight to another world. But after graduation I realized that these arts kept my mind and ideas too limited so I started to join other classes at grad schools and explored more about other media. I learned that art can help me cope through difficult situations and be a voice to share my story to the world. I chose fine art when I found other fields no longer suited me when I was at grad school.
You are quite versatile in what you do, how would you best describe yourself?
My tendency to adapt to different formats as an artist is one of my greatest strengths and I am yearning to unfold and flourish as my practice grows. I always explore other things outside of my realm of comfort. There are many media to use in art and endless things to learn which drive me toward creativity, because all of us have our own strengths to contribute. When I have an idea I study for the best medium to describe it. There are lots of possibilities to create an artwork that are both passionate and creative, and therein lies the versatility of art. Art is so complex, and so are our lives.
Where do you take your inspiration from?
From an anthropological perspective my work has been heavily influenced by numerous stories, mythologies and Persian proverbs, passed from generation to generation. My greatest inspiration, however, is rooted in the folkloric practices and tribal traditions that stem from a legacy of the matriarchs in my family.
What are some of your favourite materials?
Since my art is primarily social commentary that reflects the traditional social norms that repress women from leaving the home, I like to present these activities as performance art. As a Middle Eastern woman, I have always been interested in expanding boundaries and working with the female form, since it has become controversial in Iran. Working in this field and challenging the concepts of body, movement, time and space will help me to create works which are mostly about these concepts. I love to capture photos or shoot videos from those moments and sometimes I paint them as well.
Can you tell our readers about your recent project?
For my last project, I invited artists from around the world to record themselves in a joyous sound that is known in the Middle East as the Zaghrouta. The project is an interactive video art installation. As the audience walks by the exhibit, the sensor will be connected to the installation so that visitors will become a part of the art show as they hear the celebratory cry. Just like the clapping of hands at the end of a Broadway play, the Zaghrouta has the same connotation. The project exhibited last year at the CICA Museum and won Visual Artists Creation Projects grant from Ontario Arts Council this year in 2018. The curator of this project is Mahmoud Obaidi who is a leading Iraqi Toronto-based artist and we are currently working with the curator of a public gallery to launch the new phase of the project in 2019 in Canada.
Tell us about your life and how living in Canada changed you so far?
I moved to Canada in 2014. Since I have extensive knowledge of Arabic and Iranian art/culture I was given the opportunity to work as a curator. Working as a curator, I was able to build relationships with over twenty Middle Eastern artists by mentoring and consulting them in numerous projects which led them to develop successful careers in galleries and private viewing events in Canada, Lebanon and United Arab Emirates. Then I was invited to work as a juror in Ontario Arts Council for Art Professionals Artist of Colours grant this year. Now, as I mentioned, I’m working on my project, Zaghroutah. I believe moving to Canada has developed a new perspective in my artistic journey and opened up a world of opportunities and collaborations with other professionals.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
That’s a great question! I always feel proud when I look back and see the massive changes I’ve made in my life. But my proudest achievement so far is redefining what success means to me. After I moved to Canada, a lot of my perspectives on life and the values I wanted to take forward with me stood out. Since then, it’s been a bit of a journey with my art as I shift it to have it correlate with who I am and how I can contribute and communicate with the world through art that feels honest to me. Out of everything I’ve accomplished, my proudest moment was when I was admitted to School of Art Institute of Chicago which has always been my dream school in the world.
What are your plans for the future?
That future is now here. I’d like to be doing what I’m doing now – that is, enjoying my work, working hard and contributing to the best of my abilities. Of course, improving always is the best plan.
What message would you give to young aspiring artists?
Often the artists who are very successful don’t have much flexibility. So, widen your boundaries by learning a foreign language and meeting new people. Do multiple tasks and do things that have nothing to do with art and leave your comfort zones in your studio. Because there are so many things in life that have nothing to do with art but have everything to do with art. Don’t worry about making a lot of money and exhibiting your works everywhere. Rather, concentrate on what you are trying to contribute to the world with your art.
What is your motto in life?
Life is led by those who put in their best. It’s really important for me to be engaged in everything, from all the tasks that I have to do, to my art and everything that I do for fun. Being connected in everything is a big part of my life philosophy.
Your message for us at CP magazine:
I would like to thank you for providing me the opportunity to talk. I want to deliver a message, especially to all the immigrant artists, to trust themselves, to be engaged and do their best, and not to underestimate their own capacity to build the life and the world that they want.