Q&A: MFA Student Tackles Social Issues With Art

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Iranian-born Maryam Rezaei will received her Master’s of Fine Arts degree from the Department of Art & Art History at the College of Liberal Arts’ Spring 2015 Commencement. Over the past three years, she’s included childhood memories and a decade of global experiences into creating “socially conscious” art. Communications Coordinator James Dunning visited with Rezaei to discuss her journey to UT Arlington and the impact of seeing her work in numerous galleries, both physical and virtual.

Q: You came from Shiraz, Iran, an environment where certain types of art aren’t as celebrated as art is in other parts of the world. How did you get your start? What prompted you to become an artist?

A: I started with poems when I was 12 or 13. In Iran we have some avant-garde artists like Forough Farrokhzad. Her poetry was very different than the others at the time. She wrote about freedom, her emotions and women. I think in the Middle East society should give more value to women and give them a more equal situation to men. Women are a big secret — their bodies, their emotions, their lives, their hope. The identity of women is connected to their father or husband.

Q: Did your family encourage you to pursue a career in art?

A: Not so much. I wanted to go to the most top-rated school in the country for an art degree, but during that time it was not common to study art and my family didn’t have a clear idea about it. So I worked on it myself. My father went to a school in California, so in one aspect, he was very different, very open-minded. But he thought I should use my intellect to be a doctor. My mother helped me be prepared for my entrance exam. That was very hard and so competitive in my time.

Q: You attended Shiraz University and spent some time in Tehran before moving on to other parts of the world. What was that experience like?

A: You get a lot of experience living in Tehran. I had a high level of cultural shock. The people there were very focused on materialism and social status through the things you owned. It was a very hard time. I faced a lot of issues. I saw people who grew up in the villages come into the city and experience the same kind of culture shock. In the Middle East countries, the women who live in the villages are more unknown, more inexperienced. So when they move to the cities suddenly there is liberation and taboo and all of these new experiences and challenges.

Q: Which experiences have had the greatest impact on your work?

A: In my poetry, I focused on women and emotion. Farrokhzad’s work is where I really discovered myself and my voice. I was shocked to read what she wrote. I remember bringing one of her books to my father and he sort of shrugged it off and said, “yeah, she’s open-minded.” This sentiment informed me that her work wasn’t bad. I was also inspired as a teenager by American films like “Forrest Gump.” I connected with that story of a less-than-smart person who makes his way through the world with his persistence. I also found inspiration in the translated works of Anthony Robbins. When I was younger, I read as much as I could, sometimes around 200 pages a day. I found a lot of inspiration through that.

Q: What themes do you find yourself returning to as you create?

A: Before I arrived in the U.S., I was sad about my home country and the lack of support from other counties. We have so many problems, but not a lot of outside help. I discovered that Americans are very nice, helpful people, but sometimes they don’t have enough information about what’s going on in the rest of the world. I found myself focusing on distant art and highlighting social issues. One of my first projects focused on women’s issues and an Iranian lake. Some people came up to me after seeing my work and said, “why don’t you talk about the Dallas lake? We’ve got so many problems there.” Well, each lake is different, and in Iran, the lake I focused on serves 8 million people. If it dries up, it will make a major impact.

From there I moved to air pollution, environmental issues and women’s rights in various countries. Some people call me a political artist, but I’m not that. I’m more focused on the environment or freedom or women’s rights message. I’m not against any particular group or country or religion. I want to impact people by the news and experience I have. I’m a socially conscious artist. After enough awareness, society can make the best decisions they need.

Q: You’re one of the few artists at UT Arlington that has embraced virtual space through three-dimensional computer rendering and Oculus Rift technology. A lot of folks working with that software are focusing on gaming, but you created an interactive digital gallery of your work and a first-person experience for visitors. How did that happen?

A; This technology is pretty new, so I attended different workshops, online courses, and researched the technology and in this way I self-taught myself. Also I’m so thankful for my mentor [Department Chair] Robert Hower who directed me during this whole process. Joshua McCollister from game marketing also helped me through motivation and techniques.

Q: What do users see when they enter the digital gallery?

A: As you start through the gallery on the first floor, you see a room full of women in burkas. Burkas are symbolic in Middle Eastern culture; I feel like they rob women of their identity. So this is my comment on that social issue. The gallery opens up as you move up the stairs. The second floor is freedom; the first floor is pain. The second floor has some of my artwork on the walls or as sculpture. These pieces are interactive over time. On the far wall in the corner you see the shamseh, the symbol of the sun. I used this to symbolize the freedom women have but you can only see it half covered with a black veil. Another meaningful object is a window with light dancing beyond. It represents hope, a hope that you can’t reach. It took me about a year to build the main concept, posters on the wall, design the environment and objects.

Q: Now that you are graduating, what’s next?

A: My experience here has been wonderful. I have very strong interest in Oculus Rift and new technologies in art and design, and plan to continue to research this in the future along with human rights. I plan to work and teach in the United States, and I hope for freedom for everyone in the Middle East.

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