I was born in Iran to a family of Armenian origin. While I maintain close ties to both aspects of my background (Iran and Armenia), I have lived primarily in the United States, since 1964. Prior to that time, I was a practicing visual artist in Iran as well as an active member of the seminal group “Nor Ej” (New Page), a collective of Armenian poets in Tehran.
In 1964 I came to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and University of Pennsylvania. I received Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in 1970, along with the Academy’s J. Henry Scheidt European Prize, Quaker Prize for Meritorious Achievement, and Thouron Prize for Outstanding Composition. As an alumnus I received the Academy’s Drake Press Prize in 1971. In 1971 I was also accepted in the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and was awarded a merit scholarship to cover program costs. At the time my work was focused on abstract paintings based on flow of strokes of lines, composing expanses of symphonic compositions of subtle movements and impressions, free-flowing “inscriptions”. In 1972 I returned to Iran and taught art at the Institute of Fine Arts in Tehran and at the National, and Farabi Universities of Iran for four years. At the same time I was exhibiting my paintings in various venues, including the Basel International Art Fair of 1976. In 1976, however, I decided to return to the United States to pursue Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, which I received in 1978. 1979 was the year of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In that year I took up permanent residence in New York. These turn of events provoked a shift in me towards politically focused works, combining elements of photography, calligraphy, and collaged documentary materials.
During the 1980s, my work evolved to address issues of identity, gender, and cultural contradictions, through works on paper, photography, and sculptural installations, often responding to current political events. I consistently received intense critical and public responses to works like my collages about the Iranian hostage crisis, which comprised my solo show “Hostages: A Diary” at Elise Meyer Gallery in 1980. Over the course of the decade, I created solo exhibitions in the form of installations encompassing a broad range of media, at Franklin Furnace and Exit Art, while also participating in numerous group shows at venues including the Alternative Museum, P.S.1, the Fine Arts Museum of Long Island, and The Museum of Modern Art of New York. My work was reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, and Arts Magazine as well as the Village Voice and the SoHo News.
In the late 80s I became very interested in using the figure of the chador, the full-body veil mandatory for women in fundamentalist Islam, in large-scale sculptural installations. Those experiments resulted in more intensely provocative work that was spotlighted from 1992-93 in solo shows at The Sculpture Center and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECA in Salem South Carolina), as well as being featured in the MoMA exhibition “Readymade Identities.”
From 1992 I started getting involved in the contemporary art scene of Newly Independent State of Armenia. In 1992, 1993 and 1994 I organized annual group exhibitions of Armenian contemporary artists. This effort in late 1994 culminated in two major developments: First ever participation of Republic of Armenia at International Art Biennale of Venice and foundation of the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (“NPAK” in Armenian acronym), which I accomplished in collaboration with my husband, Edward Balassanian. This institution was the outgrowth of our longstanding interest in Armenian culture and in particular the attempts of young artists to negotiate the turbulent contemporary situation of Armenians in Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora. It very soon became a vibrant center for development and presentation of Armenian contemporary art and Armenian young talents’ quest for new frontiers in art. ACCEA/NPAK has maintained the presence of Armenia at Venice Biennale ever-since, without interruption, helping to bring innovative young Armenian artists to international attention.
In my own artistic career, mid-90s marked the internationalization of my work, in terms of themes as well as presentation. My artistic preoccupation evolved once again and I turned to the medium of video. As I acquired new techniques, I found that the expressive capabilities of this new medium permitted the expansion of my thematic explorations and artistic vocabulary to new levels. The video art that I have gradually been producing represents an important departure from my earlier work: the new form has enabled me to present certain dominant themes in a more complex and open-ended manner. This shift is visible even in the progression of the videos: the first works are essentially abstract, while the later works acquire more narrative dimension.
My most recent video work explores and links my multi-faceted identity with the physical and perceptual world surrounding me, and relates intimate images to broader social and cultural issues including gender identity and relations, the aftermath of war, and the role of the individual, especially the individual artist, in today’s society. The simultaneous development of several ideas made possible by the video art format mirrors the rapidly shifting and essentially unresolved nature of those issues. The language of the works operates at a certain level of symbolic abstraction in order to evoke universal human experiences from specific situations.
I have been exhibiting these video works since 1997, primarily in European venues that stand independent from the increasingly commercialized American art scene. This important breakthrough in my work was recognized in 2000 in the Dutch segment of the three-country exhibition “Continental Shift,” where I was given the main space of the Stadsgalerij Heerlen Museum in Heerlen, Holland to install six videos, and a sculptural installation. The enthusiastic response of the international public attending this exhibition has prompted me to expand my investigations further into the internationalization of cultural exchange.
Meanwhile, I have also begun exploring the possibilities of combining video with live performance within installations, a logical extension of my practice over the last ten years, into a more urgent incarnation. This experiment was carried out successfully virtually every summer since 2000 with multimedia event I conceived and directed at ACCEA/NPAK in Yerevan. All of these events were designed as one time installation performances, each with a beginning and an end. I produced several fresh video pieces for each event, which were the binding agents of installations and live performances. The first event (2000) was in cooperation with several local artists, whose installations and performances, together with my own, formed the body of the event. At the 2001 event I took the experiment forward one more step. It was performed in public space (a boulevard across from the ACCEA/NPAK building). In this event I designed all of the installations and performances. Videos were projected on open-air screens, and performers and audiences were mingling among them on the walkways and promenades of the boulevard. Events during the following years were inside the art center. They included multiple screens of videos accompanied by live performances. In some instances installation/performances by collaborating artists were added to these projects.
In summary, I feel that over the past few years I have reached a point in my career where the different avenues formerly explored in my work are converging and opening up into a space where I can work with larger issues on a larger scale than ever before. I am very excited about these new opportunities and ideas.