Image: How has your religious and cultural background contributed to your work?
Mojdeh Rezaeipour: I grew up in Iran and immigrated to the US with my family when I was twelve. As a child, I would write letters to god, then fold and throw them behind the wardrobe in my room, as if it were some sort of divine void. Mostly it felt like correspondence with a dear friend, but I remember writing an especially angry one after my grandmother died. My mom found them eventually, which was confusing and awkward!
At school in third grade, we participated in jashn-e-ebadat, a ceremony initiating us into “womanhood.” After this, I was expected to cover my body in public and pray five times a day in Arabic, a language I didn’t understand.
There are many beautiful things about Islam, but living in a religious state made me allergic to a lot of it. Some of my earlier works are based on a series of photographs taken of me in elementary school, deconstructed and reconstructed as I revisited this moment when I became divided. Through these works, I began piecing myself back together, and as a result I feel more connected to myself and to the divine.
Image: How was your experience of religion at home different from public spaces, where observance was mandated?
MR: I remember feeling really connected to rituals rooted in our Zoroastrian heritage. Some of my favorite moments were arranging the Haft Seen table for Nowruz (Persian new year) and gathering around it at the exact moment of the vernal equinox, holding hands and feeling each other’s heartbeats as the clock struck.
My mom would also make sofreh aghd (wedding altars) for family and friends who were getting married. She’d create these ornate vessels that would hold various symbolic elements to welcome the couple into their shared life. I would sit in the corner making my own objects with the leftover materials or helping her glue things. It was an artistic process, but it was also prayerful. I’ve come to see my mixed-media installations as a continuation of this practice.
Image: You have a gift for looking inward and backward, connecting your practice to your early life and your family history. Are there questions you find yourself struggling with over and over?
MR: I mainly struggle with cycles of burnout and with being a body. When I’m in the midst of installing, experimenting, or leading up to a big deadline, my primary mode is chaos. It feels like being in a vortex. I am not in control, and yet I trust myself fully. The work carries itself through me. Meanwhile, I completely neglect and exhaust my body, and it takes me weeks, sometimes months, to recover. Sometimes I remind myself to rest and take things slow, but just as often I forget. As I get older, I wonder how much longer this will be sustainable.
Image: Do you have a particular ritual when working in your studio?
MR: I always need to have some sort of fire around. When I lived and worked in the forest, I had access to a wood stove and a fire pit. Making a fire was the first thing I’d do many mornings. Now, I just make sure to have a generous supply of candles. I burn esfand (wild rue) to clear energy periodically. A practice of three morning pages has been with me too, ever since I did the Artist’s Way a few years back. On a good day, my partner and I have our morning coffee and handwrite these pages together in silence.
Image: How have the events of this year affected your practice?
MR: My partner Reis DeBruyne and I started the year with a collaborative exhibition in Berlin. This show and the trip as a whole marked a shift in my practice. I went from mostly doing on-site installation to video and embodied movement work, and a residency at the Nicholson Project allowed me time and space to really develop that. The pandemic has made me a lot better at not knowing and surrender, and has shown me how central process and adaptation are to my practice. Following the police murder of George Floyd, we found ourselves in yet another revealing collective moment of both horror and hope. From this place, I have been thinking a lot about how my work and voice can align more clearly in service of Black liberation. Overall, it feels like I have learned—and unlearned—as much in the past four months as in the previous four years.
Mojdeh Rezaeipour is a multidisciplinary artist and storyteller. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where she studied architecture, and of Alt*Div, an alternative divinity school centering the intersection of justice and art as spiritual practice.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.