Cx72 Interview: Yasmina Hashemi
September 25, 2020
Tell me about how you started Rosva Magazine.
So, this is a project that started in May – it was something I had been thinking about a lot. I had been posting a lot on my own Instagram account, as a kind of outlet, negotiating the tensions around what it means to exist within the Iranian diaspora – exploring my identity and what it meant to be here [in Canada]. I was feeling this insane amount of longing for home, and so a lot of my posts were reflecting on that. Some people who were following me approached me and asked if I wanted to start an account, doing everything I was already doing but in a more organized way – essentially, creating a publication and arts collective for people within the diaspora, while creating and maintaining relationships with Iranian artists in Iran.
And so, it started from that sentiment – my partner at the time and I started this Instagram account as a way of marketing our upcoming publication, which was going to be an annual print and monthly digital publication. At first, we had a very abstract idea of what this collective would look like, but it was really experimental. So we started an Instagram, which had a different name then. After a few months, I stopped working with that partner, and renamed the publication, and chose the name Rosva. It was born from that sentiment of getting together and wanting to connect over living in the diaspora and having this kind of longing.
Will you tell me a little bit about your thought process with the title?
Due to certain circumstances, I was no longer able to keep the original name – and so I wanted to have a cheeky change in identity that was representative of a lot of the taboos that we, as Iranians, avoid. So I chose Rosva, which means humiliating yourself, or ruining your reputation, all these kind of characteristics which I kind of, in one sense, wanted to playfully nod towards my original founding partnership not working out, and me starting over with this new name. One of the things that rosva also means is 'loss of a good name.' The other part was about bringing those taboo topics out, which is part of what I wanted to do with this collective from the beginning – talking about the things we don't want to talk about as Iranians. Even among some of the most intelligent and privileged Iranians, there are things they don't want to talk about – there's a sense of shame and dishonor that is so much a part of being Iranian that I wanted to subvert. That's kind of where the name came from.
What was the first subject that you began researching for the project?
One of the first things we began researching was a study of Iranian cinema, pre-revolutionary cinema, as well as poetry, which that kind of led to in-depth analysis of certain cultural and historical moments, through the lens of art, literature and cinema. At the time, when this account was started, it was when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening in the United States and in Canada, and it was a really good time to talk about our own history of colonization as Iranians, our own history of slavery. We made a post about that, which kind of was insane – the reactions to it, that is – because a lot of people didn't want to accept that Iran had a history of slavery, a history of colonization. So that's kind of how we started – one of the first things we talked about was a highly taboo subject.
We moved away from being an archive account of moody black-and-white photos, and film stills, and beautiful poetry, and started talking about a really difficult issue. Iranians had a history of slavery, during the Qajar era, with enslaved working in multiple households. Although this history of slavery is represented in photography and historical texts from the era, it’s not openly talked about. This is all the more evident in one of the new year celebration figures, called Hajji Firuz, a dancing, jovial figure who announces the arrival of spring, but is often depicted in blackface, and who is a Black slave. We brought this up, and received a lot of backlash – we were told that we had tainted this figure's image. It was shocking to me that people didn't already know this or talk about this. It's a really big problem that we use Hajji Firuz in our current celebrations.
So that's how it started – us taking a stand against race being a taboo subject, and talking about it in an honest way. After that, we talked about Afro-Iranian communities, and the ways in which their identity fits in with being Iranian. We compiled a lot of stories from people who are Afro-Iranian, mixing historical analysis with personal anecdotes... using cultural artifacts from that time as much as we could, using that as a broad theme and pulling different things from film and literature loosely around the theme of race and Afro-Iranians specifically. This moved into other facets of Iranian culture: this fascination with being white, and whiteness, which was another topic we wanted to explore; that then went into an exploration of heteronormative roles within Iranian society: in the post-revolutionary setting, Iran is essentially divided into male and female spaces in the public life. That was another thing we wanted to explore; these prescribed roles for men and women in society: buses are segregated, events are segregated, beaches are segregated... for a lot of us, that's normal, but we wanted to explore that a little bit more in depth. That transitioned into a study of femininity and masculinity, etc.
It seems that in the subject matter you are drawn to researching and exploring, there's a tension that is present. Where do you feel the most tension in your research?
There are a lot of different contradictions involved in being Iranian – our negotiations of private and public life, for instance. Depending on our experience, growing up in Iran or here, those tensions are a constant for all of us in different ways. It's really hard to research many of these subjects because art and history and these texts were not properly archived in Iran for years, and after the revolution, many pre-revolutionary texts and films were destroyed. Finding proper examples of these texts and films and video footage is really difficult – you really have to dig. There were people who took these works with them across the border, illegally, as they were trying to escape the revolution. It's really hard to find a lot of the things we're looking for – that's already a big challenge.
In terms of the tensions you notice in the research, there are tensions between obvious things, like socio-economic classes. You always have to be really careful not to only advocate for the more privileged artists – for example, someone like [Abbas] Kiarostami, who was incredibly privileged, or Pahlavi era art collectors and artists – people who worked closely with Farah, the queen of Iran, who was a big patron of the arts. But it was a very privileged world she was a part of. So, we almost want to go the other way with the artists we're representing: we want to focused some of the less privileged, more experimental artists and works.
Class tensions are a big thing for me. I really want our representation of Iranian culture to be more than kaftans, the queen, and rosewater – Iran’s romanticized history. And you also have religion: even before the revolution, there were large groups of people in Iranian society who were religious. We have to make sure respect is paid to the religious groups by not being completely secular in the way that we represent our research. Religion is such a sore subject for a lot of people, and rightfully so: our current reality exists because of an Islamic revolution, so it's understandable that people want to shy away from that. But it's equally important to acknowledge that it's a big part of a lot of people's realities. So, we want to be respectful of that, too.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists of the Iranian diaspora?
One of the things that's been really amazing for me to see is the work that's happening in Iran right now with artists who are working within a very restrictive environment, and making amazing art. These are young kids, just barely out of art school, who we've had the privilege of meeting – these are young men who are just leaving mandatory military school – these amazing guys who are going to art school, stopping in the middle of their art education to go to mandatory military school, then coming back and continuing their work in a different dimension. I get these CVs as I'm curating submissions, and you'll see in the middle of it “attended military school," then totally different work when they get back. There are a lot of amazing performance artists in Iran whom I have come across— dancer and stage performers turned visual artists, for example, showing incredible depth in their interdisciplinary work.
What's been outstanding to me has been the younger generation of artists who are still in Iran. It's hard for them to show their work in its full entirety when a lot of the galleries are censoring their work – they aren't able to be properly compensated, or receive grants, but they're still doing it – and doing amazing work. We have our resident artist and one of Rosva’s main collaborators from Tehran, Fatemeh Kazemi, who is one of the most productive artists I have ever met. She started in theatre, then studied painting, and has evolved into an incredible visual artist whose work really speaks to what it means to be an Iranian woman, living amidst so many contradictions. She and I did the first live performance on our Instagram page — an hour-long live performance piece that was done with both of simultaneously, each of us interpreting our exploration of ritualized femininity.
There is another young artist, Pedram Mehri, who did a performance for Rosva called Pahlevan Panbe, a study on the archetype of the Pahlevan – this righteous male figure who is very present in Iranian male identity. He did a performance on Instagram live for us, in the middle of the night, in a bathhouse in Iran. On the other side of the world, we were all watching... This is a young visual artist, photographer, and dancer who used to work at this dance company that was traveling the world. But he couldn't go with them, because he had to finish his military service. So, when he did that performance for us, it was just at the end of his military service; he was just finishing. These are good examples of artists I may have never come across, because of the nature of the Iranian art world being so privileged... who gets to be shown in galleries is really political, and wrapped up in so many things. What we are exposed to in terms of Iranian art and experimental works here in the diaspora is also very different than the incredible artists I was ultimately able to meet. Giving them the platform to showcase their work, and being able to encourage their talent and even collaborate out with them, it's like – yeah, that's what stands out to me.
Where did your interest in art and curation originate?
Since childhood, I've been interested in performance – I've always been really creative and imaginative, I'd read a lot... and growing up in Iran, it was the perfect upbringing to nurture that side of me. Here, I've found myself a little bit lost and stifled for many years because I felt like, in Vancouver, it was very hard for me to fit in. So my refuge was films, and books, and ultimately meeting the underground noise community and art kids here was what saved it, for me. In that sense, all my friends were in art school... and even though I was on a really serious academic path, studying international relations, and pursuing a Master's in communications, working in a completely different field, I was always going to shows and openings. All my friends were in art school or film school, and I was learning a lot from them. It just became a natural interest, even though I would say I'm more interested in the literary side of it than the visual side of it. For me, though, my main interest has always been performance and its different forms. It came from that.
Is there anyone you'd really love to work in conjunction with – a 'dream collaboration'?
There are so many 'dream collaborations' – I want to keep the account and publication as experimental as possible, and move forward in the natural way that it's moving. The best part about Rosva has been its power as a collective and because I’ve been lucky enough to have met some amazing advisors and collaborators early on, I have tapped into an incredible network of Iranian artists, photographers, filmmakers and writers all over the world — we are all scattered but share this one important bond and my work has been about offering a space for representation and collaboration, allowing their works to be shown outside of a traditional gallery setting. They are all dream collaborators, and it's been exciting to work together and connect.
So, you used to work as a translator – what is your ethos or perspective on translation more generally? What is the key to a good poetry translation?
Translation has been a really fascinating thing to me: especially with this project, I've had the opportunity to translate a lot of submissions that we get, from poetry, to short stories, to simpler things like an artist bio. As someone who grew up speaking Farsi and then had to learn English, my brain has always been occupying this duality. Iranian language is such a big part of my identity, the way I negotiate thoughts... for me, translation has always been really interesting; so has linguistics in general.
A good poetry translation – that's really hard. You need to be familiar with the writer's work, the artist's voice: the way that they see the world and perceive things. It could never be a literal translation, especially in the case of Farsi to English. It would have to be contextualized in a way that truly conveys the message and energy of the poem, even if that means it's re-worded – it needs to convey that same feeling.
I'm lucky in that I was able to translate some works by my mother, who is a beautiful writer. Because I know her so well, it was so easy for me to tap into her voice, her writer's voice, and to be able to change the language without changing the meanings behind what she was trying to convey... even though if you read it, it would appear as though I wrote a completely different piece. But she would read it, and say, "You got my voice perfectly – that's the poem." I found I was almost re-writing the piece, in a sense; it's like a puzzle, you have to really transcend out of your body into the other person's body and mind and rewrite it, put all the pieces together, back into that piece. It's very similar to writing from scratch, receiving these messages from your unconscious. So, it's that kind of feeling, I think, when it's a really good translation.
Are there any words or phrases that you feel only exist in Farsi that immediately come to mind?
Quite a few! Quite a few words, phrases, swear words... words that convey certain passions or emotions that we'll never have words for in English. Even rosva is a word that doesn't have a direct translation, really... it has such a heavy connotation. When you hear the word rosva, you almost see a woman grabbing her chest, grabbing her heart, feeling so frustrated. There's not really a word for it. Iranians are very dramatic, so there are tons of words that are very similar to that – words that convey an emotion, that have no direct translation.
Who are some of your favorite writers, favorite poets?
I think, obviously, Forough [Farrokhzad] has to be one of the most influential writers and poets to me, since I was a child... She is a very well-known 1960s poet, and for me, when I read one of her poems, I am instantly transported back to a specific time and place: you can almost sense the shadows, the anguish, when you read her poetry. And unfortunately, there aren't any good translations of Forough, and one of my long-term projects is tackling her books and doing my own translations, because I've never, ever found a proper English translation of a Forough poem. And that's another example of having to re-write it in the sense that it's not literal.
Another writer that really influences me to this day is Samad Behrangi, who was a leftist, socialist writer during the 50s and 60s. He was murdered in the 70s for his leftist beliefs. He primarily wrote in the format of children's books, although they were definitely not for children only. They were serious concepts and beautiful books and stories that were geared towards children, and ultimately for everyone. He really changed my life. I remember picking up his books, which were my mom's when she was a child, and reading them; they really shape my imagination to this day. If I had to pick one writer who was most influential to my life, and is still with me to this day, Samad Behrangi's stories are incredibly moving.
That's a lot of where I get my socio-political leanings from: when I was very young I realized that Iran was incredibly divided by class and economic limitations. His stories talk about that, particularly during the Shah's era, which was considered an era of economic boom; but for many, it was the opposite of that, and so, growing up, knowing of my own privilege and reading these books, I would go out on the streets of Tehran with my family and see exactly what he was describing 30 years before: these kids, the same age as me, selling walnuts on the side of the streets with dirty fingers as we ate our dinner in a restaurant. I would fall in love with those kids, just as I did in the stories, watching these kids in the car – there's the constant traffic in Iran, too, so there's always lots of people-watching. It just completely changed the way I saw and perceived the world to this day: hating privilege, hating the romanticized 'kaftans and rosewater' part of Iranian society, knowing it was problematic.
What are you currently working on? Where do you see Rosva going in the coming months, years?
We just wrapped up this amazing retrospective on the mourning holiday in Iran, Ashura, which basically celebrates – that's the word they use –the death of the martyred saint Hossein. After this, we have a few more collaborations with artists: you asked earlier about dream collaborations, and this had previously been a dream collaboration of mine which is now actually happening. It's with this incredibly talented documentary photographer Shayan Sajadian, who covers really incredible parts of Iranian society which are almost never represented: the sex trade, groups suffering from substance addiction, the criminal gang world, tattoo culture. He follows these different groups in the city of Shiraz as well as other parts of Iran, and works with them to get their story, while consciously documenting struggles in a very surreal, beautiful way... parts of society that are considered very taboo. It was always a dream of mine to work with him. One of the projects we're now going to be working on is a short documentary series of tattoo culture in Iran – so doing a history of tattoos in Iran, and then a documentary-style short video on the difference between tattoo and khalkubi, which is kind of like the stick-and-poke – he's going to be following two different artists and creating a video which will be featured on Rosva, so that's really exciting. I've always wanted to do a study on tattoo culture in Iran, because again, it's something people don't really know or talk about: it’s still a very taboo thing to have tattoos. That's kind of changed within the past few years, but it's still very taboo – the connotations of being tagged as a gang member, or socially tainted, stuff like that. So that's going to be amazing.
Our most recent collaboration was with a well-known meme artist, who uses their platform Chonosss – a very popular meme account – as a way of coming out. Even though they don't want to share their identity with the public, it's really fascinating because they used this very popular meme account to come out as queer, both privately and publicly. It's been a very healing thing for them and the negotiations of their queer identity. Recently, they did a 'takeover' on Rosva, and ended the project with a Q&A – so a lot of people who never had a chance to ask the admin behind this very popular account questions were able to ask them questions. So that's another exciting thing that recently happened. We also will be sharing a few films people have shared with us from their family archives, that we are going to be translating and premiering on Rosva. This is just for the next three months.
After that, we plan to launch our first issue as a magazine; our website goes live in one month, which is really exciting. Again, we see Rosva blossoming as a virtual gallery, an experimental gathering in a collective space. With everything with COVID, the second issue is international – all of our artists are based in different countries. Having that virtual gallery space is really important now: providing a space that people collectively have access to, for free.
Yasmina Hashemi is a curator, translator and performer currently based out of Vancouver, Canada. She is the founder of Rosva Magazine, an experimental arts collective and digital publication exploring Iranian identity. Yasmina was born in Tehran and moved to Canada as a teenager. She has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from the University of British Columbia and post-graduate degree in Communications from Simon Fraser University.
Interviewed by M. Elizabeth Scott, September 2020. All photographs provided by Yasmina Hashemi.