Sepideh Mehraban (b. 1986) has held solo shows in Iran and South Africa and participated in group exhibitions throughout the world – from France to Slovakia, Italy to Kuwait, and across South Africa, the Zeitz MOCAA included.
In 2018 she was invited to join a panel discussion at AKAA (Also Known as Africa) Art Fair in Paris, following an exhibition she curated as part of her PhD research: Cape to Tehran: Re-imaging and re-imagining personal history in Post-Apartheid South Africa and Post-Revolutionary Iran. She has lived in South Africa for the past seven years, where she has chosen to complete her postgraduate studies, in parallel with teaching at the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, and mentoring young artists in Nando’s Creative Exchange programme.
Born in Tehran in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Sepideh Mehraban grew up amid a conflict of narratives. Her childhood experiences and family’s stories were at odds with the official state history, with the controlled and censored domestic news channels, and also with the increasingly reductive international media and its lifeless headlines and statistics.
It’s this discord between the grand narrative and the chronicles of everyday people that she explores in her work, the multitude of personal histories behind – and absent from – the headlines and politics; stories of individual lives, of hopes for change stoked and disappointed, of the humanity behind the abstracted media coverage. It’s a subject with universal relevance, as she discovered on relocating to South Africa in 2012. She found parallels between the two countries: the complex histories marked by trauma and political turmoil, empty promises and disillusionment, and the abundant memories and lived histories of ordinary people. It’s a subject she explores in both her mixed media artworks and her PhD research at Stellenbosch University.
Drawing on accounts and photographic references both public and private, fragments of Farsi text and Persian carpets, Mehraban layers meaning and memory in a visual conversation. It is intended as a means of contemplating shared experiences of socio-political upheaval, rather than a representation of the experiences themselves, thereby questioning the notion of singular truth.
Trained as a painter, she is “interested in pushing the boundaries of painting as one of the oldest traditions in art history”; exploring the materiality of painting itself, and the endless, surprising possibilities afforded by different materials and processes. It is within this context that Mehraban began exploring mixed media tapestries and used Persian carpets as a continuation of her paintings.
As artefacts, the carpets are loaded with meaning. They represent both rich cultural heritage and ubiquitous, Iranian household staple; both precious, painstaking artisanship and everyday wear and tear of family activity – the making and “unmaking” equally meaningful. As Mehraban explains: “[The carpets] carry history, stories – the life of people in these places. Each thread tells a story.”
The carpets are sourced through auctions and second-hand shops, cut and reassembled, then worked and reworked in accumulated layers. The structured format of screen printing (referencing the newspaper grid) is combined with intuitive mark making – liberal applications of cold glue, strokes of paint both densely tactile and watery thin. Farsi text, illegible to her predominantly international audience and also deliberately obscured to fluent viewers, makes appearances – the whole moving between abstraction and figuration, between veiling and revealing, contesting any straightforward, fixed reading of events. They appear as lived histories and living artefacts, open-ended and ongoing.
For Mehraban, these carpets naturally provide a nostalgic link with her homeland and childhood: “In the process of making, I narrate my own story, own history, own experience.” However, her work is not intended as another version of events for the viewer’s consumption. Her obfuscations replicate the censorship of the Iranian government, referencing the powerful control of information. They also serve to self-censor, urging the viewer to engage and dig deeper, to interrogate not just the story they’ve been told, but the very notion of history itself.