In conversation with
Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson

To cite this contribution:
Eaton, Jeremy and Fliedner, Kelly. Interview with Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson. ‘Memory Bank’. Currents Journal, Issue Two (2021),

Download this interview  ︎︎︎PDF

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson’s course of study: Masters by Research, Fine Arts, University of Western Australia.

Images ^^^ Elham Eshraghian–Haakansson, Asha Kiani with the Second Generation Collective, Áshená, Bear Witness to Me, 2021, multi- channel installation, 4K video with sound, 25:00 minutes. Exhibited at the School of Design, University of Western Australia.

Kelly Fliedner [KF]: We are interested in the experience of being a student during this moment in time and how your own research is translated into the institution of the university and as a recent graduate what that experience has been like. But maybe before we get into that, could you describe the work that you made recently as a part of your Masters? 

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson [EEH]: Well, the final work I showed for Masters was called Áshená Bear Witness to Me and it was developed from a combination of workshops with my community that was hosted over the past year. These workshops started from an initial step which included storytelling. We wanted to make sure that this platform of exchange was held in a really safe space, because we looked at stories that included trauma, experiences of displacement, persecution described by first generation migrants, and we somewhat identified as second generation children of those elders. For the workshops I partnered up with Asha Kiani, who is a performer and theater maker, and we teamed up and created this series. From there we engaged the youth of our community and then one of the goals of our project was to bridge intergenerational gaps. We wanted to facilitate conversations that assisted people to meet at a certain point, to unite community from the first workshop of storytelling. So, the first generation, the elders of our community, shared their experience with the youth, as well as us. Then from there we were in collaboration with an art therapist, Cara Phillips. Cara helped us lay some groundwork in terms of creating art and navigating these experiences safely, because of course, you know, we always have to be mindful that these experiences can be triggering. Especially for people that connect with them so intimately. And this project was about showing that art can be a mode of healing, and showing that people can express their stories safely through creative practice. From there we hosted various workshops looking at film, looking at storyboarding, music, poetry and a huge range of visual art. We were especially vigilant and from there we curated this space, called Áváreh & Found (as part of Lotterywest’s Community Arts Network Dream Plan Do 2020), which showcased all the work that the youth had done, as well as the research we had developed. Because my masters was intimately looking at community art, social practice and how to build trust with your community through art. Áshená , Bear Witness to Me my final Masters of Fine Arts exhibition was born from this process. You know there were many iterations of this, and I think that's really important to mention, because this project didn’t just happen, it came from such an expansive artistic process engaging with community, with collaborators, with partners to form artistic partnerships. And I chose film as the medium because I just love video art, everything about it. We created the film over a few days, looking at memory, especially the memory of our first generation as well as post memory—how we can attempt to understand it? It culminated into a nine channel screen installation with some archival prints. Also, archival footage and the actual props from the filming. I think that covers the project!  

KF: It was such an amazing installation to walk into and I think that it does speak to a lot of different audiences, I was really drawn to it for that reason. Video work is so immersive and can create a powerful space to be within. You're talking about the kind of iterative process and the collaboration with community and it being ongoing and a conversation a lot of the time, and I am really interested in what the experience of the installation was from some members of that community, I don't know if you had feedback from people?  

EEH: It was a constant conversation, how the audience, and the art responded to one another. In particular there was a unique dynamic between me and Asha [co-author and collaborator]. A good example is how we creatively spoke between visuals and audio, as she produced the music and the soundscape for the whole work. And we constantly responded to one another on how this makes us feel, how this response might talk to the community, how it talks to the stories, what emotions it evokes, it was such an incredible process. And even the feedback from community when we hosted our first exhibition in Fremantle, a few members of the community came in and they were in tears, they felt heard. There was one bit of feedback that someone came in and she just wanted to stay in the space and pray for the whole duration. Then the first and second iteration of the work (the second iteration being Delara showcased on Runway Journal), in conjunction to all the community work that the youth had created as well, it was truly phenomenal. With the film itself the feedback we received said that we had captured the essence of the stories, and that's really important because that was exactly what we set out to do. We set out to understand, or attempt to understand, their experience. We acknowledged that we would never fully know, because we've never experienced it ourselves but we have witnessed how it has impacted our community, and we understand and acknowledge that the shared stories are like a hand being offered.  

That was really important, I think, especially when you're navigating trauma, that it is always an offering to understand or attempting to. They are some of the reactions from many who identified as Iranian and/or Australian. I also felt that the emotional resonance was another aspect that was really important, the universality of grief, of loss and of displacement. The migrant experience. And that’s something that a lot of different communities could connect with, especially in this day and age. It’s important to have that embrace of the wider picture, whilst honoring my local community as well.   

Images ^^^ Elham Eshraghian–Haakansson, Asha Kiani with the Second Generation Collective, Áshená, Bear Witness to Me, 2021, multi- channel installation, 4K video with sound, 25:00 minutes. Exhibited at the School of Design, University of Western Australia.

Jeremy Eaton [JE]:  It is so moving and beautiful to hear about the process of the development of the work and all the levels of consultation. Also, the act of working with an art therapist to create a trusting and safe space to share stories. Often in an artistic process we can have a preemptive idea of what something might look like or begin to be like from the outset, and I wonder how much the consultation and engagement shifted the form and visuals of the work throughout that process?

I think the work shifted a lot. In terms of my personal practice, I like to work organically. I do have a certain vision, but it's never set in stone and if you end up with exactly what you anticipated then you didn't do it right. Because it needs to evolve, it needs to shift. And that is definitely what happened, especially with the first workshop we held with our elders. There were certain things that were just absolutely poetic, it was incredibly moving, and it was incredibly hard to hear sometimes. But one of the most incredible things we felt was that it is so important to share these stories in a way that does them justice. And that was one of the key questions that we always asked ourselves when creating the work. Does it do it justice? Is this acknowledging them? Is it providing the outcome that it needs to, which is to create understanding? By inviting people to come and see this story that they might not otherwise be aware of, how do we create empathy between two strangers, between anybody? As well as making our community feel heard through a different lens such as art. And I think art is probably one of the most potent forms to enact social impact. That being said, it can often be inaccessible and that was another really huge part of the project. Making the platform of art accessible was really interesting to navigate and learn about. This whole project was a learning curve of huge proportions and a phenomenal experience.  

You're talking about the learning experience for you, but it also seems like a really good learning experience for the institution too, because I often feel like the academy, and you know this is speaking from experience, is often really bad at creating safe spaces for people who have had traumatic experiences and there's a documented history of that, of extracting information and not doing due diligence to give particular people or “subjects”, or even just saying “subjects” likens a person who is giving information over or a research subject creates a hierarchy through language. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that it hasn't been unusual in the history of academia to totally not care about any of that and so even getting an art therapist in to negotiate those relationships seems like a really good way of working, that institutions should think about too, so I don't know how you felt about being somewhat of a conduit between your community and then, the institution of the university, which has a history of being comparably bad at engaging with diverse communities. Do you feel like it was a learning exchange?    

EEH: Being in the institution, I guess, really made me think of agency. Especially the agency of the artist and their story, and then the institution’s input into that. Overall, I had a pretty good experience in terms of the university allowing me to have agency over the stories and the art that's being expressed. I also had agency over how I navigated and conducted that process in regard to the university. I think more importantly the process is something that I've experienced personally, so I knew that when you deal with trauma or traumatic experiences that it can be quite triggering, I have felt the first-hand experience of what that can do emotionally, spiritually, mentally. But then when you think about engaging in wider collaboration you have to see how that can actually look for others that may or may not experience that themselves, and I think having that understanding helps drive the process and enable a re-learning between artists/researchers and the institute.

In terms of the institution, not necessarily the university but broader institutions, there have been moments where they don’t necessarily have experience in community arts, nor do they have the language to communicate with and we found that minority groups and communities from a refugee context that these spaces can be really inaccessible and it's hard to actually navigate them, without having the instruments or the knowledge. I feel like Asha and I were a conduit for that in terms of of learning to navigate these spaces.

KF: Yeah, I think it's hard to be a conduit in this situation because whilst you’re speaking, you also have to code switch between different spaces. Artists in this context have needed to become good at producing the work that creates connections and speaks across different contexts. There are these inherent skills that you need to develop over a period. 

EEH: It's definitely been a learning curve, code switching and navigating language, especially when you’re exploring community arts. A lot of it was private, how do you bring the private into the public safely? What do you share? What do you not share? Showing your scars, not your wounds and navigating that in a wider institution. Even working out the business-y stuff. And sometimes we didn't want to have the wider public, we wanted to keep it within the communal, we wanted to keep it so that our community had priority and then we could gently open it up to the wider public. And that was interesting to navigate, especially for community-oriented practice within art spaces that are still learning.   

Images ^^^ Elham Eshraghian–Haakansson, Asha Kiani with the Second Generation Collective, Áshená, Bear Witness to Me, 2021, multi- channel installation, 4K video with sound, 25:00 minutes. Exhibited at the School of Design, University of Western Australia.

KF: Institutions, and I speak for arts organisations as institutions, government bodies as institutions, academia as an institution, are only really starting to wrap their head around all these various spaces and experiences. But I feel like there is a push to make everything accessible and there's a language around accessibility that assumes that all information needs to be for everyone. But there is a kind of inherent privilege in that, and it actually needs to be so much more nuanced. Your work really speaks to that, not only in the consultation process of developing the work itself, but in terms of the images that show who is seeing things, who's speaking, who isn't speaking, your use of masks and coverings, this idea operates in many ways in your work.  

EEH: It's a type of symbolic exchange or creative exchange. It is like the opening of a chapter and then also we're giving it closure. At least that is the way I curated that Masters exhibition. For example, when someone enters the space you're being forced to be pilgrims through the space because it's durational. Some people just walk right through and didn't see anything, but you have to have patience and trust from the very beginning. Creating is such a beautiful and intense process of sharing vulnerability. And I think that it is a breathtaking process, but there definitely needs to be trust. And I think that the essence of trust doesn’t occur a lot of the time between artists and institutions. It can feel like a transaction and trust hasn’t been built over time, especially when you're dealing with really vulnerable content.  I think that's maybe the nature or the structure of “the institution”. But in the exchange with like my supervisor I built trust with her over time and it definitely made navigating the shift from a really organic, emotional process too an academic form much easier— translating it into a formula of sorts that honors these nuances.

JE: And I think about the capacity for art to come into that institutional space and actually transform what that space is. It sounds like what you created really shifted how people could engage with an institutional space, like the woman who wanted to pray the entire time while she was in there, and I think that's remarkable as well. 

EEH: 100%. The first iteration, Áváreh & Found, we did was at the Blue Room Theatre. Asha created a theater piece derived from the content we had. Even in that space, our community came in and one of the responses from people was that they had never seen this, in terms of ‘seeing this many people who look like me’ in a space in so long, or ever. There's this term decolonizing art spaces, and how do you make these spaces safer for community? A lot of the process was about shifting cultural perceptions, or even shifting the perception of art within culture. Because even the priorities of a lot of the audience who came to Australia did not have art at the top of their list, and it's completely understandable why. But now we've started thinking that art has the potential to be an instrument for healing, and that was the first time where it really felt that way.  

KF: It's simultaneously really exciting and yet exposes how much work needs to be done that that kind of reaction of ‘this is the first time I've seen people like me in this space like that’. I had this conversation yesterday in the context of PICA, I'm a board member there, and there is this desire for the organisation to reach broad audiences. And I think that maybe we need to reach specific audiences, and to think about what works that we're supporting that speak to people who have been systemically left out.  If you're trying to constantly speak to the largest group of people possible all of the interesting idiosyncrasies of site, location and space get lost. So I’m more interested in asking what are the small audiences that we can reach and have meaningful exchanges with?  

I have one other question as you've said a few times that you're really interested in the visual language of film, performance and theatre. Before you joined the chat, Jeremy and I were talking about how your work has a magic realist quality, that it is talking to a specific people and place, but it also has a magical quality that simultaneously gives it a sense that it could be happening anywhere. What are your thoughts on that? 

EEH: I know this might sound naive or idealistic, but you know, I really feel that my purpose as an artist is to make a world that is ingrained in my identity and faith which is about unity. How do you achieve unity, especially when working across a diversity of experiences and difference? I feel like the exchange of a conversation can creatively come when you're expressing your story, but then also expressing the universality of that story. And that can so beautifully come about through poetry. Whether that's visual poetry, written poetry, or filmic poetry. There's this term film-poems that was coined in response to Sergei Parajanov’s film work. I am a huge fan of his work and a large part of my research was navigating his portfolio, especially the Colour of Pomegranates. He looks at film as poems and I feel like that idea allows for a wider scope not only of my expression, but for people to understand the work in their own way.  I think it's important to not be too didactic, and to acknowledge that this happened and to create room to ask how can we move forward so this doesn't happen again? And that comes with connecting with the viewer, connecting with your collaborators, connecting with yourself and with your family. 

Image ^^^ Sholeh Pirmorady, Bánu, 1993, Goauche, watercolour, ink on paper. 594 x 841. A miniature painting made by my mother.  Archives sourced from Sholeh Pirmorady and the Bahá’í Archive Committee of the Bahá’í World Centre, Archives of Bahá’í Persecution in Iran Archival Content. Presented as part of Áshená, Bear Witness to Me, 2021, multi-media installation. Exhibited at the School of Design, University of Western Australia.

About Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson:
Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson (b. Boorloo, Perth, 1996) is an award-winning Iranian-Australian Bahá’í video artist, researcher, director, producer, and curator, and has exhibited nationally and internationally. Her research navigates inherited stories and post-memory felt by her displaced community following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Through the poetics of the moving image, she invites viewers to become the 'witness' rather than the 'passive bystander', inviting a critical discussion surrounding empathy, trust, custodianship, compassion, and social change in response to the current global social and political climate. Her practise values align to empower the voices of women within her art making. Working in community arts and collaborative social practice, she examines empathy in film and poetry, uncovering ways to build identity in first and second generation Iranian- Australians and the Bahá’í community, to close the gaps in finding the universal threads of cultural, social, gender and spirituality that unite us all.

Currents  is a collaboration between the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA) at the University of Melbourne and the School of Design, University of Western Australia, and is funded through the Schenberg International Arts Collaboration Program. The Advisory Board and Editorial Committee are comprised of staff and graduate students from across the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia.
Currents acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which this journal is produced—the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri people of the Eastern Kulin Nation and Whadjuk people. We pay our respects to land, ancestors and Elders, and know that education involves working with their guidance to improve the lives of all.

ISSN 2652-8207