A note of disclosure: Sogand Tabatabaei is a member of Double Scoop’s Board of Directors.

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n Saturday, April 13, the governing body of Iran known as the Islamic Republic launched a series of missile strikes against Israel as retaliation for the suspected Israeli air strike on the Islamic Republic’s consular building in Damascus, Syria.

To much of America, the exchange was another escalation in an increasingly perilous war that threatens to spread to other corners of the Middle East. But to Sogand Tabatabaei, the missiles were an extension of a conflict that has lasted for 45 years—that of the Iranian people against their own government.

Tabatabaei was born in Tehran, the capital of Iran, over a decade after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She recalls a childhood spent under the oppressive theocratic rule of what she refers to simply as “the regime,” with fewer personal freedoms than her mother knew as a child, when Iran was a comparatively liberal Middle Eastern state.

Her childhood love of art eventually brought her to Reno, Nevada, in 2018, to pursue her Master of Fine Art degree at the University of Nevada Reno. As a collage artist, Tabatabaei combines textiles, drawings, paintings, mixed media, and even digital compositions to explore themes of the immigrant experience, anxiety, and loneliness in a foreign country, like in her 2022 showing in I’m OK, I’m Not OK, the Double Scoop exhibition at UNR.

In her new exhibition, Blood Blooms, at the Depot Gallery in downtown Sparks, Tabatabaei is done meditating on her own personal and emotional struggles, and instead turns her artistic lens to the struggles of her homeland and the family and friends still fighting against a government that does not represent the will of its people.

“Over the years, the regime has waged a concerted campaign to undermine Iranian culture, eroding the national identity of its people,” wrote Tabatabaei in her artist’s statement. “Through my art, I confront prevailing narratives, championing resilience and articulating the yearning for freedom stolen from a historically progressive nation.”

In anticipation of her reception at the Depot Gallery this afternoon (Saturday, April 20), Tabatabaei spoke with Double Scoop about her new show and what being Iranian means as violence escalates in the Middle East.

Can you start by telling me a little about your background as an artist, and your connection to Northern Nevada?

So, I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, and I showed interest in art making—mark making actually, I should say—at an early age, and I was lucky because it was noticed by my parents. They’ve been really supportive of my decisions for my artistic career.

I got accepted into the University of Tehran, which was a dream to go there and study. I got accepted into the bachelor of painting program, and I finished my degree, and then I got accepted to the master of painting in the same university. As I was studying my master’s program, it was not fulfilling because for me as an artist. I was hoping to be as expressive as possible in my artwork.

If you want to work as an artist in Iran, you face so many limitations by the Islamic Republic government, because it’s like, you have to follow their guidelines. It was not what I intended to do as an artist. So I decided to continue my higher education and art outside of Iran. So hopefully I can be the voice of Iranian people using my artwork.

As I was looking for programs, I remembered an MFA program offered by UNR, and so that was, I would say, kind of an accident that I got into this state because of the MFA program. But as I moved here, and I started living and exploring, I felt like this was my second home. And I honestly fell in love. And I think part of it is the nature and the mountains that really remind me of the mountains around Tehran, my hometown. I have a special connection with the mountains. I’m so used to seeing them around me.

In the time since you created the work that was in I’m OK, I’m not OK, how has your life changed? How does your mental and emotional state when you were creating Blood Blooms compare to how it was back then?

They were part of the older body of work that I started in my early years, when I was still very homesick about my country and not really knowing what’s going on around me. As time passes, I feel more connected to the space that I am in right now.

I would say that I kind of moved on from that concept of talking about myself in my work. My work now mostly focuses on the collective identity of Iranian people. [It’s about] the big picture, I would say. It’s not just about me and how I feel. It’s like how I feel about being an Iranian, trying to be a voice of the Iranian people when their voice is stolen by the regime. Now I am living in a country that celebrates freedom of speech. So I definitely feel the weight on my shoulders as an artist to use this advantage in favor of my people and fighters for freedom.

What should we know about Blood Blooms? What was your process and the idea behind the show?

In September 2022, when there was a national uprising against a private dictatorship regime in Iran, people took it to the street and, of course, I was here witnessing it, not being able to be part of it in person and be with my brothers and sister by home. It was very heavy on me mentally, emotionally and even physically, because my whole family is back home. Still, so many of my friends have rubber bullets in their body from the protests.

It was a lot for me, and Blood Blooms was a great way for me to start processing it and putting it out there because I feel like the American people deserve to know what’s going on and not be given false information about Iran. And, on the other hand, Iranian people deserve for their voice to be heard and what they want as well. They just want to be freed from this madness that is governing their country.

Blood Blooms draws from mythological creatures and stories and relies on the quality of the storytelling in Iranian culture. I connected those historical elements of the storytelling and mythology to today’s Iranian sociopolitical climate. So the battlefield between good and evil still exists—“good” is the people, and “evil” is the regime that is very suppressive and oppressive. This fight never ends until the Iranian people get what they deserve, which is just a normal life in a free country, as it was before the Islamic Republic.

When I read your artist statement, I appreciated the distinction you drew between true Iranian culture and maybe what the regime insists that culture is. As you wrote, “The regime has waged a concerted campaign to undermine Iranian culture.” What are some of those cultural themes that you are trying to draw people’s attention to?

I started by bringing actual cultural crafts in my work in the form of fabric. I have mixed feelings about fabric because, as a woman, I was born and raised when Islam when the Islamic Republic was already in power, so I would say I never lived a life that my mom would have. For example, she had the freedom of choosing what she wanted to wear, and I think that’s a basic human right, but it’s been taken from the Iranian people. So fabric, for me, is a form of hiding—hiding my body, hiding my hair—without knowing why.

[In Blood Blooms] I create that ironic situation with fabric. It’s like culturally, I’m related to it, but then I don’t want to have it on. I don’t want to conceal my hair with a fabric anymore. … I used my veil as an object to portray the evil in my work, versus other elements, such as drawings of bodies and portraits.

How many pieces can we expect to see in your new show?

I have six pieces in one room, and I have a fabric installation in the big room, so I would say seven. It’s a big fabric piece made of my older pieces, giving that kind of historical context to my work. I stitched together almost 50 of my older pieces that were made out of fabric and threads, and paper. I call it a living, breathing piece because I was just adding to it. It was very dynamic. It was a great experience.

We’re doing this interview in the shadow of new violence erupting from the regime. Does the news of the past week give this show a different context than you had originally intended?

Yes. The Republic does not represent me as an Iranian, and whoever identifies themselves as an Iranian and loves their country, they do not support the Islamic Republic’s actions. I condemn the attack on Israel. I was, again, born and raised in the dark shadow of Islamic Republic on my country so I know how their propaganda works.

And today I’m standing here today supporting my people in Iran and I think the Blood Blooms has the same mission. It’s a call to Western communities to see the difference between the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic’s regime. Iranian people don’t want this regime from day one—we can’t even say that in Iran that, “We don’t want you.” The Islamic Republic has sworn to destroy Israel, and not only that, they’ve always been sworn enemies of the United States and Israel and any country that is kind of against their inhumane activities.

This situation that we’re in right now goes to the message I was trying to give with this exhibition, to acknowledge Iranian people’s resilience and fight for freedom. And now that we know more and more about the regime, I feel like this exhibition helps the Reno community at least to see the plain truth instead of the propaganda that’s being circulated, unfortunately, in the United States about Iran and Iranian people.

Part of the propaganda that the Islamic Republic circulates in the United States is more fixated on the tourism aspect of Iran, not the pain endured by the people. That’s why I call it Blood Blooms—blood and blooms are contradictory. The main message I want to send is, yes, my culture is beautiful. My country is beautiful. But it is not beautiful under the rules of Islamic Republic. I’m trying to break the propaganda with this exhibition.

Sogand Tabatabaei’s new solo exhibition Blood Blooms, hosted by Sierra Arts, is on view at the Depot Gallery through April 28, with a reception today, Saturday, April 20, from 1-4 pm. You can see more of the artist’s work on her website.

Photos: Maryam Goli

Posted by Matt Bieker

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno, Nevada. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.