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Q&A/Visual Art

Art draws connection in diaspora

21 April 2021

What happens when the second generation takes the lead?

Founded by emerging local creatives Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson and Asha Kiani, Second Generation Collective makes space for the stories of migrants who fled to Australia from Iran during the 1979 revolution, and their children who have grown up in Whadjuk Noongar country (Perth).

Ahead of Second Generation Collective’s debut exhibition, ‘Áváreh آواره & Found’, Patrick Gunasekera spoke to its founders to discuss the prolific stories behind the project.

Curated, directed and produced by Eshraghian-Haakansson and Kiani, ‘Áváreh آواره & Found’ is an exhibition of work by first and second generation Iranian-Australian artists.

Comprised of multi-channel video art installation, paintings, sculpture, audio works, archives and live performance, the exhibition has evolved from a series of intergenerational community workshops held in 2020. Gathered with care and humility, the resulting works are an exploration of displacement, home, faith and hope.

Patrick Gunasekera: How did the two of you meet? What inspired you to establish Second Generation Collective together?

A black and white headshot of Asha Kiani. She is looking straight to camera and is not smiling but she looks content. She wears a dark skivvy and has her hair in a bun on top of her head.
Asha Kiani

Asha Kiani: Elham and I have known each other through Perth’s Iranian-Australian and Baha’i communities from a fairly young age. But as artists, we connected through public call-outs Elham made for collaborators on her fine arts Bachelor and Honours projects. I was always drawn to the themes of her work as an emerging performer, and at the start of last year Elham put another call out for people interested in a community arts project.

It was one of those things where you see it and your heart’s like, “Yes! I’ve been thinking a lot about this too!” We had just been involved in some creative projects independently, and had started talking to our grandparents a lot more about their stories and documenting it, and really thinking about our own identities.

And then we applied for Community Arts Network’s Lotterywest Dream Plan Do program, which encourages culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) creatives to create an artistic platform for their communities. The application asked us about our community, and we knew that we were going to be working with the Iranian-Australian community.

But then we thought: we’re second generation migrants, we’re the children of this whole generation that we’re so interested in and feeling a yearning to connect with. And we want it to be a community project and a collective – so, we’re the Second Generation Collective. And that’s how we presented ourselves going forward.

A headshot of Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson. She looks straight to camera with a confident expression. She wears a dark scarf, and her hair is long, loose and curly.
Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson

Elham Eshraghian-Haakansson: It was about empowering our community in a space that allows both for bridging the gaps and for art to be a mode of healing. We focus a lot on intergenerational trauma and we explore the first generation’s experience of displacement. This has so much complexity of both grief and loss, and resilience and strength. So, our collective advocates for communal care and self-care through art.

We were deeply inspired by our own experiences of exploring our identities and familial heritages, and also by connection. Beyond us, we can see there are many other people with this same conversation happening. We wanted to make a space for that.

PG: At the heart of this project is the Iranian-Australian community. How did you connect with the community to make this exhibition?

AK: When you want to reach out to communities like ours, you need to be prepared that it could bring up things that might be wonderful and exciting, but they might be really sad and difficult too. We did some research around trauma-informed practice, and straight away linked onto having an art therapist involved in this project.

The essence that unites all these mediums is that they’re responses to the stories that were shared in our community workshops’. The first Second Generation Collective workshop at Centre for Stories. Photo: Omid Eshraghian.

Then we decided to be courageous and build connections more personally: sending personal emails, making personal phone calls, or visiting people and inviting them.

EE-H: It was about engaging with personal connections, and then extending that to the wider community. The foremost thing we recognised was the importance of developing relationships within these spaces. A large facet of this project is vulnerability, so we wanted to make sure the way we connected with people, their wellbeing was at the forefront.

AK: We also considered family. There was a young boy who was still finishing Year 12, so that included giving him agency and inviting him in, but also chatting with his parents and forming a relationship with them. There were grandparents with grandchildren coming in, and we’d invite our own grandparents and parents to our workshops. That was also a really important part and so lovely seeing multiple generations involved.

PG: How did you choose which works to exhibit?

EE-H: The exhibition is a multi-modal curation of archival, poetic mediums, music, video art, performance, soundscape, painting, and sculpture. The essence that unites all these mediums is that they’re responses to the stories that were shared in our community workshops, and translate experiences that were emotional and personal.

A large part of this curation was the visual artworks being intentionally blended with live performance, to bring the past into the present. It really amplifies the trust between audience and artist, and seeing Asha direct and curate live performances is one of the most spectacular things.

A woman dressed in a long teal coloured dress with crimson sleeves and gold trim kneels in front of a stone well. To her side is a small metal jug and a tray with a small vessel on it. Her hands are held gently in front of her and she looks down at the implements.
Elham Eshraghian–Haakansson & Asha Kiani with the Second Generation Collective
Áshená, bear Witness to Me, 2021, six-channel installation with sound (video still)
. Photo: supplied

AK: Another big intention of this project is capacity building within our Iranian-Australian community and our Second Generation Collective participants. How do you empower an artist and build their capacity to dig deeper and amplify their voice? It’s about seeing all [the artists’] different developments, and being able to give so much encouragement and empowerment as mentors, but also saying, “We see your potential, we want to raise your capacity, how can we have a consultation around this piece to maybe develop it further?”

That’s been a really amazing process that has contributed to what the final pieces will be in the exhibition.

PG: What has been the most significant part of creating this exhibition for yourselves, and also for other collaborators on the project?

EE-H: From the conversations we’ve had with collaborators, being able to present their art outside of their home or bedroom for the first time, and looking into some of their family histories and having some hard conversations that they’ve never had before. Being face to face, bridging those gaps, and recognising just how interconnected we all are.

Three men kneel on a Persian carpet, their hands on their knees. They are dressed in white shirts and black pants. Their heads and shoulders are cropped out of the frame.
Raneen Kousari, orison at arms, 2020, laminated block mount print on aluminium subframe. Photo: supplied

AK: On a practical level, learning the hats of facilitator, producer, director, mentor, friend, learner, teacher, partner, human being – I think this is the first situation in both our artistic careers that we’re learning to wear all those hats.

On a personal level, to hear from elders and to see them be asked questions such as tell us your story – we started to realise they potentially have never been sat down and asked, with the time and the space for it to be heard. To see them being asked that for the first time, and to see another generation such as a grandchild or a child asking that often for the first time – you see what makes everyone human. Those moments in our workshops have been so significant, humbling, and poignant.

It’s hard, now, to think that those stories have existed but have been unheard before now. We see how [those stories] can strengthen love within a family, strengthen respect between generations, make a young person suddenly have a realisation about their own identity and find a sense of home. [These stories] can contribute to healing.

PG: What do you hope the Iranian-Australian community, and the broader community, will take from the exhibition?

EE-H: I want the Iranian-Australian community to feel heard. I want the wider community to witness, and to reflect more than anything. We really wanted to navigate the idea of the viewer as witness versus passive bystander.

AK: We hope it provides beauty in the form of the arts, that it contributes in some way to enriching the Perth arts scene; for the Iranian-Australian community to feel a sense of connection and support for their voice, and for the wider community to feel connection and the oneness of humanity, and maybe to have learned something new. If a preconceived notion is challenged or changed that’s also really exciting.

“Áváreh آواره & Found” is showing at PS Art Space in Fremantle from 24 April – 15 May 2021, with a public artist talk on Saturday 15 May.

Pictured top is Elham Eshraghian–Haakansson & Asha Kiani with the Second Generation Collective ‘Áshená, bear Witness to Me’, 2021, six-channel installation with sound (video still). Photo: supplied

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Zal Kanga-Parabia

Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera is a queercrip Sinhala artist working across performance, visual media, and writing. After reading a poorly written review on a show about disability, he got into arts writing to critically engage with touchy topics that affect him personally. He loved the monkey-bars as a kid because he wanted strong arms. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia.

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