7. NIMA JEIZAN - January 11, 2018
It is a warm day for January, and I make my way to Nima’s apartment a little before midday — it’s somewhat gloomy out but mild in comparison to the days of snow we’ve had recently. His apartment building backs up into the parking lot of a 7-11, its large facade plastered with a huge and well-known Richmond mural. When I let him know that I’m standing out front, he opens the old, peeling door for me. He greets me warmly and when I offer my hand for a handshake, he pulls me into a hug, laughing as he explains, “I like to give hugs.”
I’ve heard Nima’s name through friends, and followed his work on Instagram, but hadn’t met him before this afternoon. I know a few people who are in the sculpture department with him at VCU, who have spoken about his work before, praising his performance art and telling me how interesting his space is. I am anxious to meet him, excited to see his apartment, his creative process, hear the stories he has to tell.
When we get inside the building, Nima leads me up a few flights of stairs to his third-floor apartment. He talks as we make the trek up the steps, apologizing for postponing our meeting, explaining how he had a slow morning, how difficult it was to get going, get out of bed. We reach the top floor of the building, where sun filters in through a window on the landing, illuminating a random collection of boxes, a handful of canvases, and an orphaned lampshade. Nima opens the door to his apartment, and I am almost immediately lost for words. Every square inch of the place is occupied by something — a small decorative mirror, a pair of sunglasses hanging from a chain, family photographs, a chunk of honeycomb, a shiny red wrapper that once held chocolate wafers — just to name a few. He has some of his own pieces placed around the room as well — on top of shelves or hung from the ceiling; a large, coral pink, papier-mâchéd body looms down at us from atop a bookshelf, 6 pink tentacles framing its slightly ominous, mouthless face. The room is thick with the smell of incense, and beautiful, intricate guitar music coats the space with sound. The window nearest the door is open, draped with a soft white piece of fabric that drifts up and down in the breeze. The floor is a peachy-tan linoleum that compliments the multi-colored collage-like walls, bringing even more warmth and fullness to the already-brimming space.
Nima sits down in an orange chair in font of a small, wooden end table, gathering together rolling papers and a pack of loose tobacco, beginning the slow and careful process of rolling a spliff, asking me if I’d like to smoke with him. He smiles often and easily as he works, looking up at the ceiling occasionally, putting down what he’s holding to gesture with his hands or point something out on the wall. I ask him where he grew up, how he ended up in Richmond, and he tells me that he was born and raised in Iran, and moved to Virginia on his own when he was 17. “I lived with my aunt and uncle for a few years in NOVA,” he explains. “It was a good way to start living in the states — it was so calm and empty, surrounded by nature, with a big ass mall,” he says, smiling.
Nima tells me how halfway through his time in Northern Virginia, in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, he lived in New York for 3 months. “I had to get out of there, I was craving New York,” he explains. “Being in New York City puts me right back in Tehran — I love the chaos of it, people are more alive, it’s dirty. There’s this intense energy there that I’m still missing.” He laughs as he says, “Not that I don’t love Richmond, it’s just way too comfortable — it’s a bit like a huge comfy couch that you’re slowly sinking into.”
Across the room from me, he crosses and uncrosses his legs, tucking them into his body one at a time. He explains how the retail store that he worked for during his time in NOVA allowed him to transfer to their location on 5th avenue, so that he could spend the summer in New York. “I was finally separated from the suburbs,” he tells me. “The city really draws you out — there’s so much human traffic, so many people trying to get places on time — you can get so caught up in the subway.” He tells me how he bought his first pack of cigarettes in a little market in the upper west side — “They were 18 dollars!” he says, laughing. Nima points to a large rectangle on the wall, covered with brightly-colored male faces and street signs, a taxi, a laptop, a beer can, with small slivers of light reflecting the room between the painted images. “I found that mirror in the trash during my first week there and I took it home, painting over and working on it little by little now and again.”
Nima tells me that Tehran, the city he was raised in, is surrounded by mountains, with a sprawling urban city center and the largest population in Iran. He explains that Iranian society is very “restricted and oppressed,” hinging between the desire for westernization and modernity and that of keeping with religious and cultural traditions. He tells me that most of his family has immigrated to the U.S. or Canada; “The country is so corrupt that they have to move out — it’s difficult to be as a human there,” Nima explains. He tells me how Iranians deal with a lot of political and social tension — “It’s hard to exist as an artist or as a queer person,” he tells me. “I have a lot of queer friends living there who have problems going out or being seen in public.”
He explains how before the Islamic Revolution, his grandparents could all go out in public together and drink alcohol — “They could wear bikinis in public, there was no mandatory hijab,” he says. But everything changed after 1979, and “it all got closed down.” He explains how difficult it is to describe the restrictive nature of modern Iranian society and be fully understood; “It’s hard for my Western friends to embody that — it’s so hard for them to imagine.”
“Exposure to Western culture has always been something that follows me,” Nima explains. “It’s something you admire, something better and more open — the American dream and all that — it seems so exotic and so true.” Nima smiles and shakes his head, “But it’s all bullshit!” He explains how there are still so many oppressive forces at work in America and although it’s not as severe as in Iran, it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Nima tells me how when he was 15 or 16, his mother’s name was chosen in the green card lottery, giving his entire family the ability to immigrate to the U.S. “There’s this idea of luck or fate that has taken me so many places,” Nima says, shaking his head a little bit. “But I’m open to it, I walk with it, I travel alone — a lot of crazy shit has happened to me,” he says, smiling.
When I ask how the transition into Western culture has been, Nima tells me, “it was a lot smoother than I expected it to be.” He explains how he feels a lot less alienated here, although he does experience a sort of “confusion of belonging.” “People recognize that I’m not from here — I have an accent — but I don’t feel like I’m from Iran either. I’m not from here and I’m not from there,” he says, gesturing around him, shrugging his shoulders a bit. He tells me that his mother and sister have recently made the move as well, living not far from his apartment in Richmond. “They’re family, but I’m not super close with them,” he explains. “They don’t know who I am or what I do — they don’t acknowledge my artistic, confusing, or queer sides.” He says this with confidence and ownership, he seems not to be embittered by this fact but accepting of it.
On why he came to the states, Nima tells me, “New York is filled with my idols.” He excitedly recounts a run-in he had with one of his inspirations, Shirin Neshat, in the subway — a Persian artist who works with photography and film. He immediately recognized her, telling me how he stood up from his seat to grab the handrail next to her, greeting her in Farsi when she looked up from her phone. They talked for a while, and Neshat even offered to exchange email addresses and take a look at his work. Nima tells me how he was initially scared to say anything — “maybe they’re snobby, maybe they don’t want to talk to you” — but describes Neshat as being so nice, so humble, and so human.
I get up and walk around the room while he continues to talk, trying to take as many photos as I can. Nima gets up to grab a large, cream-colored tassel off a shelf, explaining how he plans to dye it black for a performance piece. “I’ll sometimes work on small pieces here, and then bring them to the studio to assemble them,” he explains as he puts a small pot on the stove and begins the dyeing process. His kitchen is small and a little cramped — “the bathroom is actually bigger than the kitchen!” — but he makes do, dipping the golden tassel into the inky liquid until it’s sufficiently soaked.
We walk back into the living room and I ask him how he got into painting and art in general. He’s quick to respond: “It’s really something I was born with — not to sound cheesy,” he says as his face breaks into a smile. “I’ve always been a maker — if it wasn’t drawing, it was making dresses for my sister’s baby dolls or building sand castles or playing with clay.” He tells me about the art classes in town that he was enrolled in as a child, the recognition and encouragement from his mother to pursue visual art.
Nima tells me how he’s recently been making more videos, and has been focusing on creating props and costumes and random instruments. He gestures to a curved, flat piece of metal sitting on a shelf above us, tightly round coils and metal strings of varying sizes strung across its length. He reaches up to pluck a few of them, and a low, metallic gong-like noise emanates from the instrument’s depth. He references his performance art professor Lupe Maravilla (formerly known as Irvin Morazan), who has been a catalyst and driving force behind his recent foray into perforce art. Nima explains how “he had me become this artist that feels more confident and more true to myself.” Nima tells me how he’s no longer focused on making one single object, but rather a combination of pieces that are able to work together in tandem.
Nima notices me peering out his window at the city outside and asks if I want to go out on the roof. We crawl out of the open window and onto the flat, grey, sandpapery surface — his apartment overlooks a lot of the college campus, surrounded by brick buildings, VCU banners visible in the distance between a mess of intersecting chimneys and telephone poles. It’s overcast out, but the air is surprisingly warm with only a slight breeze.
I ask how he ended up at VCU and what motivated the move to Richmond, and he tells me that VCU was the only school he got into. “My GPA was alright and I had a strong portfolio, but I had pretty bad SAT scores,” he says, smiling a little wistfully. VCU was the very last school to notify him of his acceptance status, and Nima explains how horrible the waiting process was, how he tossed around the idea of going to community college and transferring later, having lost all hope of getting accepted anywhere. “Maybe it was fate again!” he says, smiling and throwing his hands up in the air.
He tells me that with his college graduation now looming in the near future, he’s dreading returning to the application process. He knows that he wants to move to New York and work as an artist’s assistant or find a fabrication job, but he wants to do a few residencies before making that move, citing the desire to “meet amazing people and trade energy with other artists who are working and making.”
I take a few photos of Nima up on the roof and then we crouch back through the open window and into his room. It’s darker inside, and it takes my eyes a moment to adjust. He tells me that he is considering going to graduate school, but it would have to be in his late 20’s — in order to “solidify whatever’s been given to me.” He tells me that he loves teaching, and could really see himself working in an institution, a creative space. He tells me how much he loves the sculpture department at VCU, the tight-knit relationship he has with his professors, the creative energy of his peers.
Nima reaches for a bundle of pink foam that hangs from a plastic hanger on his closet door. When he holds it up to his body, the foam shapes flatten out to represent his torso’s muscular makeup in a way that is almost comical, superhero-like. “Should I put it on?” he asks, looking up excitedly. I nod and he gingerly pulls it over his shoulders, careful not to be too rough with the piece.
“I made it during the period of time when I was applying for my citizenship,” he tells me, standing in the center of the room while I take his photo. “I was trying to represent this sort of hyper-masculine ideal male figure, and how I contradict or embody that space,” he explains. He points to the lower half of the costume, which sits high up on a shelf near the ceiling, and laughs as he says, “I could put that on too, but it might be a little much.”
He pulls a large black swath of fabric from inside his closet, stamped with a sort of glittering floral pattern. He wraps it around himself and over his head, tying two red ribbons beneath his chin. He explains that this hijab-like piece was meant to display solidarity with Iranian women. Nima was witness to the “hyper-misogynistic environment” that Iranian women face daily, with harsh restrictions on their manner of dressing and conducting themselves in public. He moves quickly around the space, swinging his arms fluidly, letting the black fabric flow and billow around him.
Nima takes the pieces off, carefully putting each one away, folding them onto their hangers. He sits on his bed, bathed in light from the window beside him, surrounded and almost dwarfed by the collection of personal items that covers the walls. He gestures at a couple more of his pieces — a large concave assemblage piece that hangs above the orange chair, a clear, plastic, shield-like object, strung with cream-colored beads and painted green and orange. “A lot of times I just wake up feeling like I need to do something,” he says. “I like to sketch what I see in my mind but it always changes by the end. I start putting it together, and this new language forms really naturally. I end up with this thing that I didn’t have a sketch of at all!” he says laughing, looking around the room at his work.
“I’d really love to create a documentation video of this room before I leave Richmond,” he tells me somewhat wistfully, remarking on his 4 years in the space, and its slow and steady growth and development. I offer to take some footage while I’m there, as my camera has video capabilities, and his eyes gleam excitedly, “You wouldn’t mind?” He thanks me while I take a few minutes of footage, walking around the perimeter of the room, recording him while he talks, as he re-lights his spliff. I take a few more photos of him in the space, soaking up the light and the warmth of the room before hugging him goodbye and thanking him for welcoming me in.
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