Sepideh Rahaa (b. 1981) works with installation, performance, painting, and video art, and has also worked on multiple interdisciplinary and research projects. Her video works are meditations on place and human experience. Through recounted personal histories, she constructs intimate narratives that range from the poetic and dream-like to recordings of everyday lived experience. We discussed her video series A Dream That Came True?, conversation as a tool for research and art making, the poetic imagination, and the freedom to define oneself in relation to the world.
The Land and the Sea
Sepideh Rahaa comes from Northern Iran, the seashore line of the Caspian Sea. Accepted into engineering school, she decided instead to go and study painting, continuing to complete a Master’s degree in Tehran in art and research. She’s currently studying for a doctorate in contemporary art at Aalto University, focusing on womanhood and resistance in everyday life, but she is not interested in constructing simplified narratives: “I am not looking to create heroes, but to investigate daily life experiences of women who come from a certain geography, the so called area politically known as Middle East, and have lived in Finland for many years. I’m looking at representation and identity in contemporary art, but I’m looking at it critically.”
For her video series A Dream That Came True?, Rahaa conducted multiple conversations in collaboration with different women, some who are first generation migrants, and some who had been very young when they moved to Finland. “Engaging with different people, I aim to tell stories differently, because there is so much of the narration of everyday life that’s lost to media representations of people in general and women particularly coming from different geographies. I was sometimes shocked when people asked how I could be Iranian. People saw a strong person, and it didn’t match their idea of an Iranian woman”, she recalls.
Rahaa’s work In Transition from A Dream That Came True? series was a result of a long investigation (supported by the Kone Foundation) and the invitation to participate in a curated show by Veikko Halmetoja at Virka Galleria to create a work in response to the Finnish centennial independence day. “I was very aware of what I was doing, and wanted to explore the state of womanhood, of being a woman and associating with the Finnish identity, being part of this society while your roots are also elsewhere. It is a critical, complex statement, offering flexible understanding of Finnishness”, states Rahaa.
In Transition mixes poetry by Hossein Panahi, Ahmad Shamlou and poems by Rahaa, inspired by her research and own experience as an immigrant woman and some conversations she had with participants in the parallel project, touching on the complexity of lived experience, identity and sense of belonging, as well as internal hopes and dreams. Visually, the film is embedded with poetic imagery and mixed symbolism from multiple geographies.
The work features a Finnish rowan tree in Suomenlinna. “I wanted to join the pomegranate, originating from Persia, to this local tree that’s all over Finland, and explore how beings can be interconnected. Plants travelled, migrated millions of years on the planet, and so did humans. This has been the case forever. I wanted to look at settling on a land and making meaning of your life there, and resisting against not being able to define yourself, resisting against having definitions imposed on you,” Rahaa says. “People aren’t invisible, but they are being ignored, and therefore assumed as invisible.”
“Though in some aspects the work is very geographically specific, the themes are also universal. I don’t know anyone who didn’t at some point in their lives feel like they were unable to be themselves or to belong. The sea is also always present in my work. It’s an interesting element psychologically, being limitless, in motion, and connected to everything.”
The Dream that Came True?, Part II (2016) explores the topics present in In Transition differently. It presents a more documentary-like narrative, scenes of everyday lived experience with recounted personal history, though it also features poetic fragments. The video concentrates on Hengameh, someone who Rahaa met by chance in Helsinki, and whom she got to know well during years of friendship: “She was a bus driver when we first met, and I was a Master’s degree student at Aalto. She asked if I have a lighter in Finnish. We realised that we are both from Iran. After that, we had numerous conversations sharing our experiences.”
“When I started the project, I discovered I had my own limits of understanding, because I was looking for certain kinds of stories,” Rahaa admits. “When you work with others, you need to have a certain openness and you can’t impose something on them, or the results will be very artificial. Now, most projects I do are collaborative, and trust and listening plays a big role. You get to know another human through art, and they get to know you.”
The Dream That Came True? series explores the personal narrations of the everyday, migration, womanhood, and the constraints of certain narratives. Rahaa wants to explore the individuality within communities that is sometimes forgotten. “I want to show the uniqueness of people. Finnish society isn’t homogenous either. But national identity, everywhere, has a certain agenda visually and narratively which often excludes minorities.”
“It’s fascinating, how the human mind is constrained through categorisation. But the mind also benefits from that, like how we understand night through day, and we cannot easily eliminate it. Not categorising creates certain ways of being free, but it can also bring anxiety. We can and should change our mindset, and it needs so much conscious thought. How we see the world depends on our circumstances and conditions, and it’s in flux, constantly changing.”
“You get a new perspective from a new place,” Rahaa says. “It’s not just me bringing my perspective here, there is always a dialogue. I am learning Finnish intensively, I want to read Finnish poetry. “
Rahaa senses that more complex experiences are silenced in favour of a more simplified but ultimately untruthful narrative. “It can feel like life is very much oversimplified into rigid categories of success and failure. People most of the time want to say they’ve succeeded, especially in the art world, but the truth is that we also fail. I want to communicate diverse and different experiences to Finnish and non-Finnish audiences. Possibly, I’m thinking to make an ongoing collaborative archive where people’s diverse voices are included and that everyone has access to. An archive, where everyone can talk about the truths of their lives openly.”