Artistic Enclaves

Zuhra Amini will spend next year exploring the power of disaporic art to disrupt the narrative of the nation state

Christy Carley, News Editor

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship provides graduates one year out of college with the opportunity to explore a project of their choosing. Given a stipend of $30,000 for the year, students travel to various countries, exploring a thematic, but not necessarily academic, project. This year, two Whitman seniors received the award. The Wire sat down with each of them to learn about their plans.

When she applied for the Watson Fellowship last fall, senior Zuhra Amini knew she wanted her project to involve art. A Race and Ethnic Studies major, Amini was looking for a break from traditional academics and an opportunity to pursue her creative endeavors. She also wanted to build community along the way.

Amini’s project, titled “Restless Endeavors: Disaporic Cultural Production,” will take her on a journey through the United Kingdom, Germany and France where she will spend time at studios, lectures and art shows to explore the work created by disaporic communities.

“The main question that I have is: how is diasporic art pushing national boundaries?” Amini said.

Amini’s interest in diasporic art grew out of the film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour. Often dubbed the “first Iranian vampire western” the film takes place in a fictional location titled “Bad City” — not quite Iran but not quite the United States, either. Responding to a question regarding the location of the film, Amirpour declared “it’s set in my brain.” Amini cited that interview in her project proposal for the fellowship as evidence of the ways in which art can transcend, or challenge, the boundaries of nation states.

Amini analyzed the film for two classes within her major, in addition to writing her senior thesis about it. Having immigrated from Afghanistan at an early age, Amini has a personal connection to understanding diaspora as well.

“When I saw the film I was like ‘this [is] how I feel.’ …. I’m not Iranian, but this notion of what it feels like to be in a diaspora — the film encapsulates that. Feeling like you don’t necessarily belong in one or the other place, but at the same time there are ways you do belong.”

For Amini, a sense of belonging can be nurtured through the creation of art.

As a Studio Art minor, Amini has experimented with a number of different mediums at Whitman — both in and out of the classroom. Her principal interest, she said, is “translating ideas into aesthetic forms.” One of Amini’s main projects throughout her time at Whitman is a zine called “Process,” which, while distributed to all of campus, only accepts submissions from people of color. In a Wire article about zines on campus this spring, Amini said that she also likes to think of the publication “as a collective.”

Arriving at Whitman, Amini said she found herself “frustrated” with the lack of community for students of color. Through art, Amini said, she was able to help build this community.  

“My activism is not necessarily marching and rallies. … I want[ed] to build this art community because I feel like I need an art community to survive on this campus.”

Inspired by her own experience building a creative community, Amini will go looking for such communities elsewhere and, if she gets the chance, perhaps even share studio space and make art with the people she meets.

“I was really interested in seeing how other people, in nations which are specifically telling people ‘you don’t belong here,’ how do they organize under those pressures? … What impact does it have on their communities? What impact does it have on the nation itself? Those tensions are really important to me.”

Her decision to travel to the United Kingdom, Germany and France was based on the presence of large immigrant populations in each of those countries. In concert with this is a resurgence of right-wing nationalism in Europe. Amini hopes to observe how such politics are navigated and contested through art.

Amini says that when she talks about her fellowship a lot of people assume she’s looking for art that is overtly political — but that’s not the case.

“I think when people think about works that are political … they instantly think about political art. And don’t think about how art itself is political. Just aesthetic forms in and of themselves, and the subjects they talk about [can] push national boundaries,” said Amini.

She gave the example of Berlin-based artist Moshtari Hilal, who’s work, while sometimes containing an overtly political message, more commonly functions by adding representation to the world of art. Amini is particularly interested in Hilal’s depictions of the Persian face, and how they relate to or challenge European beauty standards. Amini hopes to meet up with Hilal when she travels to Germany.

Many of the artists whose work Amini hopes to interact with are people she’s discovered through various social media outlets — platforms which Amini says have been important for her during the times in which she’s felt isolated at Whitman or in Walla Walla. Through her travels Amini says she hopes not only to connect with artists but also to bring attention to those who seek more exposure.

“I’m interested in how we make room and space for the people that have an impact in our lives. I’m interested in how I can expose more people who are important to me, because I know they’ll be important to other people.”