Armita Raafat is a New York based artist, born in Chicago and raised in Iran. Her sculptures, installations, and wall reliefs draw upon traditional Iranian architecture, specifically the Muqarnas Domes, the vaulting element in Islamic architecture. She is exploring their form and symbolism through her personal lens by using contemporary materials, transplanting them into new cultural, historical, and geographical contexts to assume a new meaning.
You got your BFA from Al-Zahra University in Tehran, graduated with an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and you are currently based in New York. Tell me about this journey and how do you think it informs your art?
It has been a significant and informative journey for sure. I think that all of these places somehow live inside me. Each city and country with its own unique set of experiences has enriched me, and consequently various layers of significance have been added to my work. I’m grateful for these adventures. Growing up and living in Iran, an appreciation for history and language, especially poetry, are embedded within me. Beyond that, I think my childhood experiences of the eight-year Iran/Iraq war have shaped my perspectives on the conditions of stability and fragility, which often co-exist in my work.
While studying at university in Tehran, I became interested in Islamic architecture. A very influential professor of mine was passionate about Islamic architecture, but she did not approach this subject only from the lens of religion. This approach resonated with me and later I began to incorporate architectural aspects into my work. With the foundation of my practice in painting from Iran, the experience at SAIC in Chicago, with its highly experimental approach to learning, proved to be very freeing for me. During my time in Chicago many creative doors opened for me, so while I stayed in the painting department, I could also expand my use of material, explore my interest in architecture further, and create site-specific installations. SAIC’s interdisciplinary and experimental curriculum has influenced the development of my work, up till today even. And of course, New York, with its great wealth of culture and art, is a constant source of inspiration for me. So, it is really both, the strong background from Iran and the experimental approach from Chicago, and then the lived experience of all three metropolises.
Your artwork creates a lively dialogue between wall and inner space, two and three dimensions, line, and volume. For me they read formally as deconstructed abstraction and thematically as a meditation on architecture— patterns, abstracted motifs from eastern and western cultures. Is that along your thought lines? And if so, let’s start with the latter— in what ways are you exploring architecture?
My work is inspired by the architectural tradition of Muqarnas Domes, both their visual and symbolic references to ladders, which evoke notions of ascending and falling. The Persian poet Rumi also uses ladders as a metaphor to describe the tension created by a desire to ascend and the dangers of falling, “whomever ascends higher falls harder.”
Muqarnas presents different points of inspiration for me, regarding its formal complexity as well as its rich symbolism and significance in Persian culture and literature. Questions like, “can Muqarnas mean something else now?” also inform my work. I am asking, “what does it mean to take these forms out of their original context, to rearrange, reassemble, and combine and construct them with contemporary materials and then place them in another situation?”
Your work is highly visceral. Material and color seem to play a central role. Let’s take a closer look at your wall sculptures in that context.
In 2003, when I had just moved to the USA from Tehran, I lived in San Francisco for a short time, and while there, I took two ceramic classes at San Francisco Art Institute. I believe that was a turning point in my work, which introduced what is now essential in my practice. Because although I began with painting, it was not till I worked with ceramic that I realized my great love for working with my hands in a different way, through touching and feeling the textures and surfaces of my materials. This intuitive and hands-on approach guides my process. I like to experiment with different materials in my studio and making the work is like an exploration, a process of discovery.
When I begin a piece, I usually have an idea of where I want the work to go or how I want it to look, but then the piece leads me in various unforeseeable directions and as a result, many surprises and accidents happen in the process. Tactility, using various textures and materials, plays an essential part in my work. A lot of my materials stay in the studio for a long time, years even, until an idea comes for using them in my work. I also collect different materials, some found, others gifted to me. They consist of a variety of fabrics, tiles, mirrors, glass lamps, frames, and Styrofoam blocks. Building the work, similarly, takes a lot of time, it is a constant process of adding and editing out. Some of the pieces look fragile but they are actually very sturdy, and I love creating that paradox in my work.
It’s interesting to look at your 2007 floor installation in relation to your wall relief from 2019. What is the difference in your process of making these two installations?
I made that floor piece in Chicago while I was still at school. At the time I was thinking about ruins and impermanence. I was interested in decay and things falling apart. Some of the materials I used themselves would also change through time, for instance new cracks would appear in the papier-mâché parts while the smell of the turmeric would lessen after a while. About half of that piece was created in my studio and the rest, on-site in the room. I expanded it according to the room’s size and in relation to its surroundings. It is more linear than my latter work. I thought of it more as an installation/drawing.
The wall piece from 2019 was made for a curved wall in a public space as a site-specific installation. For this I had visited the space several times prior to developing dimensions and relations for it. I had also given a considerable amount of attention to the way the light from the adjacent glass doors would play. With this in mind, I chose a very reflective iridescent fabric that would change color depending on how the light would hit it. So many aspects had been thought out and planned beforehand, but as usual I added several new elements during the initial install. The piece was mainly built in my studio, which I then transferred to the space. I think the early work of 2007 was the beginning of a direction that led me to the piece I made in 2019.
When I look back at your installation at the Three Walls Gallery in Chicago (2010), It seems to me that the sculptures there functioned more as part of an overall room installation – in contrast to one of your latest work Untitled (2020), which is a stand-alone sculpture. Do you see your latest work as an intersection point of sorts in your work? Can you share some thoughts on how you see your sculptural work in these 2 instances?
In the 2010 installation at the three walls gallery, the fragments were growing on the walls and expanding in the space, and I wanted them to somehow continue each other. I envisioned the fragments as part of an imaginary whole that once existed. I was also trying to reflect on architecture through the way I installed my work, emphasizing areas such as corners, nooks, and hidden spaces. These spaces were equally as important as the bigger spaces and the major big wall. This is something that I still consider in some of my installations.
For me, the 2020-piece functions differently from the 2010 one. It is one of my first experimentations with found glass. It is three-dimensional and, importantly, it is also freestanding so you can walk around its entirety, and it looks different from each angle. But I am still revisiting this piece and perhaps making changes to it.
Where do you see your work at the studio going from here?
It is hard to give an exact answer, since I usually have to sit with the new themes and pieces for a while to be able to fully understand them myself, and then I can articulate them in language. I am currently experimenting a lot in my studio. Right now, I have some found glass that is captivating me, but I will have to wait and see where that will lead me. I will also be starting a paper residency with Dieu Donne where I will be exploring working with handmade paper in collaboration with a master paper maker. I am very much looking forward to seeing what doors this new experience will open up for me in regard to the use of new materials and techniques in my work.
All photos courtesy of the artist
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com