The Immigrant Artist Biennial – In Dialogue

Portraiture, Archives, and Representation: Golnar Adili, Erika DeFreitas, and Jonathan Ojekunle

On the left: Jonathan Ojekunle. Shining Light, 2022. Oil, acrylic on canvas. 60 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial. Courtesy NARS Foundation. Photographed by Young Yu Don.

Oftentimes, in thinking about the representation of the human form in art, people can get very attached to the ‘abstraction’ versus ‘figuration’ binary. These respective styles frequently get coded as opposites, and certain kinds of politics are ascribed to each. For example, ‘figuration’ is coded as a kind of politics of representation, whereas ‘abstraction’ is a politics of refusal or resistance to legibility. However, the work of Golnar Adili, Erika DeFreitas, and Jonathan Ojekunle, all on view in The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone, functions beyond this binary in fresh ways. We interviewed the artists about portraiture and its relationship with archives and representation.

Can you talk briefly about the significance of portraiture for your work? Does this genre feel applicable to your work in terms of how you portray the human figure? In what ways do you work with or against traditions in portraiture?

GA: There are a few pieces in my body of work that can be considered a self-portrait, but one stands out more than others, A Thousand Pages of Chest In A Thousand Pages of Mirror—it is a photography-based work of an image of my chest, and the title is a direct translation of the opening stanza of a poem by Iranian Yadollah Royayee. Here, the image of “a thousand pages of mirror” and “a thousand pages of chest” inspired and generated multiple readings of what this imagery might look like as both the chest, signifying reflection, and the mirror, signifying the place where we hold our emotions and inner truths. Both motifs are used in Persian poetry and literature.

JO: My portrait allows me to express a diverse range of emotions, from joy and love to contemplation and vulnerability. I find a balance between working with and challenging traditions in my portraitures. To achieve a realistic likeness of the subjects I work on, I typically use traditional methods and draw inspiration from historical portrait styles. I work against tradition by sometimes deviating from realism, utilizing abstract or impressionistic styles to convey my ideas and emotions.

ED: I believe that a lot of my work functions as portraiture, or at the very least, can be included in conversations about its relationship to traditional forms of portraiture and how it may challenge or complement this historical art form. I often consider portraiture to be inclusive of more than the conventional portrayal of the human figure. My hands and the hands of other women are often featured in my photographic and video works. I believe that the hand can reveal so much about a person, similar to the sort of insight that can be gained by interpreting an expression on someone’s face or a body’s posture in a particular environment. I like to think that portraiture can be abstracted or conceptual to include things like a record of the presence of the body—something where the body is suggested.

In a similar vein, can you talk about how archival principles figure into your practice? How would you say personal or collective inheritance is represented and visually organized in your work?

JO: I use archival quality materials like canvas, oil, and acrylic colors to create my portraits. By doing this, deterioration and discoloration over time can be prevented. When storing, I keep my completed or in-progress portraits away from extreme temperatures and direct sunlight. My usual practice in this digital age is to create high-quality digital scans or photographs of my work and store them using archival digital practices to ensure their preservation and accessibility.

Golnar Adili, Pink Letter, 2011. 23 enlarged and transferred reproductions of a letter on paper and medical tape on the museum board. 18 x 24 x 1-1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

ED: If I think about the body of work I have made over the years as an archive, I see that much of the work starts from exploring the personal as a framework for addressing a broader range of themes and ideas. The work I create where my mother appears as subject matter is often concerned with pre-mourning, cultural inheritances, and migration themes. Over time, and when viewing my practice as a whole, it can be interesting to see that this work with my mother is also an archive that documents our relationship. The photographs and videos become a visual indexing of how our bodies have changed over the past twenty years and the uncanny similarities our bodies share. This personal archive, like many archives, is fragmented and non-linear. Other works in my practice are a reframing of archives that are often made available to us. These works question whose lives and stories are archived and by whom while attempting to bring forth some of those whose stories have been pushed into the margins and are often dismissed, hidden, or erased. I am interested in the ways that, as a racialized woman, I can subtly intervene, disrupt, and question archives that are presented to us from a singular perspective as ‘whole’ or ‘complete.’

GA: I work primarily with the stuff of my life, and a lot of it is rooted back into childhood and the story of separation I endured because of the geopolitics of Iran. My family moved back to Iran the month of the revolution in 1979, a sort of reverse migration. My father had to leave only two years after that due to the persecution of the left as he was an activist. Growing up with my mother all those years during the war and a severe post-revolution society became a heaviness in my chest, which I carry. Art was a way to look at this heaviness and process the past. After my father passed away, I was left with a large body of travel documents, family letter correspondences, and other photos and memorabilia meticulously sorted by my father. This became a source of information and inspiration, helping me to piece the past together, understand myself, and share this marginal history. A story that goes to show how the political is reflected in the personal. My work with the archive is not as a documentarian but as a formal investigation inspired by the content. Like the piece at the Immigrant Biennale, The Pink Letter, I recreated a letter from my mother to my father on the edge of 352 folds written a few months after he escaped Iran. The resulting moray effect requires the reader to move around the piece to read the text. This process reflects my relationship to the letter, a desire to gain distance from the emotional content while simultaneously wanting to read the text to uncover the past.

Erika DeFreitas. Her body is entire of light (often, very often, and in floods), 2016. 04:22 minutes single-channel video. Image courtesy of the artist and Christie Contemporary.

In each of your practices, I find that you work outside of the binary ‘abstract’ versus ‘figuration’ relationship to image-making: Jonathan, for example, even in framing/canvas choices in some works; Golnar, in the highly structural nature of your ‘portfolios’ and books; Erika in the conceptual nature of many of your works. How do you feel you relate to the politics of representation in your practice or your general thinking (if you do), and in what way do you see your work as expressing (or not expressing!) certain kinds of social or political positions?

ED: When thinking about representation in my practice, I immediately think about the significance behind the way my body, as well as the bodies of other women, are framed in my photographic or video-based works. I think deeply about the ways that I can represent my body to maintain agency over its depiction and to allow space for gender and race to exist and be thought about critically. I am as interested in resistance as I am in empowerment and visibility.

JO: The politics of representation can significantly impact the framing and canvas of my work. For instance, the frame of my portraits can provide context and meaning. The size and placement of portraits on the canvas or frame can either emphasize or understate the subject’s identity. These elements influence the viewer’s perception and engagement with my portraits.

GA: I love working with a given, a found text, or a found photograph and allowing that material to express what transformation it needs and where it needs to go. My work is heavily process-oriented, a series of steps that deconstruct and reconstruct this given and usually ends up in the land of abstraction precisely due to this fragmentation. Distortion is another outcome of this deconstruction and reconstruction, stretching time and space, slowness and materiality infusing the work. I love paper and the language of documents and files, and this is indirectly expressed in my work.

About the Writer: Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a Swedish/Guyanese writer, researcher, and curator interested in feminism, social practice, and decolonization and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. Anna Mikaela holds dual master’s degrees in art and design history from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center. Her latest books are “Assuming Asymmetries. Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects in the 1980s and 1990s” and “Curating Beyond the Mainstream,” published by Sternberg Press in 2022. She is co-curator of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone and the organization’s Associate Director.

Golnar Adili, Erika DeFreitas, and Jonathan Ojekunle are part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023: Contact Zone held across venues in New York and New Jersey from September 2023 to January 2024. Find the full program here.

Art Spiel and Cultbytes are, for the second time, proud media sponsors of the biennial, and this interview is part of an interview and review series that will be published throughout its programming.