The drawings and sculptures that comprise Afruz Amighi’s current exhibition Echo’s Chamber at Sophia Contemporary in London were inspired by the permanent collections housed inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A result of an urge to move the Greco-Roman sculptures out of the Museum’s sunlit atrium and swap them with their Oceanic counterparts – that are positioned in a dark, low-ceilinged environment – the two and three-dimensional work on display in the artist’s first solo show in the UK also take inspiration from the current socio-political climate in the USA, as well as women’s struggle for liberation, both in the present and throughout history. Gallery Girl spoke with Amighi to discuss heritage, inspirations and femininity.
Echo’s Chamber consists of nine sculptures and eight drawings. Titled after the myth of Echo and Narcissus, the word ‘echo’ also references the shadow that the sculptures cast over the gallery walls, as the lights that Amighi places under them allow shapes to appear beneath her steel, chain and mesh structures. ‘Echo, as a female archetype is interesting to me because while she is doomed to repeat the words of others, her voice nonetheless reverberates endlessly through time’, says Amighi, ‘Narcissus, as a male archetype takes center stage in a more obvious way…this can be seen playing itself out in American politics right now. But I think we are in the era of ascending Echo, and that is why I decided to reference her and give her even more prominence by providing her with her own space, her own chamber.’
The political situation in the USA at the moment caused Amighi’s art-making process to move in an new direction, in a talk with art historian and curator Sussan Babaie, she described a sudden shift from making architectural work as a response to an urgent need to start drawing the figure again. Amighi’s drawings at Sophia Contemporary are dark: faces are covered, bodies are pierced with knives, and the visage droops downwards in a state of apathy. And, while they appear ominous, they are a reflection of what has been happening in the artist’s immediate environment. ‘The sea change in atmosphere over the past year has brought an urgency to my work and with it has brought me back to the portrait, the figure’, she says. Perhaps it is the uncertainty in the air surrounding global politics that has seen figures like Impaler, 2017 and The Denier, 2017, blindfolded in heavy fabric, stuck in a state of blindness, not knowing what they are going to be confronted with next.
The graphite portraits serve as the starting point from which their three-dimensional counterparts are made. Their strong, majestic profiles, are taken from the female wooden sculptures in the Afro-Oceanic departments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and covered in the drapery and folds worn by the Greco-Roman sculptures in an opposite part of the museum. Speaking about Knife Girl, 2017, who appears in two guises, with a blade running through her profile, Amighi says: ‘[she] was influenced by the wooden sculptures on view in the African wing…the regal wooden female heads encrusted with beads, shells, and metals, stood in stark contrast with the mostly nude male marble sculptures in the Greek and Roman wing…we are used to seeing the opposite…nude women and portraits of ‘important’ men. I wanted to build on that previous tradition and create a sculpture of a woman in profile that possessed that same sense of majesty yet also contained a deep hurt.’ When transformed into a three-dimension sculpture, Knife Girl has a mystical aura, one of strength, but also hurt: ‘…it is unclear whether the long knife in the sculpture is part of her anatomy or is external and piercing through her’, explained Amighi, ‘maybe both.’
While the characters in Echo’s Chamber are all women, they exude violence appearing impaled, scarred and damaged. That said, the figures are resilient, with the artist drawing on the weight of historical oppression against women that has resulted in an internalized violence, something that she explains females often inflict on themselves. She uses steel and chains, materials that are strong and powerful, together with light and mesh, which are soft and gentle. ‘The materials I use, steel, mesh, chain are all associated with strength’, she says, adding: ‘there is something fragile or a bit precarious in there as well. It is this dynamic, this duality, of ferocity alongside vulnerability that was on my mind while I was making this work.’ This contradiction and dynamism reflects the figures that have resulted in Echo’s Chamber, based on historic female archetypes as well as women in Amighi’s own life. ‘I found symbols of strength and resilience as well as symbols of paint and oppression existing side by side.’
Born in Iran and raised in the United States, the artist’s interest in the other may have been spurred by a fascination with her birthplace growing up. It may also have something to do with Trump’s travel ban, Iran being one of the country’s affected by his actions. That said, she has explained that thankfully, she personally has not been affected by the changes in the USA. But I can’t help but think that her obvious concern with museum curation in the West has been fed by her Iranian heritage: ‘Early museum collecting and curation was a reflection of colonial expansion and domination’, she says, likening the collections housed inside UK and USA institutions to commercialism and branding, ‘There is nothing more demoralizing than walking through a museum after paying a steep entry fee and feeling like you are walking through a department store…oh there’s Chanel, oh there’s DKNY, all the predictable names.’ Her obvious disapproval of what we see inside our museums in the West has had an intense influence on the contents of Echo’s Chamber. Amighi adds: ‘Curation should be more risky, so that the audience is taken on an adventure, through new landscapes with unfamiliar shapes and colors.’ The artist succeeds in doing this, remodelling ancient sculptures from opposite continents in new materials to create dialogue and challenge stereotypes, not only in the way we perceive certain cultures, but in how we understand gender roles too.
Throughout her career up to now, Amighi’s work was predominantly architectural: ‘From an early age I was fascinated by light and shadow and I noticed how…structures were created with the intention of using the sunlight to create certain visual effects and spiritual experiences.’ However this pull towards architecture changed with the election of trump: ‘I revisited figuration for the first time since I was a teenage’, adds Amighi, ‘Somehow it felt very urgent that I represent people rather than things created by people.’ The two and three-dimensional results of this shift at Sophia Contemporary analyse the position of the female figure in our current society, but also throughout history, providing a steel and mesh arena for thought concerning the future of these characters.
Afruz Amighi: Echo’s Chamber is on display at Sophia Contemporary until 19th January 2018