Frame 61

Hoda Zarbaf

Frame 61
Hoda Zarbaf

"I like the performative aspect of the feminal body. The exposures, discharges and expressions mesmerize me"


Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did you study?

I was born and raised in Tehran. A magnificent multi-layered mega city that embraces the coexistence of opposites right next to each other (and it’s brutal to both at the same time). It’s not really hard to have a lot of artistic expressions where I’m from, but it definitely doesn't make it easy for you to be in artist.

In 2001 I started my BFA in painting at the University of Tehran. I then got a master’s degree from the Art University of Tehran in Animation. In 2008 I moved to Canada and graduated with an MFA from the University of Windsor.

Ever since, I have travelled around to make art in varied places and mindsets. I have paused working when there has been less creativity, and worked furiously whenever I’ve been impressioned.


I have become most fascinated with mixing and matching orphaned dolls and recycled clothes with old monitors and antique chairs - creating new stories through unifying these abandoned inanimate objects.

As a human and an artist, I am enamored by materiality placed alongside poetry. In my making, I am initially inspired by the physicality of random, upcycled objects. They carry the tales of the past, of love, of people. I like to think of myself as a storyteller rather than an  “artist”.

I have been “making” for as long as I can remember. But professionally, for more than a decade I have exhibited several series of sculptures, large paintings, and site-specific video and large-scale photo installations in New York, Toronto, Tehran, and Berlin (to name a few).

  Reaction Grade I  II, 2016

Reaction Grade I  II, 2016

Your Textile works focus on the body, could you tell us about the reasons for this and what draws you to this subject?

All my experiences or exercises of love, lust, melancholia, growth and so on begin with and in my body. I would even go so far as to tell you that my art is an extension of my body and my physical existence.

I go around the cities I travel to and obsessively gather the things humans leave behind them: an old bra, domestic ornaments, an empty fragrance bottle. Giving unity to the abandoned articles of clothing that at some point were intimate with the bodies, is a way for me to (re)connect with the past, memories and the people I yearn for but are now immaterial and intangible.

The woman's body specifically is a big source of my imaginations. Beyond its representational beauty, I like the performative aspect of the feminal body. The exposures, discharges and expressions mesmerize me. It gives out signaling scents and oragasmic discharges, blood, and life itself: it creates and gives out another human’s body. It is constantly creating and exposing.

I have worked around varied concepts that question or respond to the personal, sexual, or social identities, but the human as a subject remains my constant fascination.

The materials you use are a patchwork of colour and patterns, mainly recycled, is it important to you where the materials come from? Their history?

As I mentioned earlier, the recycled materials make the process of my work (as well as the outcome itself) intimate. There is always an element of intimacy and curiosity going into my work, and that makes an old t-shirt that an anonymous person left behind the best medium I could ask for.

I grew up listening to stories. The ghosts of the absent individuals were always present through my grandparents’ narratives. I often fantasized about people I had never met and carried on their stories in my daydreams. In my adulthood this tendency shaped a large aspect of my character as well as my art practice. My imaginations excessively feed on random humans’ stories as well as the folklore history of the places to which I go and connect.

I find an old dress in a market in the north of Iran, and it might look ordinary and unspecial, but it turns into an object of affection. In a way the materiality of the old dress is poetic to me. It carries impressions and memories of lost times and spaces, and I also happen to admire poetry!

My Brother is the Angel Inside My Mom and I am Her Inner Monster, 2016

The Melancholy of Mundane, 2016

What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?

I like to connect to my audience viscerally. There’ll always be a layer of intellectual discourse behind any work of art ever created in history, but I like to engage the viewers’ emotions and guts!

I often dread talking or writing about my work extensively, since it defines and translates the art in a way that limits the imagination and interpretations of the audience.

As an example, my sculpture/installation “Vaginal Rapture” is a form of a vagina on a chair that’s giving out a rainbow like arc of recycled objects and clothes which is stuffed with fibre fillings. I was showing it at an art fair in Toronto a few years back; a guy came up to me all amazed and intrigued; he told me that this huge vagina with an arc of recycled textiles coming out of it, reminds him of an old toy he owned when he was young. Supposedly this plastic bird mechanically swayed up and down to pick up food. The arc shape of the sculpture resembled the toy’s movement for him. I loved his reading, despite being far away from what I might have intended to express when I created it. I like when my work connects people to themselves: to their own memories, desires and fears.

I also often enjoy when viewers tell me they have an urge to touch and intimately caress the stuffed animal-like shapes of my sculptures, while are at the same time feeling discomfort and surprise. I personally make sense of most matters through the unification of contrasts. So I can only hope for my work to touch my audience in contradicting ways.     

How do you go about naming your work?

A fun part of art-making is the post production. Titles usually come last. I sometimes think of names as I am producing the work, but more often than not they are the last things to be realized. As I briefly indicated before, poetry and storytelling are big inspirations to me.

Where I was raised, the use of metaphor in language is practiced in people’s daily dialogues. When I relocated from the East, with generous metaphorical narratives, to the West, with not so much of it ( but again with a longer history in the visual culture), I found myself challenged to find a sensible spot in which to fit my practice.

The use of text in the work directly, or in the titles, is not just a cherry on top for me. Rather it invites another level of visceral communication: poetry. I am incredibly fascinated by words. I like sensual words, contradicting phrases, satirical compositions. I invite ambiguity and metaphors. There are some words that are more visual than others, and the other ones that are solely abstract. I like the combination of them; similar to the process I mix and match my mediums to make sculptural figures and structures.    

My Grandma's Waiting for Me, 2016

Endorphins Eruption, 2015

Recalling the Insignificant Random Memories, 2015

  Vaginal Rapture, 2014

Vaginal Rapture, 2014

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine, what is your studio like?

More than I would hope for these days, I am catching up with my writings, but I make sure to keep a balance between creating tangible works along with other artist’s duties such as intellectual or social networking.

I have a home studio in Toronto and Tehran. My Annex studio in Toronto is a top floor of an old Victorian house created by the mayor of Toronto in 1850’s as his personal house. The ceiling wood beams, the angles of light that change in different hours of the day, along with the old hard floors and brick walls all make it worthwhile to live and work in the same place.

I always like to tease my artist friends who own serious studio spaces saying that I like my art where my bed is, and that is not far from the truth. I look at art making as an extension of other daily practices. They go along with my cooking and doing laundry. My studio visits often turn into gatherings with lots of wine involved. I always dreaded huge daily exposures to work spaces and uninvited dialogues, so I might have actually become an artist just to avoid that!

What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

These days with the growth of virtual social media venues, I am more than ever exposed to and intrigued by the work of artists I’d never heard of before. Everytime I make a trip to image-based arenas like pinterest or instagram I am pleasantly surprised by artworks that are locally made and perhaps under-represented.

Last year when I was in New York for an exhibition, I got to know the work of Cuban artist Elsa Mora, who was having a solo show at the time. Her delicacy in reflecting on her own life events, and the use of a wide range of materials such as film, fibre and cut-outs to present them, surprised and impressed me. I am also recently following the works of Berlin-based artist Birgit Dieker. I identify with her existentially driven subjects as well as her use of vigorous colours and soft and hard materials.

What does the future hold for you as an artist? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

There are always hopes and dreams in any career we pursue. Some require more precise planning than others. An art career is a tricky one. There’s a fine line that needs to be realized that I’d like to think is different for each artist. I like to keep a perspective on the present and my current practices, rather than have a futuristic plan. For me, there is a golden line between relying on my intuition to lead a path and keeping a keen eye on where in the art world I’m standing or heading towards. It’s not easy but I hope I’m being at least somewhat successful at walking this line, and the future of my art practice is rolling along that pathway.

As for what is in the pipeline, after the solo show “the floral compositions, travellers of time” that I had in Tehran last spring, I am leaning towards creating and exhibiting in the Middle East again in the next year. There are also a few great group exhibitions coming up soon in Europe and North America that I am thrilled about.

I am researching and making fresh moves to bring mechanical motion to my new sculptures. I will be working with some recycled electronic devices and monitors I have collected. Also a new collaboration with a chemist friend on creating some new materials has shaped and we’re hoping to work together to make some really interesting interactive pieces in the near future.

Artist's website

Publish date: 25/11/16
All images courtesy of the artist