A History of Power

An interview with Ghazal Ghazi.

I was born in Tehran, Iran. My maternal side traces its ancestral roots to the northern region of Gilan, adjacent to the Caspian sea, and my paternal side to the northeastern town of Neyshabur. I immigrated to the United States when I was 6, and spent most of my childhood moving around every two years, spending some time in California, various states in the Midwest, and a couple years in Kuwait. After finishing undergrad in Arizona, I lived in Valparaiso, Chile for four years, which really formed me creatively as a painter, muralist, and writer. I’m currently based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The majority of my murals feature massive portraits of women of color. The most rewarding experiences have been when little black and brown girls smile and jump up and down when they see the towering 20’ mural of a woman who they see themselves reflected in. It’s happened a few times, mostly notably in 2017 when I was painting for the Cambodia Town Mural Project for the Arts Council for Long Beach. It was an unexpected consequence that was totally rad and gave me a renewed sense of purpose.

Photo credit: Andrew Saliga - "Protest puppets made as part of an artist team composed of Yatika Starr Fields, Spencer Plumlee, Sean Tyler, and Ghazal Ghazi in response to Trump's June 2020 rally in Tulsa, OK."

My anchor to any sort of stability right now is my day job at a library, which I absolutely love. The rest of my time is spent painting, working on public art proposals or finishing the manuscript for my second poetry book. Like many other people, my normal schedule has been upended. Most of my time has been spent working on or organizing art interventions that tackle systemic racism and white supremacy. Given the constraints from the pandemic, I’m just taking it one day at a time.  

In terms of writing, I’ve been honing my practice since I was a kid. And even though I didn’t start painting until college, my dream was always to be a painter and writer. I wrote voraciously throughout my childhood. It was almost as if writing was a surrogate for the home, community, culture, and family I had left behind in Iran.

Immigrating to America and living in the particular domestic situation I was in levied a certain heaviness on my conscience. The overarching feeling of those first decades was an expansive isolation tied inextricably to the role of language in my life as a shy, introverted brown immigrant kid from the Middle East. In high school and into college, I became obsessed with analogue darkroom photography and was able to explore my love of photo-documentary through a research grant for a series on gender, class, and politics in Iran. I ended up losing access to the darkroom when I graduated. It was then that I began to transition into graffiti – which morphed over the years into murals, illustrations, and eventually oil paintings.

For the last five months or so, the phrase that has circled my mind as I paint is “a history of power.” My work has always centered around memory – collective, individual, and epigenetic. Sometimes it is through the lens of family structures, immigration, or displacement. Right now I am approaching it through the paradigm of power: collective power through movements, the (re)generation of power through memory, and how the structures that unleash and uphold state violence wield memory to exert control over our collective imaginary. What are the various histories of power at play and how does art influence our relationship to them?  

I love studying the history of ancient Persian crafts and artistic traditions such as rug weaving, pottery and illuminated manuscripts. Poetry sends ripples through the deep waters of my being and influences me through a mysterious chain of events that I am still unable to articulate. My work also involves a lot of methodological research into history, politics, sociology, linguistics, etc. For better or for worse, almost everything I do is rooted in a socio-political context.

My work is motivated by the artistic community of fellow painters and writers. I also find a lot of solace being around plants, either in my garden or on the trails. I’m very drawn to moving bodies of water. Both community and nature feed and replenish my soul when I am exhausted. As for music, my interests range wildly and include underground hip hop, classical Persian, reggaeton, and salsa.

Creative blocks are part of the process and I think they can even have a positive role in pushing us and encouraging growth. Whenever I’ve faced a block in my creativity, I’ve tried to reframe it in terms of “seasons” in an effort to normalize and accept it as part of the creative process. There are seasons for venturing outward, for actively creating, for engaging and sharing parts of myself with the world. And then there are seasons for staying inside, incubating seedlings, and engaging in deep internal reflections. I try to respect whatever season my soul is in by acknowledging, accepting, and welcoming it.

If I’m experiencing blocks when I have deadlines or commissions coming up, I try to address any underlying issues that may be present while simultaneously watering my soul from its roots. I try to ground myself and connect to stimulation through my senses – seeking wind on my skin, spending an afternoon cooking food for my family, feeling the sun beating down on me. And I try to just sit my inner child down and ask her to write or draw literally anything – with no judgment or punishment, to get the ball rolling. These sorts of things generally help loosen whatever knots are present and prevent me from working.  

At the end of the day, It’s my goal to help advance the causes of social movements and be meaningful to the community in some way.

My name is Ghazal Ghazi (Tehran, 1990). I’m a muralist, painter, translator, and published author. I have produced numerous large-scale, site-specific works of art for public and private institutions throughout the country and internationally.

©Alchemy & Elegy