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Remembering the Great Political Art of Siah Armajani

Armajani passed away in his home on August 27. His last artworks focused on immigration and the threats to American liberty.

Siah Armajani’s “Room for Deportee” (2017), (image courtesy of the artist’s estate)

Over tea in his reading room one afternoon, I drew a momentary blank on the exact year that Siah Armajani had emigrated to the US. “Seven years after,” he reminded me. He marked time with the 1953 coup that overthrew the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh. It was in the context of his activism with Mossadegh’s National Front Party, which sought to establish constitutional democracy in Iran, that Armajani articulated his lifelong approach to art. That coup, the British Empire’s last regime change and the United States’s first, shaped Armajani’s views on the role of the artist in society. “At that time, I knew that all I want to do is to be an artist. So I made a commitment by becoming a political artist from day one until now. Anything I do, either in an obvious way or in a discreet way, is political,” he explained.

The first year he moved to the US, Armajani created a painting, “Hafez” (1960). An ode to the poet, the canvas is a play on medieval Persian manuscripts. Armajani upends the order of the page, scrawling poetry across the canvas. He created a border with modest twine, affixing it to the canvas with seal wax. Armajani would often imprint wax seals in his artworks with his uncle’s signature ring, a treasured heirloom. In the eighth grade, his teacher in Tehran had taught him about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had translated classical Persian poetry into English from German. It was rumored he’d even spoken with Abraham Lincoln of the poets. Emerson’s thinking inflected Armajani’s views on the role of culture in American democracy. “Hafez” was an attempt to bridge Armajani’s life in America to the home he’d left behind in Iran. But it also brought together two pillars of his artistic practice, his deep appreciation of Persian poetry and his profound belief in American democratic ideals. In an essay he wrote in 1982, Armajani characterized himself as “a civic artist” who believed that “art should be grounded in the structure of its political, social, and economic context, because that context gives a work of art its meaning.”

Armajani marked his first decade as an immigrant to the US by buying a small plot of land in each of the fifty states. “Land Deeds” (1970), featuring certificates of land ownership from Maine to Alaska, was one of his earliest conceptual pieces. These early works show the ways a poetic sensibility and democratic principles became threaded together throughout his six-decade long artistic career. They also reveal a playful and fearless formal approach that pushed the boundaries of art making, what he called a search “for new form for content.” Drawing on poetry, philosophy, architecture, technology, and the social sciences, he wanted to make art that “could incorporate political, social, and economic considerations.” As he told Calvin Tomkins in the New Yorker in 1990, “Art by itself can not bring about social changes. But art in concert with other forces can make a difference. We can be citizens with something to offer besides self-analysis. We can be part of society, and not just a small elite supported by a wealthy minority.”

Known as something of a private man, Armajani’s personal history, influences, and ideas are embedded in his art. From the mid-1960s, he devoted nearly three decades to articulating a deeply philosophical and political approach to public art. Armajani wrote, “public art’s basic aim is to de-mystify the concept of creativity. Our intention is to become citizens again.”

Rather than creating a myth of the artist, he believed public art should serve the common good. That people often recall Armajani’s art without knowing his name is not incidental.  “Public art is not about self but others,” he explained in one of our conversations. Many will remember Mohammad Ali lighting the Armajani-designed caldron at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Passersby have often stood at the iron gates he inscribed with the poetry of Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara in Battery City Park, experiencing the way his installation frames a view of Ellis Island. Armajani’s gate was part of a major collaboration he undertook with the architect Cesar Pelli, artist Scott Burton, and landscape artist M. Paul Friedberg at the World Financial Center Plaza in 1986, turning the Hudson waterfront into one of the most popular public spaces in New York City. Hikers along the trail at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens in Nashville probably wouldn’t know it was Armajani who created the “Glass Bridge” they crossed. When I visited his “Bridge Over Tree” (1970/2019) installed by the Public Art Fund in Brooklyn Bridge Park, several children were playing in the sculptural installation. They’d enter the covered bridge on one side, climb over the tree, and jump with glee out of the other side. They were experiencing the work exactly as the artist intended—becoming aware of what came before it, what came after, what was below it and what was above.

In 2009, he created a glass house, “An Exile Dreaming of Saint Adorno.” Inside the sculpture, there’s an empty prison cell. A figure, molded on Armajani’s own body, is seated at a student’s desk, its head bended down over crossed hands. Adorno had long been an influence on the artist, and Edward Said’s book On Late Style, which discusses the scholar’s theories of creativity in life’s latter years, was of special interest to Armajani. Late style, Said wrote, was marked with a boldness and intransigence. “There is an insistence in late style not on mere ageing, but on an increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism,” Said observed.

“I am getting closer,” Armajani said of the impetus for his Tomb Series that pays homage to 25 philosophers and poets, activists and writers who had shaped his own thinking and approach to art. He built sculptures and made drawings for Nima Yushij, Ahmad Shamlou, Walter Benjamin, John Dewey, and Martin Heidegger.

When I visited his studio in 2014, Armajani was making his last tomb. “Written Minneapolis (Last Tomb)” is an 18-foot drawing, depicting the neighborhood around his artist studio. In a small, flowing script, Armajani was inscribing Persian poetry across the page. The drawing, he said, was “a crooked memory” of his childhood and adolescence in Iran and his time in Minneapolis. If the city had come to feel like a home to Armajani, it was largely due to his wife Barbara, whom he met when they were students at Macalester College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota. At his art talks, when Armajani forgot the date of an artwork, Barbara would gently remind him from her seat in the audience. When he’d tell one of his frequent wry jokes, he’d look to Barbara with a smile to see if his punch line had landed. It is hard to imagine Armajani’s long, unconventional artistic career without Barbara’s gentle strength, wisdom, and companionship. She gave Armajani that thing any immigrant craves the most, a sense of belonging.

Minneapolis had become a home, but Armajani’s sense of being “an intellectual exile,” of being an immigrant, and of continuing to search for ways to make art that spoke to the politics of the time undergird his last artworks. His series, Seven Rooms of Hospitality, was inspired by French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 1996 lectures on the immigration crisis. First sketching each sculpture, Armajani then created 3D models. In his studio in 2017, he walked me through two of the large-scale sculptural installations he had completed. “Room for Migrant Worker” (2017) features a house with boarded up doors and windows; there’s a small bed on the outside porch. Armajani explained it speaks to a fundamental irony of anti-immigration discourse. Many who rely on migrant workers to build their homes want to refuse these same workers a chance to enter the country and make homes of their own.

We then walked to another installation in his studio, “Room for Deportees” (2017). This work was inspired by President Trump’s 2017 executive order, which banned entry to the United States by citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. “You are standing by the wall along the border of the United States and then you go on the other side. There’s a room for deportees,” Armajani explained. He showed me a wire fence topped with barbed wire, alongside which he placed a chair with a man’s hat and a bench with a women’s purse. Alongside it, there was a small sculpture of a house. “It’s in memory of their home,” he said.

At a talk in 2017 in Hong Kong, Armajani spoke about “Seven Rooms for Hospitality.” “All of this displacement, this desperation that’s happening in the world. This is my last project I’m working on.”

Siah Armajani, “Statue of Liberty” (2018), print on canvas (image courtesy of the artist’s estate)

In the summer of 2018, the artist and curator Christian Bernard asked Siah Armajani to create an artwork for an art festival he was organizing in Toulouse, France. Armajani sent a massive 10-foot painting of the Statue of Liberty. In 1886, the statue had been gifted by France to the American people, and now the artist was returning it. Armajani inscribed the canvas with a signed and sealed declaration that read in part, “We are not too far away from seeing the take down of the Statue of Liberty … Therefore, I present you, Christian Bernard, citizen of France, for safe-keeping, until such a time when Liberty returns to the United States, my offering of the Statue of Liberty. Liberty can only return to the United States of American if and when Trump steps down.” A poem etched on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty famously dubs the majestic torch bearer a “mother of exiles,” who cries: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” The now iconic poem, “The New Colossus,” was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883.

Politics was threaded through all of Armajani’s art; the first and last works that Armajani created in the US focused on immigration and the risks to democracy. His work reflected an insistent hope that the democratic principles of the US would become manifest and amplified by cultural producers. Speaking on the occasion of the opening of his major retrospective at the Walker Art Center in 2018, he said: “This generation that is coming up now, they’re not like us. There are going to fight. There are going to be political. They are going to get involved with every aspect of life. And you should encourage them, and encourage them to do what they believe. Democracy is not something cheap; people have paid a heavy price to gain democracy.”

These past days, I’ve experienced Armajani’s loss as a profound emptiness. In Persian, when we miss someone, we say their place is empty. Looking closely at his painting “Hafez,” I am struck by how much emptiness he left on the canvas. Emptiness, an idea he gleaned from Sufi poetry, played a formative role in his notions of art and society. At a 2015 talk in London, he elaborated his thoughts on the matter: “What I know about emptiness is there is no negation in it. It is complete in itself. There is space left for people to act, to behave. Rumi discovered that by finding emptiness, you find God. You glorify yourself when that space exists, that emptiness. There was a singer, Janice Joplin, in the ‘60s. Towards the end of her career, you could not decipher the words she was singing. There was just a scream. That is beautiful.”

It was early morning when I heard that Armajani had passed away. Over the past 20 years, he had become my mentor in the truest sense of the word. Though we’d shared many conversations, I felt the need to talk with him one more time. I sent him a text wishing him a peaceful journey home, thanking him for all he’d taught me, and assuring him I’d honor the spirit of his art. Armajani left Iran when its democratic prospects had grown dim. He died at a moment when American democratic institutions are at grave risk. Along the way, he showed us a path to how the arts can play a vital role in such times.

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