SAN FRANCISCO — To be seen is the imperative for artists, for all artists. For SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) artists, that visibility must include their complexity. This, however, is rarely the case, especially when it comes to established art institutions — the subject of an engaging new conversation series hosted by the Zamin Project and produced by the Aggregate Space Gallery (ASG). 

Gathering SWANA artists, educators, and curators over the course of three weekends, these virtual panels focus on Bridging SWANA Art Community in the Bay Area and was initiated by Iranian-American artist, Shaghayegh Cyrous. The second conversation, held on August 21, featured four artists, who are also curators, to discuss the question, How Can We Create Our Own Resources?

Speakers included Michelle Mansour of the arts nonprofit Root Division; Ana Saygi, of the art space /Slash; Shirin Makaremi of Incline Gallery; Leyya Mona Tawil of the experimental art platform Arab.AMP; and the moderator, Roula Seikaly, senior editor and co-curatorial director at Humble Arts Foundation.

The second conversation in the Bridging SWANA Art Community in the Bay Area panel series hosted by the Zamin Project (image courtesy the Zamin Project)

The members of the panel shared a frustration toward the lack of equity and access in local museums and larger galleries. “Our works are much more curious and mysterious than they are shown, said Tawil. Established art institutions tend to use stereotyped or clichéd frameworks when presenting work by SWANA artists, a sentiment echoed by Tawil and the other panelists.

Because museums gravitate toward “trope-y” displays of SWANA art, such as the Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibit seen at the de Young Museum in 2018, SWANA artists don’t see themselves reflected in the mainstream art scene in the Bay Area.

As long as those efforts aren’t happening in the large institutions in a meaningful way, these arts leaders are going to continue cultivating their spaces, which support a range of artists from the SWANA and the greater BIPOC community. They value knowing that their work helps SWANA artists feel a part of the arts community. “We have,” according to Mansour, “the collective leadership, the institutional knowledge and the networking.”

 Kiana Honarmand, “Requiem” (2021) (still), video performance, six mins, recently exhibited at the Root Division

Everyone agreed that connecting artists, providing resources, and opening a safe space for education and creation are deep in their mission.

“Links happen,” said Shirin Makaremi. “Being a leader allows confidence.” The facilitation aspect is essential. “Staying connected in your community, no one is feeling isolated. Resources come in different forms. You never know who you’re going to talk to and if they can connect you to someone else.”

The excitement around creating connections and collaborations was tangible. The Bay Area doesn’t have the same concentrated ethnic neighborhoods as other cities, like Detroit, where Tawil is from. “The diaspora is different here.” She indicated that they rely on name recognition or reputation to bring together audiences and artists. Artists may come to spaces because they see a name that might be Iranian or Arab, someone they can connect with. Or a theme of an exhibit aligns with their work or interest. When Ana Saygi first opened /Slash, she invited patrons in for tea, and introduced them to the gallery with hospitality. 

Maryam Yousif, Death Pit vol. 2, installation view) at /Slash (2019), dimension variable

The Zamin Project is concretizing that community building by creating an online catalogue of SWANA Artists. It has initiated the Zamin Project Archive, which invites members of the arts community, who identify as SWANA, to submit their information via an online form.

Additionally, on September 1, Zamin Project’s Instagram and ASG’s Youtube Channel will launch 15 short introductory video interviews of SWANA artists conducted by Roula Seikaly.

While these spaces’ platforms are smaller and independent, the effort and attention in growing an arts community which disrupts the mainstream perspective provides an enormous service to artists. As Seikaly pointed out, their work, “through their generosity of time and experience, serves as an example of what these spaces can be.”

Bridging SWANA Art Community in the Bay Area will host its final panel via Zoom on Saturday, August 28 at 2pm (PST).

Elmaz Abinader is the author of two books of poetry and memoir, Children of the Roojme. She is co-founder of VONA, a workshop for writers of color.