2017-18 Helen Cudahy Niblack ‘42 Arts Lecture Series: Mojdeh Rezaeipour — A Personal Quest for Narrative

Mojdeh Rezaeipour came to campus last week as the first artist of this year’s Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series. The theme for the 2017-18 Series is “Inspired by Storytelling,” and Mojdeh — who has been featured on The Moth Mainstage, Podcast, and Radio Hour, and is a StorySlam Champion, in addition to her mixed media work in collage, encaustics, and natural elements — had her audience quickly enthralled and captivated with the story of her personal artistic journey.
Mojdeh told the community gathered at Morning Meeting that after she started school as a little girl in Iran, she began to see that many of the freedoms her family and others practiced in the privacy of their homes were serious crimes outside of the house. Little things like watching cartoons, having parties with boys and girls, or drinking wine could have serious repercussions if discovered. She also quickly learned that the headscarf she once coveted as a rite of passage to young womanhood carried with it restrictions that took the shine off that so-called privilege.

Her response was to cut her hair short, give herself a boy’s name, and dress like a boy — when not in school — so that she could continue to play soccer in the streets. Mojdeh had the support of her family for this little rebellion, which was actually quite a brave act in the face of Iran's oppressive regime. Not long after, though, when she was 12, Mojdeh’s family immigrated to the United States before she could see “just how short-lived that solution would be.”

Once in the U.S., adjusting to a new language and culture was hard, but she says, “Here, I could wear what I want and say what I want and that overt experience of oppression started to feel long gone.” The memories of her elementary school days were tucked away in a locked up chest for many years as she focused on achieving good grades and getting her degree — a masters in architecture from UC-Berkeley.

A trip back to Iran in 2009 to see the architectural wonders of her homeland coincided with the protests after Iran’s presidential elections. Young people were being executed in the streets for speaking their minds and Mojdeh was alarmed. Her American passport brought her safely home, but she was “shaken to her core by the gruesome injustices” she had witnessed there.

After returning to the U.S., Mojdeh traveled to Tokyo to work with one of her favorite architects. Her career took a turn after this stint, as she shared; “When that (architecture) stopped making me happy, as sometimes things that you’re good at will, I tried on a bunch of different dreams.”

She returned again to the U.S. and started telling stories at Moth events, eventually winning StorySlams and producing StorySlam events. She opened Epicure Cafe — a community cafe, gallery, music venue, and home to hundreds of creatives in DC — with her father. She says, “I took on the role of a community builder, a cultivator of community, a gardener. Before long I realized that what I always wanted to do was not to be a gardener, but to be one of the flowers — one of the creative folks. That’s when my dream of being an artist really began to take root.”

Mojdeh spoke of events she attended with other artists, where conversations about various types of oppression and cruelty brought back memories of her childhood in Iran. She also spoke of the mixed media art that she so enjoys creating, using collage, beeswax, and other natural elements. Mojdeh's work took on a much more personal aspect when she was planning her first solo show, entitled “Captivity,” at the Strathmore Mansion.

“That’s when my playful cutting and tearing started to morph into this more raw and personal quest for narrative,” she says. “It was like excavating the pieces from inside of that chest of memories and putting them back together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Mojdeh says of the experience of reliving, remembering, and processing those memories from Iran that “I was often at a loss for words. Sometimes when you’re going through this really difficult time and you don’t find the words, sitting down and working with art can be helpful.”

Her latest show, entitled “Belonging,” is at the Arlington (VA) Arts Center until the middle of December. It includes pieces that deconstruct and reconstruct her memories of elementary school. She says this process of relearning taught her that, “All of our liberation is bound up in each other's ...my work as an artist isn’t just to heal myself from all of that but to feel the intersections for our collective striving for healing and liberation.”

Mojdeh was peppered with questions from students and faculty for the rest of Morning Meeting. On Thursday, she returned to hold workshops on storytelling with all of the American Literature students. The emotional and uplifting stories the girls worked on and shared left Mojdeh amazed. She also made herself available to students during lunch on both days to answer questions about her process or her experiences.

Cat W. ’18 asked Mojdeh to come to the Art Room after her presentation on Wednesday. Cat says, “I was able to show her what I have been working on in class so far this year. She was able to give me the unique opportunity to explain my art and its process to someone who was not only able to understand it but could also relate to it. It was an amazing experience to meet and talk to Mojdeh. She really is a talented artist. I would absolutely love for her to visit again.”

I think Cat and many others will be pleased to know that before leaving, Mojdeh spoke with Karin Thorndike about an exhibition of Foxcroft student art at Epicure Cafe and of having some sort of storytelling event with the girls, too. In addition, she’ll return to campus in April during the Arts Weekend as one of the presenters. We look forward to all the future collaborations!
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