Get To Know: The Trailblazing Curators of Before We Were Banned

Before We Were Banned is a series of events subverting the Muslim Ban 1.0 and a platform for creatives of the seven countries on the list to draw their own picture and write their own narrative. Curated by the Brooklyn-based Iranian duo Kiana Pirouz and Mahya Soltani, Before We Were Banned celebrates the arts and culture of these communities and as a result aims to revoke the antagonistic image often portrayed of these nations.

We sat down with Kiana and Mahya to discuss their inspirations and experiences as first-time curators, their goal to create community through art and culture. After a successful launch in Brooklyn last fall, the duo are premiering the show in  Santa Fe, New Mexico this month at East of West Gallery.

Photo by Adam Bettencourt

What inspired you to create Before We Were Banned?

Mahya Soltani (MS): Kiana and I met on Instagram just after the election and when the Muslim ban was announced. We didn’t know what to do. We were confused, I was crying for three days, she was going to the airport every day to JFK [to the protests]. Finally,we sat down, we talked about it. Why is this happening to people like us?

Kiana Pirouz (KP): These laws passed, and Americans allowed them to pass because the only images Americans see of “the Middle East” are about war, or projecting a third world vibe, even though some very intellectual people are from these nations. Advances in humanity are from these places. There’s so much history from these places that precedes the current political turmoil, so we said, this is wrong. The images are wrong. The narratives are wrong.

MS: We got to a point where we said we have to channel this [frustration and anger] into something good. We started talking about using art and culture as a medium. At first, we wanted to do a show specifically for Iranian artists. but then we realized it’s more relevant to do it for all the seven countries on the Muslim ban list.

KP: We don’t necessarily want to shape the narrative, but we wanted to give a platform to artists to do their thing. Whether their art is about war or not. We just wanted to humanize the people of these nations through this very small platform that we made, as being non art-world people. I have 10 years experience in corporate marketing an Mahya is a graphic designer, so we’ve never really done something like this before. It really just came from our hearts and a lot of frustration.

Oil paintings by Gina Malek; Installation by Rhonda Khalifeh; Photo by Adam Bettencourt

Who are the artists you are featuring? Where did you find them?

KP: We didn’t know any artists when we did this. We were so focused on creating community and making it equitable, so we used Instagram and social media to put out an open call. We left it pretty broad. Our criteria was that you live in America, but you have to have lineage [from these countries]. You don’t have to be born there, and you don’t have to be a refugee, but this affects you no matter what. You could be half-Iranian and this still affects your soul because it’s about whether you are allowed to exist or not. We received an amazing amount of submissions. We didn’t expect the response that we got. We featured twelve artists in our show in New York. Some of our artists were born in America, some of them fled war in Yemen. Some of our artists don’t have a passport because they fled to Syria but they’re actually Palestinian. Everyone has a different story and we don’t want to represent art from those countries, we just want to represent individual human stories. We have a lot of kinds of art: paintings, photographs, installations, sculptures, experimental film, short film. Through those works, only emotion comes out and we hope to cut through and dissolve the political anguish with stories.

MS: A lot of people who submitted but weren’t included have been supporting us, and they’ve told us, “we believe in your mission, and what you guys are doing.” It’s been great and we’ve been really lucky to meet the artists for the first time. Through the process, we had forgotten about our first conversations about creating a community, but after we did our first show, we were like, OMG did we just do that?

KP: We made a family out of these artists. We are a little family now!

Photo by Adam Bettencourt

What conversations have you started through these shows? What’re the best responses you’ve seen to the show?

KP: For our New York show, I think people thought Before We Were Banned was going to be a serious political show. But we were serving tea, it was very warm, it was a vibe. It was very loving and it was about celebrating ourselves. It was for the diaspora. Whoever else came, they were taken aback by how non-academic and non art-world it was. A lot of people were getting emotional because it felt like home in a time of not feeling like you belong anywhere. In my case, I don’t feel like my home country wants me, and America doesn’t want me.

MS: We were overwhelmed. On the opening night, people were lining up on the street to get in. It was packed. And people of all groups, races, religions. A lot of our American friends who came, expected the show to be militant or anti-American and that wasn’t the vibe. We wanted this to be a platform for people of these communities to write their own narratives. There was no mention of the president’s name and it wasn’t defensive or responsive art. It was just art. I think a lot of people who came expecting that, were humbled walking out; they were humbled by the quality of the art. People who come from backgrounds similar to us, they were in tears. They felt that they found a safe space, that they found community.

KP: There was an energy that happened. Something cracked. And it was beautiful.

MS: And we don’t take credit for all of it, we really tried to make the platform available for people to tell their stories and people respond when things come from the heart.

KP: On a broader, institutional level, art collectors came and this is a conversation that continues. There’s a conversation about really wanting to include more artists like this in more popular institutions. These artists are not given a platform in institutions. We’re not an institution, we are literally two people with regular jobs. As two first-time curators, we wanted to sell the art, but before the show, it wasn’t top of mind for me. Now, I completely understand. There are statistics that less than 5% of all collected art is by women, so imagine women of colour. That just adds more fuel to the fire, for us to give space. To be an amplifier, to project their message and be as loud as we can be to get their art out there, in the mainstream or where ever the collectors are.

Photo by Adam Bettencourt

Do you think your show has raised the profile of artists from these countries on the “banned” list?

MS: Yes, and it’s been amazing. Our artist Rhonda Khalifeh had a few shows in New York, and her and Soraya Majd were both involved in a group show of artists with Middle Eastern and Latinx heritage. The [curator] who approached them learned about them through Before We Were Banned. Another artist, Ibi Ibrahim, got his art displayed at another show. We’re supporting them. We feel like we’ve made a collective. We always feel proud with more publicity and shows they get.

Artwork by Asiya Alsharabi, Photo by Adam Bettencourt

What are some initiatives you’ve seen with a similar mandate?

KP: To this day, I’m shocked that no one else is doing this. No institution is doing this, no one else is doing anything about these countries and [this] art.

MS: We started thinking about this in June 2017. And we thought it would be most relevant if we do it for the anniversary of the ban which is in January. [Which was] in six months, probably a lot of people are going to do the same, and we were shocked and surprised that no one else did this. There were so many talks and panels about the banned countries, but what was missing, and what is still missing, is that we don’t make these people look like people. We are always talking about nations. It’s not like you don’t experience their feelings. We’re proud we’re the only ones, as far as we know.

KP: You think the art world is so massive and all these people are involved, but when it comes to POC art or especially Middle Eastern, African or Southeast Asian art, I can name all the people involved in that scene in America. We know them now because we’re a part of it. And there’s not many people. That’s crazy. We want competition. We want more people to do this. We want more voices, more platforms. The reason why our artists are getting so many new opportunities is because we’re the only people who have done this. When it comes to the ban, we’re the only people who come up. We invite anyone else to get involved and do it.

Artwork by Soraya Majd, Photo by Adam Bettencourt

Why do you feel that the show and your cause is more important now?

KP: Because now it’s the law. I read a statistic that more than 135 million people fall under the ban. I don’t think we can solve anything. It’s very depressing. I veer towards anger, depression, sadness. Are they going to revoke my passport because I’m a naturalized citizen, are my relatives ever going to see me again? I am so privileged because I don’t have a lot of family in Iran. A lot of them live in Europe and they can see me. But I’m not from a country that’s in a war where refugees need to leave and find a home. If America does this, it’s carte blanche for the EU to do it, and so on. America is the leader in these immigration decisions and this is a doctrine. It’s going to affect a generation — if not generations. I’m still processing it. I’ve been immersing myself in Before We Were Banned because it’s such a celebration.

MS: Last summer, we were wondering if the show would still be relevant in January, and guess what, it was relevant. After our show in Brooklyn, people asked us to take this on the road. We were wondering if it still was going to be relevant and last week this law was passed and sadly it is still relevant. And it goes back to our main point which is, as long as the narrative is wrong, and people are fed the wrong narrative through media, the hatred or indifference to people who don’t look like you or that you don’t know about will stay. Whether the law is what it is or not, we think it’s always important to give people the platform to write their own narrative. We try to do our part to offer an alternative image, rather than the antagonistic image that has been portrayed of these nations and of these people.

KP: It has also been this way for a really long time, for a lot of people, not just Muslim, but for Black people in America and Native people in America. That’s why we called it Before We Were Banned. This country has been treating a lot of communities very disrespectfully for a very long time. This is just another nail in the “I am very oppressed” coffin.  But there is an awakening that’s happening, for people who thought this was a secure place, and that everyone can make the American Dream: They’re seeing for themselves that it’s a lie if you’re not a certain way and a certain colour or if you don’t have a certain passport. I don’t know how we can change the policy, but hopefully we can open people’s minds and hearts and eyes that this has been going on forever. This is America. This has been America.

Can you tell us more about this next show and what to expect from Before We Were Banned in the future?

MS: After our show in Brooklyn, we were approached by East of West Gallery to bring it to Santa Fe. It was a really generous offer, to have the show on for a month. New York is obviously a different demographic, different place in terms of art and political views. So we’re excited to take this around in America, and possibly Canada, too. As we’re taking it around, we have some ideas to include more threatened communities in the conversation. For Santa Fe, we’re bringing the same artwork, some evolved artwork, some new work too. But hopefully, as this grows, we want to include other types of art. We want to have a series of curated film screenings in Brooklyn. We want to include food. We feel like arts and culture and food are great conversation starters because we relate to each other. Everybody enjoys a good dish. Everybody can appreciate art. We appreciate these channels and we want to work more with artists and activists in New York and other places.

KP: We’re just getting our bearings being curators, but this is not an initiative to explain anything to anybody. It’s really an initiative to be a place for people who feel threatened and want to find a place to belong. The idea of Before We Were Banned – it’s about home. What is home if not yourself, or finding people who see you and get you and without you having to explain anything to them. That’s what we’re here for.

MS: I think this is the most important thing. The reason we’re doing this is first and foremost, we want to serve our community. This is for people from these communities, from these nations to have a platform to have a voice and to also get together and express themselves. In due course, if anyone is curious to find out, or if they are willing to help or be a part of it, they are welcome!

Before We Were Banned II opens Saturday July 7th at East of West in Santa Fe. The exhibit will feature the work of artists: Mays Albeik, Layali Alsadah, Asiya Alsharabi, Farhad Bahram [with Tom Lundberg], Carmen Daneshmandi, Rhonda Khalifeh, Soraya Majd, Gina Malek, Ifrah Mansour, Nouf Saleh, and Tandis Shoushtary.

For information about upcoming events, follow @beforewewerebanned.

Kiana Pirouz immigrated to Atlanta, Georgia from Tehran, Iran at the age of 3. After attending the University of Georgia with a degree in Journalism, she has spent over a decade working in media and marketing in New York City.

Born in Tehran, and raised between Tehran and Dubai, Mahya Soltani is an Iranian designer and visual artist currently residing in Brooklyn, New York.