If Tanja Softic and Hamid Rahmanian have one thing in common other than their immigration to the United States, it's their belief that everyone can relate to the experience of an immigrant.
Softic came to the U.S. from the former nation of Yugoslavia more than 20 years ago, while Rahmanian arrived from Iran in 1995. Today, they are both artists exploring that journey through their work. Their pieces come together at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art this week.
Softic's prints, drawings, and paintings in her exhibit Migrant Universe explore the identity of an immigrant and how that is formed through memory. She was a graduate student in America when her native country of Yugoslavia violently split apart. "All of a sudden I was a citizen of a country that sort of did exist and sort of didn't exist," Softic says. "That experience makes me interested in and compassionate to the fact that actually the vast majority of people in the world today have lived that kind of a migrant life, a life of uncertainty ... We are all exiled from somewhere."
Softic's art is about the way our ever-changing world contributes to that life of uncertainty. "My work is rooted in not so much my personal story, but the idea that the world is politically, culturally, and socially changing daily."
The theme of memory comes into play as well. "No two memories of the same event are alike," Softic says. "The immigrants' experience of now and here is always measured against experience over there in the past." For her, memory is like a form of currency. "As a human civilization, we are working very hard to keep a record of our past. But memory, too, is kind of a negotiable entity. Sometimes we tamper with it on purpose, and sometimes we tamper with it because we don't know any better."
When people view her pieces, which merge one person's memories with the idea of identity, she wants them to come away with the insight to look at something old in a brand new light. Her work presents this idea effortlessly, as pieces appear dreamlike. Softic is also inspired by theater sets because her mother was a theater historian. She favors soft colors and abstract or patterned backgrounds with very realistic objects in the forefront. "It should be read visually as a poem is read — without expectations that something will be resolved for you," she says.
Rahmanian's allegorical, bright, and fantastical Multiverse exhibit provides a stark contrast to Softic's work, but the underlying theme is similar. Returning to New York from a visit to his home of Iran in 2005, Rahmanian was depressed. He began writing The Magnificent Book of M, a graphic novel, for therapeutic purposes. "It really helped me to understand myself," he says. But he soon found that his experience was a common one; friends who read it felt it helped them overcome their own anxiety and depression. "That deep human emotion that people have when they immigrate becomes more pronounced because you're by yourself. You're alone, very lonely, the only thing you have is yourself."
Despite his unhappy inspiration, Rahmanian's Multiverse, which is a compilation of images from the book, is meant to be humorous. The images are all made from a quirky pile of scraps that he collected over the course of a year. "OK, this is my limitation," Rahmanian told himself. "I'm going to make my illustrations from all this stuff I collected." The only exception is the image of his own face. This interesting technique worked well, as his intent was to make the illustrations dream-like. After 14 years of writing down his dreams, he wanted to create something out of them. There are more than 130 images in the book.
Although his illustrations are inspired by dreams, his work is actually more about the possibile future an immigrant imagines. "The angle I'm taking in the book is kind of new. I'm taking it as an artist who migrated to this new home and he wants to find his own place as a creative person." Now a filmmaker and artist, Rahmanian has completed the process.
By placing these two exhibits side by side, the human experience of change — both how we remember it and how we look forward to it — is explored in depth.