During any tumultuous time, the role of the artist transforms. She can become a teller of truths, a conduit to remind viewers of the state of affairs. She can become a maker of hope, a producer of refuge.
For Shagha Ariannia, the personal has always been political. And while her work accomplishes much of the above, it’s the result of her upbringing and the age-old ideas of citizenship and nationhood rather than current events. Her current show, “Who Sings the Nation-State?” at the Vincent Price Art Museum, brings to light many of these themes. Featuring video and painting, the show asks questions that have always affected Ariannia personally and that seem even more relevant today.
In her work, Ariannia has consistently dealt with topics such as “nationalism and citizenship” filtered through her own childhood memories and experiences with immigration.
“I’ve dealt with this subject matter throughout my practice the whole time, and I’ve always been interested in these ideas because of my own story and background of how and when I immigrated here,” Ariannia says. “That’s always been the topics that I worked with and it wasn’t something new for me.”
The Iran-born artist first landed in the United States — she’s lived in L.A. for 16 years — exactly a week after the 9/11 attacks. That timeline, and the way it “lines up with [her] life,” consistently influences her work. With titles such as Oh, say, can you see, the artist makes direct references to American culture and national pride. Current events just made her work “meaningful and made it more important and urgent.”
Ariannia accompanies these paintings with a 5½-minute video with the same name as the show. It’s a reimagining of the 1933 Jean Vigo video Zero for Conduct (Zéro de Conduite), a film that was banned in France until the 1940s. It shows a group of boys at a boarding school who decide to fight against authority.
“I’ve been looking at this film for three years now,” Ariannia says. “I’ve been watching it, talking about it, because I came to it for research of one of my other projects. And when I got this show I decided to reimagine one of the scenes that is my favorite scene from the film — and probably one of the most famous scenes from it. Reimagine it but bring it back to the time and place that we are now today.”
For her own interpretation, Ariannia made some purposeful and powerful changes. She cast girls, specifically girls of color with “different backgrounds and immigrant families.” They are lying on air mattresses with “emergency blankets on top of them” to signify spaces like refugee camps. The group, therefore, illustrates the current climate in which “kids are in detention centers.”
But one thing stays exactly the same as the original video: “the speech that she gives to get the students to rise up and revolt.” Somehow time seems to fold in on itself, the 1930s speech presented in a scene that looks not unlike a modern-day slumber party. Even without the context of the original film, viewers will likely find something within the film that signifies the themes of rebellion against systems that disenfranchise certain communities.
In her practice, however, Ariannia still leaves some room for humor and whimsy. “Who Sings the Nation-State?” is a general look at the creation of borders — geographical, cultural, political — and how we might rise above them. That means exploring these themes in a very personal way but also offering viewers a chance to pick up on humor and satire.
Ariannia finds it especially important for the show to take place in East L.A., specifically in a gallery that's so accessible to students.
“Most of the everyday visitors of the museum are students of [East Los Angeles College] that are going there,” she says. “That’s a really important part — that these girls will be able to watch this and they can take whatever they want. But I think it’s a playful and yet powerful video in a way to bring, I don’t want to say hope, but kind of [to] reflect on the unity and the importance of women and their power and strength.”
“Who Sings the Nation State?” Vincent Price Art Museum,1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park; through June 10; free. vincentpriceartmuseum.org.