“I have a warped idea about my worth, my abilities as an artist, my intelligence,” Jessica Shokrian says in her video installation at the Skirball Cultural Center. “For much of my life, I’ve been extremely concerned with how I look and how I think I look to other people. It’s definitely been a sad obsession.”
A Persian Jew who lives in Los Angeles, Shokrian’s confession appears in her 12-minute video triptych, “Six Years, Twelve Minutes and Two Seconds” in the exhibition, “The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photographs,” opening March 24.
On the central monitor, her pale face blurs and her speech wavers in and out of synch, reflecting her distorted self-image. On another TV, family rituals often drown out her wispy voice. On the third, her elderly Persian aunt makes a lonely pilgrimage to an ethnic food market.
“Jessica’s work delves into all the ways one can experience exile, whether from one’s country, one’s family or from oneself,” says Tal Gozani, the Skirball’s associate curator. “There is something so sad but also brutally honest about her work.”
At a visit to Shokrian’s downtown loft recently, the 42-year-old photographer and video artist appears as fragile and thoughtful as she does in her triptych. While twisting her fingers through her frayed, black sweater sleeves, she says she identifies with her aunt, because she, too, has felt lost, between cultures, cut off from her family’s homeland and from her family.
They are conservative Persian Jews based in Beverly Hills; she is a single mother who lives downtown and is divorced from the Belgian non-Jew she “wasn’t supposed to marry in the first place,” she says. Her family’s disapproval has not always been tacit, she adds, and while she is drawn to their ancient culture, she has been torn between her desire to connect with them and her opposing desire to live her own life as a contemporary artist.
The loft’s decor reflects this tension: Persian rugs lie beneath luminous moody photographs and a self-portrait in which Shokrian looks backward, her expression anxious, while stepping through a doorway.
This self-portrait could be a metaphor for her life journey. Shokrian’s father grew up in Tehran; her mother, raised in a secular Christian farming family in Central California, converted after meeting him at Cal State Sacramento. As a girl, the artist says, she felt “invisible, ignored” and less accepted than her Persian cousins because she was a hybrid who did not speak Farsi.
She says the culture’s strict mores also made her an outcast at school.
“I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans, to talk to boys, to attend sleepovers,” she recalls.
When she gained a little weight, some relatives warned that she might become too heavy to attract a proper husband. As is the custom in traditional Persian homes, the expectation was that she would remain a virgin and live at home until she married a Persian Jew.
Her longing for a valued role within the family led her to pick up a 35-mm Nikon camera in high school to become the official family photographer and to be the quintessential “good girl,” she continues. But when her parents refused to allow her to go away to college, “I lost it and rebelled,” she says.
In her early 20s, she disappeared for days while dating a bohemian artist some 15 years her senior. As she spiraled deeper into depression, she began drinking, doing drugs and trying “pretty much everything,” she says.
Psychotherapy and AA meetings helped her get sober. But when she wed her now ex-husband at 25, her father refused to speak to her for close to a year.
She moved back home, six years later, soon after the birth of her son. But this time, her parents were so concerned about her depression that they urged her to attend Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
Her photographs began appearing in galleries and anthologies, such as Houman Sarshar’s “Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews” and Linda Sunshine’s “Our Grandmothers: Loving Portraits by Seventy-Four Granddaughters.” Accompanying her essay about grandma is a shadowy portrait of Shokrian and her baby that looks like a melancholy Madonna and child.
Even more personal work followed in 2002, after the artist again moved out of her parents’ home, this time with a boyfriend who left when her family protested the relationship. Feeling vulnerable and exposed, Shokrian shot a series of nude self-portraits — enlarged Polaroids that were recently displayed at the Farmani Gallery (she was aghast to learn the space was across the street from her uncle’s office) and are now at the Bedlam Warehouse.
During that frightening period in 2002, Shokrian believes the “Jewish Identity Project” commission helped save her life. The show’s organizer, Susan Chevlowe, then a curator at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, had seen a 1998 film Shokrian had made about her aunt while still a student. Chevlowe was impressed that the film’s slow pace poetically transformed the widow’s bus ride into “a metaphor of the displacement and longing experienced by an immigrant living between cultures,” she wrote in her catalog essay. The film ultimately became part of Shokrian’s video installation, combined with other footage to express her mixed feelings about her family. The triptych is named for the time she spent on all components of the piece (six years) and the length of the final product (12 minutes and two seconds).
In one lovingly shot sequence, Shokrian’s relatives spontaneously trill, expressing religious rapture as her father donates a Torah to his synagogue. At her sister’s engagement party, voices interrupt dreamy images of sultry dancers, jeering, “Face the reality of your life Jessica and stop hiding behind that damn camera.” The artist slows these female voices down to a creepy baritone to emphasize the cringe-factor.
Chevlowe believes the piece — like many other recent video installations — dissects “the boundaries between what’s personal and real and what’s imagined.”
The work has been cathartic for Shokrian, who believes her “sad obsession” is fading, in part, because of her status as an emerging Los Angeles artist. She says she now has a close relationship with her father, who appreciates her triptych as a sign of respect for his family.
“In spite of the alienation I’ve experienced, I’ve managed to find the beauty and a kind of connection through the spirituality of my family and their community,” she says. “If I haven’t been able to be the perfect Persian daughter, I feel like this was the next best thing I could do. And I think my relatives recognize this is an offering and a way of showing that I really love them, even though my life now is so much about my work.”
For information about the Skirball show, March 24 through Sept. 3, call (310) 440-4500. For information about Shokrian’s photos at the Bedlam Warehouse, 1275 E. Sixth St., Los Angeles (the red door east of Alameda), call (213) 924-9000.