December 18, 2018

From Iran to Israel, the art of Elham Rokni

Standing inside Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice, a visitor watched the silhouettes of trees flash by on a screen. It was dark, and the shadows were barely discernible. It took a while for the visitor to realize that the images were filmed from a car driving at night. 

This hypnotizing video piece, “Clavileño,” was part of a recent solo exhibition by the Israeli artist Elham Rokni. The title comes from the wooden horse Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, imagined could fly. Like the famous literary tale in which those characters appear, Rokni’s piece asked the viewer to suspend disbelief and take an imaginary journey through space and time.

Rokni continues her stay in Los Angeles as the 2016 Soraya Sarah Nazarian Middle Eastern Artist in Residence, a two-month residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. Her current project involves African refugees in Israel reflecting on their dislocation.

“The project I’m working on is collecting oral folktales from them. So it actually deals with their memory from the place they came from,” she said. “It’s political because being a refugee and an immigrant is a political thing. But I’m interested in the memory regarding this displacement.” 

Rokni was born in Tehran in 1980. She left Iran with her parents at the age of 9, and that refugee experience has shaped much of her creative output.

“It’s not Persian culture or heritage that I deal with,” Rokni said, but rather “immigration and dislocation and our memories about it.”

She also has work from her series “The Wedding” on view at the center through March 12. “The Wedding” is centered around a video of her parents’ wedding in 1978, the year before the Iranian revolution that gave power to a religious fundamentalist regime. Her parents and relatives struggle to remember the exact date of the wedding. She asks her father to look for the ketubah, and even once he finds it, her mother tells her the actual ceremony took place a week or so after the contract was signed. 

Elham Rokni solo show at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery in Venice.  Photo by Michael Underwood 

The uncertainty about the wedding date seems to mirror the confusion of the historic turmoil about to sweep Iran. The film combines amateur video of her parents’ wedding with protest scenes from the 2012 film “Argo,” in which a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans during the hostage crisis in Tehran. Rokni narrates over the images, describing the confusion around the wedding date, which remains unresolved.

Also on display at the 18th Street Arts Center is a series of drawings of guests from her parents’ wedding. The figures lack outlines, making them appear to melt into the white space around them. Their outfits are colorful and richly patterned, and they stand in groups facing the camera, or in this case, the viewer of the drawings.

The piece “Four Frames #1” features four images of a couple dancing, with the pictures beginning quite dark and becoming lighter. The drawings are based on a moment in her parents’ wedding video in which the camera flares, and like “Clavileño,” searches for a story within the interplay of light and movement.

Rokni received her BFA and MFA from Bezalel Academy in Israel, where she now teaches video art. Her work has been screened in international film festivals and she has received grants from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Yehushua Rabinovich Tel Aviv Foundation for the Arts, and the Fund for Video Art and Experimental Cinema in Israel. 

Her work is also being shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Crossing the Dune,” a video showing a man trying to ride his bicycle across sand dunes, is included in the exhibition “Islamic Art Now, Part 2” and will be in the permanent collection at LACMA. It’s part of a body of work created in 2010 that re-creates things she actually saw people doing, which includes “Clavileño.”

“I re-enacted driving in total darkness. Sometimes I used to do it, driving in the desert on some straight road and just turn the lights off,” she said. “It was a period of time that I was noticing situations where human beings just do something against logic or against the laws of nature, just because of their belief that they will succeed doing it.”

Included in that series is a video of a car going down a road with an unsecured mattress on top. Halfway through, the mattress flies off the roof, the car stops, two passengers rush out, put the mattress back on the car, and drive on.

Rokni, based in Tel Aviv, has not returned to Iran since she was 9. She said she would like to visit her childhood home and school, but she is not allowed back in the country because she is an Israeli citizen.

“If I were allowed to go back to Iran, it actually wouldn’t be that interesting to me. Because it’s something that I can’t, I’m so eager to see that. It’s like a forbidden territory for me,” she said. “I think all immigrants who can’t go to their motherland because of political issues have this wish to go back, because we just can’t. It becomes more of a desire and a longing.”

Elham Rokni has work on display in the