By Allyson Aritcheta
All images by Jing Tey

Soheila Esfahani meditates on cultural translation by examining ornaments and souvenirs as vessels of “portable culture” in Pattern (dis)Placement (2019). The Iranian visual artist aims to disrupt cultural origins by exploring the spaces between cultures that influence the ornaments and souvenirs on display.

The ornaments that Esfahani focuses on are ceramic plates with chinoiserie patterning (British designs that co-opt the blue motifs of Chinese ceramics). For My Grandmother Had One (2019), the artist purchased plates with this style and re-fired them with blue and gold Iranian patterns. Esfahani denies the cultural appropriation that enabled this commercial European ceramic by covering focal points of the plates, sometimes painting them over entirely with Iranian art. She re-interprets this British concept of Chinese culture, aggressively setting up a space for her Iranian identity.

The major components of Willow pattern (a type of chinoiserie pattern) tell the story of forbidden love. The Seven Must Have Elements of Willow Pattern: Two Birds, Fence, Weeping Willow, Orange Tree, Boat, Pagoda, Three Men on Bridge (2019) shares the same concept as My Grandmother Had One. Seven photographs of the same Willow pattern are coated with blue and gold glass paint, the gold hiding a different element in each photograph. Esfahani examines the British technique closely in this work, deconstructing Willow pattern by removing a crucial piece that completes the love story. The gold draws your eye to a scene that you cannot identify, leaving you to image what’s underneath. In the Seven Must Have Elements of Willow Pattern series, Esfahani invites the viewer to reflect on the photographs, adding another layer of re-interpretation.

Blue Willow Birds 1-25 (2019) explores differences in artistic views of the same subject matter. Finding different versions of the two birds that represent the lovers from Willow pattern, Esfahani creates custom ceramic decals and re-fires them onto 25 ceramic plates. By extracting the Willow birds from their original narratives, and spotlighting then on new mediums, Esfahani offers unique new ornaments that are ready to be bought and displayed as mementos.

White birds made from 3D printed resin line a shelf. Their frames are poked through; holes resembling the Iranian patterns that deck out the exhibit. Esfahani reveals her take on Willow pattern by making souvenirs of her own in Birds: Pattern (dis)Placed (2019). The 3D printed birds are a physical and symbolic representation of cultural translation and degrees of cultural separation. Esfahani creates a keepsake for others while also producing a space where she can be inspired by the many forms she’s gathered of Iranian, British, and Chinese patterns.

A graphic opposition of cultural appropriation, Pattern (dis)Placement investigates what happens when cultural signifiers get lost as ornaments pass through cultures. Meanings shift, symbols are seen differently, and the origins of the souvenirs we collect eventually lose context. By dissecting Willow pattern and making ornaments of her own, Esfahani shares that although mementos may traverse cultures and lose their original symbolism, they may also give others a way to create new meanings and memories. This is furthered by the visitor’s interaction with Catherine Heard’s Magic Gumball Machine of Fate (2019), a gumball machine that shares work by Canadian artists. The visitor receives a plastic capsule with a crayon, a brief of the Pattern (dis)Placement exhibition, and a piece of Willow pattern. Esfahani encourages the visitor to participate in a cultural study of their own by colouring the Willow pattern however they wish, generating new meaning of their own.

Pattern (dis)Placement can be seen at the Red Head Gallery at 401 Richmond until June 15, 2019.

Allyson Aritcheta is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and reviewer whose writing has appeared in This MagazineXtra, and From the Root. She has a graduate certificate in publishing from Centennial College and Bachelor of Arts from Ryerson University, where she majored in psychology and minored in English. Allyson is a co-owner of creative studio Barkada Freelance. She can be found on twitter @allaritcheta.