Ceramicist Katayoun Amjadi wants to make unremarkable objects remarkable again.
Like pomegranates. In her native Iran, they’re everywhere, she says—cliché symbols of love, or dawn’s glow breaking through the winter solstice, or, in Israel, a rosy start to the new year. They’re on dishes. Clothes. Rugs.
Yet, when Amjadi moved to the U.S. nearly two decades ago, many Americans couldn’t even tell her what a pomegranate was. As an artist, now finishing a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota, she decided to pluck it from oblivion—with a twist.
You might have spotted her gleaming clay pomegranates in one of 25-plus metro gallery shows. Or filling crates outside her northeast Minneapolis studio during Art-A-Whirl, the annual studio-art fest that returns May 17-19. Her versions match the real size, glazed bloody crimson or with funky patterns.
What she describes as literal magic happens in the basement of an old warehouse. The 38-year-old Minneapolis resident fires up her kiln, into which, a few months ago, she popped Persian-inspired amulets. Made of a salt-clay-sand alloy known as Egyptian paste, they break out in turquoise blotches under low heat. It’s a centuries-old Mesopotamian pottery trick she stumbled upon last summer. These house-protective charms continue a tradition of Iranian decor—with, again, a twist: She uses GladWare lids for molds. The circular slabs come out ancient-looking but embossed with the logo familiar from supermarket shelves.
Whether it’s Tupperware or a Middle Eastern design, ubiquitous-yet-overlooked things get at questions Amjadi has long asked herself about her identity and assimilation into American culture.
Born in Iran’s capital, Tehran, two years after the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution, she grew up with the autonomy to indulge creative introversion. Schools closed during the Iran-Iraq War for risk of bombardments. At home, supervised by a less-involved grandparent while her mom worked in high demand as a nurse and her dad rebuilt houses farther south, she drew mundane scenes—of herself buying ice cream, swimming at the pool. “It was satisfying for me,” she says.
To appease her parents, she studied architecture instead of art. She explored work as a drafter before moving to California with her mom and sister in 2001, where the unpacking hit hard.
“Your history pretty much wipes away when you move transnationally,” she says, “and part of that history is the objects—heirlooms, your grandparents’ things, or different memories that are represented in weird objects that we all keep around. All that condenses down into one suitcase.”
She returned to Tehran months later to marry her boyfriend. (They would divorce in 2017.) In 2009, wanting to move back to the U.S., they followed his programming job to the Twin Cities. She felt, again, “stripped away from the familiar cultural context that had once constructed her sense of Self,” as she puts it on her website.
For work, she would have had to retake a certification exam and learn new building codes. Unable to summon the will, she enrolled in three art classes at Normandale Community College.
Her ceramics course sparked something—“to put my body into it, and the viewer’s body into it,” she says.
Since exploring conceptual art at the University of Minnesota, Amjadi has built a career handcrafting new contexts—for objects and for herself. As with, say, a gold-headed toilet brush. Or a Starbucks cup with the mermaid swapped out for a mustachioed Iranian monarch.
Or a porcelain chicken. Across its stubbly flesh, Amjadi has fired pink flowers. They connect poultry—the meal Ronald Reagan said should fill every American pot—to Iranian imagery of a nightingale with a rose. To some, her work recalls Andy Warhol. He elevated meaningless consumer symbols: soup cans, Coke bottles. These days, in Iran, nightingales have flitted off the pages of Persian poetry and into kitschy sleeve tattoos.
Among some 800 artists opening their studios for Art-A-Whirl, Amjadi stands out for her mystifying humor. Chickens sit upright like Gold’n Plump Buddhas. She has transformed a historic Iranian watering can, called an Aftabeh and used like a bidet, into pendants to sell on a Middle Eastern Etsy.
A different artist, who grew up in a secure country, might approach her subjects cynically. (Starbucks, just wasteful capitalism.) Those readings work. But Amjadi isn’t so maudlin. As a kid, she never knew if her mom would come home from work; hospitals were huge targets. Call it the optimism of her generation: While her parents mourned a secular Iran, she figured things had to get better—or she would make them.
She explains if you ask. “You can feel when they want to hear the whole nine yards,” she says, “or just a little bit is enough for them to laugh, like, ‘Oh, so this means, like, love—OK, cool!’”
Amjadi chose the chicken for a personal reason, too. From California, she had returned to Iran for a relationship. Her then-husband got his U.S. residency through her. The Persian love metaphor struck her as imbalanced: the nightingale, mobile; the rose, rooted. “I think it was my way of revenging on that nightingale,” she jokes, “to just chop its head off pretty much…and [make it] responsible for all those beautiful songs.”
Tipsy Art-A-Whirlers, filing beneath the ceramic chicken legs that dangle from her studio ceiling, often ask about the pomegranates.
Yes, they mean love. Also womanhood—Eve’s disastrous snack in Judaic tradition. And, here in the West, they’re exotic.
“I can’t control it. Being a woman from the Middle East, that comes with a certain baggage.” Harems and hookah smoke, she says. When her hair is longer, it means getting compared to Disney princess Jasmine. Some assume she “found her voice” as an artist only by leaving an Islamic fundamentalist country. Strangers ask if they ride camels in Tehran. It’s on par with New York City.
“And, in a way, art wants your work to be about [your cultural identity],” she says. “What is becoming progressively more poetic for me is that you can use a metaphor to talk about something that might not be available to the general public.”
Her final student show—as she looks ahead to teaching art at Carleton College this fall—suspends gold-spouted Aftabehs over ceramic toilet brushes. In an early critique, someone saw the brushes as dandelions. That’s fine with her.
“There can be hidden messages,” she says. Even when they’re in plain sight.
The Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association hosts its 24th annual Art-A-Whirl on May 17-19. Find Katayoun Amjadi’s studio in the basement of the Q.arma Building. Learn more at nemaa.org/art-a-whirl.
Other Artists to See at Art-A-Whirl
Where to find: Studio #369, Northrup King Building
“For Art-A-Whirl 2019, visitors to my studio can expect to see a large-scale wall installation of my hand-cut paper insect silhouettes. Each of the silhouettes serves as a symbolic ‘place holder’ for an imagined insect that has vanished or may disappear in the future.
“Along with the silhouette installation, I will be showing my paintings that are centered around the themes of insect migration, vanishing landscapes, and extinction. The idea that insects are bio-indicators of ecosystem health fascinates me. My work speaks of the critical role these diminutive and ephemeral messengers play in the structure of life, and how their mind-boggling variety captivates human imagination.”
Where to find: Studio #200, behind the elevator on the second floor at the Casket Arts Building
“I use Art a Whirl weekend to engage with visitors and absorb their reaction to the work I have on display. It is a way for me to showcase new work and ideas that have yet to be shown in exhibition. For the past three years, I have created installations in my space that people are invited to interact with.
“One extraordinary moment last year was when a blind person with an interpreter walked through my space. I asked if they would like to touch the work that was hanging from the ceiling. When she did, she was surprised not only by the rough texture but also that it went from the floor to beyond her reach above. It was the most special moment of the weekend for me, one I will never forget.
“I also include an area where people can leave written comments. Last year I asked folks to write haikus about what they saw and experienced in our studio and had some wonderfully creative responses. This year, I received a Next Step Fund grant to study with a paper artist in South Carolina, and the work I will have on display will be new works in paper as I experiment and prepare for the Jerome group exhibition next fall.”