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#7: 'I look for examples of queerness in Iran's 19th century Qajar dynasty'
Kasra Jalilipour on searching for queerness in Iran's Qajar dynasty, Christian sainthood, and what it means to be Iranian enough.
Hello lovely readers,
This week we are joined by multidisciplinary artist, writer and educator, Kasra Jalilipour.
Through humour, provocation and storytelling, Kasra’s practice uses the body as the subject to discuss race, gender identity and sexuality. They have an ongoing body of research which looks for fragments of queerness hidden in Iran’s Qajar era, specifically stories that centre intimacy, eroticism and gender nonconformity. You can find out more about their work here.
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How do you describe your heritage?
Just Iranian. Because I was born there and lived there for half of my life.
How old were you when you moved to the UK?
I was a teenager.
What is it like to be an Iranian person in the UK?
This is actually the first year I've lived here longer than in Iran. So that's quite weird. With everything that’s going on at the moment, it can feel quite confronting. There’s not much representation. Growing up here, I found that difficult because when I told people where I was from, they’d often ask, ‘Where’s that?’, ‘Are you sure you’re not from Iraq?’ I’ve had people ask me if I’m sure I’m not Indian. It’s made me not really want to talk with strangers because I just don’t want to get into it.
Since the protests, I’ve been having really weird experiences. I had an old white lady ask me if I just moved to the country because of what’s happening, and people telling me I speak really good English. I realise I’m always going to be seen as an immigrant as soon as people realise I wasn’t born here. That’s been difficult to tackle because you wonder, where do I belong?
Then I went to an Iranian event recently where they were doing a mental health session and asking people to talk about their experiences. There were 30 people there, but I was only one of four Iranians actually born in Iran. It’s weird to think that even within this community, I still have a different experience. It can be quite isolating in the UK.
What are some of those differences in experiences?
I lived in Iran until early teenage hood, which are really formative years. The main thing is just having different experiences of trauma. First-hand experiences. You just have a slightly different psychological response to almost everything. But I’ve also had people who lived in Iran for longer than I had, express that I didn’t ‘get it’ because I’m more English and grew up here. It was like I was being seen as less Iranian, and that’s really hurtful. Of course, there are things with that person I couldn’t relate to and vice versa. But I think, because we’re not having conversations about it, we’ve become quite territorial and there is an ‘I had it worse’ mindset.
How do you understand yourself in terms of race?
When it comes to race, it so often feels like it’s about measuring ourselves against whiteness. It’s something I come across a lot in the art world because there is a desire to be more diverse right now. But I think that puts people from minority backgrounds in a weird position, as it’s more often to check a box. To me, that kind of diversification is pointless. I always call myself a brown person. I think that because of the way I’m racialized in this country, that’s the word that makes sense. But there are a lot of Iranians that would never say that. Some would even say they’re white. But I do just feel like, even now, after all these years, thinking about words like ethnicity and race is quite exhausting. It's just a way for marginalised people to become othered. A white English person doesn't really have to think twice about what their ethnicity is. They probably wouldn't know, so I think we should ask white people these questions. I’ve also realised you just have to figure out for yourself how you identify because people will always just attach whatever they want to how they perceive you.
What is the focus of your artistic work?
I’m a multidisciplinary artist and I have been mainly working on moving image and text and also installation work — then sculpture and drawing come into that. The most important part of my work at the moment is looking for histories of queerness and examples of otherness that can be reinterpreted, to be made useful to the way we're experiencing the world today. A lot of that has been around looking at the 19th-century Qajar era in Iran and searching for examples of queerness. I’m also into the concept of sainthood and particularly looking at Christian saints’ stories, and how they can be applied to notions of otherness. I take stories and use speculative fiction to make histories that don’t exist in archives. So I use art to make these histories come into existence. I think a lot of it is just lying! But I’m quite interested in the ideas of truth, falsehood and reality and playing with them a bit.
“Finding out there were women having sex with women in 19th-century Iran just blew my mind. So that's where it started.”
How does Christian sainthood apply to notions of Otherness?
Lately, I'm thinking about the fact that saints and prophets are usually people who are outcasted. They're often killed in brutal ways and then celebrated for the pain they went through, which I think translates to the experiences of marginalised people: you have to go through something traumatic to be humanised and celebrated, which is problematic.
What inspired you to look at queerness in the Qajar dynasty?
When I was at uni, I really fell into the idea of queer ancestry. It’s more visible in other cultures than it is in Iran and the Middle East. Mainly because historically, a lot of archives have been destroyed in the region. I found that quite frustrating because I couldn't really find any easily available examples. I started Googling, researching on Tumblr, and I found out about Tadj es-Saltaneh, who was the daughter of the ruling monarch Naser al-Din Shah [in the late 1800s and early 1900s]. In her memoir, she wrote about having an affair with a woman. That started my fascination and research because I just couldn't believe it. When I was growing up in Iran, Ahmadinejad was president. He literally said, ‘there are no gay people in Iran.’ I was maybe 10 years old at the time, and, in a very innocent way, I actually believed it. I didn’t think what he was saying was hateful, I just thought it was true.
It’s so sad to have grown up in an environment where that wasn't really challenged. In the country, no one, not even people who were liberal political types, would challenge something like that. Finding out there were women having sex with women in 19th-century Iran just blew my mind. So that's where it started. Then I started finding older academic texts that talked about it. The book, Women with Moustaches, Men Without Beards, talks a lot about gender nonconformity during that time. So that book has been really important and is kind of where it all started. But I struggle with how information in academia can be very hidden away. What I want to do with my work is make these ideas more visible and accessible, so they aren’t just in books and archives.
What’s the most exciting thing to have come out of your research?
The next chapter of my project is going to focus on the temporary marriages between women in Iran and across South Asia. I’ve been doing this project called Queer Alterations where I’ve been taking images and paintings from manuscripts and photoshopping them to make lesbian couples.
I wrote a short story last year inspired by these temporary marriages; they were religious, and they were made to accommodate women travelling with their female friends to visit shrines to pray. But there’s very little information known about this, so my work speculates about how these things would have come about and what they would have looked like.
What is the cultural artefact that has shaped the way you think?
Definitely the book, Women with Moustaches, Men Without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. Then also a film by Mohammad Reza Aslani called Chess of the Wind. It came out in the 70s and has the first onscreen kiss between women in Iranian cinema. That definitely had a big impact in a creative sense, it’s a really beautiful film, and it’s set towards the end of the Qajar era.
Where can people go to read more about queerness in Iran?
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This article has been edited for clarity.