Karlsruhe Academy Exchange: On Names and Transition
Answering the question “What is your name?” might seem straightforward, but when Katayoun Amjadi posed the question to fellow Iranian-American immigrants last year, the nuanced and complex answers she received ultimately led her across the globe to learn more about identity within the immigrant experience and the similar moments of transition.
After migrating to the United States in 2010, Amjadi embraced her lifelong passion for art. Though she has a background in architecture, she felt a calling for her new field. “I didn’t choose art. It was part of me to begin with,” she explains. Amjadi works with multiple media, including photography, video, and performance, and she is especially interested in sculpture and ceramics.
Exploring the Second Name
Last spring, as a first-year graduate student in UMN’s art department, Amjadi began documenting her friends’ responses to the unassuming question “What is your name?” through a series of video interviews titled “The Things We Bring—The Names We Change.”
She noted the implications of informally adopting a second name, whether a person’s alternate name was chosen to simplify its pronunciation or to better match the names of people around them. By collecting those stories hidden in the immigrant diaspora, Amjadi is not only documenting how personal names are kept or changed, but also realizing the extent to which, as she writes, “names are the original markers of self and identity; artifacts that carry history, family, and locality.”
A New Direction
Amjadi traveled to Germany last summer to participate in a six-week exchange program at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts, and was eager to pose her question about names to immigrants and refugees there. However, she quickly discovered that her experiences as an immigrant to the US, which put her in a strong position to interview other new Americans about their names, did not translate to the European context. “By just being a tourist and just talking and asking, I [realized] I might not be able to grasp it fully. No matter how much I tried to understand, [my research] wouldn’t be genuine enough,” Amjadi says.
Using materials that were available locally to her at Karlsruhe (resealable plastic bags, charcoal, and water from the Rhine river), Amjadi examined the river and the body through a scientific lens. Her piece River (de) Stilled - Body Purified displayed water in various stages of purification in plastic baggies on the gallery wall, where the changes of phase could easily be seen.Amjadi shifted her method away from the video interviews and towards conveying moments of change with physical materials. She chose to explore the process of water purification as a metaphor for the deeply-transformative experience that many immigrants go through by taking on new names to fit, or essentially assimilate, into the surrounding environment.
Of her work, Amjadi writes, “The Ziploc bag is also a specimen of a body in a skin of vulnerability. In this view each body is filtered with charcoal and burnt wood. This is a purification and sees what can be measured: it gauges different levels of perfection and imperfection, and the inferences of better than, greater than. It signifies difference and otherness.” She continues, “Water in both river and body is a study of being and becoming, of staying while moving, and leaving while staying.”
Make, Make, Make
As Amjadi continues to reflect on her time this past summer in Germany, she is excited to not only embrace her greater understanding of the international art scene, but to “make, make, make” with the same spirit of curiosity that took a single question and turned it into multiple bodies of work.
“It will be with me forever,” Amjadi says about her experience at Karlsruhe, “I don’t know exactly how, it’s still all so fresh.”