Shamiran Istifan is a self-taught artist who lives and works in Zurich. In her current show at London’s Moarain House, the personal and political are inherently connected, as she touches on family life and her own rhinoplasty to explore feelings of alienation.
Maryam III, a series of quilted wall-hung works created from silver fabric, depicts cherubic forms dedicated to three family members whose stories have until this moment remained untold. A neon acrylic cut-out of a pair of swords (Chiasm of Lovemaking / Gouriye, 2022) references a relative who engaged in both godly and violent behaviour. Istifan reserves her own judgement on these people and explores a space of openness and acceptance. Meanwhile, the video work Trip to Jerusalem focuses on the prevalence and normalisation of plastic surgery in reshaping noses to conform to internalised western beauty standards.
The artist works with feelings, avoiding binary distinctions between places and cultures. Instead she explores the often conflicting ground that she finds herself inhabiting, embracing American feminist academic and author Donna Haraway’s call to “stay with the trouble”.
If you could save only one item from your studio, what would it be?
That’s not an easy question to answer because I’ve always worked without having an actual studio. Depending on what I am producing, I can usually find ways and places to create.
What was the last art material you bought to use in your work?
I recently bought almost 10 metres of metallic textile and cotton to work on a big embroidery piece that hangs on the wall. It’s a continuation of my angel series, Maryam I-III, which is part of my current solo show Precious Pipeline. The angels are a dedication to the souls in my family and community while their stories remain invisible.
What is your go-to song when you’re working in the studio?
It changes with the tides and moods. I need to work with music that is either giving tough love and pushing me like hyper-masculine rap in English or German, or giving soft love and calming me, as Fairouz does.
“I need to work with music that is either giving tough love and pushing me or giving soft love and calming me”
Which single work of art would you choose to live alongside in your home
Anything from the late Nasra Simmeshindi from Mardin. She did blockprinting, a local traditional technique that is being forgotten today. She mostly produced icons, mystical figures and ornaments. It would give me the feeling of an Assyrian monastery at home.
Top three art or photography books?
My broad interest in society, history and philosophy, and how they help me understand different experiences and dynamics, led me to the art world. So I can‘t name any specific art book because I’ve never read any. But I would love to share this YouTube video instead. Whistle codes are something I find intriguing.
“I would just go larger scale, build more worlds, shape more spaces”
If money was no object, what would you most like to experiment with in your work?
I would just go larger scale, build more worlds, shape more spaces.
Tell us a pet peeve of yours when it comes to the art world.
Gatekeeping and performative wokeness. But I don’t see it as that deep. The art world can be fun for me anytime. I see it as a game.
What is your favourite gallery or museum space around the world?
I love the small gallery spaces with genuine drive that I’ve worked with, such as Moarain House in London, where I currently have a show. Besides that, the Istanbul Modern at the Bosphorus will always have a special meaning for me. Someone advised me to go there when I was spending some months in Turkey in 2014, and that was the first time I deliberately visited a contemporary art gallery.
I got hooked with the way that things that I always cared about were represented. It became my place to go, and sometimes I spent entire days there. The fact that I had this encounter in a country which has a complex and difficult relationship with my people made this a very layered experience for me that required a lot of reflection and nurtured growth.
Images courtesy the artist and Moarain House, London
Emily Steer is Elephant’s editor
Shamiran Istifan: Precious Pipeline is at Moarain House in London until 11 June
Listen to all the go-to songs picked by our 5 Minutes With artists here