Iranian Canadian artist Anahita Norouzi hides layers of meaning in every material

The Sobey Art Award nominee tells us about her year of awards and revolution.

The Sobey Art Award nominee tells us about her year of awards and revolution

Art installation by Anahita Norouzi. Black flowers sit on a white ledge against a steel blue backdrop and a black square on the wall.
Anahita Norouzi's "What It Is In A Name." (National Gallery of Canada)

"I just couldn't fully grasp what I was reading," says Anahita Norouzi, describing the thrilling moment an email popped up in her inbox announcing her nomination to the Sobey Art Award shortlist.

In addition to the nomination and the accompanying exhibit that opens this fall at the National Gallery of Canada, the Iranian-born artist is having an exceptional run. This includes winning the Impressions Residency and Creation Award at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2022 and the Contemporary Art Award at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in 2023 — two of the most prestigious art awards offered by major museums in the province of Quebec.

"I had an incredible year," admits Norouzi humbly, "but what I've learned is that it's all about accumulating these little pieces that eventually add up to something significant. I wasn't that lucky artist who got discovered by someone to supercharge my career. For me, it's been these small connections and encounters over time that have piled up and brought me to where I am today."

All these accolades have led to multiple exhibitions in the coming months, and Norouzi is creating new bodies of work for each of them, expanding an already impressive multidisciplinary portfolio that combines installation, sculpture, photography and video. She focuses primarily on marginalized histories and more recently on the legacies of botanical and archaeological excavations conducted by colonial powers in non-Western landscapes.

Norouzi adapts her materials to each story she seeks to tell. "During my master's in fine arts," she says, "I became fascinated with the agency of different materials, how each material carries its own history, politics and economy … and how this can infuse so many layers and depth into the work. There are many hidden meanings embedded in the materials I use."

To find out more about these hidden meanings, the incredible journey she has undertaken, how it feels to have her work recognized by such influential institutions, and the agency and strength of Iranian women, CBC Arts spoke with her outside her Montreal studio.

Congratulations on the Sobey nomination! Could you tell me how you got the news, and how you reacted?

You know, it was quite a surprise because the path to reach this point hasn't been easy. Especially for individuals like me who hail from a different country, with a different cultural background, and not being completely fluent in the language — it took quite a bit of time to get here. It was quite disorienting, but it gives me hope.

I think about young emerging artists from the BIPOC communities how they can see that someone like them can receive such a recognition for their work. I'm also hopeful that institutions are becoming more and more open to the themes I tackle in my art, even when [the concepts] are not always the most comfortable and convenient. So, in that sense, the nomination has a double importance for me.

You came from Iran to Montreal 13 years ago to study fine arts at Concordia University, and you've gone back and forth since then. Tell us a bit about this transition and how you've made Montreal your home over the past few years.

My journey has been quite bumpy, which is why this recognition gives me hope. My overall experience here hasn't really felt very inclusive. That's the reason, after completing my master's degree in 2013, I swiftly returned to Iran because I thought there was no future for me here. Yet, upon my return, things didn't pan out as expected. Being an artist is a challenge anywhere in the world, but in Iran, especially as a woman, it adds an extra layer of difficulty.

This is why, in 2018, I made my way back to Montreal. But when I did, I found myself starting from scratch because I had no network: I knew no one, and no one knew me.

I came back and started rebuilding everything from square one. What really made Montreal feel like home to me was my partner and those meaningful connections I forged with people who believed in my work and became my friends. If I left now, I know I'd miss Montreal.

Black-and-white headshot of Anahita Norouzi.
Anahita Norouzi. (Nooshin Bahr)

What do you think happened in 2018 when you came back that made a difference?

It was really my determination and the sense that I had no other choice. I knew this was my only way — I had to build everything from the ground up, and I had to do it on my own. I also think I became more at peace with my status as an immigrant. That was central because I no longer felt fragile or uncomfortable about it: the constant juggling between two identities, two places and two languages. That's what I believe was the main reason.

Your work is often described as heavily research-based. Can you walk us through your process? How do you get from the initial idea to the result?

Every single project begins with a tiny story, something that seems insignificant in official history. From there, I dive into a lot of research to really get into the context of that story, looking at it from various angles to comprehend it deeply. This is where I decide how I can transform this into a work of art, how I can convey this giant network of meanings and histories and relationships into a single work or a constellation of works. After that, I start thinking about what kind of material would communicate all these aspects the best.

I would say I'm more of a storyteller. I love telling stories and I love hearing stories. I just happen to be a contemporary artist, so I can tell these stories through works of art.

Art installation by Anahita Norouzi. Large beige wall flags drape from the ceiling, with large flowers and small photos on each flag.
Anahita Norouzi's "Palimpsest." (National Gallery of Canada)

Can you tell us how you balance your diasporic identity as an Iranian Canadian woman, especially considering the Mahsa Amini protests in 2022?

My generation was basically the children of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Being an Iranian woman meant growing up in a pretty misogynistic and fully dictatorial system. We were exposed to all kinds of social experiments, raised to be the foot soldiers of the Islamic system.

Finding our own identity was tough within a system that aimed to mould every child into this predetermined idea of a perfect human. I think for my generation, the real struggle was to find our own voices.

But Iranian women are absolutely incredible, and I'm so proud to have seen it up close and experienced it myself. Just imagine, after four decades of repression, they had the courage to remove their headscarves. And they did it! We've been through a collectively traumatizing year, and you can still see the lingering trauma, but they continue to resist. And this is truly inspiring because, despite all the risks, they're not backing down. It's like reclaiming their own bodies has become a symbol of resilience.


Didier Morelli is a Fonds de recherche du Québec (FRQSC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Art History at Concordia University in Montreal. He holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois). Associate editor at Espace art actuel, his work has also been published in Art Journal, Canadian Theatre Review, C Magazine, Esse Arts + Opinions, Frieze, Spirale, and TDR: The Drama Review.

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