The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
Katayoun Amjadi creates visual poetry. I first met her in her studio space in 2019 during the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I had heard her stories the day before; she was part of a panel about place, poetry, and objects. Amjadi has been working with clay for over ten years, and her objects, including shiny pomegranates, porcelain chickens, lustered toilet brushes, and calligraphed eggplants, are symbols for storytelling. They search for the conversation in sacred repetition of simple forms. They are meaning, moment, and movement—fluid yet stable.
My memory carries me down a stairwell to the basement in the Q.arma building in Minneapolis, through doors and into a room to find wooden boxes filled with Amjadi’s shimmering, slip-cast pomegranates. There were multiple ruby fruits nestled into crates with bits of shredded wood fibers cradling them. Beautiful objects. Going through another door, I enter her studio. Here, shelves lining the room are filled with objects, and more items are suspended from the ceiling. Some pieces are research and development, others are from past installations.
Exploring Life and Art
I’m drawn to a slip-cast porcelain chicken, glazed white and featuring a flowery overglaze decal, hanging alone on a red brick wall. Amjadi is writing poems with these objects in physical space. When I saw her objects, some of them out of the context of her poems, I fell in love with the forms. The chickens are part of a 2016 installation, The Nightingale and the Rose, in which Amjadi used stories related to Persian poetry. The nightingale represents the endless song, the desire and yearning for truth, and connection with the poet or the artist, while the rose represents beauty and perfection. Together they are metaphors of longing and beauty, poetry and love. A bird and flower are also common symbols in the decorative arts that Oscar Wilde, JW Goethe, and Ranier Maria Rilke have taken up in their writing. Amjadi joins this long tradition, adding her humor and undeniably clever wit.
On another floor of the Q.arma building is a video projection of a toilet with two live goldfish inside. Occasionally the sound of the toilet flushes, while the fish curl and move in the tiny bowl. They swim around, but for how long? Death, release, and looming loss, these tensions drive the conceptual nature of her art. I can see the goldfish as a metaphor for us and the bowl for this world we live in. How long do we have and is naïveté an acceptable fate? A gold-lustered porcelain toilet brush on a motor turns slowly in the space. In our conversation, Amjadi compared the toilet brush to a dandelion—perhaps waiting to be picked and blown to plant seeds, or maybe it’s just another weed. Elaborating on the toilet brush, she writes, “To cleanse, wash out, scrub, whiten, blanch, purge, sanitize, absolve, clarify, disinfect, sterilize, launder, bleach, decolorize, rinse, purify, suppress, vindicate, refine, depurate, release, liberate, restore, lustrate, and shine.” Can a toilet brush surpass its practical function to be a beautiful item in a museum or in our home? What if it’s made of porcelain and gilded with luster?
Back in her studio, a bulletin board in the space shares inspirational images, show announcements, and a jarringly hateful note that had been left on her car. Inscribed on what looks like a dirty envelope from the floor of the driver’s car, they comment on Amjadi’s parking and call her a racial epithet. I ask about the note at the end of my visit. I had just met Amjadi, and here she is vulnerable to herself, to me, and to the world. Her wall of inspiration includes the ordinary, the beautiful, and the difficult. This is how she explores life and art.
Making - Teaching - Exhibitions
Originally studying architecture in Iran, after moving to the US in 2010, she enrolled at Normandale Community College with general art classes and then continued on to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in Minneapolis. Taking a ceramics class, she realized something different about clay and the qualities of process and control that it demands. It provided a challenge, she says, “. . . In a good way, and I got hooked.” Clay requires and rewards levels of skill and mastery. She appreciates the difficulty of the material; it pushes her.
In the fall of 2019, having earned her MFA from the University of Minnesota, Amjadi dove into teaching, while also pursuing her studio practice and her exhibition schedule. She was eager to teach and share her gifts. Discussing teaching, she said, “It’s an extension; it pushes me to learn and to be able to communicate. I get excited by talking to students about different ideas. Being in school is also different—the focus is on you, what you make, what you think. But it’s a luxury that shifts.” These dynamic shifts, from school to studio and teaching, and coping with the pandemic all demand attention, but she continued to make work through it all.
She uses ideas regarding symbolism from art history like Rene Magritte’s painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” which is actually titled The Treachery of Images. The painting isn’t a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe. And here, Amjadi is doing something spectacular with ceramic objects. This is Not a Pomegranate and This is Not an Eggplant are three-dimensional representations of these named objects. This food cannot be consumed, and yet as objects, they can be consumed as commodities. While two-dimensional art lives on walls, three-dimensional objects need more space—space we can share. Amjadi invites us into new rituals with her objects. In a video, she slowly walks over her pomegranates and the white slip-cast fruits burst under her feet. A circle of shiny, colorful, glazed pomegranates radiate out from the rows of white slip-cast fruits she crushes. Mesmerized by the beauty of the action, I sense brokenness, longing, and pain. I recently saw another video, by adrienne maree brown, in which she sings of loss and shares, “Ritual helps move and move and move and move a thing, until it is a different thing.” Similarly, I see Amjadi moving time, place, and meaning, her gait purposeful over this idiosyncratic red-and-white rug of crushed pomegranates, like someone walking on glass, or fire, breaking tradition with every step.
Transitions and Meanings
Meeting in pre-pandemic 2019 and interviewing Amjadi starting in late 2021, I could see and feel a difference in her energy. The pandemic was certainly disruptive, but she also streamlined her practice, as she and her partner were able to convert a space adjacent to the Q.arma building, so she now lives next door to her studio. Despite this, the fatigue of being a new instructor, working in the studio, and navigating the new landscape of closed galleries and canceled exhibitions had taken a toll. A few questions she spoke aloud without yet having answers included, “Where was I? What happened? Where am I going?” I believe she makes things to understand herself and the world. All through the pandemic, she has made, taught, and figured out ways to exhibit.
After an exhibition, she’s left with hundreds of objects. These present a storage issue, and she’s working on reinterpreting the objects so they aren’t reduced to being commodities, mere items bought and sold. Instead, she prefers them to have another chance at poetic symbolism in future exhibitions. She’s recently exhibited a new body of work centering on the eggplant. Amjadi made plaster molds of 2 eggplants to then cast over 60 that she set swaying from the floor of the installation. They sit on top of stiff wires, gently moving within the space of the gallery. She chose the eggplant because it’s common, a kind of lowly fruit without cultural sway other than its phallic form. The eggplants are intentional misdirections: their gold luster script is Farsi, but it does not spell Farsi words. Instead they carry a profane English expression rendered phonetically in Farsi. Amjadi isn’t afraid to push the sacred into the profane as she plants a forest to wander and a space to ponder food, humor, and emojis.
Listening to Amjadi, I’m left with more questions. Do we ever really know who we are and what we express? We create to bring ourselves, the places we inhabit, and the people we care about into relief. We create to understand our culture, while at the same time making culture and meaning. When Amjadi and I spoke again in June of 2022, she was rejuvenated, rested, and relaxed. She was a couple weeks out of teaching and preparing for a trip home to Iran. It had been over seven years since her last visit. She was excited to wake up and go to local bakeries, see people, and share food—the regular things we do when we go home. And her upcoming trip sparked more questions as she said, “What am I aching for? Is it there or not?” I feel less lonely listening to her questions.
Amjadi’s objects, concepts, and visual poetry are deeply connected to what it is to be a maker and, given the relentless monetization of culture, a consumer today. Amjadi’s art brings to mind French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s words, “Art no longer wants to respond to the excess of commodities and signs but to a lack of connections.” Considering her efforts to build spaces between cultures, her desire for connection has grown into an abundance of beauty, learning, and maybe even an abundance of loss, as transitions are a constant in life. Can loss be abundant? Yes, if we are able to grasp the acceptance of loss and the ever-swaying landscape within which we live. Yes, it can, and as Amjadi’s dedication to her art shows, it is abundant.
Katayoun Amjadi will be exhibiting the installation This is Not a Pomegranate as part of a group exhibition titled “Underneath Everything: Humility and Grandeur in Contemporary Ceramics” at the Des Moines Art Center from June
2–September 10, 2023. Learn more on her website: www.katayoun.com and on Instagram @katceramics.