Amitis Motevalli’s Golestan Revisited project, now in its exhibition phase, has several aims. One is to perform a revisionist botanical history to “decolonize the roses.” Motevalli explained to me that the flowers originated in an area of the world now described partly as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Iran, where she was born. Ancient Persia’s flowers could be described as successful plant emissaries of cultural exchange during a period of trading along the Silk Road. But Motevalli questions the way these plants were collected, specifically during the era of The Crusades, and the reasons they were cultivated. She sees the flowers as having been forcibly taken, because in their journeys to Europe and widespread adoption as symbols in art, literature and culture, they were hybridized and their offspring renamed, their cultural histories and their poetries erased.
A recent exhibition at Occidental College opened Motevalli’s project for its first public viewing. Stark displays of genealogical maps and cement block plinths holding roses, repotted temporarily from their locations on Occidental’s verdant grounds, contrasted with generous desserts of rosewater-infused ice cream and a “fountain” with five cups what looked to be red tea or blood spilling from a downward-cast tea spout. In the installation it becomes clear that over the centuries of breeding, roses have come to acquire peculiar associations with patriotism, celebrity and Western-Christian ideology. Roses in the West also are often named for women, a kind of pet-project one can see in expensive real estate developments just a few miles away in Pasadena, home of the annual New Years’ Rose Parade. When this information is presented together in situ, the pattern of naming clearly identifies this flora’s history as a branch of difficult and under-discussed colonial legacy.
I had the occasion to walk with Motevalli through several local rose gardens in Southern California to discuss the project’s latest phase: her “reclamation” of roses whereby she bestows upon them as memorials the names of women killed in regional wars and conflicts post-2010 in Central and West Asia and North Africa.
CARRIE PATERSON: Which roses are you renaming for your project Golestan Revisited?
AMITIS MOTEVALLI: All those that have been Westernized. Roses have entirely different names in their homelands. The next part of the project will be to research those as well. I’ll have to go to Iran to the southern regions and go to the places that make the rose waters, and go to Pakistan. But right now, I’m looking only at roses in diaspora.
PATERSON: How many names do you intend to change?
MOTEVALLI: Some of the names won’t change, but almost all of them will. Here’s the interesting thing: there are not enough roses to cover all the femme martyrs. In the past eight-year span. Eight years! Within one region.
PATERSON: That’s horrific.
MOTEVALLI: Yes, it’s totally horrific.
PATERSON: So you stand among the roses, and you see people, people who are mostly not Americans, and who are Muslim women.
MOTEVALLI: Yes, as well as Yazidi, Coptic, Assyrian… At the very least they can be acknowledged.
PATERSON: How do you find out about these women? Can you give me an example of where you are pulling your research?
MOTEVALLI: One is Iraq Body Count. But these sources are all incomplete. I found Mayda Razzo (Julia Child – Floribunda – Bred 2004 United States – Reclaimed September 20, 2015, Mosul, Iraq) and Tuqa Razzo (Ebb Tide – Floribunda – Bred 2001 United States – Reclaimed September 20, 2015, Mosul, Iraq) through the work of journalists Anand Gopal and Azmat Khan. Sama al-Iraqi (Rio Samba -Hybrid Tea Rose – Bred before 1991 United States – Reclaimed January 6, 2017, Mosul, Iraq) is also through the work of Anand Gopal. There are many databases with lists of people killed in each city. Sometimes I will get names and stories from friends who knew people.
PATERSON: I understand there is at least one American in your count. Kayla Jean Mueller. Can you tell me about her?
MOTEVALLI: She was an aid worker, helping Syrian refugees in Jordan. She went with a friend of hers to Aleppo and they both got kidnapped. As an American she could be a good hostage, for bartering. Meanwhile, she kept getting married off to various Da’esh members — temporary marriages, for the purposes of being able to rape — and eventually she was married off to Al-Baghdadi [second in command of ISIS]. His house was bombed. He had fled. It’s not clear whether it was U.S. coalition forces or Jordanian planes. Kayla Jean was killed. And at no point did the U.S. even attempt to negotiate with Da’esh to release her. Her parents were just devastated. They were trying everything to raise the money so they could pay for her release themselves. They just didn’t have the means.
PATERSON: Which is her rose?
MOTEVALLI: I named the “Iceberg” after her. It’s a white rose that has tiny hints of pink. It’s one that grows rapidly all over the place and blooms many times a year. From what I understand she was strong and helpful to the others who were kidnapped and held as slaves. When there were trials for her release, the U.S. rejected negotiations. The White House knew for some time where she was but didn’t make attempts to free her. She was very generous, and that’s what this flower is. And she was pale, and had little pink cheeks. (Kayla Jean Mueller, formerly known as Iceberg, Floribunda, Bred 1958 Germany, Reclaimed February 6, 2015, Aleppo, Syria)
PATERSON: Like an iceberg she was cut off, but remained a kind of refuge for others. Do other names also have a symbolic connection to the women or girls?
MOTEVALLI: There’s Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Jabani, a fourteen-year-old girl whose family was killed and she was raped, tortured then brutally murdered by three U.S. soldiers. I named the “John F. Kennedy” after her. (Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Jabani formerly known as John F. Kennedy – Hybrid Tea – Bred 1965 United States – Reclaimed March 12, 2006, Yusufiyah, Iraq)
PATERSON: That is truly a stain on America. Do you hope this naming brings awareness to these abominations?
MOTEVALLI: For me, the names the roses have been given are all about white supremacy, about holding up the concept of Empire.
PATERSON: And so, something as simple as a name could become a crack in that edifice?
MOTEVALLI: Yes. Naming is super-important. We see that in the fact that Da’esh [“ISIS” or the “Islamic State”] members changed their names when they decided to become fighters. Or the way women’s names have historically changed after marriage to claim “ownership.” The same is true for kidnapped and enslaved people. They were given western names. Naming is also important for people who are trying to come out of gangs: they’ve been labeled and it’s one of the most difficult things, to slip out of that name/identity.
PATERSON: Why do you choose to refer to “Da’esh” using the Arabic pejorative term?
MOTEVALLI: The people who are most affected by them are living in Arab countries, and it’s a non-acknowledgment of them being a state or an Islamic State because the Islam that I grew up with is nothing like that. And I have no love for them, whatsoever. They are very dirty paramilitaries, and they deceptively recruited and kidnapped people and enslaved them. They’ve done it all for their personal power and profit, and I want to use a term that’s recognizable, but not one that gives them any legitimacy.
PATERSON: President Obama used that term once or twice, but then he switched. And now the news media and everyone is referring to them by their chosen name. Which seem to me to be a concession in some ways.
MOTEVALLI: Not really. News is basically marketing. And they have marketed themselves successfully. They have a marketing team that looks out for them, and so the news covers them that way. It’s unfortunate that the media aren’t covering Kayla Jean Mueller as much or even more the non-Americans, like Fatin (Fatin, Formerly known as Sparkle and Shine – Floribunda – Bred before 2009 United States – Reclaimed February 7, 2017, Mosul, Iraq), the ten-year-old girl who was killed for leaving her house. Tortured. And then killed.
PATERSON: Where was she?
MOTEVALLI: She was in Mosul.
PATERSON: I’m wondering about how you relate roses to women?
MOTEVALLI: Roses are some of the most resilient flowers. Flowers are delicate. These are not.
PATERSON: What was the initiating event for the piece?
MOTEVALLI: I came upon the idea while I was sitting in a rose garden. I was reading an article about a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, and I was on the phone with someone, and I was angry about it. Also, I had been studying the life of Hasna Ait Boulahcen, a young woman who was killed in her home outside of Paris by Police, who were chasing the people suspected of the Bataclan attacks. She was caught between people who had no value for her life. Roses are such resilient, hardy flowers. It was a moment of anger in a rose garden, and looking around. Rather than take my anger out on anyone, I started drawing. Also, I have a meditation that I do with roses. They ground me. I decided to commemorate the people who are losing their lives in these neo-Crusades, I’m doing this in a way that relates to my identity as an Iranian.
PATERSON: Neo-Crusades, so, you mean this project is also about the grab for resources?
MOTEVALLI: The Crusades were nominally about spreading Christianity, but they were also about land, and the lands having resources. It was about power. They invaded areas, and they took things that made those places unique. And since then, there have been a series of wars that repeat the same pattern. Da’esh, are constantly referencing The Crusades as well in their invasions and actions.
PATERSON: There’s a well-articulated blog post from 2011 by Saad Lakhani using the term “neo-Crusades.” What do you think about his point of view that the “neo-Crusades” can be identified by the surge in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim propaganda.
MOTEVALLI: I agree with much of the post, but I do believe that the Crusades in some ways haven’t ended. The spreading of Christianity in the name of social control has repeated itself throughout time, not just against Muslims but also throughout Africa, the Caribbean, The Americas. Christianity was used to fight communism in Latin America, Korea, Taiwan. Anyway, I’m not a historian, but I read histories and I let my work mostly interpret visually what I’ve learned.
PATERSON: Where is Golestan?
MOTEVALLI: “Estan” means “region.” But I’m referring to Golestan, “the vast garden of flowers” from S’aadi. He was really talking about a collection of poems, with poems being the flowers.
Golestan Revisited, installation view. Occidental College. Photo courtesy Amitis Motevalli.
PATERSON: It’s such a beautiful idea: a flower opens, and each poem has a surprise in it. And when you smell a rose, it hits you and you have the sensation and the image, before you’ve had a chance to think about it. What do roses mean to you?
MOTEVALLI: Home. Food. So much of what we eat. The smell of roses are immediately sweet to me, because they remind me of desserts or comforting drinks. Tea with rose. Faludeh, which I served at my reception, is made with noodles or basil seeds. It’s super-sweet, so we cut it with either lemon juice or sour cherry syrup. I chose the sour cherry, of course, because of the aesthetic — I had that blood fountain inside.
PATERSON: And I want to ask you about that.
MOTEVALLI: I thought about the teahouse at The Huntington Gardens. I wanted a sense of connection of an English cottage with a fountain. I wanted to celebrate tea, especially with the notion of hybrid tea roses. In true Iranian style, I made a fountain of blood.
PATERSON: What is Iranian, per se, about that?
MOTEVALLI: Well, it’s very Shi’a — commemoration of martyrdom. For me it’s also a reference to the “Colonial” art of High Tea.
PATERSON: Well, when I looked at it, I thought it was a Duchamp reference, but a menstrual fountain.
MOTEVALLI: That’s a good one, I should do that.
PATERSON: But you have one.
MOTEVALLI: No, but I should have it spout out menstrual blood. I mean, Fountain was originally a urinal. It could be a collaboration! Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll sign your name, like “R. Mutt.”
PATERSON: Well, I have worked with these kinds of materials so people, I suppose, wouldn’t be surprised…
MOTEVALLI: Ha ha! Yeah. I’ll pull a full-on Duchamp.
PATERSON: I see your work as an intervention into the language we use to speak of death, and in particular, the deaths of Muslims. Even though in the West it’s common to have people bring flowers to a gravesite, the idea you present of atavistically embodying a genetic remnant to reclaim the life of a culture — this is a potent idea for revising history.
MOTEVALLI: Everything I’ve done in terms of my work has been about usurping the power of the elites to place themselves within the canon and about creating the perspectives and histories of people who otherwise would not have that opportunity. I want to ask, who are creating these histories? But if someone wants to come along behind me and rename the roses in a different way, so be it. I just feel that the way I’m renaming them is more just than the names that they currently have.
Carrie Paterson is an artist and the publisher and editor-in-chief at DoppelHouse Press, Los Angeles.