March 24 2015 05:19 PM

How a first-generation Iranian-American became a champion for the border arts scene

Sara Solaimani
Photo by Alex kershaw

Sara Solaimani isn't Mexican. Not even close. 

That might be racially insensitive to point out within certain contexts, but in the case of Solaimani, it's understandable that some might mistake her for being a Chicana. Sure, she has a beautiful, brown complexion and speaks fluent Spanish, but the Iranian-American (she prefers this to the more standard Persian) says that in her heart, she's Chicana through and through. 

"I was the first person to ever apply for the Chicano Studies MA program at SDSU," Solaimani says. "They had just started offering it. I saw a major where I would get to be immersed in the border scene and that's what I'd wanted."

Solaimani's become the go-to curatorial voice for an art scene that many would say needs a champion. She's often struggled with the fact that although San Diego and Tijuana are so close, there remains very little intermingling between the two art scenes. San Diegans either don't know about, or won't go to, art shows in Tijuana. Coupled with the difficulty of crossing into the U.S., Tijuana artists don't often come to exhibitions here. 

Solaimani wants this to change. Last year, she curated an excellent exhibition at Space 4 Art called Occupy Thirdspace that attempted to, in her own words, "bring student artists at UCSD with mid-career artists from North Baja to exhibit side-by-side and to engage in knowledge exchange." The show received attention both locally and internationally (more on that later), and she wants to continue with this kind of approach.

"I wanted students at UCSD to consider professionalizing themselves under the wings of Tijuana artists instead of moving away to places like L.A. or Europe," she says. "That's the way they see their work getting recognized. But right here, in Tijuana, there's critical art being produced right now." 

Bringing these two worlds together hasn't been too difficult, though Solaimani acknowledges what she describes as the "tension" between San Diego and Tijuana: young San Diego artists are often hesitant about bringing the border region—with its inherent political and social issues—into their art. Solaimani encourages them to embrace this fear of the unknown because, ultimately, their art will be better for it.

Cognate Collective's "Dialogue in Transit: Evolution of a Line" was part of the Occupy Thirdspace exhibition.
Photo by Omar Pimienta

"People in Tijuana have a much more acute awareness of the DIY mindset. The artistic mindset. The art scene isn't modeled on the traditional hierarchies you might find in L.A. or even Mexico City," she says. "For me, I want to push a lot of San Diego artists south of the border and the best way to do that is to get them to show in Tijuana or get them to show with mid-career artists from Mexico."

Solaimani knows a thing or two about cultural tensions. Growing up a first-generation Iranian-American in a small-town in Missouri in the '80s, at what was arguably the height of Iran / U.S. tensions, wasn't easy. She was consistently bullied for being different, but reflecting on it now, she says that helped prepare her to understand the immigrant experience. 

"I've always felt that I've had the perspective of an other other," she says. "But I was a kid, I didn't understand. I was always the lone wolf. The one that ate lunch by myself and kept to myself."

That feeling of otherness was defused a bit when she moved to Thousand Oaks and eventually to San Diego when she came to study political science at UCSD. After graduation, she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. She was accepted to Cal Western School of Law and went for a semester in '04, but decided to pursue the Chicano Studies MA at SDSU instead. It took her seven years to complete the degree due to the birth of her son, whom she's raising on her own.

Solaimani's "Transborder Mind Map" (left) and origami version (above) inspired her to collaborate on the Storylines TJ/SD website project.

"I graduated with my MFA the same day my son graduated pre-school," she says. "I had this feeling like I couldn't be stopped after that."

She rarely has been. She returned to UCSD to pursue a doctorate in art history and has become a curator, instructor, liaison and often a translator for the school's art department in all things border-related. This culminated in the Occupy Thirdspace show where work by artists like Alida Cervantes, Julio Orozco and Marcos Ramírez ERRE was displayed along with more interactive artists like the bi-national Cog·nate Collective. Keeping with her decidedly hands-on curatorial approach, she teamed up with Cog·nate for a mobile radio broadcast inside the collective's Cog·nate Cruiser, a decked-out Chevy station wagon, doing interviews with other artists while traveling around the border. 

Many of the Occupy Thirdspace artists will also be involved in Solaimani's new venture, a website devoted to stories about trans-border arts and happenings called Storylines TJ-SD. Although the site won't officially launch until May, the interface will consist of a map of the border with dots showing where there's something happening or where there's a particularly noteworthy story.

"The website is not just devoted to art and art practice, but the narrative of the border in general," she says. "We still want to be actors in the field. We want to still be artists and curators while also doing something that's historiography. At the same time, we don't want it to be a traditional archive. We want it to be insightful and documentative—a moving archive and something that future students and artists can contribute to."

Solaimani and her team are also planning a series of events to coincide with the launch of the website. On May 3, there will be a tour of the region (crossing the border is optional) culminating with a performance somewhere along the border that incorporates both sides. While plans are still being worked out, one idea is to have the tour end with a meal at the beach served on a communal table that links through the border fence.

Since the Thirdspace show received a lot of attention in Germany, another planned project is a simultaneous, bi-national show in collaboration with the Bauhaus archive in Germany. One exhibition would happen locally and focus on the Tijuana / San Diego border while the other would focus on trans-border nation-state Germany.

Meanwhile, Solaimani hasn't forgotten that she still has a doctoral dissertation to finish and an 8-year-old son to raise. 

"Sometimes my advisors have to reel me back in and tell me that I'm supposed to be focusing on becoming an art historian, not a practicing curator," she says. "I don't even like the traditional model of curatorship. There's a hardliner, jet-setting facade that falls into it and I just want to be as active as possible. So maybe I'm not a curator?" 

Well, then what is she?

"I see myself as the voice and advocate for this type of work within my department," she says. "The trick is not to hit a plateau and not keep saying the same message over and over again. The most important thing is to keep doing work on the ground and talking to people and see how this process can inform and grow. I'm staying in this. I'm your girl."

Email or follow Seth on Twitter at @combsseth.


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