Breaking Boundaries: Artists of the Diaspora

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

By Shayan Kaveh

Hours spent on makeup and wardrobe, sweat and anxiety poured into weeks of practice, and the restless nerves before a performance – ManyFacedGodX enters the stage. Dressed in a handmade bodysuit and reality-altering makeup, Dornika Kazerani is no longer themselves. They have manifested a new face for their godly powers to possess. For this performance, ManyFacedGodX strips themselves of the image of their body and immerses the crowd in pure experience as they dance freely. The Sunday after November 2nd show, Kazerani wrote on their Instagram:

“As long as I move,

I am in my river –

A snake in the waves.”

Like other artists of the diaspora, Kazerani performs to liberate their truest self. Kazerani has joined a collective movement within the diasporic community to create a third space for immigrant artists to explore the relationship between hostland and homeland. Performing in the nightclubs of Berlin, university, and festivals, Kazerani is part of spaces that allowed them to not only fit in, but to transcend. They are able to share art that goes beyond the surface to express the intersection of cultures. 

Born in Tehran, Iran, Kazerani moved to Berlin, Germany at 22 to study fine arts at The Berlin University of the Arts. Kazerani received a classical education in sculpture during high school in Iran, but their recent projects have evolved into an interdisciplinary form of writing, visual arts, and performances that draw on their experiences as an Iranian woman. Kazerani has delved deep into diverse forms of expression including body work, drag, and experimental music.  

Having lived through an American and Iranian upbringing, Kazerani felt the deep impact of displacement when they moved to Berlin. “You get so used to a surrounding with certain rules and dynamics until they are ingrained in your being,” Kazerani said. “And then you’re put somewhere where everything is different, but those rules and dynamics are still in your body and its memories.”

Kazerani’s desire to understand the restrictions imposed by society on identity and self-expression inspire their art. In Berlin, Kazerani creates art that addresses displacement, body trauma, and mental health – all issues that they feel they need to heal for themselves. Recently, they have been performing with a group of drag kings called the Venus Boys in the Berlin bar Silver Future. The Venus Boys use drag to represent, challenge, and subvert masculinity in a performance where the world is for a moment suspended into fantasy. On the stage, they invent a world in which definitions are different, rules are perverted, and the story is their own.

Through the art of dance, drag, and character-creating, Kazerani explores resistance and resilience. “I am expressing myself with the freedom to explore, without the taboos and social limitations that could have existed for me in Iran.”

Thousands of miles away in Oakland, California, Saba Moeel, known by her artist name Cult Days, harnesses the power of social media to expand representation. Cult Days family moved to the US when she was three to escape Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. Now the artist behind Instagram’s @PinkCatDaily, Cult Days channels her experiences with spiritual and comical cartoons that chronicle the stories of Pink the cat. Cult Days says she intends to create a bigger movement than just an Instagram page. Since launching the account in 2016, Pink Cat has rocketed to 116 thousand followers and gained enough momentum for Cult Days to open a headquarters in Richmond, California. 

Growing up as a Muslim, Southwest Asian woman in Oakland, Cult Days’ community was diverse, but without anyone like herself. Cult Days spoke to the experience of growing up without a community of celebrities, musicians, and artists who are Middle Eastern or Muslim.

“My parents didn’t really want to be in the US,” she said. “No one wants to go to the country that is the cause of why you need to leave your own country. They left generations of wealth, their entire network, family, cousins – the people who share their experiences in the world.” 

Despite living in racially diverse cities such as Oakland and Chico, California, Cult Days’ struggled to find a community representative of her experiences. This lack of representation drove Cult Days to create art, fashion, and music that allowed her to share her culture with those who let her be a part of theirs. 

“People don’t know anyone like me. But I know a lot of people like them,” Cult Days said. “It’s my job to present to people who I am – I was born in Iran, I’m Muslim, but I also grew up in the Bay Area with all the influence of the Bay Area.”

This is where the cartoon of Pink, a Middle Eastern, Muslim cat, comes in. The cartoons of Pink often depict religious or social situations in cartoons written in English, Farsi, Arabic, and Korean. These have become immensely popular among the young Southwest Asian, North African and Muslim communities. Pink has emerged in social media as an influential voice for these groups that often go unheard in American art communities. 

Cult Days is mobilizing Pink to strengthen her artistic movement and eventually one day create an “e-nation.” With the new Pink Cat headquarters, Cult Days has a physical space for artists and professionals to collaborate and spread a peaceful message of inclusion, diversity, and brazen honesty through social media. For Cult Days, the Internet served as her original third space to spread a message through creativity. 

“It’s going to be poignant,” Cult Days said. “It’s going to be educational about what we’re doing right or wrong.” 

To Cult Days, Pink Cat is a deity. She said, “She is the Internet. She can stream this huge amount of information in the real wild-wild west, the Internet.” Cult Days described her relationship with Pink as the Slim Shady to her Eminem. Pink Cat can brunt the consequences of saying things Cult Days wouldn’t necessarily, but she feels should be shared. The Pink Cat cartoons share Cult Days’ message to be honest about who you are, to pursue growth, and not lose faith.

Far from their homelands, Kazerani and Cult Days have never let go of their origins. They use their art to provoke questions against the status quo and share their unique perspectives with the world. Pushing audiences to challenge their perspectives over social media and on a stage, these artists are giving their communities a voice to bring new narratives into society’s collective conscious.