An interview with Mohammad Rezaei about fancy pop, memes as therapy, and the club as self-care
Maddie -Introduce yourself
Mohammad- Hi, I’m Mohammad- I’m an Artist, Curator, Arts Administrator, and now a Web Developer. I graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and I decided to leave to Toronto because I had this idea of bigger cities being better in some ways and I guess they have been.
--So I’ve been here for 4 years, up to last January, I was a Co-Director at Whippersnapper Gallery. We were put in this position where we felt like there was a need for a space like that, a place to give voice to communities who are marginalized. 3-4 years ago Toronto was (and still realistically is) way more dominated by white-male-bro-painter art, and we wanted to present something that was not that.
I also have my art practice and have worked collectively with the artist Joleen Toner on a projectcalled MT. JR for the past few years. It’s mainly installation work about the Internet and art internet culture, but it's been evolving more into identity politics. As a curator, I’ve approached curation as a conduit for community building rather than “making a playlist of objects” so to speak.
Maddie- Do you feel like you started curation out of your position at Whippersnapper and seeing the community that could build from it?
Mohammad- Yeah, before whippersnapper I had a keen interest in curation. When I was in college we used one of the corners of my studio space as an “art gallery” and alongside another “gallery” in the space, and every two weeks showed different artist’s works and served “fancy pop” which was actually just vodka and pop and the profits from that was our artist fees.
Maddie- It seems like you’re great at working with whatever available to you, like DIY comes naturally to you.
Mohammad- Yeah, it’s mainly the way it’s worked out to be. When I decided to move to Toronto I emailed a lot of galleries and the one that got back to me was Katharine Mulherin Gallery, which I ended up working and interning at for a bit-- Katharine, the director was the one that said that I should maybe check out Whippersnapper because it seemed more like my vibe so I emailed them and then, yeah.
Maddie- I was reading your artist statement and at one point you speak about your work as talking about the lines between reality and fiction, and presenting plastic or utopic ideals, which kind of leads me into my next question. I’m interested if you think that in the gallery setting or more academic settings that there is ever space for conversations about mental illness or mental health?
Mohammad- I mean I think it is a conversation that should be happening and should be legitimized. I think what I see is more smaller spaces who are opening up the conversations that are really relevant, but there is also this othering that happens when it comes to the mental health conversation when it’s brought into a gallery setting- all of sudden your practice becomes either “community based” or viewed as the alternative.
Maddie--and it almost sometimes becomes romanticized or like a spectacle.
Mohammad- I keep thinking about the art scene a few years ago-- for example the work we were showing at Whippersnapper--- and I look now at the art scene and the topics that are being addressed at perhaps the AGO and it's kind of like okay I get it, it’s now on trend so you’ll talk about it. But I remember our programming years ago being labelled “Alternative” or “the gallery that tries way too hard” and now this is on trend and that’s so great!—but there might be something else that’s the new trend tomorrow and that scares me
Maddie- Talking about following on trend, I want to shift gears to social media. Honestly, I feel like one of the only spaces I see conversations about mental illness or self-care happening continually is on social media. It seems to be accepted in that medium; there are entire accounts dedicated to talking about it. But then sometimes it feels like when it transitions into a contemporary art setting that conversation stops happening in the same way. What do you think about social media as a platform for these discussions, and particularly what does self-care mean to you?
Mohammad- I agree with you that social media can be a great space to talk about self-care. It can be really therapeutic to get it out there, but I also really understand my own position of privilege to be able to do that. To be able to have a meme account to talk about my mental health and self-care, it’s definitely a point of privilege to be able to speak openly about it.
Maddie- Which is such an important thing to talk about because sometimes I see preaching for self-care and it almost gets guilt-shamey and we need to recognize that being able to take care of yourself and have access to the things you need to do that whether its sessions with your therapist, medication, or even just getting a face mask is a privilege and not everyone is in the position to provide that for themselves. Self-care looks different for everyone.
Mohammad- I feel like we’re in this loop sometimes with conversations around of self -care. Like something comes up, so we talk about it, and sometimes it’s a very convoluted conversation, and we kind of go around in a circle. Best case scenario is maybe there is a roundtable discussion where we continue talk about it—but then it just goes back to the start of the conversation.
Maddie- Yeah and sometimes the conversation gets so vague it’s just like “The answer is to just love yourself!!!” and it’s like “ Right! Okay! I’ll just wake up and love myself today!” And I understand the intention but sometimes it becomes this performance that isn’t even about self care anymore its’ about showing that you care about self care.
Mohammad- There is also this trend I’ve been noticing in the art world lately where people take the pain of someone else and somehow make it about them. And I think I equate it to Facebook activism. Like great- you can talk, but when it comes to actually living or engaging with the things you’re talking about you become silent. I think I was raised and the family I grew up with is very “do it, don’t talk about it”. Like if I wasn’t feeling well it’s like “ Okay, what can you do to change that, are you eating regularly? Have you gone for a run? Did you take your vitamins?" you know, what can you directly do to change the output?
Maddie- Yeah I definitely get that. Making it tangible, I know when I’m disassociating I need to like sit down and eat or take a shower or do something that makes me feel human.
Mohammad- And who knows, maybe your self-care is going to the club, getting a manicure, eating kale- lord knows that is my self-care at points. .
Maddie- Everyone’s self-care is so different, which makes me wanna talk about memes because I want to ask you about your account with Dainesha Nugent-Palache (@chememecal_peel). I know you’ve said before that memes are kind of like a form of therapy to be able to vent. The great thing about memes too is there is such deep cynicism and self-deprecation in them which tbh is how I process stuff, and is something I see a lot in your art and in your memes.
Mohammad- I think that you would know that I’ve had a shitty time this year completely off of my social media. We (Mohammad and co-memer Dainesha Nugent-Palache) were thinking about doing the meme account for a long time but what actually kicked it off was right after the election. I was just like okay this might be the stupidest thing I can do but I just need to do something. So that’s how it started. I’ve been noticing since we started that it takes like 10 minute of my day but it's just a nice little relief.
Maddie- How do you feel about maintaining a professional persona while still being honest about your mental health?
Mohammad- I am the worst at it
Maddie- Ya me too
Mohammad- I’ve dug a hole for myself before. I think my Facebook is a version of me that is somewhat polite, my Snapchat is a version of me is like a wreck left on a highway to rott; my Instagram is a version of me is just me. Not very corporate friendly tbh...
Maddie- How do you feel about your level of honesty about it specifically in professional settings?
Mohammad- Well we have this strange problem where in our field our best friends are also our colleagues and it makes it very difficult to not blur that line. It does sometimes become a weird thing where you have to choose who you’re being really honest with in different situations. I’ve never been good at that.
Maddie- Yeah, I feel like showing vulnerability in the art world is only okay if it’s in a conceptual context. Like you can’t be vulnerable as a person on a professional level but you are expected to pull the most vulnerable things about yourself out when making work- and then you have to talk about it academically.
Mohammad- I think it’s also how you look at fine arts. We perceived fine arts to be very academic, which means when you make really personal work you still have to be able to back it up with research.
Maddie- Yeah, and then you go back to your professional environment once you’ve just like divulged your deepest secrets and have to continue to pretend to be high functioning.
Mohammad- Yeah I talk to my therapist about that a lot, I have the same struggle where I have a really hard time expressing my genuine feelings. That’s why I’m really funny.
Maddie- I love being able to openly talk about my therapist, like for years I was seeing mine but was too embarrassed to tell anyone so I just made up little lies and now I’m like “so yesterday… when I was at MY THERAPISTS”
Mohammad- Oh yeah I’m always like “ MY THERAPIST IS SAVING MY LIFE”. Like she isn’t fixing everything but it’s definitely helping and it’s a process. I mean mental health is hard--it’s really fucking hard and we gotta just start talk about it.
Mohammad Rezaei is an interdisciplinary artist, DJ, curator ,arts administrator and Web Developer currently residing in Canada. View more of Mohammad’s work at www.mohammadrezaei.workand www.mohammadrezaei.com or through their meme account @chememecal_peel.
Maddie Alexander is an artist, writer, and arts facilitator work and living in Toronto. They obtained their BFA in Photography from OCAD University, and their practice deals with themes surrounding queer identity, mental illness and art for social change.