Leili Arai Tavallaei on Labels, Cultural Assimilation, & Reclaiming Pride in One's Self
AS A COLLECTIVE, WE WANTED TO TAKE TIME TO HIGHLIGHT THOSE THAT ARE DOING THE HARD WORK OF PURSUING THEIR OWN CREATIVE AND ACADEMIC GOALS, WHILE ALSO PAVING THE WAY TO FURTHER THE REPRESENTATION OF MARGINALIZED PEOPLE IN THE ARTS AND HUMANITIES. WE HAVE CALLED THIS SERIES, TAKING OUR SEAT. FOR OUR CURRENT FEATURE, WE SAT DOWN WITH ARTIST, LEILI ARAI TAVALLAEI.
Leili Arai Tavallaei - she/her pronouns- was born outside Houston, TX and raised as a proud mixed Iranian Japanese Southern American. Tavallaei is an interdisciplinary Animator with work focusing on the tactility of materials as it pertains to memory, culture, and identity. She is currently based in Baltimore, MD pursuing a BFA in Animation and Printmaking at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is expected to graduate in Spring of 2021.
Leili Arai Tavallaei (LAY-lee ARE-eye TA-val-law-ee)
SPEAKER GUIDE | AB: AKEA BRIONNE & LAT: LEILI ARAI TAVALLAEI
AB: Leili, can you describe your animation/illustration practice and how you use it to approach themes including, but not limited to: memory, culture, and identity?
LAT: For me, art is a way to deconstruct and catalogue myself. Through artistic means, I’ve discovered aspects of myself I would never have been brave enough to confront. In this way it only seems natural that I’m drawn to memory. It’s an insufferable medium to try to depict because it’s constantly shifting just under the surface of my consciousness. Therefore animation seems a fitting medium; I can do fantastical things with animation and yet ground it in reality through my material process. And when analyzing my memories, culture is the biggest factor that stands out. The inside of my childhood home is full of anachronism with Iranian rugs and Japanese fans coating every surface, where Journey and David Bowie float freely in the air, and where my Grandma Fahti stood next to the stove speaking a language I didn’t really understand. The shelves were always full of Japanese language books my mom promised to master one day and an old Merriam Webster’s dictionary my dad forced me to open every time I didn’t know a word. And when I stepped outside, I hit a wall of heat with cicadas chirping and where nasty little kids told me I’d go to hell since they didn’t see me at church. This led to an identity crisis which I would later uncover and analyze mainly through my artistic practice. So most of my art is therapeutic with it addressing my deepest fears, most nostalgic moments, or explorations of my cultural background. My work is a map of who I am as I discover it.
“I think I, like many other 20 somethings, have fallen into the trap of labels especially when it concerns identity. But the reason, I don’t think, is because of what the critics say. That this generation is obsessed with making a mark and standing out. At least, in my case, it’s something much more human; pride.”
AB: You refer to yourself as an Iranian Japanese Southern American from Texas. Can you talk a bit about the intersections of these cultures, especially in relation to how you navigate spaces as an artist? How important are these identities to you and your work?
LAT: I think I, like many other 20 somethings, have fallen into the trap of labels especially when it concerns identity. But the reason, I don’t think, is because of what the critics say. That this generation is obsessed with making a mark and standing out. At least, in my case, it’s something much more human; pride. Sometimes I think it’s silly to put so many identifiers next to my name but my identity has been a journey and one which I'm immensely proud of. You have no idea how difficult saying those words was for a previous version of myself. I grew up in suburban Houston, my high school was imbedded in farmland and southern baptists, and I was unlike everyone. I wasn’t like the popular kids with their skinny legs and straight blonde hair. I wasn’t Asian enough. However many Asian American friends I made, I always felt alienated and separate. I wasn’t Iranian enough either and a part of me, in rebellion, rejected my dad’s culture in an effort to fit in. And that’s a guilt and shame I still carry with me. So when I fled my southern baggage for college I had to adapt. So I sought understanding in all things I initially rejected. And found I regretted most of the decisions I made in my early youth. I am proud to be Iranian and I tried to make up for lost time by reconnecting with much of what I felt I lost. I am proud to be Japanese though I carry deeply rooted impostor syndrome. And, something I’ve recently added to my arsenal, I am proud to be loudly Texan and find myself nostalgic for the landscape often. In this way I identify as a mixed race, Iranian, Japanese, Texan, 20 year old who is just trying to ground herself amidst the turmoils of modern day life by reconciling with my past and educating myself on my history.
AB: You are a member of the BASU at MICA, can you talk a bit about how you navigate your identity as an artist, especially in a fields that are so dominated by white voices?
LAT: When I founded the Brown Asian Student Union (BASU) it wasn’t originally a political move, it was a selfish one. MICA is a white school, and Baltimore a black city, and I felt isolated from everything I thought I knew. So, in an effort to reconnect with my culture, I wanted a space for brown voices. I wanted a space where I could talk about the things I was feeling and learn about other people’s experiences in this new environment. As a group, we have had dialogues ranging from colorism to fashion to generational issues. And I’m so proud we’ve been successful in creating a space for ourselves where we can celebrate our cultures. When speaking of my work as a mixed West Asian (the Middle East) and East Asian things get a little dicey. In general, the animation industry is dominated by white voices and trying to break that barrier is difficult. Sometimes it can feel like no one wants to hear about the issues I want to talk about or if they do they want an exotified, tokenized version of it. And that’s so frustrating. I don’t want to see another group of West Asians depicted as the bad guys with accents and beards. What grounds me is the fact that I’ve created a network of people who understand and continue to push to have their version of the story told in their way. And it’s starting to happen, too slowly for my liking, but it’s happening. It’s amazing to see work breaking into the majority sphere, however infrequent. Movies like Crazy Rich Asians with an all Asian cast and crew, TV series Kim’s Convenience, or Pixar’s recent short Bao by Domee Shi are great examples of this.
AB: What artists inspire you and your work? How do you go about finding POC inspirations within animation and illustration, or is that even a concern in your practice?
LAT: Like most great things, word of mouth is the place to find the best stuff. Some of my favorite animators, not including the obvious big studios, are Akino Kondoh, Alexa Lim Haas, Kangmin Kim (ig// @studio_zazac), Dante Zabella (ig // @dantezabella), Nienke Deutz, Satoshi Kon, and Masaaki Yuasa. And I think my favorite illustrators are Jia Sung (ig // @jiazilla), Ines J. (ig // @a.creature), Nuria Tamarit (ig // @nuriatamarit), and Paula Puiupo (ig // @puiupo). And most of those are POC. But besides personal aesthetics and narrative, I use my cultural background to inspire the details, whether that be a particular Japanese fabric, Iraninan tile work, or some good ol southern sky.
AB: Is there a large scale dream project of yours that you would like to create? (if financial and time constraints) weren't a factor?
LAT: Recently I’ve been experimenting with risographed and screen printed animations. In a perfect world I would love to create a hand printed animated short or movie inspired by Japnese Ukiyo-e, telling the tale of my Grandma’s meeting of my Grandpa in Japan while he was stationed there during the Korean War.