View of an art exhibition with white walls and gray floors. Objects are placed on pedestals, on the walls, and on the floors, and a large projection of a face is on the back wall.
ABOVE: Habiba El-Sayed, 46: Lung Capacity (2022) Performance for video, ceramics, projection.

Revive | احیا

Rachel Ebio

How does a migrant individual address a fractured identity in an adopted homeland? Revive | احیا  is an exhibition that merges ancient artifacts, contemporary art, Middle Eastern feminism, Iranian art curation, and responsive literature. Curated by Iranian artist and ceramics professor Raheleh Filsoofi, this exhibition challenges our relationship with the past and demands equity for the future while drawing focus to the present.

Revive | احیا  investigates how artifacts and identities can gain new meaning through experimental rediscovery. The exhibition’s inspiration starts with seven women who culturally identify with Middle Eastern countries (Shiva Balaghi, Sheba Karim, Erin York, Malaka Gharib, Hiba Baroud, Zeinab Haratipour, and Raheleh Filsoofi) writing a description about an artifact of their choosing from Vanderbilt University’s art collection. These essays were given to seven Middle Eastern and West Asian female artists who created new pieces based solely on the item’s description. Each new work is directly displayed next to its artifact of artistic inspiration. Artists saw the artifact for the first time at the exhibition’s opening.

Intertwined: Learning from the ancient, creating the contemporary

In Surface Finds, Jasmine Baetz creates a blueprint for dismantling the past by creating streamlined solutions for future artisan craftsmanship. Baetz’s work was subconsciously influenced by a Japanese teapot from the Showa period. This was a time of enlightened peace and led to a radiant, prosperous Japan. Her balance of unfired, half-fired and fired clay sparks an evolution from Middle Eastern identity to SWANA identity. Once you realize you bear the title given by a colonizer like the Middle Eastern descriptor, how can you reclaim your identity as a person of color? The S.W.A.N.A (South West Asian/North African) alliance has made progress adding decolonized terminology to describe the region and its peoples besides the Middle East or Near East, similar to the Latine (global) and Latinx (North American) descriptors for individuals born in countries throughout Central America and South America. Adopting SWANA terminology is one suggestion or path in that identification reclamation.

Baetz created a deconstructed yet multiplied version of the teapot by creating a multitude of lids, spouts, handles and bodies stacked together in separate containers. Her work begins the rite of creation through deconstruction and valuement. 

Laleh Mehran’s Fluid Strata is a mesmerizing digital fabrication of a water vessel in iridescent blue and green. An oval base gives rise to billowy folds and silk ribbons of fabric making a futuristic yet ancient style vessel. From some angles it's a swan, at other angles it's The Thinker pose1, then it's an eel, now it's a snake. The textured symmetrical patterns on the vessel fabric mimic reptile skin. This work was influenced by an unknown Thai artist’s ceramic duck ewer2 from Sawankhalok in the Sukhothai Province. Mehran eloquently introduces functionality and beauty through 3-D experiential art.

Projected behind the contemporary work and its ancient inspiration is the video version of the work. Ewers morph into one another in perfect succession taking the form of Asian and North African animals and ships. This hints at a hidden unity of the Asian continent. Revive invites viewers to see the connection between East and South Asia and wonder about the region of West Asia.

Kimia Ferdowsi Kline’s piece, You Should See Me in a Crown, is a sculptural painting on wood representing feminine Middle Eastern identity shoved into Eurocentric categories of existence. Kline’s depiction of the female face is placed horizontally showing a constriction on female freedom. However, the scarlet orange crown set atop the sculpture conveys resilience and grace. This work was inspired by an ancient Iranian plate of a rabbit. Based on the Chinese Zodiac, 2023 is the year of the rabbit. This animal is a symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity in Chinese culture, predicting this year’s outcome. This furthers the symmetry of SWANA unity in relation to the rest of the Asian continent.

In The Offering, Beizar Aradini practices Indigenous Kurdish artistry through textile art. She captures Roman mythology with exactitude which is mirrored by the complexity of the ancient artifact of its inspiration. On cotton, Aradini weaves an exquisite reflective image of a Roman woman extending an offering within a bowl towards her reflection. Does this portray an urge to be released of burden or reciprocal offering of the elements?

This work was inspired by a terracotta red figure bell krater from the Italian Classical Period. The krater’s intricate design suggests fragility and rarity, but in actuality these were commonly used items to hold wine. Aradini draped the hanging textile piece to echo the krater’s shape delivering an active response to an ancient ritual.

In the performative short film titled 46: Lung Capacity, Habiba El-Sayed times herself while creating pinch pot teacups of clay with blue paint to lightly or densely cover the clay. For each teacup pot, El-Sayed holds her breath for 0:45 seconds while they make the tea ceremony bowls. With a total of 46 bowls created and shaped into a crescent upon completion, El-Sayed made a dizzying ceremony of creation. It’s believed holding your breath in short, consecutive intervals allows oneself to manage anxiety and lower inflammation creating a therapeutic practice.

Nuveen Barwari’s Denim Bell conjures symbols of American freedom and cultural assimilation through repurposed Kurdish fabric. A bell represents American freedom but recycled denim is a reminder of marginalized poverty and capitalistic wastefulness. Barwari intentionally sews barriers between the repurposed fabric she used. These barriers evoke the number four as a theme in her textile works to show the division of Kurdistan between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Barwari’s Extension of D.B. (Denim Bell) deepens the journey of adopted homelands and cultural assimilation within the United States. This work was inspired by an unknown Japanese artist’s blue and white tea jar. 

Kris Rumman’s Watchers is a stucco and plaster sculpture of a glass telescope with war torn buildings at the base. The buildings show varying degrees of destruction with some completely decimated and others partially intact from one angle, but completely destroyed from another. A looped video of Google Earth and sound is projected at the telescope’s end. The video’s voiceover traces memory gaps by looking for familiar childhood places. The sounds of birds play to fill the silence between words. You see memories ranging from the trees Rumman would swing from to the bunker the artist took refuge in. The audio captures stories of how rich soil became decimated land. This performative work was inspired by the bottle shaped vase with willow trees and glass orchids by an unknown Korean artist.

Power: Feminist Iranian Art Curation

Every single object has energy, a heartbeat. If an ancient artifact could speak, what would it say to us? Revive  | احیا means to restore life or consciousness. It also means to regain life or to give new strength or energy to. So, let the ancient artifacts speak to us and murmur a fountain of wisdom into our minds, blood, tears and sweat. Filsoofi grappled with this reality as the exhibition’s curator, having spent over a year carefully combing through the art collection of Vanderbilt University.

By selecting artifacts across the Asian continent, Filsoofi’s curation interrogates how the Middle Eastern region has been historicized. Revive  | احیا shows us that art and politics are different disciplines to discuss the same fractures with human existence. This exhibition is an example of what Iranian women can create without the government infringing upon their human rights or actively limiting their freedom of expression. Woman. Life. Freedom.
View of an art exhibition with white walls and grey floors. Objects are placed on pedestals, on the walls, and on the floors, and a large projection of a face is on the back wall.
Installation of Revive | احیا

View of a floor-standing sculpture that resembles a translucent telescope on a white stand.
Kristine Rumman, Watchers (2023), Glass, security mirror, stucco, plaster, wood, aluminum, foam, and cardboard, with video

View of two artworks in a gallery. In the foreground, a piece of white pottery of a pedestal decorated with a blue pattern, and on the wall behind is a textile collage of red, black, and gray.
Nuveen Barwari, Denim Bell (2022), Charcoal, acrylic paint, thread, latex paint, fabric ink, used denim, found fab. Extension D.B. (2022), Acrylic paint, charcoal, found fabric, rug cut out. Photos Courtesy of Raheleh and Reza Filsoofi.

View of two vessels on a pedestal. Both seem to be meant for pouring liquid with one being simple, ceramic, and seeming traditional and old and the other seems glossy, futuristic, and made of printed plastic.
Laleh Mehran Fluid Strata (2023), Digital Fabrication. Photos Courtesy of Raheleh and Reza Filsoofi.


The exhibition statement vinyl on the gallery wall is not the original written by the curator, Raheleh Filsoofi. Her name is not present on the vinyl. The “why” of this exhibition was deemed “too sensitive” by Vanderbilt University. Filsoofi’s original statement includes critical and thoughtful insight regarding ceramic history, literary observation, artistic translation and colonial dismantlement. The on-view statement removes the impact of colonial institutions on ancient artifacts, therefore erasing a significant part of the exhibition’s curatorial ethos. This statement also neglects to hold white institutions accountable for unknown possession and acquisition of ancient ceramic objects created by people of color.

Below is a brief statement Filsoofi wrote to explain the true ethos of this exhibition as well as the cultural and artistic importance of representation for female Middle Eastern/SWANA artists:

“This project emphasizes the urgent need for our institutions to undergo fundamental changes in their policies to create space for women, particularly Middle Eastern women, who have made significant contributions to the art and culture of this country. Sadly, their contributions, especially in the realm of artworks, are often overlooked. As a Middle Eastern woman artist and curator, I have personally faced limitations in terms of space, and my voice has been ignored, underestimated, or unheard. Additionally, many institutions may provide space but fail to properly highlight the voices or credit the projects in a fair manner, often overshadowing the contributions of women, particularly curators of color. 

“As I continue to advocate for a safe space for my own artistic practice, I also feel a strong sense of obligation to create such spaces for other artists within my community, especially in Nashville, which boasts one of the largest Middle Eastern communities in the United States. Unfortunately, there are limited spaces available for their artistic practice and voices to be heard, and I am committed to changing that.” - Raheleh Filsoofi

  1. The Thinker is a nude male sculpture made by French artist Auguste Rodin in 1880. This artwork depicts a man in contemplation as his right elbow is placed on his left thigh while his right hand holds the weight of his head.
  2. An ewer is a vase shaped pitcher or jug with a spout and handle.



Rachel Ebio (she/her) is an arts and culture writer currently based in Nashville, Tennessee. Intrigued and terrified by the unknown, she explores themes of Black isolation, eroticism, mythology and femininity through nonfiction, journalistic writing and poetry. She was recently accepted to Parsons School of Design where she will earn a Masters of Art degree in Fashion Studies with a concentration in Fashion Writing.

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY