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California Dreaming: Middle Eastern Talent Takes The West Coast

As part of a yearlong series exploring the Middle Eastern diaspora’s contributions to the American fabric, BAZAAR meets a group of California women who are bridging cultures in their own unique way

Behnaz Farahi: Designer, Architect & Creative Technologist

“It’s not easy explaining to people what I do, because it’s about exploring the potential of interactive environments and their relationship to the movement of the human body,” says Behnaz Farahi, who was born into a family of academics in Tehran, where she studied for a BA and Masters in Architecture at Shahid Beheshti University. Today, she’s an Annenberg Fellow and PhD candidate in Interdisciplinary Media Arts and Practice at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. Since 2015, she’s worked on several fashion-based projects that explore the concept of body architecture and second skins. She points out 2017’s Bodyscape, a poncho-like garment with a surface reminiscent of a sea urchin. It incorporates miniscule LED lights that illuminate with the flow of the wearer’s movements.

“There are instances where I’m questioned about the purpose of such projects by people who may not immediately understand the benefits of wearable technology. Like other research fields this is the early work that needs to happen, which eventually leads to new innovations that will impact our daily lives,” she says, while acknowledging the importance of encouraging young women and girls to see careers in the sciences and technology as an opportunity to be creative and dream big. “What excites me everyday is the possibility of having an idea that I can bring to reality, no matter how fantastical it is,” says the designer, who will unveil her latest project at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry this month.

Azniv Korkejian: Singer & Songwriter

“I never thought having a career in music was feasible, until I moved here and met people who were not only making a decent living from it, but also encouraging each other to grow and improve their craft,” says the songwriter, whose family is part of the Armenian diaspora that settled in Syria between 1914 and 1923. She would spend the first three months of her life in Aleppo before moving to Saudi Arabia with her parents and two older brothers. Today she still cherishes vivid memories of Aleppo, when her extended family would converge on her paternal grandmother's house. At the age of ten her family won the green card lottery and moved to the United States in 1995. “I felt connected to Saudi Arabia while growing up, so it was a somewhat confusing period in my life. I went from a sheltered environment with clear borders, to one where I couldn’t tell where neighborhoods began and ended,” says Azniv, whose family moved to the suburbs of Houston.

Although she initially majored in English, she decided to pursue a degree in post-production sound design for films and television at The Savannah College of Art and Design. Shortly after graduating in 2011, she set off for L.A. where she’d landed an internship that would turn into a full time job editing dialogue and music in Hollywood. A few years after leaving the company to establish her freelance career, she landed her first big film credit, editing the sound for the 2017 indie hit, The Big Sick. “Even though it was a low-budget film, I had a feeling it was going to be something very special,” notes Azniv, who was also writing music at the time, which she performed at clubs in central L.A. In 2017 she released her first album, Bedouine, named in reference to her nomadic life as well as that of the Armenian diaspora. “The activism that comes through in my work isn't necessarily intentional, but a reflection of what I’m feeling. It’s also about understanding the other and encouraging empathy,” says the songwriter, who received critical acclaim for her folk album.

Melody Ehsani: Designer

In 2001, Melody Ehsani took an internship at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in Washington D.C. that would change the course of her career. “I was an undergrad at UCLA and trying to decide whether to pursue a law degree because I was passionate about social justice,” says the Iranian-American designer, who realized soon after her internship, that the practice of law wasn’t the career path she wanted to take. While researching product design, she came across the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and enrolled in its program. Shortly after graduating, she launched her own line, designing jewelry made from laser cut acrylic and gold-plated metals.

Her rings caught the eye of Erykah Badu, who tapped Melody to design a dozen pieces of jewelry, one of which appeared on the cover of the singer’s 2008 album. By the time she’d opened her store on North Fairfax Avenue four years later, she’d already established a client base that included Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Solange. “One of the reasons I opened my store was to create a space where young women can feel empowered,” says Melody, whose jewelry, apparel and accessories feature phrases such as ‘You are not your history’ and ‘Stop waiting to be who you already are.’ She also regularly hosts free talks and performances at her store featuring dynamic women such as Serena Williams, Lauryn Hill and Lena Waithe. “For me activism is about using whatever is at your disposal to make your voice heard. Knowing I have the opportunity to do that is what motivates me to work even harder.”

Roshi Rahnama: Founder and Director of Advocartsy

Roshi Rahnama’s exposure to art came the day her eleventh grade teacher took her class to visit the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. “I was completely taken by this magical place. When I told my dad I was considering applying to art school, he advised me to pursue it as a hobby,” says the founder and director of Advocartsy, an organization dedicated to bridging cultural divides through artists of the Iranian diaspora. She’s walking amongst thought-provoking artwork on display at The Space, her organization’s gallery, which acts as an incubator for Iranian artists based in L.A. as well as the larger diaspora. Located in downtown L.A., its meant to shake up the local art scene by providing a space where the immigrant and the silenced can be heard. “Particularly in the climate we live in today, it’s an opportunity to communicate in meaningful ways because art disarms and transcends borders,” says Roshi, who majored in Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of California in L.A.

She went on to pursue a law degree at L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University and joined a law firm shortly after graduating in 1992. Although she’d practiced law for twenty-four years, her first encounter with the world of art as an eleventh grader had stayed with her. “By the time I’d had my first child, I was beginning to explore ways of combining my advocacy work with my love of contemporary art,” says the former lawyer, who joined the board of the L.A.-based Farhang Foundation, where she became a founding member and chair of it’s Fine Arts Council. “Prejudice can’t be overcome through isolation, particularly in a world where we need to encourage more opportunities for positive exchange. That’s the end goal for me and I hope to carry on this work for many years to come.”

From the March 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Arabia.

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